Government lawyer Alison Naftalin, then aged 27, was inspired to set up overseas development charity Lively Minds following 2 months volunteering at a primary school in Tamale, Ghana, in July 2007.
Alison says of her time teaching in Tamale:
The school had over 70 children crammed into a classroom with no books or resources. The teacher in charge was untrained and using rote learning methods – asking kids to repeat phrases such as “the earth rotates around the sun” without checking their understanding of the concepts. I then discovered that this school was one of the more privileged. The situation was far worse in villages further away from town.
When I returned to the UK I couldn’t get Ghana out my head and wanted to try and make a difference to the lives of at least some children. I handed in my notice, and with just £1,000 raised through friends and family, travelled independently back to Ghana.
Mary’s story is one that’s typical of the 6 year olds I meet. She lives in Tijo – a deprived village in Northern Ghana. Her mother, Fatima, has never been to school and doesn’t know simple and vital ways to support Mary’s development. Mary misses out on so many crucial opportunities that could make such a big difference to her future.
So I had the idea of training mothers, like Fatima, to run their own Play Centres for kids in their villages – using toys made from local materials so that they could continue to run after I’d left. This would give children like Mary a chance to learn through play at a young age, when this type of creative education makes such a difference to their future development.
I forged links with a local teacher, David Abukuari, and together we set up 3 Play Centres, training over 50 mothers and reaching over 300 children. I then decided to travel to Uganda to trial the programme in deprived communities there. I partnered with Sarah Kanyonga – the founder of a women’s counselling centre – and together we trained another 200 women to run Play Centres in 7 villages.
The Play Centres took off like wildfire and were a huge success. The children were gaining problem solving, creative thinking and numeracy skills through play and importantly the mothers were benefiting too. For the first time in their lives they were considered role models in their communities. They told me how they felt more confident and gained so much from the peer support of the other mothers. They were determined to make sure their children attend school to give them the chances they never had.
We were constantly being approached by new villages asking us to set up Centres in their communities and both David and Sarah asked if they could continue the work. So I set us up as a charity on my return to the UK in August 2008 and Lively Minds was born!
I returned to my job as a government lawyer, taking a pay-cut to work part time so I could dedicate one day a week to run Lively Minds from my North London flat! I used my annual leave to return to Ghana and Uganda to check in on the projects.
In September 2012 we were fortunate to secure a grant from a charitable foundation and since then I’ve been working for the charity full time. It’s been a challenge – I’ve had to take a further drop in salary, and move back to my family home – but its been worth it.
This year marks our 5th birthday and I am so proud of everything we’ve achieved and how we’ve grown. We’re now 17 members of expert local staff in Ghana and Uganda. We’ve trained over 2,000 women to run Play Centres in 67 communities. We continue to empower the mothers we’ve trained – providing monthly capacity workshops to give them new skills to help further improve their lives.
We also launched a Reading Scheme project in 23 of our communities – providing children’s books to deprived Primary Schools and training upper Primary School children to read the books aloud in an interactive way, translating into the local language. These “Readers” then run weekly reading sessions for younger children at the school, improving literacy, comprehension and communication skills of primary children and promoting a culture of reading. Together our projects have enabled us to reach over 17,800 children to date.
Over the next 12 months we plan to set up 23 new Play Centres and 10 new Reading Schemes so we can reach thousands more children who desperately need our help. But we can only do this with the support of generous people like you.
A donation of just £11 could enable a child living in poverty to attend a Play Centre for a whole year – giving them a better start in life and the chance for a brighter future.
If you would like to donate today or find out more about our work, please visit www.livelyminds.org