Patricia Parker MBE on setting up a life-saving charity, getting kidnapped in Sudan and meeting the Queen

In 2001, Patricia Parker MBE set up British charity Kids for Kids to help children who live in unimaginable hardship in the villages of Darfur, Sudan. Many children in this region are malnourished, with no access to protein, minerals and vitamins for months on end, causing them to suffer physical and mental damage – some of which is irreversible. Eighteen years after Kids for Kids was set up, it remains unique, as it’s the only charity that provides help specifically for the forgotten children of Darfur.

The charity has adopted ninety-two villages across North Darfur and improved the lives of almost 500,000 people who live in this remote and inaccessible region, where violence is still a daily hazard.

“My son and I were kidnapped by rebels in 2005 and it still haunts me”

Where did it all begin?

Sudanese boy with goat

Patricia’s decision to set up Kids for Kids in her early fifties came after a chance encounter with a young boy who had to walk fourteen hours a day across the Sudanese desert to fetch water for his family and their goats. At the time, Patricia was in Sudan visiting her eldest son who had joined the Foreign Office, as his first overseas appointment was as Political Secretary to the British Embassy in Khartoum.

Looking back, she says, “When we came across this young boy, we thought he was lost because the desert stretches out of sight in every direction. But no; he told us that walking for water was his entire life – otherwise he would go without, as would his mother, his four younger siblings and their three goats. That was his life.”

“What was shocking to learn was that under Darfur there is the biggest aquifer [underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock] in Africa – but villagers could not afford to pay for drilling. Some of the big aid agencies were there at the time, and I just couldn’t believe that no one was doing anything to help.”

“What was immediately obvious to me after meeting this young boy, was that I could do something to help”

Patricia was deeply moved by this little boy’s struggle and felt that there must be something that she could do to help not only him, but others in the villages of Darfur. 

She explains, “Usually if you come across something that you consider to be totally unacceptable and you cannot find a way to help, then you might cry, but you still have to walk away.”

“However, what was immediately obvious to me after meeting this young boy was that I could do something to help. Providing just one hand pump [which provides cleaner and easier access to water] would change not just that family’s life, but the lives of all the children in that village, their families, and even their animals.”

“But then I asked to meet the boy’s mother and she told me how invaluable her three little goats were to the family – their milk provided the only source of protein, minerals and vitamins. It was at this point that I realised that I also had to provide more goats, because three goats aren’t sufficient. What if one died?”

“I worked out that if we provided five nanny goats and a billy goat, then in two years the family would have a sustainable flock, which would not just help bring the children to health, but give an income to their mother – which was obviously desperately needed.”

By spending time in the village and learning more about how people in Darfur live, Patricia also began to realise that there was so much more that needed to be done.

She remembers talking to the young girls and women in the village about their lack of health care: “It was shocking to hear that with no access to health care, during childbirth they relied on ‘rope’ delivery if there was an obstructed labour. The danger to both mother and baby is indescribable. It was obvious I needed to see if I could somehow get medical help into the village.”

“We did all we could to seem unafraid and to talk to the leader. I even drew him. We were very aware that we were in danger. All the rebels were heavily armed and very tense”

After discovering how the people in the villages of Darfur were living, Patricia felt that she had no choice but to try and help as many people as possible. At that time, she he had no plans to set up a charity of her own but after being let down by a big UK charity whom she was working with to improve conditions in Darfur, she decided to take things into her own hands.

She reflects, “It was very quickly obvious to me that if I created my own charity, then we could ensure that the maximum possible amount would be spent directly helping children. That is why such a small charity, with a tiny administrative team both here and in Darfur, has been able to adopt ninety-two villages – over 500,000 people to date!”

But, as Patricia was acutely aware, setting up and running a charity in such conditions was never going to be easy:

“The biggest challenge has been the violence, which started in 2003 and continues. My son and I were kidnapped by rebels in 2005 and it still haunts me. We are a good team and we did all we could to seem unafraid and to talk to the leader. I even drew him. We were very aware that we were in danger. All the rebels were heavily armed and very tense. I told the leader about Kids for Kids and thankfully he believed us. Later he even gave safe conduct to enable us to drill a hand pump in a village he took us to.”

“I used to be able to visit Sudan regularly – we used to go for several weeks, visiting both Khartoum and North Darfur. But since the end of 2011 the Government of Sudan has refused to give us visas, so we have had to meet our team from Darfur in neighbouring countries – wherever we can beg for free accommodation! My hopes are that with current political developments, we may be able to return soon, and I can’t wait!”

“Fundraising has also been a challenge because now the big aid agencies have left, there is no publicity and therefore people presume their help is not needed. It is heartbreaking to know that children died in many villages of Darfur last year alone – from starvation – and the world was silent.”

“Malaria has been cut by two thirds in our villages simply by providing mosquito nets, and children get fewer chest infections because we provide two blankets (big double ones) for each hut”

Kids for Kids has a focus on self-sustaining projects, to provide a longer term benefit to the communities it works with.

Patricia explains, “The basic grassroots help we provide means that our older villages have more than doubled in size. Mothers have told me that their children have not only gone to school but many have gone on to university. Our village midwives deliver countless healthy babies and water from our hand pumps is clean so that there are fewer children dying from dirty water or water borne diseases.”

“Malaria has also been cut by two thirds in our villages simply by providing mosquito nets and children get fewer chest infections because we provide two blankets (big double ones) for each hut. We provide basic farm tools too – of course!”

“The nine-year-old boy whose walk for water was the inspiration for Kids for Kids now sends his first born son to the Kids for Kids’ Kindergarten in his village”

Listing the charity’s proudest achievements since it was set up in 2001, Patricia says:

“My proudest achievements are hearing that a mother was able to feed the mourners at her son’s funeral – something so personal and precious. A mother telling me she was able to buy her husband a donkey cart. Seeing for myself a tomato plant growing by our first hand pump. The village had never grown vegetables before.”

She continues: “A village leader walking 90 miles to thank me for adopting his village – he said children had died every year from starvation until his village became a Kids for Kids’ village.”

“There are so many personal stories like this. And a very special one, is that the nine-
year-old boy whose walk for water was the inspiration for Kids for Kids now sends his first
born son to the Kids for Kids’ Kindergarten in his village.”

“I was absolutely dumbfounded to receive an MBE for my work. In fact when I received a letter about it, I just thought someone had kindly recommended me and that it wouldn’t actually happen”

Patricia’s journey with Kids for Kids is not her only calling in the charity sector. In 1998, she was awarded an MBE for her hard work and dedication to Marie Curie, Cancer Care and other charities.

She says, “Marie Curie were struggling to fund the provision of nurses to people facing terminal illness, so I devised the Fields of Hope [where people can have a daffodil planted in memory of a loved one, in exchange for a donation] that are now all over the country – the first was in Dorking, and we planted 7,500 daffodils ourselves!”

“We also started the first Daffodil Day [an annual fundraising event where people give a small donations in exchange for daffodils] and sold bunches of fresh daffodils across Surrey. One year I had 300,000 in my garage. Friends flocked to help and we raised £24,000 in two days!”

“I was absolutely dumbfounded to receive an MBE for my work. In fact when I received a letter about it, I just thought someone had kindly recommended me and that it wouldn’t actually happen. I tucked the letter away in my desk for my children to find after my death, and forgot about it! Then the BBC rang just before New Year to ask me for my reaction to my MBE and I was totally shocked! The Queen herself presented it. She is more beautiful than you can imagine in person. It was a huge honour.”

Plans for the future

Patricia Parker MBE

Over the next few years, Patricia plans to find someone else to take over as CEO at Kids for Kids so that she can spend more time working on and spreading the word about self-sustainable projects in Darfur. At 71, Patricia has no plans for a quiet retirement and expects the next decade to be “exciting, demanding and busy!”

She says: “If you ask my family they will tell you that I have no concept of what a work-life balance really means! I am trying to see my adorable grandsons more, but they live in Devon, and I am still trying to paint when I can.”

Patricia Parker MBE

Reflecting on what drew her to the charity sector in the first place, she says:

“It just seems so obvious that here we are so fortunate, yet there is so much need in the world. If I can help, of course I will. You would do the same. But I think my plans to have a career as an Artist might have to be deferred for a while!”

For more information on Kids for Kids you can visit their website at kidsforkids.org.uk.

Have you found your own personal cause? Would you like to make a difference to others? We’d love to hear from you at [email protected]!

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