by Alan Kerins.
There is a story about how I got to Africa. But why did it happen? What dropped the idea into my head?
On the first trip to Zambia I found myself alone at night reading The Power of the Subconscious Mind by Joseph Murphy. All the answers to our problems can be discovered in the subconscious. Eventually this guided me all the way back to 1985 and LIVE AID.
That was the spark.
Certain things happened in 2004; a chain of events which forced me to look at doing something different and with that came an unusual opportunity that swept me far away from what I presumed was life’s path.
Western Zambia, a place called Mongu, suddenly appeared on the horizon. Then, without much warning, I was in the midst of famine and an AIDS epidemic.
Father Dan Joe O’Mahony played his part but it can’t be as simple as one person suggesting I put my physiotherapy skills to practical use in the Third World. I could easily have said no.
There were two trigger moments.
In 1984/85 our television screens were filled with horrific images from Ethiopia of malnourished bodies, starving children the same age as me (I was seven) dying before our eyes.
”The reality was so upsetting I literally hid behind the couch.
My Dad kept watching. Around that time he won £1800 in the Captain’s Prize at Gort golf club. This was a lot of money during the mid-80s recession, certainly to our family with five young kids yet Martin Kerins handed over every penny to LIVE AID.
The power of a positive role model should never be underestimated. To see my father do that, such an unassuming act, continues to prompt my charity work thirty years later. When I give motivational talks nowadays I speak about the ripple effect of positive, or indeed negative, behaviour.
During our Leadership Programmes at Inner Winner Institute we strip everything back and it tends to bring people back to their childhood, where negative or traumatic experiences can have a huge impact in adult life. We strip everything down during our leadership programmes it tends to bring people back to their childhood where parents suffering from addiction can have a huge impact on their kids later life.
I was fortunate to have that positive role model influence.
That is The Why I went to Africa, The How stemmed from some place else.
Small events can alter your destiny. In 2004 I went through a bad break up around the same time Galway were hammered by Kilkenny (4-20 to 1-10). Out of the hurling championship in July and then Salthill-Knocknacarra lost the football final to Killererin so I was feeling awfully sorry for myself.
Into Merlin Park hospital I went every morning where we were working in particular with a lady who had down syndrome. She had not walked for several weeks but one day we got her up and moving. Her unbridled joy lifted me out of the gloom.
”I remembered there is more to life than a broken relationship, than football, even than hurling!
By some strange twist of faith Archbishop Desmond Tutu was in Galway to receive an honorary doctorate from NUIG. Bob Geldof was in town to introduce him. Africa was an enduring curiosity for me, Nelson Mandela and Tutu in particular, so I paid the €5 to hear him speak.
Tutu’s speeches are simplistic, almost child-like, with one clear message reverberating. He asked the crowd: Have you ever helped anybody else?
How did that make you feel? People responded they were glowing inside, that they walked away feeling ten foot tall.
Exactly, said Tutu, it is scientifically researched, psychologically, emotionally, physiologically, biochemically, neurologically very good for us. Helping somebody else is proven as fact to be very good for us.
”So why, if helping others is so good for us, do we not do more often?
Only for that girl walking the week before none of this would have interrupted my hectic existence as a Galway dual player – in hot pursuit of Sam and Liam each summer. There was enough stress in that let me tell you.
But I looked into going to Africa to help people as a physiotherapist. GOAL turned me down because I wanted to go between September and December – thinking I needed to be back in January for the National League. Really, I only wanted to dip my toe.
My future groomsman Andy Farrell from St Brigid’s GAA club in Dublin, introduced me to Fr Dan Joe O’Mahony, of the Capuchin order, a great character who ended up marrying Ciara and I years later.
Dan Joe owns nothing, he gives everything away and it’s amazing what comes back. People know he’ll find the right home for whatever they do not need. All he wears is his habit and sandals. He walks the walk. He’s the real deal.
That November a few of us were heading over to London for a soccer match. Dan Joe dropped us to the airport.
Are you going to Africa, Alan?
No Dan Joe, it fell through.
Really? Would you go out to our lads, The Capuchins, in Zambia?
I would yeah.
I was saying what he wanted to hear – really, I wanted to go out with an agency, surrounded by people my own age and not get my hands too dirty.
”Would you work with Lepers and people suffering from AIDS?
This had me rattled but said, I would of course.
That set the wheels were in motion. When Dan Joe picked us up from the airport two days later there was a plan: There is an Irish nun living in Western Zambia who is stuck for a physio. She said she’d take you.
So Away I went in January 2005 having raised ten grand for Sister Cathy Crawford who was running a home for disabled children. Famine images that scuttled me behind the couch as a child were suddenly before my eyes. The money couldn’t go into upgrading the physio unit, it was needed for the food programme.
The queue for food outside Cheshire Home was shocking to me. We went out to a worker’s village to visit a sick woman, finding her in a run down hut suffering from in-stage HIV, sores all over her body propped up to see us. We came back later that day to ferry her to hospital but it was too late, Sister Cathy had to switch into another of her many jobs – we became the hearse.
At that time she was feeding 800 people a month. One bag would do a family of seven to ten with a meal every other day for three weeks and they’d go hungry for the last few days.
Watching on television or reading about Africa you might only see the hopelessness of this situation but I saw up close and personal how Sister Cathy, this nun from Laois, was keeping hundreds of families alive every single day, and up to 75 disabled kids that would be left in the sand to die if not for her. She’d rehab them, get them walking, get them back into school.
Thousands of people have been kept alive because of her and the support of the Irish people through our sporting networks which of course began within the GAA.
Damien Eagers, the sport photographer, asked to spend a few days with me – we’d met on All Star tours in far more comfortable surrounds– and he took some great photos. Those images began the Alan Kerins Project.
Before I returned to Galway I asked Cathy what she needed.
€5,000 for a borehole that we can sink for clean drinking water.
That I can do.
If we sink one I know we’ll get more, she said. We’ll strategically place them, bring in the government who will give us the oxen, plough and seeds. Then we’ll teach local people how to farm their own crop. They’ll have water supply if the rains don’t come because we’ll drill down to the water table. That means the area will also have clean drinking water for all with a knock on effect being a reduction in disease and the local kids can go to school as they won’t have to walk 20km round trips every day for clean water. They’ll have time for education.
Brochures with the photos of me working with Cathy in Africa were sent out to the local businesses in Galway. Five grand became €25,000 in no time. We reached the All-Ireland final that year (beat Kilkenny, beaten by Cork) and Darren Frehill came down to do an interview on hurling but he saw the brochure and that led to a documentary with TV3 following me back to Africa.
By 2008 I had left the hospital to go full time in the charity after an individual funded my wage. Five grand had become €500,000 so I had to give it everything. Dad’s £1800 inspired the raising of €5 million in ten years from public funding and the same again from institutional donors.
But the economic downturn drastically altered best laid plans while the charity probably cost me a few years of my inter-county career. Well, I know it did. I was told as much by a certain manager that my focus wasn’t on the game.
During the recession national assistance turned inwards to assist humanitarian problems at home so I found myself as the CEO of an African charity that struggled to generate funding. We had to become really innovative about how we connected people to our cause.
The philosophy of Alan Kerins Projects changed over time as has did the charity itself – we’ve merged with Gorta Self Help Africa but only because they have the same vision: Developing local peoples capacity to earn for themselves.
People in the countries we work in don’t see GAA players, they saw the white man telling them what to do, as has always been the way, so they would expect everything to come from us.
The aim is to break that cycle by creating self-sustaining communities and social enterprises.
Merging with Gorta Self Help Africa gave us access to increased government funding.
And we needed to evolve. A strategic review of the charity concluded that the biggest strength and weakness were one in the same: Alan Kerins. Everything ran through me. It was difficult to let go because the charity was wrapped up in my own identity but it was something that had to happen for the better for everyone involved.
And anyway, after ten years, I was burnt out. Now, regardless of what new charitable tasks and ventures I pursue in Ireland, all our projects on the ground in Africa are sustainable.
The philosophical shift also led to practical changes. We started training locals how to build their own homes rather than bringing in expats. We linked up with a UK Non-Profit Organisation that brought in local project managers to interview forty or so people from the area interested in acquiring a skill or trade. It means the build takes longer and is more expensive but these workers receive training in theory and practice which concludes with nationally recognised exams and a tool kit once they qualify as skilled labourers.
Take Aaron for example. We first hired him as a trainee then he returned as an full-time employee on the next build and eventually became a supervisor. He got his first contractor job four years ago to build a toilet block in our new sports centre.
We are developing social and commercial enterprises – a 78 bedroom lodge, a 100 seater restaurant and block making factory all generate employment. This all feeds into the local economy with projected profits next year to cover the cost of our social projects.
Just as Sister Cathy envisioned.
There is something about the red sand of Africa that grounds people. Go into these deeply challenged communities and see how their kids smile, dance and sing through their problems with an infectious love for life. It is contagious. They can teach us so much.
I’m seeking to create a global family through my latest endeavour: Warriors for Humanity. There is something magical when people from different backgrounds come together to achieve the greater good.
Essentially, we seek to turn their dreams into reality but it is about shared experiences. The fear about life choices back home tends to dissipate when real human connections are made.
We all have similar dreams – to become sports stars or simply get an education to have options – but by pure chance of where people are born the odds are stacked against them ever realising them.
In 15 years, I have watched those odds change and we have seen so many of the people we worked with achieve, with our support, the impossible. These people have an unbreakable spirit and their inspirational way of being continues to blow us away every time we return.
Impossible is Nothing is a campaign we will be launching soon. Watch this Space
Just being surrounded by self-sufficient leaders in their own community or missionaries like Sister Cathy forces you to ask the big questions: what are my values, what are my priorities, what do I really want? What difference can I make?
Our workshops help people distil that thought process, so they can reconnect to their sense of purpose, their values and operate to their personal best on a more regular basis. It’s about giving people a renewed perspective; a sense of fearlessness. From this I have created the Inner Winner Institute where we create these inspirational experiences in Ireland, Africa and India. That’s what happened to me on that first trip, age 27 – a clarity entered my consciousness. Every day since I have a need to share my experiences with others.
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