by Jacqui Morley
The balcony of Sue Hayward’s Blackpool apartment overlooks a quintessentially British scene.
Lots of greenery, church spires, Scout hut. Victoria Hospital just round the corner. Handy given what she’s gone through for the last 18 months.
I count one, two, three, four, five, six – seven magpies. Seven for a secret never to be told. Sue has just told me her secret. Breast cancer. She’s had a mastectomy, her oncologist has assured her he “got the lot”. Now she just wants to get on with life – if medics let her.
For the last 18 months – having thrown in a hip replacement for good measure – Sue has been going stir crazy at her seaside home. Not that she considers Blackpool home any more. Her heart is in Kenya. It is with her 73 children.
The Children of Watamu at the Happy House built by her charity.
We have written much about the charity but not so much about Sue, former Woman of the Year, who’s built the lot out of blood, sweat and tears – and the kindness of strangers.
Small wonder Sue’s seeing red at the headline hitting “bongo bongo land” comments of a UKIP MEP on a one man goodwill foreign aid wrecking exercise.
Sue knows precisely where the help goes. She oversees the process.
From the moment she and her husband Dave handed over pencils and paper to the teachers at a tiny church-supported school in Kenya she’s had a policy of positive proactive direct intervention.
That was in 2000. A year later they were back with £600 to build desks for the school’s 34 pupils. Then a classroom in 2002. Then a container full of books in 2003, Dave lugging them from garage to hotel to the lorry hauled container outside – off to Watamu to create a lending library for the community.
Then ... well, the rest is history. Charitable status acquired from the Charity Commission, Happy House was built and opened in March 2010.
“Don’t call it an orphanage, too Dickensian, this is a place where children can be children and be safe, sleep in a bed, wake to breakfast, be loved, learn, have a future.” And more to come.
Sue doesn’t dwell on the tragic back stories of children who have lost parents to AIDS, malaria, conflict – there were riots back in 2008 which closed Mombasa airport to travellers. Orphans dumped on relatives. Others abandoned, abused. Many arrive hollow eyed through hunger and lack of hope. They all call her ‘Momma Sue’. It’s not twee, just a statement of fact. She has become their mother.
Back in Britain she has a grown up son of her own. “He doesn’t need me like these children need me.” That’s a statement of fact too. Sue’s a realist, a pragmatist.
“I don’t like those TV charity adverts showing what children haven’t got. I’d rather show people what help or money or sponsorship can achieve. When you come to the Happy House all you hear laughter and singing.”
Sue will rejoin the Happy House in September – for the first time in 18 months. She prays all will be well. She hasn’t come this far, in 13 years, not to oversee the next phase. It’s called Making Room for Another. Speaks for itself.
On the advice of our former women’s editor Elizabeth Gomm, now Sue’s right hand woman with the charity, Sue first reported concerns with regard to breast cancer in 2009.
“Stay positive, people say,” she adds. “And I think I’ve got 73 children counting on me. Hundreds more to come. What are YOU doing with YOUR life?”
Sue’s determined to become fighting fit. She has had chemotherapy and taken her Herspetin. Now she wants to put it all behind her and go home. She has already applied for residential status there.
“I am running out of patience,” she admits. “I’m not the best patient.
“ I didn’t even know I should have had follow up appointments.”
Sue’s invested life savings in “living the dream.”
The couple ran a hotel on Shaftsbury Avenue for 24 years, built up a good regular trade.
They put aside money for retirement, in an apartment in Tenerife, the time honoured landlady’s retreat, and another on the front in Blackpool.
“The idea was we spent six months abroad, six months here.”
Kenya got Sue on a long hook. She first visited at an all time low, her beloved dad had died. She left on a high.
“I knew what I had to do.”
Husband Dave, often left to look after their hotel alone after that first life changing visit, has only himself to blame. He suggested Malindi, Kenya, remembering it as “the most beautiful spot” from rest and recuperation there in his Royal Engineer days.
He instinctively knew it had the magic to heal Sue’s spirits. He wasn’t banking on being told a few years later “I want to live in Africa.”
“I don’t,” he told her. “That’s a shame,” Sue replied.
Dave’s the “wind beneath her wings” she says.
Whatever she’s achieved couldn’t have been done without him.
He didn’t say another word.
She sold both retirement properties.
“If Sue’s all right, I’m all right.”
Dave’s had cancer too – malignant melanoma, a skin cancer. Again time will tell whether all will be well but he admits: “If I have to go back into hospital I’ll leave Sue in Kenya – and then fly back to her.”
Her dream has become bigger than the both of them. It embraces the Fylde coast community, medics, schools, sponsors, community groups. One sponsor drops in during our meeting – having travelled from Blackburn.
Fund-raising has been left to Elizabeth while Sue’s getting back on her feet after the hip (and cancer) operations.
Sue pays tribute to Elizabeth – who fell under her spell after doing just such an interview as this – and also to Cleveleys hairstylist Shirley Dawson who won a battle against bureaucracy to supply NHS wigs. “Shirley got my head together inside and out,” says Sue.
“She even lent me an extra special wig for an awards ceremony. No charge.”
People gravitate to Sue. There’s little sentimentality about her. She admits her own childhood, a latchkey kid, made her lonely and crave a big family – just as Dave had.
“I don’t deal with emotions well,” she admits. He’s one of 10.
“Like peas in a pod they are,” she says.
Her dad was a British Empire Medal winning prison officer. Dave’s dad was a miner, forced out of work and to an early death by the lung disease that so often went with the job.
Sue and Dave met at a dance. Love at first sight. “Marry me and I’ll make you a movie star,” he quipped. Susan Hayward, remember? “A corny line but it worked,” he says.
After her dad died she unravelled, looked around her hotel in despair, asked God to “give me a little job.”
The very next day they flew to Kenya. “God thinks big,” Sue tells me.
“He also believes in putting obstacles in my path. Just to test me. But if a job’s worth doing it’s worth doing well.”
She’s been well and truly tested since that first visit. They ended up in Turtle Bay, not the Malindi of Dave’s dreams, with its nice hotels, restaurants and casino, for they liked a flutter.
Life’s lottery and an indifferent holiday rep placed them in a hotel near a ramshackle school. Bored, they went for a walk and found kids drawing in sand with sticks. They went to Malindi, bought pencils and paper, returned and handed them over.
A teacher promptly drew a map of Kenya. It helped them find their way back. It has since guided hundreds of children to a much brighter future.
Working for the Children of Watamu, registered charity 1098731, www.childrenofwatamu.net or donate directly via http://www.justgiving.com/childrenofwatamu/ Donate