When former Blackpool landlady Sue Hayward, founder of the Children of Watamu charity, set out to build her Happy House, it was to provide a safe haven where some of Kenya’s most vulnerable children would find a loving home and family.
The Happy House sponsor scheme, which aims to give each child their own special family of five friends, in other lands, now has almost 200 supporters, in countries around the world.
Sponsors dream of visiting the child to see how Sue is saving and changing lives at the Happy House, which opened in March 2010 and is now home to 53 orphaned, abandoned, neglected or abused children, from tiny babies to teenagers.
And when the lucky ones, usually after months – or longer – of saving get to meet their child, it exceeds all expectation.
Steph Hill, from Poulton, has raised thousands for the Happy House since reading about Sue’s work in The Gazette in 2008 when the Eve in Africa appeal started raising money to help build and collect goods to equip Sue’s Happy House.
She pays £20 a month to sponsor six-year-old Lily, who she calls affectionately, “my little Kenyan princess”.
Receptionist Steph, 24, said: “Lily means the world to me, there isn’t a day goes by when I don’t think about her.”
She made the 4,000-mile journey to meet Lily with her sister, Lynsey Hill, who sponsors two-year-old Harrison, their mum, Bev Higham, and friend Zoe Dixon, who now sponsors Mwende, three.
After 19 months of writing and emailing Lily, Steph admits: “To actually be there, on my birthday too, was overwhelming. Going through the gates will be something I’ll remember forever.
“I cried when I met Lily!
“She is even more beautiful in real life.
“To see her so happy, in a place she can now call home was amazing.
“The children have come from dire circumstances, beyond our imagination, but now, after such a hard start in life, they’re such happy, confident little individuals.
“They don’t have to be scared, or hungry, or to sleep rough.
“Each day I was there, one little boy would offer me his break-time snack first, before eating it himself. And he’s a child who has experienced real hunger.”
Steph’s sister Lynsey, 28, a specialist cardiac physiologist, plans to go back later this year.
“I‘ve sponsored Harrison for a year and he means loads to me.
“He was a bit tired and grumpy on the first day, but soon cheered up and it was good to see him just being the little boy he is.’’
Their mum, Bev, a ward clerk in the Intensive Care Unit at Blackpool Victoria Hospital, said: “It was very special to watch my daughters light up among the children and develop a bond with the children they sponsor.
“I hope it becomes a lifetime connection. Our lives are so busy we don’t always have time to stop and think about what is really important to us.
“Sue and Dave give children, who had no chance in life, every chance, and the love they have for every one of these children shines out of them.
“It takes very special people to give themselves completely and that is what they do, every single day.
“When I first visited Kenya, I was shocked to the core by the way some kiddies live.
“The Happy House is a haven for some of them, the fortunate ones.”
For Emma Fineman, 10, and her mum Jackie Fineman, of Blackpool, meeting their sponsor children Stevie and Charity, both two, was a life-changing experience.
Helping the house mums with the babies has given Emma a long-term ambition to work with children.
“We enjoyed every day at the Happy House. I spent all my time helping to look after the babies.
“I loved them all, it made me realise that I would like to work with babies.”
Jackie, a nurse, and her family have been fundraising for the Happy House for several years, and Jackie’s elder daughter, Hailey Ellis Aspinall, volunteered there in 2010.
Jackie, who spent her time in the school, said: “ It was a real privilege to meet our sponsor children.
“As they get older and can read all our letters and cards in their memory boxes, they will have an understanding not only of me and my family, but of the others in their sponsor family too.
“Hopefully, this will help them feel loved, cherished and a greater sense of belonging.
“What Sue has achieved is remarkable, despite many obstacles such as ill health.
“With Dave’s constant support, she has forged on with her dream through determination and hard work. We can’t wait to return and hopefully stay longer next time.”