Couple with mission to alleviate poverty

MOST young couples dream about creating the perfect home and 2.1 kids. Martin and Vashti Downs want to build that home and family, only theirs is for thousands of children.

Wednesday, 3rd October 2007, 12:20 pm

For the last two and a half years, they have been working out in South Africa's poorest communities, helping to protect children orphaned by Aids from neglect, abuse and grinding poverty.

They live and work in the province of Kwa-Zulu Natal. It lies just 25 km from Durban – one of South Africa's biggest cities and a mecca for surfers. Many city-dwellers never see the depths of deprivation that exist in the outlying Zulu hill villages. Here, homes are nothing more than shacks, usually assembled from whatever cast-offs people can find. Unemployment is fast rising to 90 per cent and there are no Government benefits.

In this area, the number of Aids and HIV cases is said to rank as the highest in the world – it is 69 per cent, way above the 20 per cent statistic plaguing the rest of South Africa.

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High Storrs man Martin and his wife Vashti arrived just 19 months after marrying. Instead of buying a home and climbing career ladders, they decided the needs of African children mattered more.

Though they plan to have their own children, they have legally adopted two Zulu babies who had been abandoned at birth – Joseph, now two, and Jessie, one.

Former High Storrs pupil Martin discovered South Africa's Aids problem when his mother Lynn Simmons went there when he was just 16 on secondment with the International Union of Local Authorities.

He went back to work in an Aids orphanage for six months, then went to New York to work with disadvantaged children.

He met and married fellow worker Vashti and the two pledged to return to South Africa as soon as possible.

"When we arrived, our first home was a shack in the Thousand Hills. It had no electricity, no water. Just two beds. The next was a three-room brick house. The rent was 48 a month. We had water and one plug socket ... luxury!"

In just a few years, much has changed; there are two Project O vehicles and a team of quad bikes to take workers out to families in the remotest areas on a daily basis.

And home is now a rambling property sold to him at a reduced price by a supporter of the charity. The property is soon to be used as a centre for Project O's next initiative – a holiday scheme for volunteers.