It’s a world away from the glitz and glamour of the Dome in Tralee last August.
Rose of Tralee Maria Walsh picked her way through steaming mounds of filthy rubbish with at-risk Indian street kids to witness first-hand their daily struggle.
Maria was joined during the week at the open dump in Kolkata by former Bond girl Fiona Fullerton, who played KGB spy Pola Ivanova in the 1985 Bond film A View to a Kill, during a fact-finding mission with The Hope Foundation.
Both have agreed to act as ambassadors for the Irish charity, which has helped save more than 30,000 slum children in the sprawling city.
They both said they were deeply moved by what they saw, and hugely impressed by Hope’s work.
Maria, who spent the week volunteering with the charity, and Fiona, who was there in a private capacity to view the charity’s work, said they are looking forward to raising Hope’s profile when they return home this weekend.
“Trips like this change you,” Maria said from her hotel in India last night.
“The week has made me reflect on the choices I’ve made, and the avenues I have gone down. I had choices. But millions here don’t have those choices. Choices are made for them. They are left to live on the streets, exposing them to begging, child trafficking and prostitution.”
On a Hope run one night through two red-light districts, she met an eight-year-old girl she said she will never forget.
“She had an incredible air of maturity for her age. You just knew she’d seen things no eight-year-old should see,” Maria said.
“But then you see the Hope schools, and the families they’ve helped, so it’s so important to shed light on this work and it’s my honour to be an ambassador for this charity.”
Ms Fullerton described the dump, where children have to pay to collect scraps of food and metal, as a “ghastly environment”.
“I saw children as young as four scrabbling over a vast dump for scraps, and fighting off pigs,” she said. “The dump is controlled by a group of men and the children have to pay them a percentage to pick scraps from the mounds of rubbish.
“No child should be sent out to ‘work’ like this. As a mother, it was a profoundly difficult experience to countenance how they can exist like this.”
She described Kolkata as a wonderful city, full of life and colour, and praised Hope founder Maureen Forrest.
“I met her just three weeks ago at the foundation’s Annual London Luncheon and was beguiled by her passion,” Fiona said. “I booked my own ticket to India straight away to see the charity’s work for myself.
“But I hope to continue as an ambassador for Hope when I get home, to raise their profile in the UK.”
Hope honorary director Maureen Forrest, who does not take a salary, said she is touched by the tremendous support the charity receives from the public and supporters.
“Both Maria and Fiona are fantastic role models and we are delighted to welcome them to Kolkata as Hope ambassadors,” she said. “With her experience as a volunteer, Maria is no stranger to helping others and we are thrilled that she accepted our invitation to come to Kolkata and visit the girls and boys in our projects.”
More than 250,000 children are forced to exist on the streets and in the slums of Kolkata. It is estimated that 30,000 children are trafficked into Kolkata every year to be forced into child prostitution, child labour and child slavery. Most end up on the streets.
The Hope Foundation was set up in Ireland in 1999 to help these vulnerable street and slum children and their families.
Today, it operates more than 60 projects across Kolkata, including education, primary healthcare, child protection, children’s shelters, vocational training, and drugs rehabilitation, and has provided 30,000 children with access to education and a further 300,000 adults with access to healthcare and training programmes.
The charity has offices in Cork, Dublin, UK, Germany, and India, and works with 14 local Indian NGOs to rescue thousands of children every year.
Students from the Cork Life Centre and Terence McSwiney Community College were also in Kolkata this week working on the Hope U Can Paint scheme painting creches and homes.
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