The Wicklow woman, who lives in Britain, returned from the Philippines this week, where she was busy getting to know the little Filipino girl she has been sponsoring for the last six years.
“Her name is Aiel Joy and she’s 11 years old and yeah, I was able to go out and meet her and spend some time with her and it was great. It was a really amazing week, in so many ways,” she said in a telephone interview with the Irish Examiner.
“I’ve been sponsoring her for almost six years now, since January 2010 it would have been. I was working in MTV in London and I was doing something with another presenter about climate change. And as part of that a woman from Plan International came in and did an interview with us.”
Laura, who is an active campaigner for female rights, said the interview really had an impact on her and followed up with Plan International, the largest children’s charity in the world, to see if she could do anything to help out.
“They said I’d be interested in this campaign they run called ‘Because I Am a Girl’. It looks at girls in developing countries who might not necessarily be getting the encouragement or the opportunity to go to school,” Laura said.
“So then I started sponsoring a little girl in the Philippines as part of that. There are different amounts but, for me, I pay €22 a month. It just goes out of the bank account so you don’t even notice it. It’s all about longevity and sustainability. Rather than throwing a lump sum at someone, it’s kind of saying you believe in someone, that you’re in this for the long haul.”
Laura began to get photographs of Aiel Joy in the post, along with updates her life, her family, and how she was doing. After a while, Aiel Joy began to send drawings and Christmas cards.
Over the years, Laura said she forged a special connection with the child through this correspondence, and always looked forward to hearing from her.
After a while, Laura felt the time was right to visit Aiel Joy and her family — and then devastating Typhoon Haiyan struck.
“I was supposed to make the trip in January 2014 but a few months before that there was a massive typhoon. I think it was one of the biggest typhoons ever recorded and the Philippines was hit pretty hard. For a while I didn’t know if Aiel Joy and her family had survived or not,” said Laura.
“Thankfully they were OK, but their whole house was destroyed. Everything was gone. And I know other sponsored children and families did lose their lives. The typhoon was devastating.”
Laura was eventually able to visit, bringing with her essential food and supplies as well as gifts for Aiel Joy. She said it was an eye-opening experience to see not just the extreme poverty, but to see the destruction of Typhoon Haiyan still so evident on the landscape, almost two years later.
“I don’t think I really realised what it would be like. You see things in the paper, and you hear about these natural disasters, but until you’re there, and you see for yourself, you don’t fully comprehend it,” she said.
“Whole villages just got washed away. Schools were destroyed, houses, classroom, lives were lost… and two years later they’re still trying to rebuild. You’re dealing with actual survival — sanitation, waste management, clean water, just basic things we take for granted.”
Despite the destruction, Aiel Joy’s community were “over the moon” to host Laura and show her around.
“They were waiting with flowers and they were just so happy and welcoming and they love visitors, they make such a fuss. It’s quite overwhelming actually, you think who am I to be coming into your community. But they know you’re a sponsor and you can really see the difference the money makes when you’re there,” she said.
“I think a lot of people out there are in a position to sponsor a child and should really consider it. It’s a lovely thing to do.”
For more on Plan International or to sponsor a child, go to www.plan.ie.