The woman opposite me on the Cork-Dublin morning express on 8th September 2011 was busy on her mobile phone for practically the whole journey. I kept my head buried in my book and tried to mind my own business. I must confess that I figured that organising after-noon tea in the Westbury or arranging a golf four-some could be done with a lot less communication. Wisely, I said nothing. As we were entering Heuston Station, she turned off the phone and began to relax. I ventured a non-committal comment. "You managed to get through a fair bit of business." She agreed indicating that her interest was a project involving hundreds of people in the streets of Kolkatta. Hence, this account of the extraordinary work of Maureen Forrest and her many friends.
The Hope Foundation is the brainchild of Maureen Forrest. When asked how this path of development work began, she replies that it all started when a medical missionary nun visited her school. She made a big impression on her, as well as another visit from an Aer Lingus stewardess. This covered both of the major aspects of her life - development work and travel. She knew she did not want to become a nun, so even at the tender age of sixteen, she enquired about becoming a lay missionary. She was one of a family of twelve children, so "the caring and sharing starts the day you're born". Two of the twelve were mentally challenged also, so that added to the amount of caring that had to be done. Her mother is still hale and hearty, having passed her ninetieth birthday. Most of her sisters are nurses and two are nuns and teachers.
As was the case in the sixties and seventies in Ireland, one of the few career options was to do a commercial course. Having done this, she then went on to work in insurance and moved to London and worked in a bank. She then applied to Aer Lingus and got a job as ground staff in Shannon Airport. Around this time, she started her lifelong romance with Dick Forrest, who was a son in a neighbouring family back home in East Cork. She married him at age twenty-two and settled down to family life on the farm back home. Her domesticity at this time did not prevent her from keeping up an interest in global development issues, however.
During the Ethiopian famine in the early eighties, her sister; Ben who is a nurse, volunteered with GOAL. This was a time when "famine was brought into our sitting rooms for the first time on television". She then started fundraising for GOAL and raised up to £50,000 in Ireland. She could not go to Ethiopia because she had three children, Louise, Robin and Ricky, and other commitments at home. However, later, John O’Shea (GOAL Director) asked her to go to Somalia and she went for six weeks to work in the refugee camps there. "It was a horrendous place to be. You were dealing with gunfire every minute of the day". She recalls one incident where her camp was shot at and she remembers lying on the ground thinking “l don`t want to die on my own in a foreign country". It was hard on her family at home because they literally did not know if she was dead or alive, as it was virtually impossible to ring home from there, She says that she was a bit "traumatized" when she came home as it was just before Christmas and she found it difficult to focus on the ordinary tasks of buying presents and cooking the turkey.
She says that over the years, Calcutta was always on her mind, which she attributes to the work of Mother Teresa. Then President Mary Robinson visited Calcutta in I993 and John O’Shea invited Maureen to visit with GOAL, She was horrified — "it’s the scale of it". She refers especially to the rickshaw pullers, who are "treated as animals". She compares it to the apartheid era in South Africa —"can people not see the injustice all around them?"
After her experiences in Africa, she viewed the slums as refugee camps. because many of the slum-dwellers in this city are the descendents of those who were displaced by Partition and the creation of Bangladesh. She asks "how can India be called a democracy? It suits the west to call it that because they want to trade with it. They choose to overlook big issues like the trafficking of children, child labour; children who go missing, dowry issues and child marriage". She then decided to come to Calcutta to volunteer with GOAL, who funds local partner organisations. She went initially for six weeks, working with CINI-ASHA (Child in Need Institute), where she met Geeta, whom she subsequently invited to work with her in HOPE. They set up schools in the slums, which was valuable experience for her. She learned that the key to the success of slum children’s education was to involve the mothers in the education process.
After this, she then went to work in the emergency relief camps in Goma after the genocide in Rwanda in late I994. It was absolute horror, with 350,000 people and cholera in the camps. She was there for five weeks. She found that talking about it with other volunteers helped her rehabilitation after she got home. She went round the schools throughout Munster sharing her stories. She also visited refugee camps in Swaziland on the border with Mozambique. All of this experience had a huge impact on her. Her experience of emergency relief taught her that she preferred the sense of continuity in development work, "where you can see a child progress".
She admits that Calcutta was still on her mind. She came back in l998 with her daughter Louise and spent a lot of time with Geeta. They started to set up an organisation. They hired a solicitor to tackle the enormous legalities involved. One has to have an Indian board of the charity. HOPE Kolkata is a branch of HOPE Ireland like HOPE UK or HOPE Germany, but it is the implementing branch while all the others are fundraising branches. The initial goal was to run a home for 25 children and raise £25,000 a year to run it. It snowballed into the size it is now, taking in over €2 million a year and employing a staff of 774 on the last count. It grew into something much bigger than anticipated. They learned that the way forward was to take on partners and work with established ones with expertise in different areas.
Maureen says, "getting the organisation built up took a lot of planning. At the start, it was just all in my head, but before long the delegation has to start, and you need good dedicated and qualified people. You have to keep building, you have to get ready for the handover and there`s a natural progression. One of the big issues is maintaining standards." She continues, "it’s lovely to see the flow, to have a structure to pass on". She thinks she will retire at 70, but, she insists, "I don't worry about that, sure I’m still a young one!" She sees herself as part of an extended family and she is helped hugely by Jenny Browne, her sister, the Overseas Director who spends most of each year in Kolkata. Jenny is a Mercy nun who taught Home Economics in Waterford until Maureen asked her to work for HOPE. Jenny’s degree in Social Science also informs the work she does with HOPE. She praises the team in Cork as well: JP; Madeleine, Eunice, Margaret, Sardar; Fiona, Susan, Rosaleen and Pauline. She likes having younger people on board, as for example, JP has set up "Next Generation Hope", a very successful Facebook online contact initiative.
Comhlamh sets standards for NGOs and audits for good governance systems and procedures. Irish Aid insists that they use a 4-pronged programmatic approach, using the MIS system, involving monitoring and evaluation. They have earned the trust of the Irish government. In their third year; the Gujarat earthquake happened and HOPE appealed to the Irish public at home. Irish Aid funded HOPE because they had staff and expertise already in place. They have affected the lives of about 23,000 children in Kolkata: in creches, coaching centres, clinics, but it could stretch to millions if you take into account Maureen’s work on relief in Africa and in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu after the tsunami. The Indian government department on HIV has now asked HOPE to get involved in distributing a food programme, to use their expertise. All of these are very positive developments for the organisation.
Just for fun, I asked her why she does it, why does she not stay home and play golf? She laughs,"I’d be so bored, I was always someone who needed to work. Now I'm fitting everything into the autumn of my years". She does admit, however: "it can be lonely, people often aren’t interested. You can see their eyes glazing over when you talk about Calcutta" Her husband visited and he was "bewildered". He does not like cities in general, so Calcutta was a very extreme experience. He joked "I’ve been in Calcutta twice — the first time and the last time!" She says that he couldn't take the confusion and the filth of it, and understandably prefers to be home on his farm in familiar surroundings.
They are very committed to keeping the running costs of the organisation down. She takes no salary at all herself. Jenny herself and Annemarie Murray (long-term volunteer) live at the top of the Girls Home in Panditya Place. The conditions are basic, and they live right next to the rescued girls in adjacent rooms, I asked her if she would she not think of getting an apartment in the city that would be more comfortable. Her answer: "no, I'd hate to move out, it would make me lose touch with the dynamic of the thing. My only concern is that we`re using a room that children could be in". The building at Panditya is old, and there is a plan to build a new custom-built building that would make better use of space. They are still searching for the funding for this, however.
HOPE has to work with local government to build new premises on any site. Sometimes having the money for the job isn`t enough in itself, as there may not be the space to build in such a congested city. Hence, they often have to use existing little rooms, in agreement with the local municipality or community One school operates in a galvanised container that was sent from Ireland. Keeping the funding coming in is the major priority The team are very imaginative in coming up with new ideas. She has a doggedly determined spirit: "there’s no such thing as a real no, there’s always a way. There's always another source". They get no direct grant aiding from the Indian government, but their partners do, to various extents.
They are starting to target private Indian donors now as well, since there is now more wealth in the country than before. She is thankful that they have not had to cut any projects like some other NGOs due to the recession, as she asks, "where would you start?" She sums up their modus operandi like this: "it’s all about trying to get as many children into education as possible, and as many women into work as possible". There is a clear focus on addressing gender discrimination. She has found so often that in any one family, the girl child is starved while the boy is fat and healthy. There is also a focus on educating mothers on their reproductive cycles, thereby contributing to women`s empowerment. Education is the only way to achieve long-term success — coercion is not an option and community empowerment is the vehicle for achieving this.
Sr Jenny Browne