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From Hairdressers to Housebuilders

Chris Connors, CoCo's Foundation

Published on 6th October 2015


Back in 2011, we highlighted the work of the CoCo's Foundation, which at the time was a starting to make a difference to lives in South Africa. The Foundation had started in the summer of 2009 when young hairdresser Ed Purdew, approached his friend and employer Chris Connors, director of Coco's hair salons.

Ed said he wanted to help children in Africa. Chris agreed to help him, and since that day the Foundation has gone on to have a dramatic impact on their lives, as well as those of many others in Africa and the UK.

We met Chris Connors, fellow trustee Debs Spraget and Laura Hamlin, a Southwater mum who recently returned from her first trip to Africa as a volunteer, to find out about the work of the inspirational Foundation...


Debs: A team from CoCo's Foundation heads out to South Africa every six months. In May, we went to Mduku in the KwaZulu Natal region to build two houses, one of which was in memory of my brother, Adam, who took his own life when he was 24. I wanted to do something to honour him.

Chris: We structure the trip for each team of volunteers. On the first day, they are given a talk by one of the missionaries, Rachel, about the area and the people. We take them in to the community on the second day and volunteers meet the villagers. Normally, we have enough money to build two houses on a trip, although in May, we could build three. What normally happens is that builders construct one or two, so we are helping the economy in the region, and our volunteers build one and decorate the other ones. The volunteers also choose where the next group of volunteers will build a house.

Debs: We work closely with the chiefs who highlight families most in need. Often, they are not families but gatherings of children cared for by an older sibling or a Gogo (African term for grandmother). Using this information, the volunteers and trustees decide which two houses to replace.

Chris: Choosing can be difficult, particularly if a volunteer forms an emotional attachment to a particular family. Of course, if you have a house with lots of children, or handicapped children, it is natural to see them as having the greatest need. But we like the volunteers to make the decision with us, as it's part of the journey.

Debs: In 2014, we visited the home of Caroline, a young girl who sadly has AIDS. She lives with her two younger sisters. Chris and I thought we could build a house for them in Adam's memory. He used to work for a building firm and I think that, if he was still with us, he would be helping us. So it was is a perfect way to remember Adam. But when we arrived this May, we found that Caroline's house had already been built! The builders had mistakenly built the wrong house. I had mixed emotions. I was really happy that we had brought a family together again. But I had raised £10,000 and travelled with my daughter to build this house for my brother and her uncle. We'd been denied that.

Chris: Debs and I have a saying when things like that happen. We looked at each other and said "It's Africa!"

Debs: Still, the volunteers needed to build another house, for a family with many children. It was probably the worst house we have seen yet, little more than a collapsed tent. The parents had died, and the oldest brother could not cope and had committed suicide.

Laura: I have been doing behind-the-scenes work for Chris and Debs for a while and really wanted to go out to Africa and see for myself the work CoCo's has been doing. My biggest fear going out was my safety. I was anxious about leaving my children behind too but after a day in Africa those anxieties went out of the window. It's just a totally different life.

Chris: Anyone can join one of our trips. It costs £2,300 of which £500 goes to building a house. We have six volunteers on each trip, so that gives us £3000 for one house. The rest of the money goes directly to pay for flights, accommodation, food and internal travel. We beg, borrow or steal to pay for a second house. Sometimes a business or school raises the full amount and some very generous individuals have made that incredible contribution. Not everyone is able to travel to Africa and actually help build a house, but CoCo's is as much about the people who stay here, run the charity and raise funds.

Laura: It is a real eye opener. We had only just arrived at the site when I saw this boy, aged five or six, walking back from school to his shack all alone. Then, a few minutes later, his little sister toddled down the road. She was about three! There were children wandering around and I said to Chris, "Why doesn't their mother go and collect them from school?" He just burst out laughing! He said "This isn't Southwater!" They just get up, get dressed and walk miles to school. As a mother, that shook me.

Debs: We were building the house and had just put the roof on, when there was a dreadful storm. We were crying in bed because we were so worried about the family in the tent. We just hoped that they would go into the unfinished house, just to have shelter, but they won't do that until they are given the keys! We turned up the next morning and the head of the household appeared shivering and freezing cold. He was the nicest, most humble guy that you could ever meet and his nickname was Genius. He didn't stop working on his new house from the moment we arrived.

Chris: Epsom Rotary Club paid for a water tank, and I had to travel by truck for two hours to collect it. I called Debs up on my return journey, and asked if they had enough water. If they didn't, I would need to travel for another two hours to fill up the tank at the hospital. Debs checked the supply, and was amazed to see that Genius had filled it up. He had walked for hours, filling it up one bucket at a time. He wanted to save me a journey. So, if you're asking if the African people help themselves, yes - they most definitely do.

Laura: When Genius went into his new house, once all the work was done, he took off his boots although his feet were just as dirty, which we shared a joke about. We took some photos and it was a wonderful moment. Genius was pleased because he had fought off three snakes whilst he'd been living in his old 'house' and now he knew the children could be safe.

Debs: It costs £3,000 to build a house, and another £500 for a toilet. We do not place that onus on volunteers as it makes it that bit more expensive but I passionately believe that if we are building somebody a house, then for their dignity there should be a toilet. So we also funded a toilet for Genius, although he did most of the work!

Chris: We have only ever experienced people taking pride in the fact that they are having a house built. If we built a house for you, would you help? Of course, you would. They are no different.

Debs: When the toilet was finished, Genius was jumping up and down, squealing with delight. I asked a
translator what he was saying. He was saying "Now I don't have to walk through thorny bushes and face snakes when I go to the toilet."

Chris: Even the CoCo's volunteers have to dig a hole for the toilet. They always go in twos and you have to look above your head and on the floor to make sure that there aren't any snakes. That's very difficult to do in the dark. Several schools including Southwater Primary School have raised money specifically for toilets.

Laura: Doing the manual building work was hard. We started in the morning but it gets very hot from about 2pm, so when the children come home from school we start winding down. You can't build solidly for six hours because of the heat. The African people help too if they walk by. They consider it bad luck to pass without helping in some way! This is nice for the volunteers too.

Debs: The people always make us feel very welcome and love what we are doing. There is no jealousy. They don't think 'Why have they got a new house when I haven't?' They realise that the work we are doing benefits everyone.

Chris: If you have 20 children living in a mud hut, with no money and nobody old enough to work, the community has to support them and give them what they can to survive. It impacts everyone, so when we help that family and provide food and clothes, that's one less family leaning on the community for support.

Laura: "The children do interact with the volunteers. To start with, they are very shy because we are mostly white and they are not used to that. On the first day, they didn't really want to know but they warm to you and see what you are doing for the community. Max, one of the young volunteers, was playing and laughing with one boy every day after school, which was wonderful.

Chris: The trip does change the lives of everyone who goes, as it draws their attention to what life is like in poorer parts of the world. We were enjoying a safari day with the volunteers, which is part of the trip, and a teenage volunteer saw this extremely thin African girl called Caroline walking towards us, carrying water. She said 'What's the matter with her?' and we had to tell her she was dying of AIDS. The volunteer, another girl called Laura, gave her sandwich to Caroline every day and at the end of the trip they hugged. We were building a house for Caroline's family. She said: "Thank you for building a house for my sisters." Caroline understood she wasn't going to live long, but she was happy that her sisters would be safe.

Debs: Laura has been out to Africa again since and will be heading out for a third time. CoCo's has had a massive effect on her life, and she's really blossomed. There are many more stories of teenagers who have had their lives changed as it opens their eyes as to what is possible.

Laura: The trip I was on was particularly hard as the village had no water supply, so we had to get it from a hospital. Every evening, we would stand in a bucket of water and wash ourselves down with a jug! It's not always fun and it is emotional but the trip has changed me a lot. Some things you think are important really aren't.

Chris: When we started out, we were scraping around to find the funds for just a couple of houses. Now, Debs and I are sat here in the UK whilst three houses and two creches are being built. With our Build for the Future project, we not only build a new house, but our Clothes4Clothes provides school uniforms and our Food4Life project provides children with regular meals. We have a donor who is funding two lads through college to learn bricklaying as the aim is to build one house a week. So we're still growing.

Laura: The visit to the school was one of the best parts of the trip for me. Debs measured up the children and we provided 24 uniforms. The teachers were crying because they found it so emotional seeing their children with proper uniforms. We've handed out uniforms for 320 children now.

Debs: When I first went to South Africa five years ago and saw the poverty, I wanted to help everyone. You soon realise you can't do that. After several trips, I now realise that if you touch only one family then you've made a huge positive impact on those lives. It's incredibly frustrating not being able to help more, but it is better to help one person that none at all.

Laura: It amazes me that CoCo's can have such an impact. Chris, Debs and Ed could have just done that one trip and left. But what they have done is mind blowing.

Chris: We have some incredible supporters. The Peaslake Ladies, who have funded a house and toilet, and Mildred and her Knitting Nannies, who make teddies and clothes for the children. She always gives me a few pounds every time I visit her, and last time she put her hand on mine and said 'How much is one of those houses? Before I pass away, I'd like to build a house, from one GoGo to another.' We'll be building Mildred's house on our next trip.

Laura: The Knitting Nannies teddies are great because along with pens and pencils, they help the volunteers form an immediate connection. We also give out little pinafore dresses for the girls and Max handed out football shirts and footballs to the boys. Most people went out with a laptop and blankets to give to the families, but I hadn't taken anything. Chris said "Don't worry. Buy something to help the local economy." Somebody told me that oranges were popular, so I bought a massive bag of oranges and they loved them! Those moments that really make the trip.

Chris: One woman struggling with cancer made a quilt for us to take, and sadly she passed away whilst we were in Africa. Her quilt is out there now and her daughter was really pleased about that. We are really just the
middlemen, as we get to see the smiles of the people who have made something and the smiles from the children who benefit from it. For us that is the payback.

Debs: One of the best things about CoCo's is the Food4Life programme. Every morning, the children come along to the breakfast club in Mduku for a bowl of porridge. It's a simple meal, but it has all the nutrients the body needs. We are now feeding about 350 children every day. Just £1 feeds 20 children. We've actually done tests in local schools, where pupils try our porridge and an English porridge, and most children prefer the African porridge as it is quite sweet!

Chris: On every trip, we go and revisit the homes we have built previously. We often see that they have put stones out to make a pathway. Sometimes, we see that a quilt we donated isn't being used on a bed, but is now a table cloth or something else. They take so much pride in those homes and when you turn up again it is like meeting family!

Debs: During our last visit, we saw a mud hut with lots of children around. All of a sudden this old lady with hardly any teeth was flinging her arms around Chris! She said: 'I didn't think you would ever come back!' She is a Gogo, a grandmother, looking after seven children. Her new house will be the one from our Knitting Nanny. On our next trip, in October, we'll also be building our second crèche. Oriel High School in Maidenbower raised £17,000 for the crèche. We've also had incredible support from the likes of Lingfield Notre Dame School, local Girl Guiding groups and various Rotary Clubs.

Laura: We also take food parcels when we go and visit the homes again. Chris and Debs go to the local shop, where the manager knows them well, and buy maize, sugar, rice, soap, candles, peanuts, matches, washing powder and other essential items. The food parcels cost £25 and are a nice way of saying 'Hello.'

Chris: The charity growing at the rate it is does bring challenges. But the end result is that we build more houses, feed more people and send more children to school in uniform. We do all we can to make sure every penny goes where it should. We are entitled to take 49p out of every £1 to pay ourselves and some charities, Non-governmental organisations (NGO) or not-for-profit organisations do just that. We don't take a penny to pay anyone. Our time is given up for free because that is what 'charity' means.

Laura: The only sad part of my trip is saying 'goodbye'. Genius was so humble and was absolutely thrilled to bits with his house. One thing I was really excited about is that we were able to donate bunk beds. I didn't think they would arrive for us to see them, but just as we were leaving they turned up. It was just the perfect ending for us volunteers!

You can donate as little as £1 through CoCo's Food4Life programme, with details at www.cocosfoundation.co.uk 

If you are interested in joining a trip to Africa, or organising a fundraiser, please email info@cocosfoundation.co.uk