Sue Cowen

Life-changing trip for volunteer Sue

A BIG-hearted volunteer who recently returned from an aid mission to Africa has said the trip changed her life.

Sue Cowen, 57, of Kidderminster, spent two months in a remote part of Kenya helping rural communities battling with the effects of HIV and AIDs.

After taking voluntary redundancy from Build British Institute of Learning Disabilities, in Kidderminster last year, she met Derek Austin, treasurer of the Friends of Omwabini organisation.

The good cause, which is applying for registered charity status, built links with Kenyan charitable body, Omwabini, in 2003 and has since raised a total of £35,750 for the group.

Mrs Cowen, of Larches Road, said: "I met Derek by chance, in November last year, and said that I'd always wanted to go out and do some voluntary work.

"I always wanted to do something but being 57 I thought I'd missed my chance.

"When I was at school you didn't have a gap year."

After initially helping to fund-raise for the Friends group, Mrs Cowen found out more about the organisation's efforts in Kenya and decided to travel to the area in May to see the work for herself. She added: "It was a nice feeling for people who donated money that I was going out there to see how it was being used and it helped with further fund-raising." Mrs Cowen, who funded the trip herself, admitted she had little idea of what to expect when she touched down at Nairobi airport. She took an internal flight and met James Bunyasi, charity co-ordinator, before they drove out to the organisation's headquarters in Kimilili, near the Ugandan border. The group, which was set up by James's mother, Mary, in 2002, is staffed by unpaid Kenyan volunteers, with all the money going towards community projects.

Mrs Cowen went on: "My biggest fear was I had seen people suffering on the television but would I be able to cope emotionally with seeing these orphans when I was out there?

"The charity has such a positive approach it's a nice working environment.

"People are always thinking what they can do, not what they can't, so you're not looking at blank suffering.

"The charity runs its own primary school in Kimilili, so I taught in the school and learned how to say some bits and pieces in Swahili."

Mrs Cowen, a mother-of-two, travelled out to several rural communities in an area the size of the West Midlands during her stay, helping to set up AIDS and HIV self-help groups and with building projects, including putting up a mud hut.

She explained: "AIDS is rife out there and you don't meet people who haven't been affected in some way but it was so rewarding just being there.

"There was self-discovery and I was inspired by the way people who had very little could still be happy, fulfilled and contented."