Richard Moore & John Linehan's life-changing charity trip to Africa
Gail Bell chats to Children in Crossfire founder Richard Moore and celebrity supporter John Linehan about the charity's life-changing work in Africa and closer to home
CHRISTMAS may just be over, but it is the season of giving all year round for Richard Moore, founder of the charity Children in Crossfire, which trains teachers in Ireland and supports thousands of children in Tanzania and Ethiopia through feeding and educational programmes.
Richard was recently dubbed the 'Derry Lama', a title bestowed upon him last year in a playful but perceptive moment by actress and human rights activist Joanna Lumley.
The TV star was in Derry for the charity's 20th anniversary conference – along with the actual 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet – and the sobriquet, much to Richards' amusement, has stuck.
He may laugh it off, humble as he is, but the head of Children in Crossfire knows all about charity 'beginning at home'.
Now a 57 year-old husband and father of two grown-up daughters, Richard was a 10-year-old schoolboy when he was blinded by a soldier's rubber bullet while on his way home to Creggan in Derry in 1972.
However, almost intuitively, he forgave the man who pulled the trigger.
Richard has since played in a rhythm and blues band, run two pubs, won awards, written the autobiography Can I Give Him My Eyes? – the first question his father asked doctors upon hearing his prognosis – and humbled many world leaders with his charitable vision, yet his feet are always on the ground in Africa.
The Derry man's latest expedition was with a small group of Belfast businessmen and supporters to Ukerewe Island, one of largest islands in Lake Victoria, Tanzania, where Children in Crossfire supports projects in the districts of Mwanza and Morogoro.
Among the visitors was friend and long-time supporter, Belfast panto legend John Linehan (aka May McFettridge), who was deeply moved by the plight of the local children.
"I've been on trips with Richard and Children in Crossfire five times and it doesn't get any easier," says John.
"This trip was memorable from the outset, as we left for Ukerewe Island from the same port where the ferry capsized in September, killing more than 200 passengers.
"There was no electricity where we were staying and one school barely had a roof. The teacher – who earns around 40 US dollars a month – was responsible for about 120 children, most of whom get by on one dollar a day.
"Some were orphans and relied on people taking them in at night and feeding them as best they could. It was absolutely heartbreaking, but when you come home from a trip like that, it makes you determined to do more.
"We're going to build classrooms for those kids, so they can get educated and get a half-decent job when they grow up. We have to have hope that people will help us in what we need to do."
There were lighter moments on the six-day tour as well: John read stories to the children, made them laugh with his usual larking about and managed to learn a few words of Swahili in the process.
In this respect, he had an able leader, with Richard stressing the need to lighten the load with humour whenever possible.
"It was a fairly tight and tough itinerary, but even though it is so sad – and I still get upset by the overwhelming need of these children – when you're there, the people keep you going and the children around you keep you laughing," he says.
"I am struck by their determination despite their circumstances. It's incredible how they remain positive and are motivated to bring about change with basically no income."
Richard's own motivation also appears limitless. He says he's driven by the compassion he experienced after literally being caught in the crossfire of Northern Ireland's troubled past.
"What's important in my story is not that I was blinded, but how people responded to me when I was shot," he says.
"How my family responded, how the community responded, how my friends responded… their response meant I became a very competent, very happy and contented blind person.
"I realise that is down to opportunity and support, so I decided to start Children in Crossfire based on the open compassion and caring I have received throughout my life."
Meeting a disabled child on the trip to Tanzania brought the significance of response and support into sharp focus for Richard, whose charity has raised almost £30 million since 1996, working mainly in Tanzania and Ethiopia.
The latter has been the focus for this year's Christmas appeal, using the story of a young Ethiopian woman called Tenaye, whom Richard first met when she was 12-years-old and living in a graveyard with around 260 other homeless people.
"Tenaye's story now is that she is living in small house that Children in Crossfire bought her and she is a trained classroom assistant, while 16 other young people from the graveyard are going on to third level education and four are set for university," Richard explains.
"You need to remember this type of successful outcome when you've just stepped into someone else's story. In Ukerewe Island, for instance, we met a family who lived in a mud hut and they had a disabled child who was just sitting outside and not communicating very well.
"I couldn't help thinking how, even though I am disabled too, my life is dramatically different and how my opportunities have been dramatically different too.
"I used to bring my guitar on some of the African trips to see the projects in action and one time I had about a couple of hundred villagers all playing the Hokey Cokey.
"People are amazed because disability in Africa means something different – it almost means life is over – so when they see a blind person playing the guitar as well, they think, ‘what's going on here?"
However, true vision is about more than seeing with your eyes. In many ways, Richard – who loves to cycle on his tandem with his brother and also finds time to run a community radio station in Derry – observes more than those unhindered by visual disability.
He is still in touch with the soldier who blinded him and was delighted to open yet another Christmas card bearing the familiar Scottish stamp this year.
"I travel around schools, sharing my story whenever I am asked and I am happy to do so because I think forgiveness is such a big thing in the process of reconciliation," he adds.
"I strongly believe that if you're going to reconcile with anyone, it's got to begin in your own heart.
"I really do think charity begins at home and that's why, over the next three-to-five years, we hope to train around 2,000 teachers in Ireland on methods they can use in the classroom to get children to engage with global poverty.
"When you visit some of the most vulnerable children on the planet, it's something you can never walk away from. The results of crushing poverty are equally as devastating for a child as a bomb or bullet flying over their head."
:: Children in Crossfire's 2019 programme needs at least £1.5 million to continue its programme of work and although support comes from various sources, including the Republic Government's Irish Aid arm, support from the public is always needed. To find out more, visit Childrenincrossfire.org