Life

Belfast man Ian Campbell's school bags carrying hope to Filipino families

Belfast charity Ten Foundations is changing lives in the Philippines thanks to a simple school bag. Gail Bell finds out more from its founder, Ian Campbell...

Ian Campbell from Ten Foundations at his pop-up shop. Picture by Hugh Russell
Gail Bell

FOR someone who claims not to be a "particularly high flier", Ian Campbell – or 'Papa Ian', to give him his affectionate overseas soubriquet – is raising hope to new altitudes for some of the poorest women in the Philippines.

It has been something of a later-life education for the personable Belfast grandfather who set up his Ten Foundations charity nearly 10 years ago, allowing Filipino women to provide for their families by making school bags for children in Northern Ireland – which in turn allows their own children to attend school.

A cancer survivor and ever-youthful 'pensioner – who turned 75 this month – it is not how he envisaged spending his retirement, but the former joiner and businessman is passionate about empowering women and helping them not just survive the worst of times, but thrive in a pandemic-hit Philippines.

Now, almost 10 years on, Ten Foundations has ambitious expansion plans for the future. Bigger premises are needed to accommodate increased numbers of school bag makers and, in addition to running feeding and scholarship programmes, 'Papa Ian' is pondering over a new "livelihood idea" for flat-pack houses on which he hopes to engage again with Northern Ireland schools.

"It is a little bit stressful at the moment, because these women and their families really depend on us and it has been hard with the lockdowns." he says.

"Normally, I would go into some of the primary schools in Northern Ireland in May or June to give a presentation, but that hasn't happened because of restrictions.

"I would say to the kids, 'Look, if you're buying a school bag, why not buy one that can help change someone's life?' The kids really get it and the schools like us as well because we're not asking for money – we're just offering a really good product."

School doors might have been closed to him recently – and Ian hasn't been able to fly to the Philippines since the pandemic began – but thanks to this indefatigable humitarian, his school bags continue to sell.

They are available both online and through the Ten Foundations shop on Belfast's Lisburn Road, as well as at two new 'pop-up' shops at CastleCourt shopping centre in Belfast and The Boulevard, Banbridge.

Seven thousand miles away in the remote Balayan region of the Philippines, 40 women (whose work sustains around 500 extended family members) sit proudly at industrial sewing machines at the charity's HQ in Bayanihan Village, sewing like their lives depended on it.

And lives really are being changed – dramatically. Twenty-eight year-old Babalyn Paleria was living in a house made from plastics, rice sacks and pieces of plywood and had given up her fifth child to a better-off neighbour when Ten Foundations stepped in.

Today, her wages from sewing school bags means she lives in a concrete house with electricity and running water, her children are studying in school and the family has food on their table each day.

"Last November we were given £10,000 from the LFT Family Trust in Belfast which allowed us to buy 10 new sewing machines and recruit 10 new mothers," Ian says.

"One in particular, Lucia, is 46-years-old and lives in a house with no toilet, no shower. It broke my heart to hear her story – and I'm used to hearing hard life stories from women in the Philippines.

"This woman thought she was on the scrap heap of life and all of a sudden she has got this chance and she is grabbing it with both hands. We had to take her to an optician recently and get her glasses because she had never had an eye test. These are great women who just have never had a chance in their lives before.

"I don't come from an academic background – I left school at 16 with zero qualifications – so all the women we are helping there are a bit like myself: not particularly high fliers academically, but they're clever with their hands – they can make stuff."

Such life-affirming work re-invigorates the former joiner and welder who, at the age of 28, employed 30 people in Western Australia, designing, making and selling high-end furniture all over the continent.

But, by the time he was in his 60s, Ian Campbell's business, health and wealth had imploded.

"I lost everything," he says, simply.

"It was my own fault – I made one bad decision; a silly business investment. I developed a product to stop tools being stolen from building sites and I poured everything into it, but it failed."

Ian ended up losing his home around the same time he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and admits "the both together, at 64, left him "unable to cope". However, after "the dust settled" and he had been being successfully treated, he made contact with an architect friend in London who had connections in the Philippines.

Moved by the sheer immiseration of women and children in particular, he felt ready to "jump in with two feet again".

"In a way, it took the focus off myself and helped me cope with what I was going through at the time," he says.

"It all happened organically – we bought a sewing machine and started making some shopping bags. Some of the kids from Methodist College Belfast bought some of our bags and I noticed they were using them as school bags: that gave me the idea of concentrating on actual school bags.

"We have just been offered a kiosk rent-free for six months at one of the big shopping malls in Manila, so we're having a bit of a trial run, to see if we can sell our products locally – although with Covid, the schools were closed for a year-and-a-half."

Initially, the intention was to build orphanages, but the Ten Foundations team – comprising a Filipino designer, social worker and production manager – "took a right turn" and decided to concentrate on helping families look after their own children in their own homes instead.

And, in addition to the sewing mums being able to send their children to school, a number of older Filipino children are funded through university, some returning with teaching, business, social work or engineering degrees and using their skills to continue the charity's work on the ground.

Connecting with schools in Northern Ireland is a big part of the Ten Foundations story, according to its founder. With the help of a £10,000 cheque raised by Ashfield Girls' High School in Belfast, Ian bought a plot of land and erected the charity's current building, which accommodates the livelihood programme and also provides some basic accommodation for mothers and children.

"The need keeps growing," he says.

"We are currently looking at developing a dump site in Metro Manila and next year I want to up our production to 8,000 school bags and have 100 people on the payroll by 2023.

"I want to build a brand that is synonymous with fair trade, with integrity and honesty, a brand that people can trust. I want that brand to the be first choice of school kids everywhere. I want them to know that they can really help to change lives."

:: Anyone interested in volunteering, fundraising or finding out more can contact Ian via the website: www.tenfoundations.org

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

Life