When I was asked by the anti-poverty charity ActionAid to visit their work in Burma (Myanmar) to promote their newly-established child sponsorship work in the country, I was delighted and immediately cleared my diary.
I'd never been to this part of the world before and I've been fascinated with the recent changes that this country is going through. These are changes that everyone seems to be talking about at the moment: This week we found out that Obama is going to visit - a first by a serving US president, and of course the sad news that the country had been hit by an earthquake.
Luckily the earthquake wasn't as severe as it might have been, but when I heard about it I was alarmed as the epicentre was only 70 miles from the area I had just visited. I'd been to rural communities in the Meikhtila region of Burma's dry zone and the people who I'd met had all become extremely dear to me.
On my week-long trip I travelled for many hours to tiny villages and fell in love with the country. I've never been treated so well in my life - visiting families and children who were so welcoming and warm. I also saw first-hand how easy it would be to make real change happen here.
It was on the last day that I met Nandar. She's a 13-year-old who had been forced to drop out of school to look after her alcoholic father; her mother had moved away to the borders of China to earn money. She had to suffer the indignity of having to beg to support his addiction. Worse, she was at risk of being sent to the border as a sex worker. This beautiful girl stole my heart and I found it very difficult not to get upset as she told me her story. I was determined not to because she herself was so dignified despite her heart-breaking situation.
What made it even more poignant was that she talked so clearly about her joy of learning and her desire to become a teacher - her favourite thing to do was to find a tiny space of her own to just read. Nander was so accepting of her fate and yet so clearly sad that all her friends were carrying on with school and their lives while she was left in this precarious situation.
But I knew that this was a girl who wasn't past the point of no return. She was so willing and able and if somebody were to sponsor her, she'd be able to get her life back on track. That somebody turned out to be me, and for just 50p a day.
Are you suspicious of how much 50p a day can really do? I was. As a mum of two, I appreciate that we are constantly asked to give and I do question where their money goes. Just on the way back from the school run I might spend 50p on a packet of crisps for one of my kids or put it towards a comic for the other. Now I've seen first-hand just what this amount of money can do and where it goes: not just to the children, but to their families and communities too.
After a week of speaking to Burmese women and children I feel that the smallest, most practical of changes will make all the difference. If a bridge is built for kids to walk over a river to get to school, books added to a meagre library, transportation provided for young children who have to trek miles each day, then suddenly education becomes a possibility. Through what I saw of child sponsorship, I felt that this was now within their grasp and that makes it very exciting because the smallest amount of change here will unlock their futures.
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