Wheels are in motion to help keep some of the world’s most vulnerable youngsters out of the hands of traffickers.
A Scots charity has teamed up with a care community for people with special needs and together they are refurbishing bicycles destined for landfill, before shipping them to impoverished Moldova in Eastern Europe where young people from poor rural areas with little education make up a third of trafficking victims.
Stella’s Voice, headquartered in Peterhead, Aberdeenshire, was set up in 1996, and has helped hundreds of kids at risk in Moldova by providing homes, mentors, and the long-term stability needed to break the cycle of exploitation.
They say their new link with Camphill School Aberdeen – who provide community-based care for people with learning disabilities and special support needs – is a key part of their programme to help the youngsters by giving them with cycles, providing transport to school and extra- curricular activities, sports and community events, helping them to become a valued part of society.
They are already gearing up to deliver a bumper shipment to the country this winter, with Camphill’s young residents turning a host of clapped-out cycles into gleaming new machines.
Stella’s Voice European Director Mark Morgan, 50, whose organisation – in addition to the homes it runs supports remote orphanages – explained that Stella’s Voice was named after a girl that the charity met on one of its first visits to orphanages in Moldova.
They later discovered she had to leave the orphanage at 16 and fell into the hands of traffickers. Within three years she was dead.
The dad-of-four and grandad to two, who runs the charity with his wife Sharon, 51, said: “Stella will never speak again – her voice has been silenced – so today we at Stella’s Voice are doing all we can to prevent another story like hers.
“Where ever in the world there is trafficking there is one commonality, and it’s vulnerability. The first thing we do in Moldova for the young people we help is to remove the vulnerability.
“We put a roof of their heads, clothes on their backs and food in their bellies. The next step is to help with education. As they transition through our homes, they learn life skills we take for granted.
“By the time they leave us, they are educated, and know how to budget and run a home. We get them to a stage where they can be independent.
“A lot of them have graduated through that programme, and they are holding down jobs, have homes and families of their own, and their kids are not at risk of being trafficked because they have the proper environment around them.
“We have helped hundreds of kids, most of which we are still in contact with.”
He said hundreds of bikes had been donated to Moldova over the years, but the charity had more than it could physically refurbish.
A chance meeting with Camphill School’s development lead Nicolas Nino-Ramirez, 38, supplied the answer to the problem. The school’s vocational workshops needed bicycles for its young people. It was the answer to both their prayers.
Nino-Ramirez said: “As part of our social enterprise model at Camphill we have mentored a bike maintenance garage, which provides incredible learning opportunities for young people.
“What emerged from our meeting with Stella’s Voice was an opportunity to support their work. The value of a bicycle in Moldova is transformational. Stella’s Voice are changing the lives of young people who are on the verge of becoming victims of human trafficking.
“While supporting their cause we create incredible learning opportunities for our young people at Camphill.
“They get the opportunity to engage and learn in environment that suits them and make the most of their abilities. This partnership has added so much social value to what we do. It is one of the most beautiful experiences we have had.”
Wilf Monohan-Lai, 20, from Deeside, Aberdeenshire, loves to laugh, swim and ride his bike. He has been involved with Camphill for a decade, but latterly became a resident.
He is a key member of the bike workshop. Although he taught himself to read age three he cannot hold a conversation. So his mum Kate speaks for him.
She told the Post: “Wilf is quite severely impaired and has learning difficulties but is very strong and fit and healthy.
“He has a very visual mind, so if he is shown something once he remembers. He loves the bike workshop. It works because Camphill is person-supported care; being surrounded by the right people who understand him and make him feel safe, secure and protected, contributes to the success of this awesome initiative.
“People like Wilf often get written off and are seen as a drain to society and an expense.
“This shows that is not true. With the right support, very disabled young people can give to others, they can contribute in a meaningful way. Wilf can change someone else’s life by giving them a bike.
“He wouldn’t understand the detail of where the bike is gone, but he is able to understand that he is helping someone. He would be proud of himself. This shows he is a valid and valued member of a community.”
Andrei Salapat, 18, was given his first-ever bike by the Camphill School Aberdeen and it has changed his life.
He had been living in an orphanage in Moldova’s Leova region, given up by his poverty-stricken mum who couldn’t afford to keep him.
He had to leave when he reached 16 and he faced a life on the street. But Stella’s Voice stepped in and gave him a permanent place at one of its boys’ homes.
Last year he managed to track down his mother Nadea who was living in appalling conditions and also received help from the charity.
Andrei’s new bike has become a lifeline, opening up new opportunities and friendships. Speaking through an interpreter, he told the Post: “It takes me around an hour-and-a half to walk from home to my school as we live in a remote area where public transport is very limited.
“But now I can cycle there in a quarter of the time. For other kids, having a bike is a normal part of growing up but for me and my friends at Stella’s Voice, it’s a life changing gift.
“For the first time I feel like I fit in because I can go to clubs and make new friends. I’m not seen as an outsider or different anymore.
“It would be amazing to meet the boy who fixed my bike up and helped me to change my life for the better. I would say a huge thanks to him and to the other kids at Camphill School Aberdeen.”
The Cycle of Support
Stella’s Voice is a cog in the wheel of a burgeoning circular economy, collecting goods destined for the dump from homes and offices and refurbishing or repurposing them.
The goods are used the charity’s own homes for young people in Moldova and at orphanages it also supports, as well as being gifted to UK and Scotland based charities and non-governmental organisations. They are also sold in its outlets to boost its coffers.
And it is all good for the environment. Stella’s Voice says it currently diverts about 216 tonnes per year from landfill . This is made up of 25t of books, 80t of bric-a-brac, 67t of clothing, 24t electricals, 65t furniture.
The organisation has 42 staff including a small number of government funded Kickstart employees. It has bases in Peterhead, Fraserburgh and Aberdeen, and four outlets in Hampshire.
Never has its work been more important. According to the International Labour Organisation more than 40 million people are forced into modern slavery and 1.4 of them are children.
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