Last August a poster went up in the print room detailing a firm-wide competition to win a trip to Zambia to visit the new orphans’ village being opened by SOS Children’s Villages, the firm’s principal international charity. It was a week-long trip to attend the opening ceremony for the village, and also to visit existing villages elsewhere in Zambia and Malawi.
I’ve always been really interested in CSR (it was one of the things that attracted me to Pinsent Masons), and when I saw the poster I knew I had to enter. We had to write 500 words on how we thought Pinsent Masons could better support the charity going forward. My piece was about treating our CSR partners the same way we treat our clients – with a dedicated team; using all elements of the firm (lawyers, business development, communications, IT etc); and all resources (offering, for example, use of our meeting rooms in offices around the world).
I wasn’t sure if a trainee could even win, but I submitted my entry and two months later I got the phone call from Alison, the partner in charge, to say that they’d cleared it with my supervisor and I would be off to Zambia in just over 5 weeks time. I was so excited! I couldn’t wait to get involved, and the more I learnt about the charity I was going out to visit the more my enthusiasm grew.
I went with fellow competition winner Maria, a PSL in our litigation team, and 20 or so other donors from around London and Cambridge. We had a packed itinerary, waking early and travelling great distances each day in order to see and learn as much as we possibly could. I couldn’t begin to try and fit everything into this one article, so I’ve picked out the bits that struck me the most.
These were very much villages rather than orphanages. Each village is made up of a number of houses, each with an SOS mother, who cares for eight to ten children as if they were her own. In Chipata, the new village, stands ‘The Pinsent Masons House’, paid for by donations from the Pinsent Masons Foundation. It was great to meet ‘the PM mother’, and the first two PM children.
Having a brother with special needs myself, I was encouraged and impressed with the efforts being made by SOS in this respect. Specialized care is provided for children with visual impairment, hearing problems, speech impediments, learning difficulties, and/or behavioral issues. They also have physiotherapy facilities for children with physical disabilities. As there is so little knowledge in the community of how to identify and care for children with these kinds of problems, they are often abandoned, which is why orphanages like SOS CV have a relatively high number of special needs children. The teachers do an amazing job with the facilities they have, but the hope these centres provide for the SOS children is poignant – in a world where even ‘developed’ countries struggle to understand and meet the needs of their mentally and physically handicapped children, many in countries such as Malawi and Zambia grow up without the support they need.
The Family Strengthening Programme
As well as caring for 78,000 orphaned and abandoned children around the world, SOS’ community outreach initiatives touch the lives of over a million people. It’s a hugely important part of their work, so as part of our visit we were invited to meet some of the families currently being supported by the Charity’s ‘Family Strengthening Programme’ (‘FSP’). This really gave us an insight into the principles of the Charity and its ethos – it’s not just for orphaned and abandoned children; its aim is to provide a loving home for every child, whether in the SOS Villages or otherwise.
The FSP enables families to sustain themselves by teaching them how to run their own business, to budget and save. Annaliese (pictured in blue) was one of the most inspirational and memorable people we met. With the help of SOS CV, Annaliese has started a poultry business which means that she and her six children currently share their two-roomed house with 50 chickens. Her ambition is to expand to 200 chickens if she can save enough to construct a building to house them – 50 is already a real squeeze!
SOS provided Annaliese with the loan she needed to start the business, as well as advice on keeping poultry and business training. They have also helped get her children a place at a local school and provided them with uniforms.
We met many families on the programme, some with extremely poignant and humbling stories of poverty and sadness. What struck us about Annaliese was her hope and excitement for the future. It felt wonderful to be a part of a firm that was supporting SOS as they work to support these families and provide them with that hope.
Following up – CSR at Pinsent Masons
The visit to Chipata was a remarkably poignant and inspiring trip. Humbled by the stories we heard and inspired by the work we witnessed, we felt extremely proud to be out there representing Pinsent Masons, whose support over the past five years has been so significant not just in Chipata, but in numerous projects run by SOS around the world.
Starfish, the firm’s CSR programme, has won several awards, and Kate, our CSR manager has also recently been recognised as a ‘BITC Responsible Business Game Changer’. In my 15 months at the firm, I’ve also volunteered on mentoring programmes and at homeless shelters; we’ve got a great Amicus programme for those interested in human rights, working with people on death row; and we’ve recently joined up with A4ID, an organization which provides a huge range of pro bono opportunities. I feel extremely proud to be at a firm that prioritises CSR in this way, and that puts so much effort into inspiring all its staff.