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African Children Inspire Susannah's Moving Story

Kedleston Road campus 504x257 African Children Inspire Susannah's Moving Story

Date posted: 20 January 2012

An inspiring Derby student was so moved by summer volunteering with disabled children in South Africa that she has raised funds tirelessly for over two years to provide them with the 80 wheelchairs they badly needed.

Occupational Therapy BSc (Hons) degree student Susannah Ali, 22, from Lichfield, will graduate from the University of Derby today (January 20) at its Annual Awards Ceremonies at Derby's Assembly Rooms.

Susannah spent six weeks of her 2009 summer break volunteering in schools in rural communities around the city of Durban, South Africa.

What she experienced during that summer affected her so deeply that she set up the charity 'Help 4 Happy's' on her return. More than £20,000 has been raised so far and used to provide functioning wheelchairs and wheelchair assessments to more than 80 children, and one electric wheelchair for a severely disabled student.

Susannah said "I spent some time teaching children out in the rural communities and once a week we visited a school specifically for disabled children. The children had a variety of disabilities, both physical and mental, and most had to live in at the school as their families couldn't afford to look after them at home.

"As the school was completely reliant on donations they had very little equipment and what they did have was in terrible condition, so most of the children's needs were not being met. For example, the children had to help each other get from their beds to their wheelchair, if they had one, and to use the toilets."

As an Occupational Therapy student at Derby Susannah knows all too well the challenges that people with disabilities face in the developed world, even with functioning equipment, and was struck by the lack of suitable resources in rural South Africa.

"I wanted to use my knowledge and experience to do something that made a difference," she added. "I began by making recommendations for layout changes and adaptations to the school that would help the disabled children to move around and access the school better, and then we worked to make these changes.

"But the main issue was still the lack of functioning and suitably sized wheelchairs, or wheelchair assessments to help find the best chair for a person's needs. To get more wheelchairs it was clear that we needed to raise some money to buy them."

On returning to Derby to begin the second year of her degree, Susannah and her partner Dan Bullock, a graphic designer based in Derby, set up the website, www.help4happys.co.uk and began to fundraise tirelessly with members of their Derby Bass Street Christadelphian Church community.

A 24-hour sponsored sing-a-thon, Lands End to John O'Groats bike ride, and donations through the website helped the charity - named Help 4 Happy's after the head teacher of the school, Happy - raised more than £1,000 in its first year. In 2010, Susannah returned to South Africa with Dan to purchase the first 40 wheelchairs for the school through a company which also carries out detailed wheelchair assessments for the children.

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"To be suitable for different children's needs the wheelchairs can have footplates, headrests or cushions added," added Susannah.

"For one very disabled child, called Nozipho, we were able to buy an electric wheelchair which she can control using a small joystick on her armrest. This has made such an incredible difference to her life, allowing her to move around independently."

After graduating from the University of Derby on January 20 (2012), Susannah will be looking to gain an entry position as an Occupational Therapist in the NHS but has pledged to continue to fundraise, and to return to Happy's in Durban each year to ensure the donations are well spent. She and Dan are also revamping their website to ensure people can find out about the inspiring students and give easily to the charity.

Karen Newberry, Senior Lecturer on the University of Derby's Occupational Therapy degree programme, said: "We are all incredibly proud of Susannah, both on her graduation and for all the fantastic work she has been doing in Africa. She has clearly made a massive difference to many children's lives, which is inspirational to us all."

Susannah added: "I have been so inspired by the students at Happy's school, and feel they have taught me so much more than I think I could ever give to them."

For more information on the Occupational Therapy degree programme visit website www.derby.ac.uk/health/ot