Jane Nicholson was raising three children and had a successful career in the charity sector before a visit to Romania changed her life. Awarded an MBE in November 2013, Jane runs FARA a 40 strong chain of what are arguably London’s most fashionable charity shops, patronised by Prince Charles. She spoke to Honey Rocks about, what it means to have been like a mother to so many children in need, how her own children have motivated her, and her hopes that the Honey Rocks ‘Rock T’s’ partnership will help the charity reach out to young families. Her words will resonate with so many mothers trying to tackle, work and motherhood.
Read her inspirational interview here:
HONEY ROCKS: Why did you start FARA? What was your initial motivation?
JANE: I was one of the trustees of Sue Ryder, a very big international charity, so I already had experienced working for others. I was working all over the UK and Eastern Europe, setting up hospices and homes so I was already in that field. What happened was that my youngest daughter saw the appalling conditions of children in state institutions in Romania on the television in 1990, and I think people do remember those children, and said that she wanted to go out there. But she was only 15 at the time and knowing that I was already working in the charity world she asked me ‘Mum, can you do something?’
I started to follow it up and in March 1991 I joined an aid convoy going to the north of Romania with the aim of working directly with people in desperate need. The previous year people from the UK and from all over Europe had been to offer aid in Bucharest, the capital area, but nobody had been up to the north. What I experienced there first hand was something I never would have believed. It was appalling and encountering such human suffering especially in children, changed my life.
It had a great impact on me, and so basically after that, I decided to start the charity, even though I had no money. So I continued working in Sue Ryder until 2002 – working as the chair of trustees – and then I retired from that and I’ve continued ever since, to run and develop the FARA charity. So that’s how I started, and that was the beginning.
HONEY ROCKS: How has your experience of motherhood affected your work, and do you think you would have connected so deeply with the plight of the children that you had seen in the orphanages if you hadn’t had children of your own at the time?
JANE: I think that it’s quite a difficult one to answer. But certainly, all the family have been involved. They’ve all been to Romania and my husband and one of my daughters Lucinda is a Trustee as well. Lucinda is also a nurse, she trained at Great Ormond Street. So the effect, probably, of seeing my work and me helping others has encouraged them to inherit those values and to believe that is how life should be.
In my own way, I’m a religious person, I’m a Catholic. And I see the charity as acting as a spiritual mother who’s concerned with each one of the children, and the young people in Romania, individually. So we are a family in Romania, rather like our own family. And that’s how the charity is run, it’s a community, it’s a family. And their concerns are our concerns, to build families and communities, and to love and to serve.
So I don’t have any agenda for anything else, and that’s how I work with the staff in Romania. So in a way, we are a replacement family, we’re second parenting. But we don’t replace their existing families, we always encourage children to go back to them and to be in touch with them. So really, the charity is as if it’s my own family. I’m like a mother, and the values I take are from my own beliefs.
HONEY ROCKS: From your 25 years, are there any particular moments or achievements you’re most proud of that you could tell us about?
JANE: I’m not a person that picks out, because everybody’s unique and everybody is treated as equal. But I do think there are certain situations or children and young people that we have helped that have touched me in a great way. Not that I’m picking them out, and I probably wouldn’t use the word achievement, but I have never seen such suffering as from the children that come into our homes as small children. Two children aged 3, and 4, I wont give their names, have watched their father kill their mother with an axe..
We paused here to acknowledge just how deeply shocking this story is, and how seriously damaged both mentally and spiritually these children must have been as a result of this terrible tragedy. Also that it exemplifies the need that exists in Romania, and the fact that FARA helps in these situations when no-one else will.
JANE CONTINUES: They were put in an institution – this is not so long ago – and then they were referred to us. We offer professional help, of course, but basically, it’s a trauma that needs healing. We look at children like these two small children, and how we can heal their lives as best we can, and even possibly create another small children’s home for them, and bring in one or two children who have rather more mental problems, severe mental problems, that have not resulted from abandonment. So we start projects where we meet the needs of children that have been through trauma so severe that nobody else will take care of them.
My staff and I actually went back in to the institutions in Romania that they should have closed, in I think it was about 2010. They’d joined the EU in 2007, and there were institutions for both children and adults. But of course, when I went back, those facilities – the special mental ones –hadn’t closed.
So we decided to start a rehabilitation programme, for young people aged around 18 years old, who’d spent all their lives in institutions, many having experienced terrible abuse. We took 25 of these young people over the years from 2010. One boy sticks out in my mind because he’d been so institutionalised that rehabilitation was not really possible for independent life. He has quite severe learning difficulties, he’s nearly blind. But this boy was amazing, and he later told me, ‘My life now is like a light. I’ve gone from hatred to love.’ And he wanted to thank the people that had looked after him. These sort of things are very touching when you don’t feel you’ve done much, but you’ve removed a young person from an abusive situation – they never would’ve had a life.
So we’ve given the life of young people. And we know they can’t be independent now, and we have created three small little farms in the villages, in the rural areas, where they live with their pigs. They’re like three little families, and they integrate with all our children. Where people have suffered so much as children, they need love. I was inspired by something Mother Teresa said in that regard – it’s not how much we achieve in life, but it’s how much we love. And basically, everybody needs love.
I’d also like to get it out there that there are some institutions still there. We can’t change everything; we can only change individuals and people’s hearts. You can’t change whole systems, and you can be overwhelmed by it. So that’s why we get to know each child individually, and it’s like a family. They’re all unique, but a lot of people who’ve been to Romania have looked beyond and thought, this is impossible. But we can’t. This can apply to people in their own lives, their own situations, I mean, they may have children with disabilities, or face all sorts of difficulties. You don’t have to be like me, I went there, but you just have to look to love and and serve others.
HONEY ROCKS: So rather than doing nothing, you can start by doing something, even if it’s something small. Which is partly what we’re trying to ask people to do with this campaign, it’s something relatively small and insignificant actually, in a lot of ways.
JANE: Yes exactly. And my hope is, and I hope and I pray that the inspiration I gave to others – because the Romanians are doing all the work, is to heal the lives of so many children who will continue and grow. I have to delegate and I try not to control things, but to give as much as possible, and to try and inspire others, really.
HONEY ROCKS: Can you tell us about the charity’s focus for 2017 and the education project that Honey Rocks will be supporting with this campaign?
JANE: There are five areas of work, children’s homes, young people with learning difficulties in small residential homes, therapy centres with families, of which we have some of the best in Romania, foyers for young people to find jobs in Romania when they’ve come from institutions. But we want to concentrate for this project, but also for the charity development this year, on our programme called Tackling Poverty Through Education.
It’s so vital, we’re feeding a hot meal to over 250 children a day in the rural village areas of northeast Romania. Poverty is huge, and this is an incentive for them to come to school to have education, because if they aren’t educated – the children – then there’s no future. And we do a social programme as well, we visit the families, we provide sometimes shoes to walk to school. Because the temperature is between 20 and 30 below in winter in northern Romania.
HONEY ROCKS: So these are practicalities, that we in the UK perhaps wouldn’t even consider.
JANE: Yes that’s right, and we take them a meal, we help with buying books, because you’d have to pay for some books and equipment. And we do after-school education in the afternoons. So they have to attend school, have lunch, and then work with teachers we have specially trained. We also operate a social programme. Because of the poverty, there’s 47% unemployment in this area, and in a lot of young families, the parents go to Italy to earn money because there’s no employment. Children are left at back at home with illiterate grandparents. So if we don’t do this programme, the likelihood is that many of these children will drop out of school.
So we want to expand this programme – and it’s not expensive – and we want to expand it through more villages with poverty in this area in the north. And it is with that in mind that we brought in the sponsorship for that programme, the child sponsorship. Parents reading this can can either just give a one-off donation to the programme by buying a T-shirt and we would really welcome that. And if they want to be more closely connected, they can follow a family via our sponsorship programme. So they can be linked with a family for £10 a month, and all money will go to that child, and to the expansion of that programme. And they’d be able to see from the information that it pays for even more for a specific child.
HONEY ROCKS: Honey Rocks is a new brand with a lot of focus on social media and the new mothering movement online. Could you tell us what you think of the ROCK Ts campaign and the collaboration with Honey Rocks London overall?
JANE: It’s great for FARA as it will help us reach out to younger people with families. By supporting FARA I think they can benefit in their own lives, and FARA will benefit by supporting children and families facing poverty in Romania. So I’m very happy about it.
HONEY ROCKS: How have you achieved all of these things whilst balancing a busy family life, and what advice can you give to mothers who may be feeling overwhelmed with young children at home but still have aspirations in their careers or other vocations that they might be trying to fulfill? What advice do you have to mothers in that situation?
JANE: I feel the most important thing is your own family and children, and giving attention to them. My youngest was 15 when I went to Romania. While the children were young, I was with them as much as possible but during that time, I was involved in charity in a local way initially and eventually became head of the charity Sue Ryder. I did what I could manage as I had the children, but like many mothers, of course, I needed to work and so you just try and balance that. But the major part of going to Romania, and I go every other month, happened later on when they were older. I do think it’s really important to be there for children as much as you can when they are under 8, if you can. Of course the world has moved on a lot now and there is a lot of work that can be done flexibly and from home, and I support that as it helps families with young children. When it comes to charity I think it’s about attitude. Do you want to give something back in this world while you’re here, do you know what I mean? But the children in your own families still come first.