Philanthropy

Amy Hanson

Issue 3 · Winter 2015/16
Words by Oliver Bennett

A trip to Asia led Amy Hanson to set up her inspirational children’s charity Small Steps, supported by Scott Dunn

Issue 3 · Winter 2015/16
By Oliver Bennett

A trip to Asia led Amy Hanson to set up her inspirational children’s charity Small Steps, supported by Scott Dunn

Amy Hanson was high-profile even as a child. As “Treasure” in her mother Michele Hanson’s Guardian column of the same name, her riotous teenage-hood was exposed to the public. Then, after university, she became a journalist at the coalface of fame – going to parties and grabbing quotes from passing celebrities. “I was a celebrity reporter for the Daily Mail and Grazia,” says Hanson, 36. “I’d go to parties, meet stars and royals, and write about them.”

By 2008 Hanson had become disillusioned with her work and decided to take a three-month sabbatical in Cambodia and Laos. First, she partied in Thailand, then she moved farther east, to Cambodia. “I started working at House of Family in Phnom Penh, an orphanage for children suffering from HIV.” This proved to be her epiphany. “One day, a doctor who worked there told me that most of the orphans go on to live on a 100-acre rubbish dump in the city.”

Hanson went to see it for herself and was aghast to discover around 600 barely clothed children clambering all over the dump – nicknamed Smokey Mountain – amid dangerous rubbish and a terrible stench. “It was utterly shocking,” she says. “I wanted to give something back. I couldn’t just walk away, but I was confused about what to do.”

Back home, she was moved to action. “I had noticed that none of them had any shoes and that they were walking on dangerous materials,” says Hanson. “So I raised £3,000 on Facebook and bought 1,000 pairs of boots and distributed them to the children.” 

As Hanson put it, her charitable act “exploded”. A documentary was made. Newspaper coverage ensued. Apple donated free hardware and the name “Small Steps” stuck. Emboldened, Hanson moved forward and started a celebrity shoe auction, which added to the charity’s new-found fame. 

“We knew that what was needed was medicine, clothes, all kinds of things as well as shoes. But I realised that the shoe itself is a great metaphor – it represents being able to walk away from terrible circumstances: to take ‘small steps’ away from the dump.” Scott Dunn also began to support Small Steps, with flights and other assistance. “They understood it immediately,” she says. “They’ve been amazing and empowering.”

Now Hanson claims to have the highest number of celebrity donors of any charity, including the BBC’s mega-campaign Comic Relief. The ex-model and photographer Helena Christensen is an ambassador, as is actor James Purefoy. Indeed, some 300 celebrities have offered shoes since the annual auction began, including Coldplay’s Chris Martin, whose shoes went under the hammer for £9,000. One Direction’s shoes, meanwhile, sold for £12,000. Last year, Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston’s shoes caused a stir. 

“Band shoes do well,” notes Hanson, who also has her own collection of celebrity footwear, including shoes worn by the likes of actress Sigourney Weaver and pop sensation Beyoncé. 

 

 

The involvement of Scott Dunn has been instrumental in that it links charity giving to tourism, but doesn’t treat it as a sideshow. “It’s important to understand the ethos,” says Hanson. “I want to go there, train people, then withdraw. It shouldn’t be about the creation of an exotic tourist experience, but a way to make a deeper connection with a destination.”

For this reason Hanson is a partner with UK charity Friends International, which sponsors social enterprises in several countries including Cambodia, and among other things creates restaurants staffed by former dump dwellers which are often patronised by Scott Dunn’s guests. “It’s good because these places train people to become chefs and waiters, and the food is great,” says Hanson. “That’s the model for us.” She rails against what she calls “poverty sightseeing”: “I really don’t like things like organised slum and orphanage tours,” she says. “Our emphasis is different. We don’t work with orphans, we work with families. As the Child Safe charity says, ‘Children are not tourist attractions.’ That approach keeps them in the poor circumstances. It exacerbates the problem.”

In recent years the extremities of dump life have been chronicled in Slumdog Millionaire, set in Mumbai, India; BBC documentary Welcome to Lagos, filmed in Nigeria; and Trash, Stephen Daldry’s 2014 film about rubbish dwellers in Rio de Janeiro. It’s clearly a big issue. But Small Steps isn’t aiming to eliminate the problem. “We’re not trying to stop people living on dumps,” says Hanson. “It wouldn’t work if it was merely banned. We need to provide them with a proper exit strategy.”

In the meantime, their environment needs to be made far less hazardous. “There are dirty needles, broken glass, medical waste, decomposing food and discarded cans and bottles,” she says. “With bare feet and hands it’s dangerous. Cuts get infected. The smoke causes respiratory problems. Nausea and diarrhoea are rife.”

Small Steps has three ongoing schemes in place, in Cambodia, in Laos and in Romania. Why there? “We’ve worked in many places but these are the sustainable projects,” says Hanson. “Cambodia was the first, and Laos is right next door.” The search for a European concern took Hanson to Romania. This, she says, “has been the most challenging project of all. Romania actually imported Roma people to this dump from [the city of] Cluj. It’s shocking.”

Today Hanson is constantly travelling, visiting projects, making films and documentaries to help publicise the charity and heading up the PR and fundraising effort. Travel can be life-changing – it certainly proved so for her. And now she is intent on changing thousands more lives around the globe. Small steps, maybe, but big dreams.


A contribution from every holiday booked with Scott Dunn goes into the company’s charitable fund, which is distributed between its chosen causes: smallstepsproject.org; marysmeals.org.uk; tusk.org; toftigers.org
Portrait: Jenny Lewis

The Travel Philanthropist

The social entrepreneurs putting something back into the countries they fell in love with on their travels

Bottletop
Founded in 2002 by Cameron Saul, son of Mulberry founder Roger Saul, Bottletop started out selling fashion accessories made in Africa and Brazil from recycled ring pulls and bottle tops, with the aim of alleviating local unemployment and setting up funds for education and teenage health issues. This has now also led to the creation of the Bottletop Fashion Company. bottletop.org
 
Toms
Californian entrepreneur Blake Mycoskie was travelling in Argentina in 2006 when he met a woman collecting shoes for the poor. He decided to start a shoe company called Toms – shortened from “Tomorrow’s Shoes” – and give away a pair for every pair sold. Hence the now famous slogan: “One for One”. toms.co.uk

Planting Promise
A visit to Sierra Leone in 2008 inspired William “Rocco” Falconer to start an educational charity in the war-torn country. Planting Promise was the result, providing free, high-quality education to children in Sierra Leone, funded by sustainable enterprise. Falconer, the son of Labour peer and barrister Lord Falconer, was hampered by the Ebola crisis but has bounced back to continue developing farms that filter their profits into local schools. plantingpromise.org.uk
 
Gandys
British brothers Rob and Paul Forkan enjoyed a carefree childhood in Goa, India. Then they went on holiday to Sri Lanka with their parents in 2004, only to see them die in the Asian tsunami. Wishing to transform this tragedy into a positive outcome, they started a London-based brand of ethical flip flops – sold at Selfridges, Liberty and Accessorize – that aids charity projects in India. gandysflipflops.com
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