Ayrshire born, 22-year-old, Mhairi McFadyen, is laying the brickwork that will sustain future generations.
“I’m a Community Builder. It’s so embarrassing because I get all the jokes, like, oh Bob the Builder! I wasn’t brought up in a generation who would be like, ‘right, I’m going to be a part of my community association’, do you know what I mean? It was hard enough to get folk to want to be on the pupil council.”
After walking in the rain to meet me and refusing to let me pay for my coffee, we sit down and Mhairi begins by explaining why she does what she does.
“When I left school I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. There was that pressure that’s always there in school. You must make a decision about what you want to do – I guess I never really knew.
“But the church I’d been going to and volunteering at, had the opportunity of taking on apprentices in youth work. I actually never thought you could do that as a job – I just thought it was all volunteering – and I was like that’d be such a fun job!”
Mhairi took on an apprenticeship at the Bridge Church, Kilwinning. Gaining this apprenticeship inspired her to apply to university. She attended the University of Glasgow and recently graduated with a BA in Community Development.
University opened Mhairi’s eyes to bigger world issues: “We learnt a lot about global situations as well as local stuff, and how everything has a knock-on effect.”
Through her apprenticeship, Mhairi heard about an organisation in Swaziland, Africa called the Christian Family Church.
“I knew I enjoyed youth work, but I didn’t want to do it for the rest of my life. So, before second year at uni I went to Swaziland in Africa. Swaziland – for those who don’t know – is one of the worst affected places in the world for HIV AIDs.”
Before describing her time in Swaziland to me, Mhairi takes a moment to reflect, “It was incredible. I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life.”
In 2014, Mhairi and a friend took a 2-hour flight to Amsterdam, followed by an 11-hour flight to Africa. And, after an airport pick-up mishap, they finally embarked on a 7-hour drive to Swaziland.
“We didn’t even get to sleep or anything. We drove through the night, and it was just like one of those surreal moments … like, we are actually driving through Africa and then the sunset came up like the lion king or something.”
But before long, Mhairi admits: “It totally pushes you out of your comfort zone. Every person you meet is new. They don’t understand your accent and they didn’t get my name whatsoever. We had it really good, though. We were staying in a house, we had water that you could drink, we had food that we could eat – it was really nice.”
She stayed in a sugar cane plantation, which Swaziland is famous for, where the workers work day and night and get very little pay for it: “The amount they all work for is atrocious. I’m pretty sure they only make like $100 a month and they work every single day. When we were there we were seeing things like they were rioting because of the low pay and it gets quite vicious.”
Mhairi describes Swaziland to me as “a lot of little villages” that have “care points, which are like schools and they feed the children, as well.”
On her first visit to one of these care points, the poverty she’d read about became a reality:
“That day completely changed my life. Like, I’d never witnessed extreme poverty at its worst. Like kids that literally have nothing. What they’re wearing, if they have any clothes, is what they have.
“We were walking through a mud-hut village and everywhere was so dusty. It was warm but it was their winter. We walked into the care-point and these kids just like burst out from the building and ran towards us.
“They ran over and they were hugging you and they were touching your skin and trying to play with your hair – because our hair’s different to theirs. They were grabbing your clothes and all they wanted was this affection because they don’t get that kind of affection at home. You know, they don’t have a home or they don’t have parents.”
Mhairi jokes, “I don’t really like kids,” which is funny. But, she confesses, “You do get quite emotional, as well. I had to put my sunglasses on, but they kept trying to take my sunglasses off.”
When I ask her if the communication was solely a sensory experience, Mhairi tells me, “The young, young kids can’t speak any English. They can copy you, though. I had videos where I’m like ‘hello’ and like waving and they’re all like ‘hello’ waving back. So, they basically just copy everything that you’re saying.
“They react more to a smile, or a wave. We were playing a game – I’ll never forget – and this one wee kid just came up and put his head on my side and it was obviously just his way of, like, comfort.”
Currently, Mhairi works as “a community builder during the day and then a youth worker at night.” She’s a Youth Worker for North Ayrshire council and a Community Builder in Castlepark.
Mhairi tells me Community Builder’s “use what’s called an asset based approach, which is looking at the positives within communities and what people are capable of doing, not their circumstance.”
She points out: “Over there [Africa], there’s the same problems that we have here. There’s drug addictions, there’s alcohol addictions. We went into a village and they were drinking battery acid, which was like an alcohol. They’d put fruit juice in it and it would send them flying. They were just totally out of it. But it was their way of forgetting what was actually happening and just escaping a reality that they hated and knew would never change.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re born, where you’re brought up. We always face the same kind of issues and sometimes we react the same as someone else. And, it can be the same here, where someone’s reality is drinking constantly or taking drugs.”
Swaziland sparked in Mhairi an urgent need to help people globally.
“Once I left Swaziland I had a greater passion to do something. I think when you see poverty that extreme, you’re like I need to do something, even if it’s something really small.”
And, Mhairi has chosen to do something huge. This coming January, Mhairi will embark on an 11-month mission to 11 different deprived countries around the world to aid their most desperate communities. “This is the more extreme trip.”
She will be visiting Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, India, Nepal, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Guatemala.
It’s important to her that people know that this is a mission’s trip: “It is Christian. We do minister people. We volunteer. We stay within the communities so they set up tents, we sleep in shacks. So, you are there and part of the community.”
After joking about her turning up with a T-shirt printed ‘Community Builder’, a hard hat, and handing out stickers that say ‘you’ve been community built’, Mhairi is serious again:
“I think emotionally it will be tough. Like, I don’t know how you’d actually protect yourself emotionally from all those kind of things. It’s fine to read about a child being forced into prostitution at age 11, but to see a child being forced into that at that age, I think would break any normal person.
“Obviously, different countries have different major issues, so with the African countries it is orphanages, schooling etcetera, and more about building. But, in terms of Cambodia and Thailand, India and Nepal, they are all human trafficking and sex trafficking, forced prostitution and stuff like that. So, I’m hoping to work with people who are forced into all these kind of things and seeing if we can actually help them and support them – to get them out of that.”
Whenever anyone points out how dangerous these countries are, Mhairi replies with, “Although they are dangerous, there are people within there that are lovely people and just need support”
Also, worried that some may misinterpret her intentions, she presses, “I don’t want this just to be seen as, ‘oh Mhairi’s going off and she’s doing 11 months and that’s great … but she’ll only help those people out there.’ I want to help people here and I want all those stories from out there and I want the process of fund raising and having meetings like this and chatting to people, I want it to impact people and have them be inspired to think about things.”
For Mhairi it’s all about helping people, even in the most unexpected ways, such as inspiring others to dream big: “This is my dream and I want them to start thinking about what do they dream – it can happen. I’m 22. I’ve lived in Irvine my whole life. I’ve been brought up in a council estate and I’ve not come from a lot of money and I’ve had to work since I was 16. But it is possible. That’s something that I think every country and every community suffers from. There’s this lack of having hope. A lack of having a dream and an ambition because we’ve been trained into thinking this is it. You’ll always get the folk that’ll say, you’ll never do that, but they’re just the same. They’ve just been told that their whole life. If you show them that you can do that then that might change them as well. Everything has an impact.”
Mhairi has been fundraising all year for her trip. So far, she’s had a successful World Race launch night, suffered a bath of cold custard, climbed Goatfell, bared the Irvine Sea plunge, enjoyed a Zumba fundraiser and done a presentation to Irvine Rotary and St Mary’s women’s guild. Mhairi’s final fundraisers were in December: a Tesco bag pack and a Christmas Ball.
Mhairi’s mission will cost a heart-stopping $16,617, but she’s not phased. “Loads of folk will go, ‘how on earth are you meant to reach that?’ But for me it’s like if it’s meant to happen it’ll happen and I’ll get there.”
Given that her job is so demanding, when asked how she unwinds and detaches from it all, she professes, “My mum and dad are always like ‘Mhairi, you always spend time in your room. You never come and sit with us.’ I’m like it’s because I’ve spoken to folk all day, all I want to do is chill out and relax. So, I’m like ‘mum, dad see when I get in the house, all I want is my dinner and my bed and then just lie in a dark room.’”
In terms of her return from the World race: “Everyone keeps asking me ‘so what’s your plans for when you come back?’ And, I’m not the biggest planner. I’m just like that freaks me out.”
Describing Community Development as something she just “fell into”, the plan is simple to Mhairi, “I love my job. I know folk say driving a nice car and having a nice house [are happiness]. I mean, that stuff is good, but I don’t think that brings a happiness. For me, working with communities and being around people and actually doing something worthwhile, actually brings more happiness to me than having all those really material things. I think they can make you comfortable, but whether they make you truly happy…they don’t.”
What Mhairi hopes to achieve from the World Race is pure, “Do you know what, if it impacts one person, then I’m happy.”
Try and top that New Year’s Resolution. All that’s left to say now is, good luck Mhairi and safe travels.