At the inauguration of Start Now on May 28, 2016 Phil Feller, the chairman of the Friends, gave this short history of the Friends of Visually Impaired Children in the Gambia:
In 1990, when Joan and I visited the School for the Blind in Banjul, the conditions were woeful [as it had received] very little support or help. GOVI, the Gambian Organisation for the Visually Impaired, was doing its best.
The images of the children and the conditions did not leave me and on my second visit, in 1994, conditions were even worse and the head teacher, Ramou Sagnia, pleaded for help.
Returning home I made many telephone calls. David Pointon, then head of Norfolk Sensory Services, asked what I needed. After visiting the Gambia with David a UK charity was registered.
In the meantime the GOVI Board had approached me and asked if I could help with their farm project at Sukata. After a water tower, solar panels and an irrigation system were installed and with the advice and help of the Gambia Agricultural Department, the farm became a success with cash crops such as fruit and other produce.
This led to the GOVI Board asking if our charity could build their dream: a school for visually impaired children. They had the land and the foundations had been laid, but there were no funds to continue.
The Trustees of the Friends (myself, Joan, David and Don Newbold CBE) began the formidable task of raising the necessary funds. Many organisations assisted us: Muslim Aid UK, Lions and Rotarians, church groups of all denominations, schools and many others as well as sponsors via our website. Working alongside the GOVI Board the school was built and officially opened in 2002 by Her Excellence AJA Isatou Nije-Saidy.
During that time Lamin Saidy became a member of the Friends and our Gambian Representative. Without him the feeding programme, ongoing maintenance and fulfilling other requests from the head and staff could not have been successfully implemented.
The greatest challenge was the integration of pupils from the school into main-stream schooling. The costs of equipping and monitoring this was beyond our small charity but thanks to the sterling work of the Gambian Education Department's Integration Programme there are now over 200 visually impaired students attending main-stream schools, supervised by 29 trained teachers.
In 2014 we received an urgent request from Ali Sallah, head of the GOVI Resource Centre school, for assistance with building a purpose-built nursery classroom. We raised the funds and made a special visit in 2015. On arrival at the school we were informed by the Director and a member of the GOVI Board that our help was no longer required as the government had taken the responsibility for building that classroom. We were also told that from then on GOVI would be responsible for all the maintenance and the feeding programme for the whole school.
We were sad to reduce our contact with the GOVI Resource Centre school but, as we say, every cloud has a silver lining. Within days Lamin Saidy informed us that a new charity, Start Now, based in Brikama, urgently required a sponsor to fund a building where the visually impaired could learn more and prepare for employment after they left school.
We also decided to support Lamin Saidy's wife, Haddy, as she was planning to build a nursery school which would be open to all children including those with any disabilities.
It was decided at the annual meeting in August 2010 to change the name of the charity from the Friends of GOVI to the Friends of Visually Impaired Children in the Gambia and to slightly alter its aims as the trustees agreed it was time to reach out to more blind, visually impaired children and young people in the Gambia. This has allowed the Friends to support Start Now and Haddy's Nursery School. The Friends have continued to help with a few small projects at the GOVI school.
In February 2017 the playground at the GOVI school was repaired thanks to a joint effort between the Friends and Rug Aid. See Playground repairs in the Gambia. On the News page there are photos and a report following Phil and Joan's visits to the Gambia in 2017.