WHEN Hilary and Steve Lawther went on holiday to The Gambia in 2001 little did they know how their lives would change as a result.

“We both had a week off and told the travel agent that we wanted to go somewhere hot and cheap - we just wanted to chill out,” says Hilary.

The couple, from Idle, had visited another African country a couple of years previously, where the local children asked for pencils, so they packed some, anticipating the same thing happening.

While on a day trip looking at the history of the slave trade, they asked their taxi driver to take them to a school where they could leave their pencils.

He took them to a primary school in the village of Essau, which served a wide area. “We arrived to find 2,600 children and no books,” says Hilary. “We gave the pencils to the headteacher, a lovely man called Mr Singateh. He took them to replace the little stubby ones they were using. Then he said he would take the stubby ones to a school worse off than his.”

The revelations as to how the school struggled for even the basics, horrified Hilary and Steve.

“We heard how parents had to make desks and tables and chairs were also made out of oddments,” says Hilary, “We are both big readers and we could not believe that the kids had no books. “

They also found out that most teachers were not qualified.

“The headteacher asked us whether we could bring a few books next time,” says Hilary.

Eighteen years later, the couple are proud to be part of a charity which has helped to establish, significantly expand and improve the system of education for young children in The Gambia in poor, often remote, areas.

Among the facilities they have provided or facilitated are five nursery/primary schools serving 850 pupils with more than 30 staff, 12 regularly restocked libraries with a 13th planned for this year, seven hand-pump wells and two solar powered wells, all providing year-round clean water, sustainable school and community gardens in previously unviable areas and school meals in areas of greatest need.

They have also provided two fully equipped computer rooms at larger upper schools, educational materials at more than 100 schools and sponsorship for the training of 12 teachers.

“We had no plans to go back,” says Hilary. “But three months later we returned with some books.”

At the same time, two Shipley women Christine Schofield and Kathy Tristram had also discovered that The Gambia desperately needed money to fund education. The pair founded the Gambian Schools Trust to raise the desperately needed funds.

“Christine and Kathy went on holiday to The Gambia the same year we went, and began helping a nursery school,” says Hilary.

Following their initial visit, Hilary, who worked at the tax office in Shipley and Steve, who owned the Bradford live music venue Rio Rokz, flew to the West African country eight times in the next three years.

In 2003 Mr Singateh - who is now a regional deputy director of education - asked Hilary and Steve to help provide a library for the school.

“He drew a line in the sand showing where he would like a library, which he said would cost around £4,000.”

Fundraising, and help from tax office colleagues, ensured the sum was met.

“The library opened in 2004. About 12 of us went over and helped to paint the building and stock it with books.”

They thought the trip would be their last, and did not expect 15 years later, to have been responsible for helping thousands of youngsters.

The small charity is overseen by a six-strong committee of trustees -

Hilary, Steve, Christine Brown, Paul Neimantas, David Oldfield (Kathy’s husband) and Linda Gunn. They are all unpaid volunteers, funding their own travel and living expenses while in The Gambia.

Many schools and colleges have helped, including Belle Vue Girls’ Academy, the former Belle Vue Boys’ School, Knowleswood Primary School in Holmewood, Ferney Lee Primary School in Todmorden, and the University of Plymouth.

In 2017/18 Otley’s Lord Mayor Nigel Francis chose the trust as one of his annual charities.

The trustees give talks in Yorkshire schools. “We have a particular talk for small children entitled ‘what would my life be like if I lived in The Gambia?”

Schooling is now free in The Gambia, but it is still not compulsory. In rural areas it is common for the oldest boy and girl to be kept at home to farm and keep the house. Most people aged over 45 have not been to school.

In recent years teacher training colleges have been established across the country and teachers now have to gain qualifications.

Every penny raised by the charity goes directly to the school or project. They need to raise £1,500 every month to fund projects, pay teachers’ salaries and training costs, maintain buildings and ship materials from the UK.

The trust funds uniforms, made in The Gambia, and is grateful for donations of other supplies. “One Yorkshire company donates exercise books every year,” says Hilary. “For children at school a long way inland the uniforms had to be smaller as they have a different diet and grow differently to children living on the coast.”

The trust has launched a tree planting project in all its schools, providing both practical and educational benefits.

“Deforestation is a problem across the world,” says Hilary. “In Gambia many people cook on a fire outside, using wood as fuel. We are encouraging people to grow trees such as orange, avocado, mango and pomegranate. The fruit will supplement their diet.”

Hilary and Steve live in The Gambia from November to April. “We have plenty to do when we are there,” says Hilary. “We always wanted to retire to somewhere warm, where there was something to do, and we are not golfers. This is a passion for both of us - we could not do it if we did not feel the same.”

She adds: “The trustees are all very committed and have the same vision. We, and the other trustees, have made so many friends”.

The trust hosts gap years students wanting to help and facilitates visits from many retired teachers.

Lives have been changed by the schools the trust funded. One man, Hassan Jallow, was a child when he made use of the first library built by the charity. He is now a software developer in The Gambia, with his own business employing ten people. “He won a West African entrepreneurial programme, studied in the USA for three months and was offered a job by Google, but decided to return to The Gambia to help his country. He credits the Trust with his success,” says Hilary.

For the trustees, being involved is very rewarding. “I take a lot of tissues.”

Every year between April and October the trust collects exercise books, pencils, art materials, stacking tables and chairs, metal cupboards, computers, science equipment, books - reference and reading - sporting equipment, and gardening and DIY tools. Items are shipped to The Gambia in October. These are distributed to the five schools maintained by the charity and many others throughout the country.

*Gambian Schools Trust, 41 Roundwood, Shipley BD18 4JP. To get involved or donate visit gambianschools.org; The charity is also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.