Charity inspiration interview - The Olney-Newton Link

The Olney-Newton Link

Every few weeks we put a charity trustee in the hot seat and interview them about their organisation.

This time, we speak to Rachel Lintern, Chair of The Olney-Newton Link, a local community charity with an aim to help the community in Newton, Sierra Leone. Read on to find out more about the charity, the challenges they face and what other organisations can learn from their inspiring journey.

When and how did The Olney-Newton Link become a reality?

The actual journey began back in the early 90s when a lay minister of the Church and her husband, both of whom had worked for the Church Missionary Society in Africa, retired to Olney. She later went to visit Sierra Leone and discovered that there was a village there called Newton which must have been named after the Rev John Newton. He was the slave trader who turned abolitionist and was the curate at Olney Church in the mid-18th Century. He was the author of Amazing Grace. A friendship link was begun between Olney and Newton but was interrupted by the civil war during the 1990s so began again in 2001.

In 2003, four of us went over to Newton to see what was going on there first hand. For me, experiencing a culture is the only way to fully understand it.

How many of you are involved in the Olney-Newton Link?

There are ten trustees on our committee over here in Olney, with around eight on the Newton committee. They administer the money we send over, but we are two quite separate committees with no jurisdiction.

Have you faced any major challenges along the way?

There are two main hurdles we have experienced; the first being communication. While it has improved greatly since 2003, it is still very difficult. A lot of it is down to the culture difference and not always understanding each other – this applies both ways and takes an awful lot of patience. Another challenge has to be their banking system – it's so different to ours and we have to keep a very careful eye on any money we send over; we want to know where every penny goes. We sometimes have situations that arise due to different ways of looking at things. For example, they say they have spent the money on books and we ask "what sort of books?" – They don't understand why we need to know this. Their education system is also very different, so part of our work is to educate children over here about how different things are in African schools.

How have you overcome these challenges?

By getting out there as much as we can. At the moment, it's just not possible. But I believe you need to experience a country first hand to really understand their problems. We listen to their needs and what they want to improve rather than imposing what we want. With the help of grants, we also ask them to come over here to the UK. When they visit us, they realise our pavements aren't made of gold and we don't all have disposable incomes at our fingertips. They realise we have things to pay for that they don't, such as tax, water and electricity bills. It's all about mutual talking and listening.

When we do visit Newton, we are given such warm welcomes and it makes it all worthwhile. They are so grateful for the work we are doing and this encourages us to do more.

Finally, is there a snippet of advice you could give to other charities?

The Olney-Newton Link is different to many charities in that we are not service providers, we are a support charity. But I would say one thing applies to all organisations: you need lots of patience and understanding. Despite inevitable setbacks and hurdles, don't give up easily.

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