Gerard Butler, the Hollywood actor, has visited Liberia to see for himself the work of Scottish charity Mary’s Meals. He tells Harriet Alexander why he went to West Africa – and how it has changed him
The sunlight was filtering through the thick tropical forest as the small Liberian boy showed the white man his walk to school. Butterflies flitted between the banana trees and the curtain of creepers flanking the red earth track was alive with chatter from the bush.
Sunday Boy Maison, 14, may for that moment have shared the same path as Gerard Butler, Hollywood leading man, but their worlds could not be more apart.
Yet both were making that journey for the same reason: to draw attention to the work of Mary’s Meals — a Scotland-based charity that helps more than 820,000 children in 16 countries, giving them one meal a day in their place of education.
“It’s such a simple, no frills idea — but one which is so effective,” said Butler, 44. “And it is magical to see it in practice.”
Sunday Boy’s school, in a remote northern Liberian village accessible by canoe, is one of 366 nationwide that receive assistance from Mary’s Meals — taking weekly deliveries of rice, peas, corn soya blend and cooking oil.
The villagers are taught how to store the food safely and to supplement it from their own vegetable garden, which the charity’s staff show them how to cultivate.
“Before Mary’s Meals came to my school, I was hungry in the day and could not concentrate. But now I am on the ball, and I can pay attention because I have a full stomach,” said Sunday Boy, who wants to be a senator.
“So you could be president one day?” asked Butler.
“Yes,” he replied.
“So I should be nice to you then?”
“Yes,” he said, to peals of laughter from the village elders seated nearby.
Of course, the tale of two unlikely acquaintances began far from this sleepy village in a remote corner of West Africa.
In 2010, Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, 45, who had founded the organisation in response to the Balkans war, was named as one of 10 CNN Heroes.
Presenting the award, in Los Angeles, was fellow Scot Gerard Butler.
“I knew a bit about the organisation from my mother, who is a huge fan of Magnus’s work,” said Butler. “But before I presented the award they sent me a DVD of Mary’s Meals. And it blew me away — I had tears rolling down my cheeks. So when I met Magnus I was a bit star-struck. I was in awe.”
Born into a Roman Catholic family in Paisley, Butler started training as a lawyer – but his hedonistic ways led him to be fired the week before qualifying.
Moving to London, the wild times continued. But he began to take acting seriously, and, aged 30, left Britain for Hollywood – giving up alcohol, honing his craft and his all-action frame. With films such as 300 and Olympus Has Fallen, he is now one of their most bankable stars.
His accent is Scotland meets mid-Atlantic; Celtic is his team, songs and gags are Scottish schoolboy, but football is “soccer” and films are “movies”.
Butler’s father died when he was 22, but his mother appears to remain a huge influence.
“My mum’s a good Catholic, and although I’d say I’m more into spirituality than organised religion, I listened to her.”
Adopting a high-pitched Scottish accent, he continues: “Och, Gerard, Mary’s Meals do such beautiful things, you must get involved.”
And so last week he found himself in the wilds of West Africa. His mother, he said, was far more excited about this trip than any of his films. He was based in a Mary’s Meals compound in the small town of Tubmanburg, midway between the capital Monrovia and the border with Sierra Leone. He and Mr MacFarlane-Barrow travelled to schools that Mary’s Meals supports — bumping along dirt roads for hours to reach remote settlements. Driving into one village, amid the frenzy of children bearing banners and drawings, the village chief stepped forwards to present Butler with a white rooster — a great honour for any visitor. “This is our tradition to show that you are welcome and have a pure heart,” he said.
Send your donations to Mary’s Meals.
Call 0800 698 1212 or visit http://www.marysmeals.org.uk You can send cheques / postal orders made payable to Mary’s Meals to: Craig Lodge, Dalmally, Argyll, Scotland, PA33 1AR.
We took Anneka Rice back to Romania to visit the orphanage that featured in the 1990 episode of Challenge Anneka which drew over 11 million TV viewers.
The Sunday Express featured our exclusive report. If you wish to make a donation to the charity go to: mycharitypage.com
EXCLUSIVE Pictures Olivia Shaw/Rays of Sunshine/Scope Features. Words by Patrick Hill ..
But this is an extra special treat from the big-hearted pop stars, and these are no ordinary children.
Meeting Britain’s biggest boyband definitely doesn’t happen every day in their world.
And singers Aston Merrygold, JB Gill, Marvin Humes and Oritsé Williams are delighted to be able to spread a little Christmas joy and hope for hundreds of courageous and seriously ill children.
The hunky hitmakers provided an early surprise Christmas present by turning up at a party for over 250 children suffering from long term and life-threatening illnesses.
The lads couldn’t wait to meet and play with young fans at the bash in aid of Rays Of Sunshine, a charity which makes the special wishes of sick kids come true.
Aston, 25, explains: “If you can give up a couple of hours of your time to help these kids it’s brilliant. They are incredible, and it’s wonderful to be able to put a smile on their faces.”
The band have an extra surprise for the children as Marvin, 27, brings along 23-year-old wife Rochelle from all-girl chart-toppers The Saturdays.
The stars are quick to get stuck in as JB, 25, steps up for a challenge on a dance simulator alongside seven-year-old heart block patient Amber Howe from Sittingbourne, Kent.
Afterwards a smiling Amber, who urgently requires heart surgery, beams: “I’m really excited. I didn’t expect to have JLS come to our party. They’re my favourites.”
Her mum Alison adds: “Having a visit from her heroes like this is as good as any medicine. It just inspires her to go on. We can’t say a big enough thank-you!”
Ten-year-old Joshua Ayling is also full of smiles today, despite having undergone no fewer than 35 operations to combat a rare form of hydrocephalus.
He’s just teamed up with Aston to knock down piles of tin cans at a throwing gallery – which earns him a high five from his new pop star pal.
“I’m not lucky – but I feel lucky on days like this!” he says. “It cheers me up.”
Big-hearted Oritsé is clearly moved by the youngsters he meets today.
“This is the best part of stardom,” says the 25-year-old. “We feel we’re giving something back to the people who helped make us successful. It’s great to be able to put a smile on the faces of these kids who endure so much every day.”
And the lads make sure everyone gets a chance to say hello as they play games and join in activities.
The bash makes the kids themselves feel like celebs for a day as they enjoy face painting, cake decorating, arts and crafts, a graffiti wall, Scalextric, hook the duck and a photo booth.
To cap it all, there’s even a chance to meet Santa. Among the kids enjoying the fun at the Copthorne Tara hotel in London’s Kensington are courageous nine-year-old Ashanti Smith from Burgess Hill, West Sussex, who has a rare disease which makes her body age eight yearsb faster than any normal person.
The JLS boys also spend time with nine-year-old Grace Millar, who has liver disease, eight-year-old Mason Fountain, who has a brain tumour, and four-year-old Chloe Hollingsworth, who has spent nearly half her life having chemotherapy for kidney cancer.
All these children face battles on a daily basis, which is why JLS are so keen to give their time to Rays Of Sunshine.
The charity organises regular outings and events throughout the year for large groups of sick children aged up to 18.
Jane Sharpe, CEO of Rays Of Sunshine, is also full of smiles – and full of praise for Aston, JB, Oritsé, Marvin and Rochelle.
“The party is just magical,” she says. “It is absolutely wonderful to see all the children smiling and having so much fun.
“JLS popping in was just the icing on the cake. They are amazing ambassadors for the charity and are very much part of the Rays Of Sunshine family.”
To help make Christmas wishes come true for more children like Ashanti, Mason and Chloe and the other youngsters at the party visit raysofsunshine.org.uk
Entrepreneur Richard Dinan and his girlfriend Kimberley Garner proved their relationship is solid at the RAC Club in Epsom. The loved-up couple chose the charity golf day to show everyone that, despite the recent ups and downs on the show, they are besotted with each other.
Along with Richard’s business partner, the Hon Alex Nall-Cain and his girlfriend Jemima Cadbury, Richard and Kimberley managed to fit in a few holes of golf. The young entrepreneurs arrived in their gleaming Mercedes cars, proving that they are not just tv stars but successful in their own right. Alex and Richard run The Phantom Card, a restaurant discount card, with a staff of 30 in their London office.
“We wanted to support Oracle Cancer Trust as it fundraises for vital research into head and neck cancer which is on the increase, particularly among young men,” says Richard.