Real life: ‘I quit my PR job to run an orphanage in Malawi’

In three weeks’ time, Sarah Brook, 25, will be leaving her high-flying PR job in Dubai to run a charity she started in Malawi.

She set up a centre for orphans called Sparkle Malawi while at uni, working to educate and support young Malawian children – many of whom die of malnutrition and disease before the age of five.

We spoke with Sarah about life in Malawi and what it’s like to run a charity abroad:

1. Where did the idea to start an orphanage come from? 

While travelling on my gap year in Malawi, I became seriously unwell and was rushed to the local hospital unconscious. There was only one doctor, a queue of around 300 Malawians and a high rate of HIV patients. The doctor told my friend they needed to operate but there was a high chance I would catch HIV. He said the only other option was to find a villager who had a car and drive me to a hospital a few hours away but risk me dying on route. He decided this was a risk he was prepared to take and one that ultimately saved my life.

When he came to visit me, he explained that the Malawian people queueing to see the doctor had pushed me to the front as they wanted me to be seen. The chances are people will have died in the line while I was being treated. From this moment on I knew I owed the country my life so I made it my mission to help them.

2. How did you get started?

When I was 21 I returned to Malawi with my mum and came across a group of street children who were in desperate need. I promised them I would help, but at the time I had no idea how. I returned to University of Exeter and set up Sparkle Malawi. Through the help of friends and family, and lots of sponsorship and fundraising, I raised about £35,000. I travelled to Malawi in 2012 and set up the Sparkle Malawi Orphan Centre.

sparkle malawi

Image credit: Sarah Brook

3. Why have you decided to quit your job and take on charity work full time? 

I’m a Senior Account Manager at a PR agency here in Dubai. I deal with a range of clients from Porsche and Audi to real estate companies and exhibitions, but I’ve decided to leave because I can’t sit behind a computer screen anymore while my children need me. The best time to be on the ground and make things happen is while I am 25 with no financial commitments.

4. What is it like volunteering in Malawi – what does a typical day look like for you? 

Malawi is known as the “warm heart of Africa”. The people make the country.

On an average day I would wake up at 5.30am, have a quick wash with a bucket and a towel, and then walk to Sparkle, usually picking up a few people on my travels. It is quite a rural area, so I am well-known in the area. I arrive around 7am, when the kids start pouring through the gates. We wash them all down and get them ready for the school day. The cooks will already be there and will have prepared their porridge. We then sit down and eat together.

Then we teach the kids basic English, maths and have some play time. By 11:30 it’s time for lunch. The older children arrive at about 2pm after they’ve finished school. At 4.30pm we walk the children back to their legal guardians / family members in time for bed. I usually stay around late doing administration work until it gets dark, since we don’t have electricity yet.

sparkle malawi

Image credit: Sarah Brook

At the weekends I head to the lake, Cape Maclear, which is about an hour and a half away. It’s a beautiful tourist spot with lots of things to do, including wakeboarding, waterskiing, cliff jumping and kayaking. There is also a national park about an hour away that I take full advantage of.

5. What is the best part of the job? 

Seeing a child’s life change in front of your own eyes. Ten pounds a month puts a child through Sparkle, and in the last year alone we saved 78 children. With one in 14 children in Malawi dying before they reach age five, to see my children make it to primary school is the biggest achievement in the world. I can’t even explain how proud I am of the team and sponsors for all of their continued efforts.

6. What is the most challenging aspect? 

The challenge is losing children. On average a child dies at Sparkle once a month – a horrifying statistic – and when you become emotionally attached to the children, it is always upsetting. We also have 980 children on the waiting list. Choosing which children can attend is a horrible decision I have to make each month, but I have to think with my brain not my heart.

7. What’s been your proudest moment so far?

This year 28 of our children made it to primary school. They now have a chance at a great future.

sparkle malawi

Image credit: Sarah Brook

8. What are your #lifegoals? What’s next for you?

I want to make the project sustainable so that in two years time it runs itself and I can just oversee it. I have formed a team of people together here in the UAE called The Sparkle Foundation. We have made it our mission to carry forward the ethos behind Sparkle Malawi and hopefully open more projects around the world.

Money is just one side of the charity; advice, services, volunteers and experience all make a massive difference so I am just encouraging as many people as possible to get behind the project and be involved.

9. What advice would you give to someone who wants to work for a charity abroad? Or to start their own?

I would encourage every single person to at some point in their life do charity work, whether it is at home or abroad. It puts things in perspective.

I am just a normal 25 year old girl who had a dream and I turned it into a reality. There are some amazing charities around the world that are saving lives and helping make a positive change in the world. I would recommend that you think about what it is you want to get out of it and then match that with the type of volunteer experience you want to go for. Giving back to the community is an unbelievable feeling, and one that will stay with you for life.

If you are looking to set up a charity, I would say identify exactly what it is you want to achieve and make sure you have local support. Sustainability is key. Pumping money continually into a charity is not the way forward. You need to empower the local people and provide them with a stepping stone so that they can take action into their own hands.

By Reenat Sinay