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It ain't half hot mun... froom Penarth to Paradise; How did Jem King go from being a sports journalist to running an Indian children's charity? With Shirley Bassey's Chanel handbag of course...

Byline: Shirley Bassey's

Vijay Amritraj, Mahatma Gandhi, Ravi Shastri, Shilpa Shetty... we gave your boys one hell of a beating. Hmm, doesn't really have that ring to it, does it? Not that the boys from Test Match Special would stoop to such soccerstyle gloating after a cricketing triumph over India, I'm sure.

But I wonder, those famous names apart, how many other well-known Indians the average Brit could name? Mother Teresa, of Calcutta (who was actually born in Macedonia)? Sachin Tendulkar perhaps? The British may know their onion bhajis from their tarka dals, but could they name the current Indian Prime Minister, for instance, or the capital of Andhra Pradesh? Well, nine years ago, I admit I couldn't.

Most of what I knew about India had come from the politically incorrect television shows of my youth - Windsor Davies as Sergeant Major Williams barking orders to his troop of 'nancy boys' in It Ain't Half Hot Mum and Barry Evans attempting to teach English to a class of horrendously stereotypical foreigners in Mind Your Language.

I somehow managed to pass A-level geography without learning a great deal about the paddy fields of India, or anything much about Asia at all, for that matter. Just about all I knew was that India produced damn fine spin bowlers, had a penchant for flock wallpaper in their restaurants and waggled their heads from side to side in agreement instead of nodding. Not much to go on really.

So how on earth did I, years later, find myself as a director of an Indian children's charity, living on a school campus on the subcontinent? Good question. I suppose the short answer would have to be: DJ Chris Evans. But back to him later.

My children had all grown up and were off living their lives, leaving something of a hole in mine. I found myself becoming more and more interested in charity work, having had success with a fund-raising effort for the victims of the horrific Thailand Boxing Day tsunami almost 11 years ago.

I vividly recall witnessing the tragic events unfold on the news back in 2004 and instantly knew I had to help. Upon my return to work after Christmas, I suggested to my former editor Alan Edmunds that we should ask Welsh celebrities to donate items for auction and send the proceeds to help the tsunami victims in southeast Asia.

To his credit, he didn't hesitate and so we spent the next few weeks auctioning off Shirley Bassey's Chanel handbag, Charlotte Church's designer dress, Ryan Giggs' boots, one of fashion designer Julien Macdonald's signature creations, Gareth Edwards' British Lions shirt, artwork by Sir Kyf-fin Williams, Tanni Grey-Thompson's Paralympic kit and a signed Manic Street Preachers guitar, to name but a few.

Other big names chipped in, with the likes of pop star Kylie Minogue, supermodel Sophie Dahl, actors Ioan Gruffudd and Matthew Rhys, plus sports stars Robert Croft and David Davies, all making contributions to help us raise many thousands of pounds. Pleasingly, the auction idea was seized upon by a string of other media outlets, further boosting the disaster fund.

So where does Chris Evans come into all this? Well, looking for a new project a couple of years later, I came across a clip from BBC's Sport Relief. It was a short report entitled All Out for India about a team of celebrities, including TV and radio presenter Evans and England spin bowler Phil Tufnell, who went to India to play local village teams and raise awareness of children living in poverty.

TFI Friday host Evans was never short of a word or two, but I remember he and the normally ebullient Tuffers being reduced to tears as they witnessed young orphan children pitifully picking through a stinking rubbish dump for pieces of plastic to recycle for a few meagre rupees. Evans was overcome to the point where he simply couldn't carry on filming. It hit me hard, too, and I knew as I replayed this over and over again I had found my new cause.

Within the hour, I had sponsored a child in India, after Googling a then small charity called HEAL (Health and Education for All). Her name was Anusha - she is now 19 years old and studying at college with the aim of becoming a vet. Little did I know then that I would ever get to meet her in person, more than once, in the tranquil surroundings of HEAL Children's Village.

Having agreed to take part in a fundraising bike ride for HEAL in India in 2010 and again in 2012, I soon found myself with the onerous responsibility of organising the same biennial event in 2014, having been appointed to the UK board as a trustee and director of communications. For some time I divided my time between work and my ever-growing voluntary commitments. So when the opportunity came to leave the 'rat race' this year, the time was right.

It wasn't exactly a Reggie Perrin moment, with me stripping off on Penarth beach and walking into the murky waters of the Bristol Channel before emerging to start a new life. But with the newspaper industry contracting and more and more emphasis being placed on online news, the time seemed right to turn over a new page after 28 years of service with Media Wales.

When the opportunity for redundancy came along, I was ready to leave the world of work behind at the age of 55 and become a full-time volunteer. During the summer I moved to India, taking up residence along with 200 children and staff at HEAL Paradise Village in rural Andhra Pradesh.

HEAL, still run entirely by volunteers, has grown considerably since I began my involvement by sponsoring little Anusha all those years ago. The sort of funding needed to make the PS5.85m Paradise project a reality nowadays feels more like running a supermarket giant, rather than the old corner shop.

Now, I will admit that I have had something of a love-hate relationship with India in the past, so swapping the bracing seaside air of Penarth for the stifling heat of India was a big step for me, good cause or not.

During three previous visits to the world's second most populous country, I've had sunstroke, endured the misery of the squits (or something that closely rhymes with that), lost a stone-and-a-half inside a fortnight, suffered saddle sores and blisters galore during two Cycle India bike rides, been floored by a virus, bitten by mosquitoes and forced to make use of the sort of basic toilet and washing facilities that compare only with my teenage camping days in a farmer's field in Aberaeron.

Don't get me wrong. Indian people are extremely friendly and hospitable. I have been the guest of wealthy businessmen, their homes bustling with domestic staff in scenes somewhat reminiscent, for me, of period dramas like Downton Abbey.

I have also been invited into slumdwellers' homes where the startling - and often upsetting - lack of even the most basic amenities never seems to prevent these downtrodden, but remarkably cheerful, families from offering me a share of what little they have. A humbling experience, and perhaps one of the reasons why I feel compelled to come back.

Life at Paradise is never dull. All 200 children here - this will rise to 1,000 as the development grows - are from disadvantaged backgrounds. It's often easy to forget this fact when you see them skipping to school in their smart blue, grey and white uniforms without a care in the world, and then kicking off their shoes and socks as they race each other back barefoot for supper.

You could be forgiven, too, for thinking this was any normal private boarding school, with the obvious exception of the stunning greenery stretching for miles around. This is an oasis, a safe haven for some of the most vulnerable and uncared-for kids on the planet.

Thanks to the generosity of hundreds of child sponsors, fundraisers and donors, these children will eventually leave here safe in the knowledge that the continuous chain of generational poverty which blighted their ancestors can be broken once and for all.

Education aside, HEAL is always happy to welcome volunteers, old or young, to enrich the lives of the children here. And one of the first things the kids demand from their visitors is a story, a dance or a song.

Funny how my mind always seems o blank in these situations, the things springing to mind usually w totally unsuitable football songs the terraces of Ninian Park, that bie dance from Michael Jackson's ler, the haka, or a few halfmbered moves to the song Saty Night by Whigfield!

to go only t a few from zomb Thrill reme urday Per of Hy ask.

rhaps I'll give them a quick burst ymns and Arias next time they dia, to me, has always been a try of extremes; from its minding, yet incongruous space prome to the utter bleakness of the ons condemned to live in poverom the off-the-chart killer temtures of the dustbowl summer ths to the spectacular monsoon npours. India doesn't do things alf.

Ind count blowi gram millio ty; fro perat mont down by ha Pre face t of po run-d seem shift home const serve evious visits have brought me to face with some stark realities overty. I have visited slums and down townships where life ms as fragile as the flimsy, makeshacks the people there call e, the stench of open sewers a tant presence; railway platforms e as temporary, dangerous bolts for homeless orphans; tiny, ched street children are left to mercy of unscrupulous gangs of ers and pimps. The film Slum-Millionaire ends with a song and nce as the guy gets the girl in true wood style but there is no holes wretc them hustle dog M a dan Bollyw happy ending for these real-life slumdogs, trust me.

One of my worst days in India involved a coach trip to an outdoor market at the conclusion of Cycle India 2010. Before alighting, we were told not to give money to beggars, only to be confronted by the sight of small children - and I mean small, maybe eight or nine years old - pleading for loose change.

Nothing had prepared me for that, and it still upsets me to think o f what might have become of those poor kids to this day. Needless to say, I couldn't wait to get home and give my own children a hug.

Child trafficking is a huge problem in India. During a visit to a tribal village in Telangana state only last year, I heard genuine horror stories about groups of young children who had been spirited away by gangs from big cities intent on selling them on for any number of evil purposes, including slavery, prostitution and child labour. And so I keep coming back, hoping to at least help spare the thousands of impoverished and unloved children who find their way to HEAL from suffering a similar fate. Chris Evans, I trust, would approve.

I must admit I returned to India this year with a renewed sense of hope for the future. New Prime Minister Narendra Modi, from humble beginnings himself, has been making the right sort o f noise s about education being the most effective way to end poverty.

Even Mr Modi's mere presence can have an impact, as I have seen with my own eyes. Last month he came to the nearby city of Vijayawada to give his blessing to the new 'people's capital' of Amavarati amid a flurry of local spending and activity which brought long-overdue road improvements, new street lighting and landscaping and a sense of cautious optimism. I'm no politician, and call me naive if you will (most people do), but watching Modi extend the hand of friendship between India and countless nations across the world since his election - he visits the UK on November 12-14 - it would be nice to think that the countless NGOs and charities such as HEAL that proliferate in India right now may one day become a thing of the past.

Recent history based on India's rapid economic growth suggests that as the rich get richer, the poor simply get poorer. A rigid caste system, rooted in religion, still pervades large sections of Indian society and has long prevented the illiterate and poorlypaid from improving their station. Nevertheless, the hope remains that just a fraction of the billions of rupees in anticipated foreign investment will eventually filter its way down to the very bottom and that Mr Modi will hold good on his promise to fight poverty through education. If so, HEAL, which has already followed this path for 23 years, will be with him all the way.

If you are interested in sponsor-ing a child, or finding out more about Cycle India 2016, visit the HEAL website at healcharity.org Tomorrow: Confessions of an Indian waiter

CAPTION(S):

Paradise children dancing in Andhra Pradesh <B

Ch <B ildren playing at HEAL Paradise Village in Andhra Pradesh, India. Below, not a campsite, but homes

Jem King, volunteer at HEAL Paradise Village with some of the youngsters <B
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Nov 9, 2015
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