CJ Swaby speaks with Rob Nestor on getting fit and giving back.
Rob Nestor is 52. He loves football. He is married with a beautiful family, and works a nine to five. In a little over a month he will be running the Las Vegas Marathon. This is not Rob’s first marathon. He has run two others, plus he’s competed in triathlons. Not bad for “an old man” as he puts it. But what is really remarkable about Rob is that at an age when many would simply allow themselves to physically fall apart at the seams, he’s not only fit for purpose. He is fit with a purpose.
In 2000, Rob picked up a flyer at his local swimming pool for a television show. Channel 4 was looking for a family to live in an African village for 3 months. After being challenged by his wife Lynn to apply for the show, he did. And in 2001 Rob, Lynn and their three children, Callum (then 4), Chloe (then 8) and Daniel (then 13) were flown to Swaziland. As part of the extended family of the village, the Channel 4 program documented how a family from South West London would adapt to living in a remote village in a country where the average family lives on less than 50p a day. The life expectancy of a man is 31 years of age, for women it is 32.
The experience was etched deep into the family psyche, and tattooed in their hearts. When they returned to London the Nestor’s decided that something just had to be done,
“Living as part of the community and seeing first hand how every day was a struggle just to survive meant we couldn’t just walk away. We were welcomed and cared for. We wanted to give something back.”
They set up the African Village School Fund. Originally the goal was to raise money for a tractor. Little did they know the impact and the support they would receive. The African Village School Fund (AVSF) is now a school which provides numeracy and literacy to the children and orphans of Shongwe. The AVSF includes sustainable agricultural projects and a feeding program. This ensures that the children receive adequate nutrition, and are fed at least twice a day, as death from starvation is a possibility. Rob told me:
“We’ve had some many fantastic memories, but one of the days I will always remember, but for the wrong reasons. It was the day that we received the news that one of our little girls, Busisiwe, had died of malnutrition during the school summer holidays. It broke our hearts. This led us to raise enough money to start a second feeding project that is named after Busisiwe and runs 365 days a year, ensuring no other child ever goes hungry when the school is closed.”
The African Village School Fund employs from within the local community, and has financially supported the teacher’s training, as well as employing ground staff. This in a country that reportedly has a 70% unemployment rate.
This is why Rob is running the Las Vegas Marathon. The next leg of the project involved using sport not only to improve health, but as a way to educate and combat HIV/AIDS. The project is short of funding. Some question if this necessary, the current impact would seem to indicate that it is. Rob seems to think so too:
“We’re now using football as part of a holistic, integrated approach to HIV/AIDS awareness and behaviour change. We have secured the land, and football kits have been generously donated, but we now need to secure funds for materials and to build the community sports centre.”
The African Village School currently has 4 football teams with young people ranging from 8 to 22 years old, and they run a scaled back program. The grass roots project directly changes the lives of the children. It is estimated that in Swaziland 1 in 4 are HIV positive. All the children and coaches for the African Village School have tested HIV negative. A phenomenal achievement. I asked Rob what he hoped the legacy of the education through sport would be. His response
“Football has changed the direction of many youngsters, giving them the foundations and tools to go into the world and contribute to their community and beyond. Once the sport centre is built we will offer literacy and numeracy classes for those who have had to drop out of school to support their families.”
There is another side to the tale. With the short life expectancy of men and women of Swaziland, a sea of orphans are left behind to fend for themselves. Not only does the African Village School support them, but the funding for the new project will give the children something invaluable.
“We will aim to offer bereavement counseling for our children, many of whom have lost one or both of their parents before they became teenagers.”
On the 17th November when Rob Nestor’s worn trainers hit the tarmac in Vegas, he will be carrying the weight of the whole African Village School on his shoulders. At 6 foot, his sturdy frame is ready to carry the responsibility,
“I’ve previously competed in the New York and Paris Marathons — so pain is nothing new to me. I feel ready to face the challenge. The last 6 miles are usually a killer, it’s at that point when your body is screaming for you to stop, but your mind is telling you that you’ve done the hard bit – now finish!”
So why does he do it? What motivates a man of 52-years-old, with a happy family and full-time job, to go to these extremes?
“Look, I know it’s an overused expression, however, it really has been a completely life-changing experience for all of us. My children have been very privileged, from an early age, to have gained and been accepted into another family. They experienced a totally different way of life first-hand, one where other children literally fight for survival on a daily basis.”
Curious as to exactly how much of the money goes to the African Village School, and how much is soaked up in needless administration, I questioned Rob. He quickly corrected me:
“I think the main difference is that we are completely hands on. Ownership of all the projects is by the community we serve. The projects are sustainable through agricultural and livestock breeding projects. We train and employ from within the community. All the money we raise goes to our projects; we have no staff. No fancy marketing materials, and no offices. Just my wife, Lynn, with her computer in the bedroom.”
We all have 24 hours in a day. I find it amazing what some people manage to fit into theirs. Rob is a robust 52. No doubt his good health and consistent exercise have something to do with it. Through sport he plans to bring the message of physical improvement and self-empowerment to the African Village School Fund. The 26.2 miles is the easy part. The charity desperately needs the £5,000 to complete the sports centre, or it will be destined to crumble, cutting off a much-needed lifeline to the Shongwe community, but Rob remains positive:
“If we can do this, anyone can. We are just an ordinary family from South London, we’re not rich, we’re not “well connected.” We struggle to support ourselves most of the time! We just saw a need and set about meeting it in whatever way we could. We could not have done this without the support and generosity of those who have donated, attended events, given air mile (so we can oversee our projects) and their time so freely to help in any way they can. You can’t change the world but you really can make a difference. I truly believe that.”
I’d disagree with Rob on that. I’m sure the Shongwe Community would say that the African Village School Fund has made a huge impact to their world.
Robert Nestor will be running the Las Vegas Marathon on 17th November 2013. He hopes to raise £5,000 for the African Village School Community Sports Centre.
Every little helps. You can donate here.