As Darlington Rotary Club celebrates 100 years of making a difference, PETER BARRON tells how one member will today embark on the latest chapter of an epic story that is bringing the joy of reading to children in an African village. 

ONCE upon a time, there was a kind-hearted man, who was enjoying an adventure holiday with friends in the African outback, when something rather wonderful happened by accident…

And so began a long-running story, involving a central character called Peter Phillips, that’s well worth telling.

The first chapter took shape 25 years ago when Peter – well-known in Darlington circles as the immediate past president of Darlington Rotary Club – flew to Kenya for a walking holiday with friends.

One day, they stumbled across a tree, and sheltering in the shade beneath its branches were more than 100 children, along with three adults. Polite enquiries from the Englishmen revealed that it was a school engaged in the day’s lessons.

“We found out that the school had three ramshackle, prefabricated buildings that had been left behind by the Army,” recalls Peter. “They were in a pretty rough state, so most of the lessons were held outside.”

The chance encounter made a lasting impression on Peter and his pals because they returned  to the village of Msambweni the following year, having raised enough money to buy bricks and cement to build some new classrooms. And Peter’s been on a mission ever since to help transform the education of the children attending Vingujini Primary School.

Fondly known as ‘Mister Peter’ by the villagers, he’s returned twice a year, each time raising money to go towards building more classrooms, equipping them with desks, while arranging for thousands of children’s books to be shipped on the 6,500-mile journey from County Durham to Kenya.

Today, the 80-year-old will embark on his latest 16-hour flight to Msambweni around the same time as another two tons of books he’s collected leave the town en route to Kenya.

“It’s been hard work at times, but it’s been a lot of fun along the way,” smiles Peter, who spent most of his working life as a chemist before he and his wife successfully bought and ran The Morritt Arms, at Greta Bridge, between 1994 and 2016.

In 2010, Alan Cowie, who’d been Peter’s surveyor when he bought The Morritt, invited him to speak to Darlington Rotary about his African adventures. In return for speaking, Peter was given £250 for the school fund, and became a Rotarian himself.

The club has been a great supporter ever since, including coming to the rescue financially when the school’s roof blew off in a storm five years ago.

The book donations, made in partnership with the ‘Just Be A Child’ charity in Hertfordshire, began three years ago. Peter appealed to the Darlington Community for donations of children’s books and was overwhelmed by the response.

A collection hub was established at SG Petch motor dealers in the town, and they loaned Peter a van for the books to be transported to Just Be A Child’s base at Stevenage before being shipped in containers to Mombasa.

Over the past three years, more than 15,000 books have made the journey from Darlington. On arrival, the containers have been brightly painted with colourful handprints made by the children, and used as libraries.

Back in Darlington, the next generation is playing its part through Rotary’s junior arm, RotaKids, which is linked to five Darlington schools, where youngsters raise money and collect books to give to Peter.

Indeed, the latest consignment of books has been a real Darlington team effort., with the town centre library chipping in by donating surplus books.

Meanwhile, another member of Darlington Rotary, Jeff Mann, called on the support of a friend, Jonathan Davies, owner of Davies Transport, who agreed to store the collected books on pallets at his depot on Faverdale Industrial Estate, so lorries travelling to London can drop them off at Stevenage.

But the mission isn't just restricted to books. Peter will also be taking a suitcase full of football strips to Kenya following an appeal by Darlington Football Club. Supporters were asked to dig out any unwanted strips so football teams can be formed in Msambweni.

Alan Charlton, who runs Friends of Rotary at Darlington Memorial Hospital, has donated surplus baby clothes that were knitted by volunteers but went unsold due to the pandemic. They will be packed in amongst the books.

And then there’s Peter’s brilliantly simple ‘Donate-a-Desk’ scheme. For a £30 donation, he commissions a carpenter in Msambweni to make a desk for the school, complete with an inscription of the donor’s name. Naturally, the school's desks include one bearing the name of Darlington Rotary.

Today, with the support of other organisations that joined in along the way, the school is blossoming, with 1,200 pupils, 26 classrooms, an assortment of desks, and a regularly replenished stock of books.

And it all took root from the seeds that were sown when Peter saw those children sitting under that tree 25 years ago.

“Whenever you go there, children and adults come up in the street and ask for money for school fees or medical bills, but by giving money to the school, we can help the whole community,” says Peter.

Asked how long he’ll keep raising money and collecting books, Peter recalls a memory from the last day of one of his early trips when the villagers had just got to know him. As he was leaving, there were four little girls – their schoolbags full of books – waving, and shouting ‘Goodbye Mister Peter’.

“They were smiling and looked so happy,” he recalls. “That always reminds me why it’s important, so I’ll keep going as long as I can.”

It’s a story with more chapters to come – but it already has a happy ending.

FOOTNOTE: Formed in 1923, Darlington Rotary Club is one of the most active in the UK, with 81 members of all ages, using their skills, experience, and resources to help the local community.

As well as raising around £30,000 a year for local charities, the club has so far raised £28,000 for Vingujini Primary School.

A hundred years of making a difference. That’s pretty good going…in anyone’s book.