Essex: Arsenal and F1 fan Sarah now heads Lepra, the international charity based in Colchester

If banging the drum for your East Anglia-based charity means pulling on a bright orange T-shirt and pedalling a bike around the Bay of Bengal for a day, Sarah Nancollas is more than happy to oblige. Steven Russell met her SARAH Nancollas appears to have always done things a bit differently. She attended a primary school where the only two teachers were her mum and dad. She was one of only two females on her civil engineering degree course and then ran a production shift at a cement works. There were no facilities for women, who were essentially an alien species. “I had to wait a year for them to build me a loo I could use!” Er . . . so how did you manage before? “My kiln-burner had to stand outside the gents’ urinal and whistle loudly!”

Some years later she sacrificed a �48,000 salary and company car to become a �17,000-a-year transport adviser to the ministry of health in Ghana, working with Save the Children. Within six weeks she realised the charity sector was where she belonged, rather than the corporate world.

Sarah has been chief executive of LEPRA Health in Action since September. The charity is based in Colchester but is very much an international operation, working in India, Bangladesh and Brazil.

Her key tasks involve strengthening fund-raising in the teeth of economic austerity and boosting the profile of “the biggest international NGO” – non-governmental organisation – “that nobody’s ever heard of!”

LEPRA Health in Action spends about �8million a year. “It’s a good-sized NGO,” says Sarah, a sports fan who fittingly chooses a football analogy to describe its mass. “It’s not Premiership, but it’s probably towards the top of the Championship. Save the Children’s �100m, but then you’ve got this block between �5m and �20m who are significant.”

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The chief exec is also an aficionado of Formula One motor-racing. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I suggest somewhat out of turn, if that extravagant industry could spare some loose change? LEPRA commits about �5million to India. That would be peanuts for a sport dripping with money.

Surely F1 could be persuaded or cajoled into parting with a few readies – or, ideally, the whole �8m? It would be great PR. As marketing chiefs might intone, there are many positive synergies. India hosts its inaugural grand prix in October – and then there’s the Force India team.

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The thought obviously hasn’t escaped Sarah. The knack is to catch the eye of the big hitters, she explains. With large corporations, one needs introductions to the most senior levels. “You’ve got to be able to knock on the door of the person who makes the decisions.”

One of her projects is mapping who in the charity’s hierarchy knows whom – as in influential figures in the business world and other bodies who could prove helpful.

LEPRA began life in 1924, aiming “to rid the British Empire of leprosy”. Over the years its work has developed; now it targets not only leprosy but other poverty-related diseases such as TB, HIV, malaria and lymphatic filariasis – commonly known as elephantiasis.

In helping to treat, cure and prevent, LEPRA provides health education, trains local staff and sets up specialist referral services.

Leprosy – caused by a mycobacterium – is still a huge problem, says Sarah, despite it falling off the radar of many people here in the UK. It’s also been underestimated abroad – with disastrous consequences.

She largely blames the way the World Health Organisation set out to combat the disease. It became “a mathematical exercise”.

“If you drop to rates of one in 10,000 people having leprosy, you can declare it eliminated. That has been achieved to various fanfares around the world. So the focus goes off it. Leprosy activities become integrated into public healthcare, people lose the skills to diagnose it, to treat it and to deal with it, and suddenly infection rates start creeping up; and certainly in some of the states we’ve been working in, it’s been declared de-eliminated.”

The sadness is that it can be cured quite cheaply and – if treated in time –the damage can be limited. But the longer it is left, the greater the chances of disability.

Sarah’s not long back from a three-week trip to India to see the charity’s work in action. “What worried me most was when I was talking to people we were treating. ‘Do you know about leprosy? Did you know what it could be?’ ‘No.’

“So that knowledge among the general public had gone. The education about it being completely curable, and the drugs free, was not known. So there is a massive problem out there, and infection rates – certainly in India, which is over half the cases – are increasing, and there isn’t the skills-set now, except in organisations like ours, to deal with it.”

Ignorance allows prejudice to thrive, too – not just about leprosy but also lymphatic filariasis, which is a growing problem.

“So all these are stigmatised. People are still, potentially, being cast out of their community, not able to marry, not able to hold public office etc etc etc. So that’s a side-angle we have to deal with as well. And educate, educate, educate.

“It’s great that numbers have been reduced, but it brings greater challenge, because it means that those who now get infected stand a greater chance of becoming disabled, and we’ve got to prevent that.”

Two things struck her during the trip. In a reconstructive surgery hospital, half the patients were children, in for correction of claw hand. “Obviously that’s stigmatic for a child. A little lad I talked to couldn’t play cricket any more. That can be corrected. But half of them were under 16 . . .

“And I sat in one of our referral centres in Hyderabad and of the seven patients I saw that morning, three had post-graduate degrees. So it is certainly no respecter of education level.”

SARAH Nancollas grew up in a tiny village near Ashford in Kent. Her parents were the only two teachers at primary school: mum taking the infants and dad the juniors. What was that like? “Dreadful!” she laughs. “If you were naughty at school, it got carried home. If you were naughty at home, it got carried to school.”

Always a practical person who loved maths and science, she bought a tome called The Art of Engineering at the age of 11 when a relative gave her a book token.

“It just fascinated me: the idea of constructing things and changing things, and managing projects. From that day I never wavered, although my parents tried very hard!”

They were keen on a career in law, but a summer holiday shadowing a lawyer put the kibosh on that. “It was seeing an inquest (involving a fork-lift truck operator) was not at all about the person and what had happened but about companies trying to say ‘It wasn’t our fault.’”

Sarah read civil engineering at Nottingham but didn’t fancy that as a career. “It would have meant two years in a drawing office, doing structural design, and I’d have hated it!” Project management – the intricacies of distribution – did appeal, though.

First stop was Blue Circle Cement, where from 1983 for a couple of years she ran a production shift at Northfleet works, near Gravesend. Wonderful opportunity, a great crowd and a full social life. Definitely a male preserve, in those days, but nothing she couldn’t handle – drawing the line at nude pictures in the room where she changed.

Next came the distribution side, at Plymouth: 70 male lorry drivers and her, though there were two female dispatch clerks.

Sarah couldn’t see an easy progression with the company, so had a spell in consultancy and then became a distribution manager for BP Chemicals, often finding herself in three countries a week.

If you had your sights set on higher things, though, trying to position yourself in the corporate game was draining. One day a colleague came into her office with a job advert for Save the Children and said: That job sounds just like you.

“He and I had had many discussions into the night across Europe, over a bottle of wine, saying ‘There must be more to life than career structures.’ But he was the one who was looking to go and volunteer. I wasn’t!”

However, the idea quickly grew.

The money was a huge drop – �17,000 from about �48,000 – but Sarah went for it, her employer granting a year’s leave of absence.

“I was single. My parents were in good health and, I totally admit it, I was completely selfish. Everybody thinks you’re altruistic; that was about me. That’s what I wanted to do.

“It was about there being more to life than being judged about how much you earn and what grade you’re on. I think I wanted to use my skills more directly. I wanted to make a difference – which sounds corny . . .”

So on January 6, 1993, she landed in humid and dusty Ghana. Six weeks in, “I already knew there was no way I was going back to BP. I’d found my place”.

The transport and management system the team installed is still in place and the Ghanaians now act as advisers to many other African governments.

“Sweeping generalisation, but I have found it to be true: a Ghanaian will take a decision that impacts themselves negatively if it’s for the greater good. They’re so community-focused, and that was fantastic.”

Sarah was there nearly three years and moved on to a similar role in Mafikeng (now Mahikeng), in South Africa. Whereas in Ghana the colour of skin wasn’t an issue, racial and tribal history shaped relationships in South Africa. The project eventually went well, but there were uncomfortable episodes along the way that had to be ironed out.

Again, Sarah was there nearly three years. The Government wanted to expand the project, but Save the Children was looking in other directions. The project team decided they couldn’t let it go, though, and set up an independent charity with �60,000 from Save the Children and an office from British Rail. Sarah became chief executive and The Princess Royal the patron.

Transaid is still going strong today, backed by the transport industry. It improves lives across Africa and the developing world by creating better transport links. Sarah was there until 2004 and still makes a monthly donation to its work.

After that she worked for a London-based trust that helps southern Africans enter higher education and works with organisations to increase opportunities for marginalised groups and communities.

The stay there, nearly six years, was busy, as the charity turned over about �1.5m and had just five staff!

When Sarah felt it time to look for a bigger organisation and the chance to be a bit more strategic – working across a range of countries and with a management team – she alighted on LEPRA Health in Action.

Currently renting near Colchester, she expects to be moving into the town itself or just outside.

The charity has been based in Colchester for at least 25 years, she says, with the then chief executive moving it to Essex when a lease expired.

For the past six years its home has been an office building in Middleborough – handy for the station, since trips to the capital cannot be avoided. The metropolis is still where most international development bodies, the Government and other partners dwell.

“To have a voice, you do have to accept you will spend time on the train.”

On the plus side, Sarah will find it easier to indulge her hobby of landscape photography. Instead of getting up in the middle of the night to drive out of London and capture amazing dawn shots, she can find them virtually on her doorstep.

Another advantage of not being in the capital is the chance for the charity to create a big profile locally – through a lot of hard work. “We need to make LEPRA the ‘international development charity of Essex’.”

Leprosy: myths and facts

A chronic infectious disease of the skin and nerves

Caused by a mycobacterium

Spread mainly through droplets from the nose and mouth by coughing and sneezing

Someone is diagnosed with leprosy every two minutes

The first signs are usually pale patches on the skin

Untreated, it can lead to loss of sensation in hands and feet, causing disability through injury and even blindness

But it’s curable if caught – through a combination of two or three drugs taken over up to two years

Sarah Nancollas says many of us have scant knowledge of the disease – our minds often conjuring up Biblical ‘plague’ images and thinking it always makes fingers and toes fall off, ‘which is absolutely not the case.

‘If you catch it early, there will be no disability’.

The loss of fingers and things like that comes because you lose sensation in your hands; therefore you don’t feel if you’re burning yourself on the stove or if you’re cutting yourself and causing an ulcer

‘So it’s an infection that sets in that causes amputation to be necessary; it’s not the disease but because you get this ‘anaesthetic’ and lose the feeling’

Sporty Sarah

Loves cricket. Is a member of Surrey County Cricket Club. She used to live three Tube stops from The Oval

Is also a member of the British Athletics Supporters Club

Was in Beijing for the 2008 Olympic Games – paying for the adventure over two years!

Saw Usain Bolt break all three world records Is also a Formula One enthusiast

She and a friend aim to go to a different venue each year

Last year it was Istanbul; 2011 should bring Valencia

The gen:

LEPRA Health in Action has about 2,000 staff

The vast majority are abroad

There are 15 in Colchester and another 38 around the country

It costs about �17,000 to run a leprosy centre for a year

LEPRA raises about �3.5m annually in the UK – but that ‘buys’ much more

Working with colleagues in India, the charity can apply for grants through the European Union. The EU might pay 75% towards some work, for example, with LEPRA meeting 25% of the cost

The charity depends hugely on folk who give �2 or �5 a month, or hold events like Christmas parties

Schools are major fund-raisers, too

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