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Meet Jean Le Maistre the man behind Jersey Overseas Aid

Jean Le Maistre is an extraordinary man from a surprising island – Jersey – which I call “The Small Island with a big Heart.”

A beautiful scene in Jersey

Jersey is the largest of the Channel Islands with an area of 45 square miles and is situated 14 miles off the north-west coast of France and 85 miles from the English coast. It is a Crown Dependency and is not part of the UK. The Island is not represented in the UK parliament, whose Acts only extend to Jersey if expressly agreed by the Island that they should do so.

Yet with just a population of around 90,000 people, it has reached out around the world with some 100 overseas projects in nearly four decades, and the man behind many of these overseas aid work projects is a former Senator, Jean (pronounced Jon) Le Maistre, who had arranged a special reunion weekend (August 28-29, 2010, for the hundreds of people who had taken part in these 100 trips many of which he organized for the Jersey Overseas Aid Committee.

Jean had asked me to join him and the others for the reunion that took place from August 28-29, 2010 in Jersey, as I had previously been part of a team that had travelled to Kenya back in 1976 when our team of volunteers – all from Jersey except for myself – went to the Methodist Hospital in Maua, to build a new dining room and kitchen for them.

Jean and Jenny Le Maistre
pictured in national costumes

It was while I was in Jersey that I discovered about his fascinating life and career in Jersey. He was born on the island on April 27, 1944, and is married to Jenny and they have two sons, Thomas, aged 29, and Robert, aged 25.

Jean was elected as a Deputy to the States of Jersey (the Island Parliament) in 1972. He represented a town district of St Helier with 7,000 registered electors until 1987 when he was elected as a Senator with an all island mandate of 50,000 registered electors. He successfully maintained this position until his retirement as the Senior Member in December 2005 having, at that time, served as an elected member for a total of 33 years.

He held many interesting positions during his long political career but it was his interest in Island life and passion as a Christian which motivated him to serve his community in a political role. He was elected Chairman of the Jersey Youth Service in 1973 and was instrumental in developing youth and community work, bringing together and training most of the volunteers of youth organisations and building numerous Community Centers.

Jean served as a member of the Overseas Aid Committee from 1972, was elected President in 1978 serving in that position until 1990. During this time he established the principle guidelines through which government funds were channeled to overseas projects in developing countries.

Germans in Jersey

He held a number of other senior positions in Government which included President of Agriculture and Fisheries and also Sport Leisure and Recreation. In 1995 he was asked to plan and co-ordinate the 50th anniversary celebrations, attended by Prince Charles, of the Liberation of Jersey from German occupying forces. So successful were these celebrations that he was invited to undertake the same role for the 60th anniversary in 2005 which on this occasion were attended by the Queen and Prince Philip. The budget for the celebrations was just under £1 million on each occasion most of which was raised through sponsorship.

On the International political stage Jean represented the Island at various conferences around the world of French speaking parliamentarians. He also represented the Island on many Commonwealth Parliamentary Conferences, serving as a member of the World Executive for three years and being elected as vice-Chairman for a period of 12 months at the World Conference held in Toronto in 2004.

If that wasn’t enough to keep him busy, Jean has thrown himself in helping the downtrodden of the world through these many overseas projects.

Bill Latham and Jean Le Maistre at the opening event in the grounds of Government House,
St. Helier, Jersey

So I asked him how he first got the idea for these projects and he replied, “Bill Latham, the then Deputy Director of Tearfund, invited me to lead one of the two groups which were being organized by Tearfund in 1972 to go to a hospital in the Middle East.

“We went to the Edinburgh Medical Missionary Hospital in Nazareth for three weeks to undertake a variety of tasks. The ‘girls’ helped in the kitchen, the sewing room, the laundry and on the wards. The ‘boys’ worked on maintenance tasks, replacing broken drains, insulating the roof over the nurses home.”

I then asked Jean to talk about the start of Jersey Overseas Aid.

“Jersey Overseas Aid (JOA) is separate to the work projects although most projects are part sponsored by JOA,” he said. “Just for the record the JOA Committee was started by a member of the States three years before I was elected to the States. I was invited to join his Committee in 1972 and I became President in 1978. When I was invited by Tearfund to lead the very first group of volunteers to Nazareth, I certainly felt that I was being ‘called’ to do so and only accepted after a time of consideration and prayer. I cannot link it to a particular verse in the Bible but it was definitely a call to service which I could not refuse.

The Jersey One World Group – the first Jersey overseas aid party – pictured in August 1972 at the Nazareth Hospital. Jean Le Maistre is on the bottom right of the picture

“Having returned from a very enriching project, in every sense of the word, in Nazareth I was convinced that we should explore other opportunities for this type of service. Amongst others I contacted the General Secretary Mr. Bob Clothier of the BibleLands Society. He replied immediately that they could do with a group to help with a huge backlog of maintenance at the Helen Keller School for Blind Girls. The School was then in a village called Beit Hanina situated on the road from Jerusalem to Ramallah, on the West Bank.

“The BibleLands Helen Keller School had been established in 1954. Mrs. Mary Lovell is credited as the Center’s founder, encouraged later by Dr. Helen Keller, the world most famous campaigner for the blind. Without the help and support of BibleLands, the Center could not survive the tribulations caused by war and political unrest in this region. The vision of BibleLands then was to pioneer a Center that would signify light in the darkness and a resurrection into the fullness of life for those who are marginalized. The graduates of Helen Keller Center have, since then, broken barriers and changed perceptions about disabilities and blindness in particular.

“The aim of the School has always been to help individuals suffering from impaired vision to use what capabilities they have, with the aid of Braille or large-print reading materials. Today, it is not only a school in the traditional sense, but an institution offering a variety of adjusted curriculums and incorporating various technologies into its work to help meet the needs of all students who suffer from visual impairment with other mild disabilities such as borderline intelligence, light developmental delay or light CP.”

What have been some of the highlights of the overseas trips?

“One visit I recall was to Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania,” he told me. “We visited a wide variety of projects involving education and health. It was a real inspiration to be there several years after their completion and to see buildings being put to good use and the warmth of the community who had helped our teams to complete the buildings.

“Another trip with a media team was to Zambia to visit two groups of volunteers. The first was at a small village called M’soro near Katete close to the border with Malawi. They were extending a clinic whilst the other group was in the North of Zambia at a village called Malole, near Kasama. This group was extending educational facilities. Both were doing extremely well in very hot conditions and with very basic facilities!”

When did you start planning for the reunion weekend? How did you start finding people to come?

Jean said, “The idea of the celebrations started in January 2009 and I commenced working on gathering the lists of the groups and seeking to establish current contact details. An invitation was sent out to group leaders in May 2009 to consider the idea and 26 attended. They all supported the concept and the work commenced in earnest, with a small support group, to develop a programme and continue to trace volunteers.”

Among the fascinating people from Africa who attended the reunion was Father Justin Mulenga, a Catholic priest from Zambia who heads up St Francis Xavier Catholic parish in Mbala, in the north-east of the country. As well as taking part in the events, Fr. Mulenga was working to attract support for a project to replace the thatched roofs of three churches within his home parish with tin ones which will last much longer. He has received several teams from Jersey who have worked on a variety of projects.

Dr. Francis Omaswa who travelled all the way from Uganda

Another was Dr. Francis Omaswa, one of Uganda’s top cardiac surgeons, who flew to Jersey to thank volunteers who had come over to his country to build an operating theatre at the hospital where he worked and also helped with two other projects. The respected surgeon told me, “I feel that the people of Uganda really owe the people of Jersey a lot of gratitude and I’m here representing all of those who have benefited from the Overseas Aid Program.”

The reunion began with a reception for the Jersey Aid Ambassadors at Government House.

“The sun was shining and it was a beautiful prestigious setting where we could say a big ‘thank you’ to all the volunteers who attended estimated to be around 400,” said Jean.

The second event was a picnic in the Howard Davis Park attended by approx 250. Music was provided by the Africa Beat Band called Ashiki, the Community Gospel Choir and Liz Shea who is a wonderfully talented gospel singer. Approx £600 (about USD$940) was raised by a retiring collection.

The third event was a Church Service at St Mark’s Church in St. Helier, largely led by a team from Tearfund, although both Dr. David Steiner from Hands Around the World and myself, did the Bible readings. Over £700 (aboutUSD$1,097) was raised in support of the work of Tearfund.

Jean then explained that that on the Sunday afternoon, there was a sponsored “Walk for Water” along the beautiful seafront from St. Helier to St Aubin to raise funds for a clean water project in Malawi.

“Although only 65 people walked, nearly £5,000 (USD$7,836) was raised,” he said. The walk was approx 6 miles which was symbolic of the distance that many Africans have to walk each day to collect clean water.

“The final event,” said Jean, “was a meal entitled ‘Eating Around the World’ attended by 376 volunteers and supporters. The idea was to have food from the four regions of the world where work projects have been undertaken. There were 14 displays of the Charities involved in sending volunteers to undertake projects in developing countries. There was entertainment from a team of dancers from the Philippines, a DVD message from Bishop Ken Barham who was in Rwanda when he received a team of volunteers.

“Also Channel TV had put together a short video of film they had taken during their media trips. Francis Omaswa expressed words of appreciation for all the work that groups had done in Uganda and finally Andy Flannagan [a singer originally from Northern Ireland] concluded the evening with a few words and a song of reflection. This event probably raised in excess of £5,000 (USD$7,836).

What are your thoughts about the weekend? What did it achieve and what were your highlights?

“It was undoubtedly a huge success and so many letters and e-mails of appreciation from folk who clearly enjoyed all the events,” he said. “The success was the meeting of friends who had not met for many years, and generally being able to share experiences. Probably of greatest importance was being able to raise the profile of all the work that local charities are doing and urging the public to support them. The whole event was so worthwhile because I was able to see everyone keen to do more to support those who live in live in areas of great need.”

If you would like to contact Jean Le Maistre, his e-mail address is: communityaidprojects@gmail.com

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