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Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow should be on cloud nine. His charity, Mary’s Meals, run from his father’s small corrugated-iron shed in Dalmally, Argyll, since 2002, is a global success story. As of three months ago, it is feeding two million of the world’s poorest children a day in their classrooms. And it is expected to add its 20th country as it reaches its 20th anniversary.
“It’s amazing, a wonderful thing ‑ but I have mixed feelings as I’m painfully aware there are millions more hungry children who are missing school and waiting for Mary’s Meals,” admits the married father-of-seven.
An estimated 58 million school children, in fact. Mary’s Meals initially fed 200 children in Malawi. Now it feeds 30 percent of the country’s primary school population and operates in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and Latin America, with 760 staff supported by thousands of volunteers.
But this has fuelled new worries for Magnus. “I’m concerned that as we grow and the numbers get bigger we should never lose that this is about the head and the heart and not about strategic plans, numbers and impact assessments,” he says.
“It’s important that Mary’s Meals is a work of love and always will be. It’s because we love those children that we love them being fed every day.”
Volunteers organise, cook and serve local produce, often a child’s only meal for the day, to ensure at least 93 percent of donations are spent on charitable activities.
It cost Mary’s Meals £15.90 on average globally to feed one child per year.
The results are life-changing. Veronica, now in her mid-twenties, was raised by her older sisters after her parents died and was among the first 200 children fed in Malawi. “Sometimes the sisters went up to a week without eating a proper meal at home,” Magnus says.
“Veronica wouldn’t have gone to school if not for Mary’s Meals.”
Today, she is thriving in her first teaching job, two years after gaining an education degree. “She’s an amazing, confident, articulate young woman,” Magnus continues.
“It’s Veronica who will bring about change in her community and contribute to Malawi getting to a place where one day it can feed its own children without relying on outside help.”
These miraculous transformations saw Magnus, 53, awarded an OBE in 2011 and named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people on the planet in 2015.
Hollywood action star Gerard Butler is a committed supporter and actor Emma Thompson has just thrown her support behind a new Mary’s Meals fundraiser, more of which later.
Yet despite being zealous about raising children out of poverty, Magnus is self-effacing about his achievements. He has always been attuned to human suffering.
His charitable endeavours began in the early 1990s after he and his brother, Fergus, saw news images of Bosnians fleeing their homes following the outbreak of war.
They had visited the country as teenagers on a Catholic pilgrimage to Medjugorje and had met wonderful villagers.
Appealing for clothing and food donations, they joined a convoy travelling to Medjugorje in an old Land Rover.
“I was deeply moved by the suffering that I saw in the refugee camps ‑ but equally moved by the generosity I experienced in Scotland,” Magnus reflects. “I was swept away by this wave of goodness and kindness. It’s been like that ever since.”
Magnus made 23 trips in all, storing a never-ending stream of donations in his father’s shed ‑ now the headquarters of Mary’s Meals.
He left his job in salmon fishing and gave up his home to set up the charity, Scottish International Relief.
“My parents didn’t blink, they were 100 percent supportive,” Magnus says. “Other parents might have been concerned or viewed these as irresponsible choices, but not mine.”
Calum and Mary-Anne MacFarlane-Barrow raised Magnus and his five siblings as devout Catholics in the remote Scottish Highlands.
“My mum and dad did radical, charitable things that probably encouraged me to take some of the decisions I took in life,” Magnus explains.
The couple turned their guest house into a Catholic retreat centre, which still operates today. And they adopted Magnus’s youngest brother Mark ‑ who died eight years ago ‑ when he was seven. Mark had a chronic skin condition that remained undiagnosed throughout his life and he spent long stretches in hospital.
“I don’t know whether anyone else would have taken him in and given him a permanent home,” Magnus says.
“He was in a residential home and had been fostered by many families.”
It was during a trip to Malawi in 2002 that Magnus’s life changed again. A priest suggested he join him on his local rounds.
In the first home they found mother-of-six, Emma, who was dying of Aids, her husband already dead.
“Emma was laying on the floor with her six children around her,” recalls Magnus. “She said she had nothing left except to pray someone would look after her children.”
Sat next to one child, a little boy called Edward, Magnus asked him about his hopes and ambitions for the future.
“He said, ‘I would like to have enough food to eat and to go to school one day’.That was his entire ambition at the age of 14.
“It focused my understanding of how millions of children like Edward were out of school and, deprived of an education, were condemned to a life of poverty.”
He named the charity after Jesus’s mother Mary, “who brought up her own child in poverty”.
While it seems obvious that fed children are healthier, happier and better able to concentrate, Mary’s Meals has conducted research in its Malawi schools confirming this.
Some 98 percent of teachers said children paid greater attention in class since the charity offered meals.
Magnus ignores an “almost daily temptation” to broaden his activity into advocacy, lobbying or projects about agricultural or water needs.
“Our simplicity and focus are one of our strengths and why people support us,” he says. “We’re not pretending we’re experts in all sorts of things. We want to do this one crucial thing and do it very well.”
Mary’s Meals also operates in war-torn countries including Syria, Myanmar and South Sudan.
“It’s very much a community-owned project and that’s the secret of why it works so well,” Magnus says. “The first thing we do is establish an understanding with the local community to make sure they believe in this as much as we do.”
He never despairs at the horrors he sees. He arrived in Haiti three days after a 7.2-magnitude earthquake killed 200,000 people in 2010 and travelled to India in the aftermath of the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. “In those situations I’m not just observing human suffering, I’m part of a team focused on solving problems,” he says.
“I have always encountered incredible, heroic, local people who are making things better despite being in the midst of those situations.”
The suffering he saw in Romania’s hospitals and orphanages, after the fall of Communism in the early 1990s, is the worst thing he has experienced.
In one hospital he encountered 50 abandoned children with HIV. “I had never walked into a room full of children and been met by silence before and that’s because they were completely neglected in every sense of the word,” he remembers.
“They were children, aged 12, who couldn’t walk because nobody had ever lifted them out of their cots for long enough.”
Magnus pledged to build them a residential home ‑ it eventually became three ‑ and he and Romanian volunteers brought in food, toys, clothing and toiletries.
They quickly realised the children were starved of love and affection.
Even the doctors and nurses were coldhearted and negligent in their care.
“I got to know one little girl, Juliana, who was very disturbed and she was banging her hand on the side of a cot. One doctor pointed at her one day and said to me, ‘I don’t know why you’re building that home of yours. That little girl will be dead before you finish it.’
“I went to the official opening two months later and was met at the front door by Juliana, learning to walk and holding the arm of her carer.
“She was excited to take me around her new home.”
He’s been back to Romania for the weddings of children he helped, and has a legacy project there helping adults with learning difficulties and disabilities. He doesn’t publicise the project as it differs categorically from Mary’s Meals, but it changed him.
“Romania taught me how apparently hopeless situations can change,” he says. “Seeing those lives transformed encouraged me to go forward and informed my approach.”
It’s why he acts out of love rather than duty. So it’s apt that Mary’s Meals newest fundraising campaign is called Double The Love ‑ donations made before January 31, 2022, will be doubled by “generous supporters”, up to £1.6million.
Long-time Mary’s Meals supporter and actress Sophie Thompson has enlisted the support of her A-lister sister Emma, who said: “Our mother is Scottish, and Argyll is a very special place for our family.
“I am overjoyed that a charity founded there is changing the lives of children in some of the world’s poorest countries. It truly is an incredible achievement.”
Magnus won’t pressurise his own children, aged from 10 to 24, to follow in his footsteps. “I’ve still got my health and plenty of energy and I want to keep doing all I can for Mary’s Meals for the foreseeable future,” he says.
In a mark of what he has achieved, in 2015 Magnus tracked down Edward in Malawi 12 years after first meeting him. Then 26, Edward had led a hard life but was “amazed” how his poignant words had inspired Magnus’s worldwide movement.
While he never benefited from the programme, his own three-year-old son was eating a Mary’s Meals dinner every day. It was wonderful for Magnus to hear, and has buoyed him with hope that the destructive cycle of poverty will one day be broken for every child.
Visit marysmeals.org.uk/doublethelove before January 31 to donate to the campaign
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