A life-changing legacy

Lily van Haelen
Lily van Haelen

Towards the end of her life, Lily van Haelen charged her children with the task of finding a worthy Humanist project in Africa, to be the recipient of a legacy from her will. The family worked hard to find a fitting tribute to their mother. They approached and rejected several orphanages and schools in South Africa, concerned that money might leak into private pockets. Eventually, they came to Uganda Humanist Schools Trust. I was invited to the home of her son, Laurence Paltiel, in Bedfordshire. After many searching questions, Laurence was keen to explore the possibility of supporting a project at Isaac Newton Humanist High School. The school fitted the family’s needs perfectly. Its mission was to provide inclusive education based on reason, compassion and tolerance to children in the impoverished rural community of Kateera village, in Masaka District. The school was a registered not-for-profit organisation, had ring-fenced bank accounts and published transparent, audited accounts. What is more, it had an urgent project that coincided with the wishes of the family. 

This was in 2010 when the HIV/AIDS epidemic was raging. Working-age people were dying and leaving single and double orphan children, many of whom became victims of forced labour. Orphan girls were prey to sexual abuse. Peter Kisirinya, the school’s Director, identified an urgent need to build a girls’ hostel to provide a safe place for orphan and other girls from destitute families to live and learn in the safety of a caring school community. As soon as Lily van Haelen’s family learned of the situation, they asked us to prepare plans and cost estimates for a hostel to house the girls. I made another trip to Bedfordshire to show them the plans. A younger family member flew to Uganda to visit the school, meet Peter Kisirinya and see the site of the hostel. Thoroughly reassured, they gave a green light to proceed.

Peter asked an architect friend to draw up plans. However, there were hardly any builders in the area with experience of constructing a building of this size and it proved impossible to obtain competitive quotations. Peter went to the one local builder, reached an understanding with him and gave him the job. Work started in February 2011 and was finished by the end of the year. The final cost was £24,000. This was 15% over budget, but the building was bigger than the original plans. It has 8 family rooms, each with 9 girls, a room for the matron, washrooms, 2 showers, toilets and an ironing room. 

Girls delighted with their new home in the Lily van Haelen Hostel

At the formal opening in 2012 the hostel was named the “Lily van Haelen Hostel”. In the 11 years since it was built, the hostel has transformed the lives of many girls. They have escaped the challenges of life in the rural homesteads with long walks to school. They have been given a safe place to sleep, been well fed, given access to health care and facilities for study and leisure in the evenings and at weekends. Time has demonstrated that these girls from destitute backgrounds, once given the right conditions, can outperform their better off peers, who attend the school as day students. The hostel has been a huge success*, both socially and educationally, and it has been a fitting and lasting memorial to the life of the benefactor, Lily van Haelen. The school and the girls are enormously grateful for the bequest that made this possible. If you think you might be interested in leaving your own life-enhancing bequest, then you can find information here: https://ugandahumanistschoolstrust.org/donate/making-a-bequest/.

Hostel Refurbishment with help from the Rationalist Union, Italy

To enable the Lily van Haelen Hostel to continue serving future generations of girls from Kateera it is now in need of refurbishment. After 11 years of continuous use, the Hostel is beginning to look shabby. Holes have developed in the concrete floors and damage to walls, windows and doors need to be repaired. Additionally, the school would like to fit ceilings in each family room to prevent mosquitoes from carrying pathogens, such as malaria, between girls in different rooms. The whole building needs repainting, using anti-mosquito paint on the interior surfaces.  

We are delighted to announce that our friends in the Union of Rational Atheists & Agnostics of Italy have come to the aid of the girls of Kateera. They have responded to the UHST 2022 Appeal with sufficient funds to cover the refurbishment of the hostel. The Funds have been transferred to the school and work will start immediately so that, when the girls return to school in February, it will be finished. The girls will be delighted to find a transformed hostel. They will appreciate this kind help from the Rationalist Union of Italy, which will extend the life of the original legacy for many years to come.

*An indicator of the success of boarding provision for girls was demonstrated during Covid. Schools in Uganda were closed for long periods and students sent home. During the time that Isaac Newton girls were at home, 4 became pregnant, yet pregnancies are almost unknown when the school is running. In contrast to religious schools, which blame the immorality of girls for pregnancy and expel them from school, Isaac Newton and our other Humanist Schools do their best to help the girls to return to school to complete their education once they have had their babies.