A Hampshire firefighter had no idea when he booked a romantic trip with his girlfriend that he would be embarking on a long-term relationship of a different kind.
Steve Stidolph who had planned to soak up the sun ended up visiting the ‘real Gambia’ and has taken it upon himself to transform an impoverished school.
The retained Petersfield firefighter and fitness instructor has already raised more than £10,000 in just one year to renovate the dilapidated classrooms of the Pakalinding School in Soma.
He has now pledged to raise a further £12,000 this year to fund a library, a recreation room, musical instruments, gardening equipment and facilities for children with dyslexia.
He said this money would also pay for a wall to stop the menagerie of exotic animals that are currently raiding the group’s vegetable patch.
He added: “I had booked a holiday with my girlfriend and we were planning on enjoying all the tourist-friendly activities on offer but we split up before the trip and I went on my own.
“I was a bit miserable but I made friends with a couple of the guides who promised to show me the real Gambia and on Christmas Day I was sat with a local family in their tin hut home eating chicken, onions and rice.
“I fell in love with the country and the people. I had never seen such poverty first hand and it gave me a new perspective on my own worries and stopped me focusing on my little world.”
On his return he discovered that former Petersfield firefighter Mark Christmas had a link to the West African country as his mother ran a scout project out there and was desperately looking for help to improve the facilities.
In addition to improving life for the children Steve also said he was pleased to be providing much-needed employment in the area.
The 34-year-old has returned to the country to see the new classrooms and run fitness ‘gladiator’ courses for the children.
He said he also spoke to the youngsters and the teachers about his work at Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service.
He added: “I really wanted to do something for the children as, despite the poverty, they really can make something of themselves given the opportunity.
“I was particularly keen to do something to help children with dyslexia as I struggled with this myself and it was not until I became a firefighter six years ago that this was picked up and I got support from the service.
“It is strange to think if my girlfriend and I had stayed together I would have had a completely different trip and been unaware of this world I have discovered.”
Steve’s fundraising has been supported by his colleagues at Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service as he organised sponsored ladder climbs, cake sales and 12-hour spin classes.
He plans to do even more for the next phase of his fundraising including taking on the Helsinki City Marathon, in Finland, in August, and arranging firefighter car washes.
Steve has already received several hundred pounds via his Virgin Money Giving page.
The school, which teaches 550 children across infant and junior years, is part of the Kaira Konka Project which was established by Marion Christmas MBE of Hampshire Scouts in 1994.
She said: “Steve is amazing. To raise this amount is incredible and to try and to attempt it twice is unbelievable.
“His work has left such an imprint on the lives of the children and that will last for years and years to come. The new classrooms look fantastic.”
Firefighters, scouts, lecturers, teachers and councillors from the county have been out to help the project.
Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service sent out two delegations of firefighters and donated an engine and a jeep in 2000.