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Disaster on Our Doorstep

Disaster on Our Doorstep


Richmond resident Rachel Colenso, along with husband Jeremy and daughters Jasmine and Rosemary—ages 3 and 6—have undertaken an 18-month, 300-kilometre scoot along the Thames to raise money for the British Red Cross’s Disaster Fund. These days the family encounters submerged towpaths and flooded homes on their route, and realises calamity is close to home. WLM caught up with Rachel to find out about her idea for fundraising with kids, and her first-hand look at the floods’ fallout.

Where did the idea for a scooting fundraiser come from?

My husband and I are climbers; we decided that all the efforts of planning, preparation, and then the absolute physical exertion of scaling these sheer cliffs could be put to greater use than personal accomplishment. I climbed a range of peaks in South Africa to raise funds when my daughter was born. In the past it had been just my husband and me, but once we had our two girls, we wanted to keep fundraising but include the entire family. Even if you’re very young you can make a difference to the world around you. It just takes a bit of creativity.
I started thinking about the Thames because it is such an iconic river. I had a friend who set a record by swimming its whole length, so I thought about what we could do as a family. It occurred to me that probably no one has scooted the length of the Thames. I did a bit of research, and no one has, so we are the first!

We also wanted to make our children aware of the environment around them. To our surprise the nature along the Thames is teaming with wildlife! We have had real Attenborough moments such as watching herons feeding their young fresh fish.

ThamesScootFamphotoHow did you get started with fundraising?

I first started focusing on fundraising in 2004 after my husband and I were caught in an electrical storm at 3,000 metres on a cliff face on one of the big mountains in the Swiss Alps. It was a long, drawn-out, near-death experience—no one could get to us, even by helicopter. (The story became a book and an adventure-TV episode.) My life had been spared and I made a promise that I would dedicate time to helping others who also found themselves in great difficulty.

Why did you choose the British Red Cross?

Assisting those in crisis is very close to my heart because I owe my life to the skill and dedication of a rescue team. More recently, I came across the British Red Cross when Jasmine had been diagnosed with a very rare eye condition in South Africa and needed immediate treatment and regular hospital visits. I saw the extreme difficulties that some parents had to undergo to get very sick and injured children to hospital, who had carried their children for days, walking and catching rough public transport to get help. It brought me close to the great adversities that so many face, whether through famine, disaster or unrest.

Nobody can predict the exact location of the next flood, cyclone, earthquake or violent conflict. The British Red Cross Disaster Fund allows the Red Cross to respond immediately when major disasters strike.

How long will the scoot take, and how far into it are you now?

When we started, we didn’t know if it would be possible—we’ve got two tiny children. We began last summer and took a break over the holidays, and so far we’ve covered the towpath from Battersea to Staines-upon-Thames. We are 60 kilometres into it, so over 200 still to go! Now that the girls are a little older we’re picking up a bit of momentum. Our aim is to finish by the end of 2014.

What sorts of obstacles have you encountered?

The weather has been a  major obstacle. The horrendous winter has gone on and on, and while it hasn’t stopped us, it has slowed us down. Sections of the path are covered in branches and we have to pick our way through, or the path is flooded and we have to find a sensible way round the water.

Debris along the pathway, trees down—each week we saw a little bit more. One day, we scooted past one of the many areas where the Thames had burst its banks and flooded homes. Lots of people, many of them elderly, had spent a week in freezing conditions without electricity, without heating in the middle of winter, and with floodwater lapping at their doors. We were shocked by what people had to do to survive—all this was not initially in the news. We realised disaster is on our doorstep.

I’m hoping our efforts to wade through the flooded Thames roads with our scooters will highlight the importance of the Red Cross’s work helping people in these situations. Once the news has had its day, the Red Cross is still there helping out.

How much are you hoping to raise, and how can people get involved?

We’re trying to have reasonable expectations! We’re hoping to raise £1,000. With work and school, Sundays are our scooting days and my blog says which section of the Thames we’ll be covering each week. People can donate if they choose, or they can come and join our scoot or just give us support if they see us! We have had donations from people in other countries and some from people we don’t know. We would welcome any families or schools who would like to follow our journey or get involved in some way.

To sponsor Rachel’s scoot, visit her fundraising page: Scooting for the Red Cross Disaster Fund.



About the author:
Elisa moved to London seven years ago from San Francisco, where, in pre-children days, she was the managing editor at Sierra magazine. She lived in Brook Green and Notting Hill before settling in Chiswick, where she lives with her book-loving daughter, train-loving son, and thickly moustachioed husband.

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