Maureen Forrest, Cork woman, mother, grandmother and founder of The Hope Foundation, has spent her life working to make life better for people across the world and is guided by a vision for ‘a world where it should never hurt to be a child’. The Hope Foundation (HOPE), an Irish charity, was established by Maureen in 1999 to help the street and slum children of Kolkata. Fifteen years on, under Maureen’s strategic vision and leadership, HOPE has provided shelter, education, healthcare and drug rehabilitation to hundreds of thousands of children and adults in India.
Maureen comes from a family of twelve and so the caring and sharing started the day she was born. Born to a farming family in East Cork, Maureen was inspired by two visitors to her school during her early years – a medical missionary nun and an Aer Lingus stewardess. These brief but important meetings inspired both of the major aspects of her life – development work and travel.
In the 1970s she married Dick and went on to have three children – Louise, Robin and Ricky. However, domesticity did not prevent her from keeping up her interest in global development. During the Ethiopian famine in the early 1980s, Maureen began fundraising for an organisation with which her sister was volunteering in Ethiopia. “My commitments at the time were to my family but as they grew up and made their own lives, I seized the opportunity to become involved in Aid work, directly, in-country”
Her first mission was to Somalia where she spent six weeks in a feeding camp. ‘It was a horrendous place to be. You were dealing with gunfire every minute of the day’. One incident which juxtaposed Maureen’s domestic life with that of her humanitarian work was when her camp was shot at and she remembers lying on the floor thinking, ‘I don’t want to die on my own in a foreign country’. Maureen was traumatized when she came home from Somalia. She arrived back just before Christmas and found it difficult to focus on the ordinary tasks in life and counted her blessings to have a safe, family environment to be within.
She continued her journey in the 1980’s with a visit to Swaziland on the border of Mozambique, after the devastating civil war visiting the refugee camps. By the early 1990’s Maureen was again helping in Somalia, a country where civil strife and starvation were rampant.
In 1993 after a life-changing meeting with Mother Teresa, Maureen’s humanitarian journey brought her back to India. She was horrified by the scale of poverty in Calcutta and decided to volunteer with an Irish organisation based in the city. While there she helped set up schools in the slums and learned that the key to the success of slum children’s education was to involve the mothers in the education process, allowing them to be the real change makers.
Following this, Maureen worked in the emergency relief camps in Rwanda after the genocide in 1994. She spent her time in Africa working directly on the ground to save lives and rebuild destroyed communities. However, India was never far from Maureen’s mind.
In 1999, in order to help and support the street and slum children of Kolkata, she founded The Hope Foundation (HOPE) in Cork. 21 years on, HOPE now provides support in four key areas:
- Child Protection including 10 residential child protection homes;
- Healthcare including the HOPE Hospital
- Education including 40 education centres
- Vocational Training including training programmes offering places in computers, tailoring, and service industry training.
HOPE also provides drug rehabilitation, anti-trafficking programmes and a human hand to hold in difficult times.
Under Maureen’s leadership and dedication, HOPE has grown from a small organisation of only 8 projects and 24 staff members to an organisation which runs 60 projects alongside the assistance of 14 grass root organisations. Maureen has also established branches of HOPE in the United Kingdom, Germany, India and the USA.
Since 2003, Maureen has also been working with secondary students across Ireland through HOPE’s Development Education Programme. Each year hundreds of students from Irish schools visit HOPE projects in Kolkata. Maureen believes that understanding and witnessing the reality of poverty empowers teenagers in Ireland to make a difference to their community and become more socially conscious global citizens throughout the rest of their lives.
Maureen continues to work tirelessly, on a voluntary un-salaried basis, in Ireland and India. She has never taken a salary as she feels she has chosen to do this with her life. Guiding HOPE staff and volunteers in Ireland, the UK and Kolkata, Maureen has ensured that to date HOPE has impacted the lives of over 2.9 million individuals who reside in Kolkata’s slums and throughout the city’s streets.