A-level student Letty McMaster knew exactly what she wanted to do on her gap year after school – so she headed off to Africa.
But backpacking, sightseeing and heading home with a tan and incredible memories before starting uni were far from her mind.
At just 18, kind-hearted Letty wanted to spend a month doing volunteer work at an orphanage.
But the physical and mental abuse experienced by the children she met when she got there was to change this remarkable woman’s life for ever.
Because Letty ended up staying at the orphanage for three years, battling to protect the exploited youngsters – and when it was shut down she adopted nine who would have been made homeless.
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Now 26 she is legal guardian to 14 orphaned youngsters at a home she runs in Tanzania.
Letty, who pays for their upkeep and education through a UK charity she set up, says: “These children are my whole life. They keep me going through the long hours of juggling everything.
“I’m the parental figure in the house. Some of the little boys who never had a parent view me as their mum – but most see me more as a big sister as I’m not that much older than some of them.”
And what an incredible big sister.
And what a family.
One of her boys, Eliah, was found on the streets in winter wearing just a T-shirt after his mum died. Now he’s in the top 20 pupils in his year at his school.
Fred, 11, had not eaten for days when he was spotted cowering in a dump in 2019. Now he has been accepted into a prestigious football academy.
Iddy lost both parents at two and ended up in street gangs. Letty took him in four years ago and he is now a talented musician, played on local radio.
But Letty, who now speaks fluent Swahili, keeps all of them as well-grounded as she is.
“I’m just like any mum raising teenagers,” she says. “I made a commitment to them and I feel so blessed to have two families.”
Her mum and dad, of Tunbridge Wells, Kent, were concerned when their daughter announced her gap year plans in 2012.
“They were obviously worried about me being so far away,” she says. “But my family and friends have always been supportive. I chose Tanzania after seeing figures that showed hundreds of thousands of children living on the streets.”
But when Letty arrived in regional capital Iringa for her month-long stint at the orphanage she soon realised the youngsters were being physically and mentally abused.
Letty claims staff only fed the kids once a day and pocketed cash donated for schooling by tourists. She says there was also physical and sexual abuse taking place.
“Many orphanages are like this,” she says. “It’s all just a money-making scheme and an exploitation of the children. The abuse was horrendous. I’m sure Westerners donating money thought they were helping but they were causing so much damage.
“I wanted to create a place for the children to call home where they would be safe and loved and no longer treated as if they were in a zoo.” When the orphanage was closed by the council in 2016, Letty fought for the right to open her own home in Iringa for the nine children left homeless.
She founded Street Children Iringa as a UK charity to raise money for running the home as well as medical and schooling needs.
And since then she has taken on another five youngsters after meeting them on the streets. Letty – who has two trusted workers “their aunties” helping her – lives in Iringa nine months of the year, returning to the UK to fundraise through sponsored events and an annual charity ball – and to continue her education.
She did make uni eventually – getting a degree in development studies from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
Back in Tanzania, Letty had to squeeze revision and essays into the few hours after the children went to bed. She’s single – and says she would love children of her own one day – but has “no time for dating”.
She says: “I can’t give you a normal day here – it changes all the time. It’s a 12-hour day, if not longer. It’s a family home.
“When everyone is back from school, they all have stories to share and homework, football training and music commitments.”
Along with Eliah, Fred and Iddy, Letty’s rescued children go from strength to strength.
“Since having a place to call home, they have all excelled in education and in every aspect of their lives,” she says. “Gosberth, who’s been here for seven years, is now at one of Tanzania’s top private schools.
Eva is 19 and chair of her year at university.
“Razarlo is studying to be a tour guide at the national park.” Like Iddy, Pishon writes music that is played on the radio. “Seeing their drive, determination and success makes all the balancing I have to do worth it.”
Letty also runs a safe house, open three days a week, where the city’s street children can get shelter and food. Accompanied by her eldest boys, she scours Iringa at night to find homeless children.
“There are always more that need help,” she says. “The most challenging thing is getting the funding.
“Over the next five years, my plan is to help as many off the streets as possible. If they are not guided on a path, they often get caught up in gangs, with the risk of jail or even ending up dead.
“The more donations the charity can get, the more children who are supported in a life off the streets.”