It was the gentle touch of a small boy's hand on Sandra McKersey's hand that sparked a desire to make life better for orphans living in Bangladesh.

"This little boy put his hand on mine as they were all crowding around me to have their photo taken and I thought this is too beautiful. I wanted to see where these boys slept and lived. I was heartbroken with what I saw.

"There were 50 of them sleeping in what I would describe looked like a chicken coop. It reminded me of what you would find on the back of a New Zealand farm, like a very dilapidated chook house."

The rusty, corrugated iron shack with an earth floor was overcrowded, boiling hot in summer and wet and miserable in the rainy season.

Before: The corrugated iron chicken coop structure that housed 50 orphan boys.
Before: The corrugated iron chicken coop structure that housed 50 orphan boys.

"I just thought this isn't good enough. Of course I fell in love with the boys in the orphanage. The youngest was 4 years old."

SANDRA, a 74-year-old great-grandmother, was visiting a sewing school situated in the grounds of the Alhaj Amizuddin Orphanage in the city of Narayanganj.
As a member of the Whangarei South Rotary Club for nearly 30 years, Sandra had become a part of the international organisation's team tasked to audit programmes funded through money donated for Rotary projects.

It was during an audit visit to the sewing school in 2015 that Sandra became aware of the appalling living conditions of the orphaned boys.

The Narayanganj District, near the capital city of Dhaka, has a population of about 2.2 million. The city is it an important hub of all major knitwear, garments, and textile industries and so the sewing school plays an important part of giving orphans and destitute women a chance to gain skills and earn money in the sewing industry.

After: The Sandra McKersey hall gets off the ground and now has two floors with one more to be completed.
After: The Sandra McKersey hall gets off the ground and now has two floors with one more to be completed.

While Sandra was contemplating the plight of the boys, she was approached by one of the staff, past district governor Jamal Uddin.

"I was standing in the grounds of this orphanage and a guy said 'I have the plans for a new three-storeyed dormitory.' He showed them to me and I thought 'you're dreaming' because it was such a huge undertaking and I couldn't see where the hell the money was going to come from."

BUT you quickly learn Sandra is a woman who makes things happen. She's a problem solver with passion and heaps of it.

"I was driving home and I thought I could start a project called Buy a Bed. I thought if I could sell a notion that if you buy a bed and you get your name on it I knew there would be a lot of people who would support that. But the $400 was never for a bed, it was always for the bricks for a building.


"I thought I could be part of the solution. I might not be able to do it all but I could make a start. Like with a lot of things in life you just have to make it happen. It's not going to happen if you sit and wait for other people to do it."

Boys dine in the old facility at the orphanage.
Boys dine in the old facility at the orphanage.

The idea took off and she raised US$30,000 with donations coming from all round the world, as well as Whangarei and Northland, for the joint project spearheaded by the Rotary Club of Midtown Narayanganj in Bangladesh and the Rotary Club of Whangarei South.

Fundraising continues and Sandra financially supports the project.

In January 2016 Sandra and her granddaughter Hannah visited the orphanage again to see the building in its early stages of construction. Much to her surprise there was a ceremony to mark the occasion and the progress.

"We did a tour of the ground floor in its rough stage. It was really exciting. You could see the beginnings of where things were going to go."

OVER the next 12 months Sandra had almost daily contact with project manager Tabih Hussain.

Sandra McKersey enjoys lunch with the boys in a brand-new dining area
Sandra McKersey enjoys lunch with the boys in a brand-new dining area

A return trip in February this year, with five members of the Whangarei South Rotary Club, led to another opening celebration with most of the ground floor complete.

Although Sandra was taken aback with a life-size mosaic of herself on the foyer wall and the dormitory carrying her name, she says it was a humbling experience.

"It was enough to make me cry, walking up there seeing my name on the building. It's seriously magnificent. I would sleep there no trouble. It seems to me it's not just a dormitory, it's got a touch of the Hilton."

Thirty-two boys had moved in and eventually the dormitory will house 125.
"When you see the children sitting at those desks it's beyond their wildest expectations that they would ever have that kind of facility to grow up in and learn. And it's not just them, it's the next lot and the next and the next.

Whangarei woman Sandra McKersey.
Whangarei woman Sandra McKersey.

"Over time thousands of young men will go through that place and the promise at the end of it is not about being well looked after — their potential will be released and it's more than that, it's about the strong connection with New Zealand."

The decision was made to continue with the next level and finally the top level.
"I think it means a lot in terms of self-respect for the boys and I think it means they are being compensated in some way for having such a terribly poor beginning in life. I think it means the world to them. I think they know someone does give a damn about them."
Not only are they more healthy, they have a whole lot of pride, they feel very blessed, Sandra says.

"It's an overwhelming feeling for a child to be taken from what was a chook house into a place where you have your own bed, desk and place to put your stuff."

Sandra will return early next year to monitor progress and finalise plans for the top floor.
She feels privileged to have been part of a passionate team that has made the dormitory a reality. Sandra also reveals another motivating factor.

Her husband Edwin, or "Eddie", died of cancer in 2011 after a seven-year fight with the disease.

"When my husband died I had to look at what I was going to do. I have to get up in the morning and have a purpose and do stuff that makes today count.

"I don't care how it is not necessarily in Bangladesh, but I want to make a difference.

"I know how short life can be. I lost my husband, after 45 years of marriage. He was 72 and died too soon and that happens to so many people. It could have been me but it's not and so I am privileged to have today and I'm bloody well going to use it.

"I'm not going to wither life away, that's my guiding philosophy and I'm quite driven about it. As a human being you have responsibility to cast aside the past and live today and friggen' well make a difference."

But she is quick to point out the progress of the dormitory project has only been possible because she has been a part of a passionate team.

"I've been part of a team who have been focused and there's been no stopping them. It's a driver in my life and my kids and grandchildren know if I drop dead tomorrow they are going to finish the project. It's terribly important to me.

"I can't assume tomorrow so I have to do it today. I have a sense of urgency about it because I want to see it finished."


To donate $400 to Buy a Bed and help with the continued building of the dormitory at the Alhaj Amizuddin Orphanage in the city of Narayanganj, send money to Whangarei South Rotary Club, account 03-0497-0313562-00. In particulars write your name and in the code write Buy a Bed.