• Katy Rigg

Amy's Small Steps

It was Jeremy Corbyn’s black size 8 work shoes that first introduced me to Amy (his only pair, I was soon to learn). His picture popped up on my Facebook feed, as he is one of the 81 celebrities to donate their footwear for the largest celebrity shoe auction in the world, a fundraising event of the Small Steps Project. Amy is the CEO of the charity, so I reached out to her to ask if she would speak to me for my blog, given our mutual interest in shoes.

She kindly agreed to speak with me on Sunday night, despite the fact that the shoe auction was due to finish any day, and whilst she was simultaneously liaising with builders in the office and taking care of a dog. We talked for a good hour, and at various points throughout the conversation, when she broke off to talk about ‘plywood’ or ‘walkies’, I realised that she was a woman juggling many plates.

For sixty minutes, Amy was a complete force of nature. She spoke with passion and gusto about her charity work, about politics and celebrity culture, about the environment and shoes, and about all that is wrong with the world.

Her story is absolutely inspiring and incredible. I hope I can do it justice.

Graduating from UEA and Goldsmiths with a master’s degree in Journalism and Creative Writing, Amy utilised both skill sets by working as a story builder for The Discovery Centre in Stratford. She helped children whose first language was not English to tell stories and improve their literacy. For five years, she was also a journalist for the Mail on Sunday, moving in circles with A-list celebrities such as Chris Martin, Kate Moss and Sienna Miller. I am slightly taken aback when she references these celebrity contacts. This humble woman, who is so grateful to me for writing about her, is kind of a big deal.

After a while, Amy grew tired of the glitzy and glamorous lifestyle. It was vacuous and unfulfilling, and she’d had enough of dedicating her every waking moment to Rupert Murdoch.

In 2009, she decided to take a break from London, and went over to Asia to travel and volunteer. She felt that she could put her skills of teaching English to good use, and ended up in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, volunteering at an HIV hospice.

“There were so many people in this hospice, including children, and I knew that it couldn’t help everyone in the city. I asked where the others were, the ones who weren’t here having treatment. I was not at all prepared for the response I got.”

Amy was taken to Stung Meanchey, a 100 acre rubbish dump on the outskirts of the capital. Children as young as 3 years old waded barefoot through toxic nappies, needles, broken glass and rotting animals, searching for rubbish to be recycled. These tiny children were naked, hungry and extremely vulnerable.

“I vowed that I needed to do something to help. I was wearing wellington boots and everyone kept asking me if they could have them. The enormity of the problem I was facing was so overwhelming, but straight away I could see one small step I could take to help them.”

It was in that moment that the Small Steps Project began.

Amy returned to the UK with the intention of raising £3000 to buy wellington boots for the families working on the dump. Through a Facebook campaign, she quickly generated the needed funds to buy the boots, and was approached by a production company who asked her to make a documentary about her mission.

Six months later, she headed back to Cambodia with some borrowed film equipment to document the trip. She distributed thousands of pairs of adults’ and children’s boots to grateful crowds of people, and Amy knew that this was just the beginning.

The documentary aired to a small crowd back in the UK, including the editor of the Daily Mail. After being reduced to tears by the content of the film, she offered Amy a triple page spread in Femail to tell her story. Within two weeks, she had raised 40k.

Amy soon realised that this was about to get a whole lot bigger than wellington boots. She thought about the unjust discrepancies between people in the West compared with people living on rubbish dumps. How could it be fair that some people have an excess of everything while others have nothing? She thought about the celebrities she used to know - the sports stars, the pop stars, all the members of the elite super rich. She wondered how she could enable these big names to use their power and influence for good.

The idea for the auction came from her journalist days. She knew that celebrities were always being used for “click bait” - to be seen wearing a brand or a product, to encourage people to buy something. If people could buy the actual shoes worn by their idols, they would pay big money.

“I knew that if everyone I’d ever interviewed gave me a pair of their shoes, I could do loads of good with the money raised.” She’s a real life Robin Hood of shoes.

She exploited all the contacts she’d ever made in the industry, to make a desperate plea for their signed footwear, and she set up an auction site to allow the public to bid on them. This was back in 2010, and the eighth one is due to end tomorrow.

The most recent auction has been supported by Katy Perry, Idris Elba, Michael Caine, Dame Judy Dench, Benedict Cumberbatch and Emma Watson to name but a few.

“I think the reason so many celebrities want to get involved,” she said. “Is because it’s so real. We have no marketing campaign, no TV ads, nobody harassing members of the public on the street – we’re just two people in an office working sixty hours a week to raise as much money as we can to help people in need. The concept of the auction is so simple: People bid on the shoes, we turn it into money, we deliver the aid. We know and they know, that all these big charities with enough money to go on TV, don’t really need your help. We’re like a small corner shop competing with a supermarket chain. We need every bit of help we can get.”

The work that Amy and her team of volunteers have done is life-changing for the people living on rubbish dumps. They have identified hundreds of sites around the world, but their work so far has taken place in Cambodia, Romania and Nicaragua.

It’s not as simple as closing the rubbish dumps and finding somewhere else for these people to live. Families rely on the dumps as a source of income and there is clearly a great need for this makeshift system of recycling. Instead, Small Steps Project spend the money on setting up CSCs – “Children’s Support Centres” – near to where the rubbish dumps are, with the aim of getting children off the sites and into education. The CSCs are run by local people, and provide a place for children to wash and eat before going to school, a place to do their homework and a place to have access to medical care. With these basic needs being met, they are in more of a position to prosper and learn. During the day, when the older children are at school, the centres are used as nurseries for children under six, providing free childcare to parents who are working on the dumps.

When Amy first went to Phnom Penh, there were 64 children living and working on the Stung Meanchey dump. These children are now all in school, with the local CSC taking care of 84 children in total.

The journey hasn’t been at all easy, and some countries have been less receptive to intervention to others. In Romania, where they have the worst recycling figures in the EU, billions of pounds were given to help improve the country’s environmental structure. Small Steps Project was drafted in to help with the humanitarian aspect of people living on the Pata Rat dump in Cluj, Transylvania - a 22 acre rubbish site home to 80 families, and another 2,100 other people in the surrounding areas. Smalls Steps Project went over to offer emergency aid to children and to provide access to education. Amy tells me that corruption within the local government, and widespread racism towards Roma people, meant that they were fighting against many conspiring forces to keep these children exactly where they were.

“After we’d intervened, we went back to Cluj to check on the progress of the children, and every single one of them was back on the rubbish dump. They all had intestinal parasites and scabies, and there wasn’t a doctor in sight at the medical centre we’d set up. There was a sign on the door, but it was fake. The building was empty.”

Small Steps Project is continuing to work hard with the local municipality there, the UN and other NGOs to help provide these much needed services to the people on and around the Pata Rat site.

Amy has big plans for the future of the organisation. She continues to work insanely long hours to lead fundraising events like the Celebrity Shoe Auction, and she spends her time doing as much marketing and PR as she and her small team of volunteers can manage. She continues to work on the ground, making six or seven trips a year delivering aid and managing projects around the rubbish dump sites, as well as managing the nurseries from afar. The organisation strives to be the bridge between ‘scavenging’ and ‘education’, providing dignity and the chance of a brighter future to some of the world’s most destitute children.

There are long term goals too; to provide a solution to ‘third world recycling’ and thus put an end to these horrendous working conditions for all people working on the dumps. Amy knows that the solution exists; it involves turning the dumps into established recycling plants, converting waste into energy, formalising the employment structure so people have training and wages and security.

These are Amy’s hopes and dreams for the future and she knows that they won’t be achieved over night. But she does know they are possible. Absolutely everything is possible when you approach it in small steps.

The Small Steps Celebrity Shoe Auction ends on Tuesday 21st November at 20:00. Click here to visit the auction site.

For more information about Small Steps Project and other ways to donate, please go to their website.

You can also follow Small Steps Project on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook using the handle: @SmallStepsProject

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