TWO local girls are jetting off to Africa for four weeks this summer to volunteer with the Friends of Africa charity.
Maria Goldring, a former St Louis Grammar school pupil and Niamh McNally, a former St Patrick's College student will each be dedicating four weeks to work in harsh conditions, helping some of the most vulnerable members of African society.
The Friends of Africa charity is associated with the SMA Fathers, a Catholic missionary organisation, also known as as The Society of African Missions.
Niamh explains that she has attended the Dromantine retreat for 10 years. The centre is located just outside Newry and is a residence for retired SMA priests. It was here that Niamh became aware of the Missionary work in Africa and she signed up to volunteer in South Africa.
Maria is no stranger to the African continent having previously carried out voluntary work in Zambia with Friends of Africa as well as visiting some of the poorest parts of Romania with the School Aid Romania project.
This time, Maria will be taking on a leadership role in Tanzania.
Maria told the Guardian: "I attended St Louis Grammar School and what was at the forefront throughout my time there was a charitable aspect - the need to give to others less fortunate.
"We have been brought up with that idea and I went on to take part in our School Aid Romania project.
"I spent a week in Romania and it really gave a taste of the poverty that is out there. When you grow up in the town, you are really just living in a bubble. You don't understand what poverty is until you see it first hand and seeing it made me want to do more to try and help.
"I previously volunteered in Zambia and will be returning this year to Tanzania as a leader.
"Tanzania has one of the longest running Summer Camp style schools where children are given the opportunity to learn core subjects such as English and Maths.
"We will also teach basic healthcare and basic hygiene and our aim is to provide a base to work on to encourage a more sustainable way of life.
"My first trip to Africa was very intense, it was extremely eye opening.
"We worked in a homeless shelter which provided refuge for young boys. It was really shocking but rewarding.
"Volunteering in places like this has such an impact on you. What you don't realise is how much you actually take away from it yourself.
"It was an incredible experience and I feel I have a real connection to Africa now."
Niamh will be volunteering in South Africa for the first time and admits that although she is looking forward to the opportunity, she is also a little apprehensive.
She said: "I am a bit nervous as this is the first time I have ever done anything like this and I have never been away anywhere for a month.
“My mum is quite anxious and I think it stems from the unknown.
"My parents have never been to Africa, I have never been to Africa and it is really not knowing the environment you are walking into.
"However, I am inspired by hearing other people's experiences and I hope I can help make a difference while I am there.
"The charity is well organised, we get all our vaccinations and we will be in contact with the SMA Fathers.
"There are good connections and we will be able to contact our families while we are there.
"One of the projects we will be working on will be providing teaching and care to children of mining families - children whose parents leave each day to work in gruelling conditions in local mines. They work long hours in harsh conditions and the pay is poor.
"We will be looking after their children in a summer camp. What I am worried about is building connections with the children and then having to leave after four weeks. I will be wondering about them, their progress and how they are doing."
The girls each have to raise £3,000, with all proceeds going directly towards the projects they will be working on. They recently held a fundraising Coffee Morning in All Saints Parish Centre and are busy organising a Table Quiz.
They said: "Hosting these events gives us the chance to speak to people and assure them that any donation will go straight to the charity.
"This is not about raising money to pay for our passage or keep over there - this is about raising money where every penny goes straight to the projects and straight to the children we aim to help.
"People have been so generous so far and some local businesses have even donated items for raffles such as the Spar in Dunclug, the Pizza Parlour and Galgorm Resort and Spa where Niamh works. Our local GAC club All Saints has also got on board and we would like to thank everyone who has donated or supported us in any way".
The girls are counting down the weeks until they jet off to Africa, with Maria departing in June and Niamh following shortly after.
Maria will also be completing a relay leg of the Belfast Marathon next week to boost funds. If you would like to donate to this very worthy cause you can do so by logging on to just giving and searching for either Maria Goldring or Niamh McNally.