This woman's world-saving mission started with 176 sewing machines.

While the Ebola crisis sweeping through West Africa is easy to ignore, a Brisbane woman has refused to turn a blind eye.

Jane Shakespeare is a yoga-loving graphic designer who started a charity for an orphanage in Sierra Leone that will bring hope to those left orphaned by the deadly virus. She and her family, husband Jeremy and son Harry, live in Brisbane. The contrast between life in West Africa’s Sierra Leone and this lush little pocket of Queensland is extreme. But Jane has a soul tie with the Ebola-ravaged country.

The Shakespeare family.

It was while Jane was living in the quaint, historic town of Warwick, England that she had her first introduction to Sierra Leone, one of the poorest countries on earth. While studying for her economics degree at Warwick University, Jane became interested in micro-credit and the impact it had on women’s lives. She was introduced to an organisation called One World Link which already had ties between her home town of Warwick and Bo Town in Sierra Leone. The country had been through a brutal civil war during the ’90s and thousands of young men were murdered. Women had become the backbone of their society and increasingly, the only hope for their children’s education and future.

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Jane’s university agreed to sponsor her trip to Bo Town, Sierra Leone and in February, 2006, she spent two weeks visiting women’s groups gaining insight into how these industrious women supported their families through a small kick-start loan. Back in England, she didn’t forget these resourceful women and immediately set about collecting donations of sewing machines.

“I placed an advert in the local newspaper asking for non-electric sewing machines to be donated to send out to the women’s groups I’d come across. I thought I might get 20 or so but ended up collecting 176 which was quite overwhelming,” she says.

Image via St. Mary’s Children’s Home Charity Facebook.

While in Sierra Leone, Jane had also met Father Peter Konteh, founder of St Mary’s Children’s Home, an orphanage in Bo Town, Sierra Leone. Fr. Konteh later travelled to England and the two became good friends. So much so, that Jane and Jeremy began the process of adopting a young girl from the orphanage.

“We soon discovered, however, that the international adoptive procedure was very complicated and expensive and we could do far more to help by sending money to the orphanage. I was so concerned about the home’s long-term survival that I subsequently offered to set up a website so people could donate.”

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Little did she know how important her gesture would become. In March, 2014, the Ebola virus took hold of West Africa. The World Health Organisation called it “the largest and most complex Ebola outbreak” since being discovered in 1976.

As of 24th December 2014, WHO estimates Ebola has claimed the lives of close to 7,588 people, although more realistic figures cite more than 12 000. There have been more than 2,366 confirmed deaths in Sierra Leone.

Image via St. Mary’s Children’s Home Charity Facebook.

Thousands were left orphaned and Father Konteh relayed that St Mary’s resources were stretched to capacity and raising money was becoming increasingly urgent. Jane felt powerless to help. She realised that the only way to assist was to set up an Australian-based charity and raise awareness here.


She began posting haunting, confronting images about the Ebola crisis on Facebook, giving a face to those impacted by its cruel cycle. Often, her passion was met with cynicism, especially when she began campaigning for governments to step in. She refused to give up her quest and slowly, the message seemed to be getting across.

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“I was overwhelmed by the generous hearts of everyday Australians, I even had people in my yoga class approaching me,” she says.

As if the charity wasn’t enough to take on board, Jane’s heart had capacity for far more. While visiting Bo, Sierra Leone, she had also met poet, Josaya Bangali, who had written revealing prose about the 10-year civil war that had destroyed his country.

Image via St. Mary’s Children’s Home Charity Facebook.

“I promised him that I would put his poems into a book, get them printed and sell them on his behalf. In 2008, I did a graphic design course, set myself up as a self-publisher and had 500 books printed. I currently sell them on a website I created for Josaya and he receives 100% of the proceeds.”

The relationship didn’t end there. Josaya had a daughter, Manjia, a community nurse in Sierra Leone who desperately wanted to further her nursing studies in a developed country. Again, this slight, big-hearted, adoptive Australian woman stepped in to help.

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“I helped her apply to the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane and she received on offer to do a Bachelor of Nursing degree. To do so, she would need funding and a sponsor, something that was proving increasingly difficult to facilitate.

“It all could have ended there, but Jane sat down with her family and discussed the possibility of financing Manjia—paying for her studies and hosting her while she completed her three-year degree. After careful thought, the family decided to offer sponsorship—a move that was not without its concerns and difficulties.

Image via St. Mary’s Children’s Home Charity Facebook.

“It was not a case of this wealthy, spoiled family deciding to do their bit. We’ve had to make sacrifices,” says Jane. That included inviting Manjia’s young son to come and live with them too.

It’s taking months for the plan to eventuate and there’s still a long way to go, given all travel from Sierra Leone to Australia is currently banned, but Jane is optimistic all the months of red tape will be worth it. And she hopes her story will inspire others that all it takes is one small step to make a difference.

“It is inspiring to think we are capable of reaching out and helping in whatever little way we can. I consider myself an average person—not particularly special—all I did was to help the only way I knew how,” she says.

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