WHAT started with a young Toowoomba mother reaching out to a starving little boy in India has turned into a family affair of giving across the world.
Jan Drake was a young girl when her mother Joan Godsall responded to an advertisement in The Chronicle in Toowoomba calling for people to sponsor a child in India.
The advertisement was from the St Veronica Welfare Committee, which was then a fledgling organisation in Brisbane helping children in India living in poverty.
Sixty years on, Jan and her mum, now 97, are still dedicated to the work of St Veronica’s.
Jan said it all started with her mother sponsoring “a little boy in India called Wenceslaus, whose mother had died of starvation”.
“He was probably about eight or nine at the time … so I always knew about St Veronica’s, through Mum,” Jan said.
The family has been associated with St Veronica’s for almost the entire history of the group.
“(Eileen) Bennett had just founded St Veronica’s in 1956, but Mum sponsored in 1958, and she still writes to Wenceslaus,” Jan said.
“Then my (two) sisters and I sponsored children, and 25 years ago I thought I’d go and volunteer (with St Veronica’s).”
Jan and her husband Frank Drake, a former representative rugby league player for Toowoomba, Brisbane, Queensland and Australia, were living in Brisbane.
Married in 1964, they have five daughters and 13 grandchildren.
“Now actually my daughters sponsor (children) through St Veronica’s and now my grandchildren are sponsoring as well, so it’s four generations now sponsoring through St Veronica’s,” she said.
Jan said her mother, a convert to Catholicism, was not one for having “a house full of holy pictures”.
Her faith is expressed through actions.
Jan said her mother and father, Geoffrey Godsall, were both keen to sponsor a child in India.
She said her mum felt strongly about overseas aid for children, “because back in the ’50s, remember there was a lot of problems in India”.
“In fact, at school I always remember praying for India because (the food shortage) was very bad,” she said.
Jan was drawn to follow her mother’s example “because I knew how (St Veronica’s) worked and I knew that (it) had the thrift shop (funding the work) and we knew that the donations got through and made a difference to people’s lives”.
“I knew it worked because Wenceslaus finished his education and then he wrote and said, ‘I want to become a priest’, and then Mum still supported him right through to get him into the priesthood,” she said.
“Then at one stage he was sent to study at the Gregorian University in Rome, which was really fantastic.
“But I do remember him saying, ‘Yes, but I’ll never forget what it was like to cry myself to sleep as a child, because I was so hungry’.”
Jan continues to support St Veronica’s as a volunteer and as the committee’s vice-president, having already served many years as president.
She is sponsoring three girls in India whose father deserted them and whose mother died of cancer.
“I told the priest (who was ministering to the family) to tell their mother when she was dying of cancer that I will make sure they will get their education right through to as far as I can do, and I will support them,” she said.
“Because I couldn’t imagine anything worse than being poor and female in a third world country. That would be pretty tough.”
Jan is starting to see the girls’ lives turn around.
“It was terrible when their mother died. I thought, ‘How much worse can things get for these children?’,” she said. “There was the eldest girl and then twins, and then the husband deserted them when they were little.
“The mother actually was kicked out of her house, and the priest found her a room to rent.
“She earned $50 a month and out of that she had to pay $20 a month rent.
“But she did own a block of land, so my family all put together and we actually built a house, which only cost $5000.
“Soon after we built the house and we thought everything’s fine, the mother got cancer and died. It was terrible.
“It’s been a couple of years now, and I got photos the other day of them growing into lovely young ladies, and they’re healthy and well, and their aunty looks after them.”
Knowing the success of St Veronica’s in helping children out of poverty, and believing in the way it works, motivates Jan to continue.
“And I especially keep going at the moment because I’ve got the three little girls in India who I’m supporting,” she said.
What makes St Veronica’s so special was “the fact that we’re all volunteers and the thrift shop covers our expenses”, Jan said.
“Also, everybody’s donation, 100 per cent, goes to whatever people donate to, either a child or an appeal,” she said. “We can guarantee that 100 per cent of that donation goes (to the people in need).
“So we’re probably one of the most unique charities in Australia. There would be very few that could say 100 per cent of that donation goes (to the people in need).”
St Veronica’s sponsors more than 1500 children, mainly in India, and it supports a religious sister in running a health practice in Papua New Guinea, and the ministry of other sisters in East Timor.
This practical work is key for Jan.
“I always say, ‘Faith without works is dead’…,” she said.
By Peter Bugden