SUPPORTING families in a remote region of The Gambia is a passion for the people behind the new charity Empower. The Swindon-based charity focuses on the African country’s central river region, which is often overlooked by other groups, and has developed from a project run single-handedly by Kingshill resident Jo Heaven, a mother-of-two, since she first went out in 2008.

Volunteers go out in a group generally every other year to help out in different ways, with a key mission being the installation of solar-powered lights, from the Cricklade-based charity, Lights for Learning, to enable youngsters to continue their education into the evenings. Now a new charity, Empower, has been established with five trustees, including Jo, to take the project forward and expand its fundraising to enable work to continue across the region, which has a poor electricity supply.

Jo, 49, who works as the student experience manager at Swindon College,said: “There’s no electricity or sometimes there are certain areas with electricity but it’s not for 24 hours – just four hours a day sometimes. The whole day in some areas there’s no electricity.

“It’s amazing to see the lights go on. It’s celebrations. We had a chief of a village who was crying – he’s an old man, he had never seen electricity before in the village. When we put them into Daru school, the whole school turned up that evening and wanted to learn.”

On the last trip in April, 12 volunteers, including six from Swindon, visited a school and a nursery school in the town of Bangsang, plus schools in the villages of Daru and Ndkiri Kunda.

There they installed solar-powered lights and led teacher-training in two schools, delivered first aid training in three communities, and helped to redecorate a nursery school.

They also handed out educational supplies, sports equipment, and bras, some of which were donated in Swindon, and some of which were bought with the £3,429 they raised before the trip. The group was working with the charity Lights for Learning, which makes the solar lights, and First Aid 4 Gambia.

Empower’s next trip is in March to install solar lights into two schools, run first aid training with First Aid 4 Gambia, and deliver resources to six schools and a hospital.

Momodou Dampha, 38, of central Swindon, who is originally from the central river region of The Gambia, is a consultant to the charity and says its work is particularly important as most charities and tourists only visit the country’s costal areas. He said: “I want to thank her very much because the area she’s concentrating on is the area I come from. I can just imagine how happy these guys are to see electricity, how happy they would be, and I’m thanking her so much for that and I’m working to support her all the way. ”

The charity is seeking to boost awareness and income, and since July has run frock swaps where people can donate unwanted quality items and pick up new and nearly new women’s, men’s and children’s clothes and shoes – with all proceeds going to Empower projects.

Eve Pocock, the new events manager, said: “We’re hoping to expand. We did a small fair this year. This year we will do spring, summer and winter fairs as well.

“We’re trying to raise the profile and really increase the income. We have been taking it slow and steady to build up a base of people who know about the charity.”

Empower is are also looking for people to sponsor eight children who cannot afford the £30 a year it costs to go to Agape nursery school. If anyone would like to sponsor one of the children, contact To find out more, visit