“I LIKE to believe in what I do, “said Gifty Tawiah, whose skills range from journalism to bricklaying, and from plastering to helping to run police forces.
“I think that’s a thread through everything I’ve ever done — genuinely believing in the value of the cause.”
As box collection co-ordinator for the hospice, Gifty is in charge of 180 collectors who issue and gather about 10,000 boxes between them. People put their change in the boxes, then hand them in and, last year, the scheme raised about £90,000. Gifty is a volunteer collector herself, and she and her children each have a collecting box at home.
Gifty was born in Brekum, a small town in a central region of Ghana. The West African country won independence from Britain in 1957. Gifty is of Ashanti heritage. She has an older brother and sister.
“Dad was born in 1927,” she said. “He worked in the cocoa industry – cocoa is the biggest export. He used to organise coalitions of cocoa farmers and export large amounts.
He was also in politics and served as an MP in 1964 and 1965, in the first Parliament of independent Ghana.
“Mum was the headmistress of a primary school.”
Gifty’s parents split when she was a child. Her mum went to live in Britain and later sent for the children, which is why the eight- or nine-year-old Gifty found herself in Newcastle in the chilly February of 1979.
“I’m very fond of my Geordie roots,” she said. “I was there until I was 18 and went to the University of Sussex. I grew up in Jesmond. I went to a nice little primary school. I was the only black girl in my class and my year until sixth form when there were three black boys.”
There was occasional racism, but as Gifty was good not just at schoolwork but also at sports and music, she had a large circle of friends. On a couple of occasions, there was no option but to thump an ignorant bully, but it gave her no satisfaction.
“It upset me,” she said. “I was not raised like that. I was very upset that I had stooped that low.”
At the University of Sussex, Gifty did a year of Politics before becoming disenchanted and taking a year out as a clerk at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
“I could do most of my day’s work in an hour.”
She then went back to university, this time to study history.
In 1993, the graduate found herself in Swindon, working as a journalist on a national newspaper for young people called Youth Express. A year later, the editor left. Gifty, at the age of 24, was the new editor, and received a Cosmpolitan Woman of Achievement award for her work.
She later trained as a teacher, working at several local schools and ultimately joining Swindon College, where she was everything from a personal tutor to a key figure in a special scheme to give life skills to disadvantaged young people. She also demonstrated trade skills, but first she had to learn them.
“They said to me, ‘Would you like to teach this stuff?’ so I said to them, ‘Yes, if you’ll teach it to me.’ So I learned to lay bricks and to plaster, and wall and floor tiling. I worked with a carpenter who showed me how to use power tools. They do scare me a bit!”
Budget cutbacks in 2008 meant redundancy for Gifty and a new chapter in her life, this time as a member of Wiltshire police authority, a voluntary role with a small allowance. She was offered it after replying to a newspaper advert and going through rounds of tests and interviews.
“It was about strategic thinking,” she said. “It was about spending £108m of public money on bobbies on the streets, professional standards and appointing chief constables.”
Police authorities were disbanded last year and replaced by the office of elected Police and Crime Commissioners, a move Gifty regrets because the authority members were drawn from all walks of life and left politics at the door. Her Prospect role now satisfies her lifelong desire to make a difference.
Gifty’s advice to young people at the start of their careers?
“I think the best advice is not to be afraid to do the right thing. We often choose to do the fashionable thing or the thing that everybody else is doing, but if the right thing for you is going against the grain or isn’t fashionable or is considered old fashioned, don’t be afraid to do it.
“If it’s the right thing, it’s the right thing.”