Try telling Queenstown humanitarian Sue van Schreven she’s a modern-day saint and she laughs politely and shrugs it off.
But it’s hard to think otherwise – the founder of Orphans Aid International works tirelessly for hundreds of orphaned, abandoned and homeless children in third world countries.
Over the past six years, Van Schreven has grown her once-fledgling charity into a successful organisation that runs four children’s homes in Romania, Russia, India and Nepal, providing kids with food, medicine, education and transport, plus also offering support to needy Kiwi families.
It was a chance trip to help out at a Romanian hospital seven years ago that sparked the mum-of-two’s desire to do more than just offer short-term assistance to needy, institutionalised youngsters.
“I remember thinking when I first met them, if these were my children, what would I do? What would you stop at if you knew your child was in need? They didn’t have anybody and they needed to have someone who will fight on their behalf.”
Van Schreven, 45, recalls one three-year-old Romanian orphan, Andre, who she first met in hospital: “He was in his cot 24-7. He couldn’t talk, walk or eat. So it was quite a trauma for him to go to the home.”
She returned to New Zealand in a determined mood and managed to find a building, staff and kids in central Romania. Within six weeks Casa Kiwi was up and running.
The Ayushki centre in Russia followed in 2006. Special OAI fostering programmes help find permanent homes for kids.
But the early days weren’t easy – in the first year of operation little money came in from fundraising which meant Van Schreven and her husband Carl had to personally pay to keep the centres going.
In 2006 came the breakthrough – an $85,000 cheque from Vodafone that stopped Van Schreven from going broke.
Further donations and supplementary money from Orphans Aid International op-shop stores in Invercargill and Dunedin helped establish homes in India and Nepal in 2007.
A TV documentary by award-winning Kiwi film-maker Rob Harley that aired in 2008 opened the work of OAI up to a wider audience and suddenly the money started flowing in.
“That was a huge break-through for us,” Van Schreven explains.
“When you’re trying to raise money for kids how can you put money into marketing? You just can’t.”
Thanks to some generous Kiwis, special projects, funding from charitable trusts and “a lot of miracles”, OAI now sends about $20,000 overseas a month. Van Schreven regularly travels over to check progress and keeps in contact with each child and their new families.
“There’re always more kids so there’s always more that we’re doing to raise money. That’s the dilemma. How can you say ‘no’?”
OAI also runs its annual Cars for Christmas fundraising drive which provides vehicles to transport kids, search for family members and deliver aid.
2011 brings fresh challenges for Van Schreven.
She hopes to raise enough money for a “half-way house” and social worker based in Northland.
“New Zealand doesn’t have orphanages and the needs are very different, but they’re needs nonetheless.”
She’s also taking three months’ sabbatical leave to write a book on her experiences, plus exploring options for more orphanages in Uganda, Bangladesh and the Ukraine.
“There are 150 million orphaned children worldwide so the needs are horrendous.
“You can come back to NZ and forget about it. But when you see those kids there and think, we have the power to change their lives, you can actually do an awful lot.”