Inspirational Women- Natascha Barrymore

Natascha is a truly inspirational woman who has followed her heart. You’ll love her story!

Natascha, your career has taken an unusual path over last few years. Can you give us a summary of what your role/job/ career is now?

Chance International

I am the founder of a charity and live in the ‘field’ in a small remote village in Indonesia, which means I live my job and am on call 24/7 as we work in health as well as education. My role is to facilitate and identify the community needs as well as build the capacity of the community to bring itself out of poverty through education and skills training.

I am very hands on taking an active part in all our programs so my days are very unpredictable and varied. I might be showing a child how to hold a pencil in the morning then by lunch in hospital trying to find blood for another child about to have an operation. Then spend the night working on a proposal for funding….

How did that come about? With hindsight, had there been other incidents or events in your life which were leading in this direction?

Tsunami

At the time of the Tsunami I was living in Greece and was deeply moved by the events unfolding on the television as the news started to trickle out. I can remember waking up one morning and the death toll having risen by 50,000, I was crying my eyes out and thought if it really bothers you so much go there and help. I just had this need to go, the reports were repeatedly saying that there was a lack of organization; working for a company representing airlines on a Greek island organization was a skill I had put to plenty of use.

Volunteer

I had volunteered myself to all the aid organizations but as I did not have a degree in international development, aid work experience or being a health worker I was refused. I still believed it was something I had to do so I packed a bag and booked a ticket and went independently.

Nothing that I had seen on television prepared me for what I saw, the silence of the devastation was deafening; there are no words to describe it, but it was the survivors that were important.

Having been granted permission to sleep on the floor of the hospital, my first project was finding two incomplete medical teams, one from Afghanistan having doctors but no medicine or transport the other from Turkey with no doctors but had medicine and transport. I put the two together creating a mobile medical team who were prepared to travel into the conflict zone to give the much needed medical care to those who had fled there. At the time the international teams were not allowed into those areas, so there were so many in desperate need and I managed to gain permission. It was during this period that I met the villagers of Lam Asan where I now live.

Answer to Prayers?

I thought my prayers had been answered when an aid agency offered me a job.  After a few weeks of living in a wonderful house I found myself being driven from one air con office to another for meeting after meeting but not seeing any results on the ground. I began to feel that I could be and should be doing much more for those courageous survivors who were struggling with very day task of survival.

Then a little girl aged only 4 months suffering from hydrocephalus came to my attention. She needed an operation urgently to save her life but nobody seemed to be interested in her. Eventually having secured surgeons and funding and taken her to Jakarta for the operation I was contacted by 7 other children with the same condition. A fund and system was set up to help them receive the lifesaving medical care. It was at this point that I went independent again, I found I could actually do something and it was not so difficult.

This was not all as selfless as it might appear, not being a doctor but at the end of the day before going to sleep as I would think of each day I had experience I was able to say I had changed or saved a life. That was an incredible feeling, I was doing something worth while with my life. I had found my purpose.

Cross Roads

I was at a cross roads of my life, do I continue with this work or do I return to Europe and continue with my life and maybe get married and start a family?

One day in a camp as this question was going through my mind, I looked at the children around me and thought do I really need children of my own when I have so many here? The decision was made.

However if this was going to be a long term plan things needed to be organized and a formal organization set up to facilitate my work. That is how Chance International was born.

I don’t think there was one single incident that led me to this, I had always been taught to help others. As a child my mother encouraged me to do shopping for elderly people in the area, when we lived in the Middle East I went with my mother to fishing villages to give medicine (she was not a doctor, but at the time we led a very privileged Ex pat life).

I think I am ncredibly privileged to be in a position to give, isn’t that what life is all about?

How influential/ supportive have your family been? Or your partner if you have one?

I do not have a partner, what sane European would want to live permanently in a village with a sporadic electricity supply and water that can not be drunk pulled up from the well? And with a woman who will always put the 180 odd children first?

Mother Knows Best!

My mother was very supportive; when I first told her I wanted to go she just said yes, you have to.  I later asked how could she have let her daughter go to a disaster and conflict zone, a country she had never been to, not knowing a single person nor speaking a word of Indonesian. She replied that even if she had advised me against  it I wouldn’t have listened. She knows me well!

My mother has been there for me throughout this journey of mine 100% and is now a trustee of the charity. I now see great parallels in our lives she left Germany of England when she was young, eventually became an acupuncturist, got involved in the plight of Afghan widows and refugees. I left England for Greece, became an aromatherapist and got involved with the Acehnese. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Do you remember what your first paid job was? How much did you earn?

I must have been about 12 and was furious at my mother that she did not have the money to buy the skirt that I wanted. I left the house in a teenage huff. I returned with the skirt after finding a Saturday job in the Portobello Road, I think I got 6 pounds for the day.

What were your career thoughts when you left school?

I really can’t remember, I was just so happy to have left school although I enrolled in college for the same year. I had thought of volunteering with Mother Teresa in Calcutta (my father is from there), but at 16 I was too young. Being the 80’s I remember I wanted a job that paid well but was also somehow ‘ethical’ As a child I had wanted to be a doctor. I ‘fell’ into fashion retail and was soon a buyer. Although I liked it and was well paid I felt I was not really fulfilled and my potential challenged. If I do anything I do it 100% and achieve my targets, but I get bored after that quite easily.

Did you have a plan initially (your aviation career?) and if so did you actually follow it?

No, I was a bit of a drifter eventually drifting to Greece. There I decided I wanted a job that would fit into my life, rather than my life to my job. I returned to school and learnt aromatherapy massage and beauty therapy, later opening my own salon. Which after it reached the point of having a two week waiting list, I again got bored and ‘fell’ into aviation.

I learnt a lot and was so happy, you never knew what was going to happen the next minute and I loved dealing with all the passenger problems. I found I had a way of calming people even in the most stressful situations. If I had not gone to Indonesia after the Tsunami I am sure I would still be there and still enjoying it.

When were you happiest? What makes you most feel most content?

Since I first went to Aceh, it has always been when I am there. I am very privileged to be seeing the progress of our children on a daily level, be it a child writing her first a,b,c or a child who a few weeks ago could not recognize Indonesia on the world map, recognizing Chad on a photograph of earth from the moon. They inspire me so much and to be able to give them the gift of education and or health that we take for granted makes me feel I am doing something worthwhile. There is no better feeling for me, that doesn’t mean I don’t get frustrated or angry sometimes!

What do you think is the secret of happiness?

Accepting yourself faults included, doing your best and giving to others

How do you relax?

Relaxation is hard for me in the village. I enjoy reading but when I need company I visit a friend who has 4 children in the village. We sit on a piece of plastic on the cement floor, drink a coffee and watch and listen to the children play, making their own toys with an old box or plastic bag and a lot of imagination. There is nothing in that house but I am always amazed by the amount of joy that fills its walls.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in life?

To trust: so many times ‘bad’ things have happened which leads to the unanswerable question Why? It’s only later you are thankful for some of those things as it’s brought me where I am today. I was 9 years old when I was told by a wise woman that everything we experienced in our lives was to prepare us for today.

Who has been the most significant and or influential person in your life?

My mother, she is an exceptionally strong woman who has done and survived so much and taught me that if I wanted to do something I could.

Is there a book or saying etc which motivates you, or has influenced you?

It is the ‘serenity prayer’ I first heard it at school:

God grant me the courage to change the things that I can, the serenity to accept the things that I can not and the wisdom to know the difference.

In terms of work, who has had the most influence on you, or been a mentor, an example to you?

My boss in Greece at the airport, I learnt to always look at the details but keep an eye on the big picture, do not always take the obvious solution as people are not predictable and be prepared and flexible.

You are in a very male dominated world now. What is the least good thing about this and what is the best? How do you manage the inevitable tensions between the cultures?

Aceh has a long history of female warriors and in our community it is the women who are actually much stronger than the men, although all positions of power (head of the village) are filled by men.  The family money is controlled by the women and property is inherited by the women (land by the men). But they do seem to get their own way. I found living in the male dominated small island society of Greece with double standards much harder.

Maybe coming from a mixed background and having lived in the Middle East as a child I do not have any problems with the culture and feel very much at home there. Strangely I have a culture shock each time I return to Europe and find it harder each time to adjust.

Having said that, I know that it has not been easy for our staff to work the way I want. It is culturally unacceptable to criticize your boss, so if I have a bad idea at first they would not tell me. By constantly emphasizing that it is their program, not mine, it has built their confidence and now they do tell me!

What advice would you give a young woman today wanting to follow a similar career to yourself?

I don’t think I am in a position to give career advice since I went a very unorthodox way. The only thing I can say is if you believe something is right for you don’t be put off by rejection there is always a way to achieve it.

If the present Natascha could give some advice to the 18 year old you what would it be?

I am very lucky to have had a very interesting life full of different experiences and cultures, all my ‘mistakes’ have taught me so much. The only thing that I do regret is that I did not go to university, though I don’t know if I would be doing what I am today if I had.

But If I had to say something I think it would be to spend more energy earlier on in life in discovering who I am rather than looking for happiness from the outside. That can only come from within.

Natascha, thank you so much for sharing your truly inspirational story with us!

If you’d like to find out more about Natascha’s charity, Chance International, please click this link.

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Posted on February 24th, 2010 by

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