The group of Tanzanian Heavenly Homes volunteers with some of the locals in Tanzania.

WATCH: ‘These people changed my life,' says charity founder

Clodagh McKeon

Mullingar man, John McCauley, has spent the last 11 years working to improve the lives of people living below the poverty line in east Africa.

He has just returned home from another trip to Tanzania spent building housing units for the people who need them most.

John and other volunteers from the Mullingar area have been giving people a second chance in life since 2011, and have completely transformed a children’s orphanage, built six housing units for elderly residents, schooled scores of children and changed hundreds of peoples lives.

The journey started when John when on a nature photography trip to the Serengeti with four friends.

His intention was to capture photos of the wildlife, but when coming home, he noticed a run-down orphanage near Kilimanjaro airport.

John said: “I asked the driver to stop because I wanted to go in to the orphanage. I went in very happy but came out very sad. My whole life changed because of what I saw that day.”

When John returned home from that first trip, his mind wouldn’t let him forget about that day in Africa.

His mind plagued him to go back, and he did just that the following year, bringing along funds given to him by the generous people of Mullingar.

John flew back to Tanzania alone, he went to the orphanage again and he promised to give them five years of his life.

Edel Glennon from Coralstown nursing a local child while painting the inside of the new units.

At time, the orphanage was home to 26 children who shared five or six beds. The children had barely any clothes on them, there were no mosquito nets, no ceilings in the rooms, no school and little food. But the kids were happy.

John said: “Even though they didn’t have much, they were happy little kids because the people caring for them were very good.

“With the money given to me by the people of Mullingar, I brought in local builders and we got toilets built, we got beds for everyone, clothes, mosquito nets, electricity, ceilings, school books and a year’s supply of food.”

Over five years, John and his team built a school for the children at the orphanage.

Because of their work, many of those children got sponsored which allowed them to continue on to get a college education.

However, their life-changing efforts didn’t stop there.

When the five years had come to an end, John had completed the project and was happy with the opportunities he, his team, and the generosity of his hometown had created for the children.

But he saw another opportunity to help: “I went for a walk and I saw the older people of Tanzania living in unbelievable conditions. They were trying to get a few twigs together and a little bit of rice to eat every day.

“They had no access to water, unless they walked miles for it. The dust and the dirt were imaginable and it broke my heart to look at them living that way. I couldn’t walk away from it.”

Just before the lockdown, John and his team decided to buy a small piece of land, where they planned to build six housing units for the elderly people of the town.

With the help of his friend, Sahara, they were able to register her charity ‘Senior Hope’. Through it, they could keep the project going throughout the year.

John said: “Between us working with this lady, who is very good to us and very trustworthy, we were able to keep going. It wouldn’t work without her.”

Edel Glennon from Coralstown nursing a local child while painting the inside of the new units.

The units took two years to complete and John said finishing them was the highlight of his most recent trip as he could see the people moving in to them.

Each unit consists of a bedroom, two beds, blankets, sheets, a window with curtains, a sit-down toilet, tiled walls and a shower.

It costs the charity around €4,000 plus furniture to make each unit.

There is also a communal kitchen and dining area that is run by a woman the charity has employed to cook for the residents every day.

They also built a grotto close by where the elders can go and pray if they want to.

The choice of the residents is left to African social workers. They bring selected people to view the units and allow them to decide whether they want to live there for the rest of their lives.

The units are now home to 16 people, who receive three meals a day, every day.

They no longer have to worry about finding food to survive, they are guaranteed their meals, which is unfortunately a privilege they didn’t have until now.

John spoke of a poor family that lives beside the unit – a mother, father and two young children. He said: “The lady came to us one day to ask if there was anything she could do for us.

“We asked her if she could keep the bedrooms clean, make the beds and ensure the rooms are washed out every day.

“Her husband also helps – he does the security around the units. He keeps an eye on the area as well as the residents and if any of them are sick during the night, he would call.

“For their payment, we have started building them a little house similar to the units but on their own land. Two bedrooms, a toilet and a suitable roof.”

John is active when it comes to getting help from official sources to further the project and help more people. He met African government representatives, who were impressed with his work and promised to help him do more.

John with Tanzanian social worker, Swedi and a gentleman who is thanking him for his new home.

John asked the officials for two important things. He wants free land to build on and he wants them to supply food to the units for free every month.

He said: “The problem is, we have a meeting about a meeting and in the meantime, there’s a person down the road waiting for a meal. They can’t wait for our meeting, they need to eat.

“Everything was positive, the government extended their help, so that is great news. I’m hoping to hear back from them soon.”

John has been strongly campaigning to get the government and clergy on board to help the poor people: “I’ve asked them to feed the people with food first, then feed them with religion.”

On his recent two-week trip to Tanzania, a team of 15 volunteers joined him. They painted the units bright colours, played with the children, mingled with the local people, they helped deliver food to the homeless around the area, and most of all, they made people smile with their singing and good nature.

John is happy to welcome anyone who wants to help but insists that they pay their own way.

If students want to come along, they can raise funds for the price of their flights and medical care but anything after that, must be put into the project accounts.

“We had a great bunch of volunteers come out this year. The locals love the Irish, so were very happy to see us.

“We had a party for the girls towards the end of the trip. They sang and played music, it was lovely.”

John has an incredible mindset when it comes to changing the lives of the Tanzanian people. He said: “I will get things done no matter what. It’s not just a trip for me, I love these people and I will do everything to help them.”

He told a story that really emphasises the level of care and compassion he has for these people: “I met a lovely old man a few years back. He was very malnourished, he had nothing but he was happy.

“He sat outside his shed one day wearing his only clothes, a dirty shirt and trousers. I could smell the broken toilet beside me.

“I said to him, ‘Palo, what do you think about every day when you wake up?’

“He held my hand and he answered, ‘I wonder about where I will get a handful of maize to live today.’

“I couldn’t move after he said that to me so I went back to my campervan and I cried. When I woke up, I had an idea – meals on wheels.

“I got a local girl and three others to cook for him and feed him, and every day he got his dinner.

“Last year, the girl went up to his house and he said the usual ‘thank you’. He never knew where the girl lived but he followed her home that day.

“He came in, he lay on the couch and he said, ‘I’m going to rest’ and then he died.

“He knew God was calling and he didn’t want to die alone so he followed the young girl who fed him every day back home and he died with her.”

One of the bedrooms ready to go for the new residents.
Finished bathroom in one of the units.

These people have changed John’s life and he has changed theirs.

He mentioned the extraordinary generosity of the Mullingar people and said that without them the orphanage, the school, the units and the food would not be there for these people.

He wants to extend his thanks to every person who has donated and helped the cause since he started on this journey.

There is a Facebook page called Tanzanian Heavenly Homes where you can view all the project pictures and building progress from over the years.

If you would like to speak to John about donating or about his experiences, you can contact him on 087 615 7349.

The charity has a subscription service that allows donors to give €3 a month to this great cause so if interested, please contact John directly.