Sheva's support for SOS

Andriy Shevchenko is a name which rings bells right across the world of football. The same cannot be said of the late Hermann Gmeiner. But the two men are linked by a very special movement which draws especial benefit every time the FIFA World Cup comes around.

Shevchenko is the Ukrainian superstar from Dynamo Kiev, Milan and latterly Chelsea, who thrilled supporters back home by leading his country to the quarter-finals of the last FIFA World Cup finals.

But Shevchenko is also a supporter himself - of the achievements of the Austrian philanthropist.

The story began in 1947, almost 30 years before Shevchenko was born. That was the year in which Gmeiner was moved so powerfully in to action by his chance meeting with a 12-year-old boy who had been orphaned in the Second World War.

Gmeiner thus set about creating what became, in 1949, the SOS Children's Village Association. The first foundation stone was laid at Imst, near Innsbruck, and now SOS-Kinderdorf International oversees the activities of around 1,800 villages in more than 130 countries and territories.

FIFA adopted the organisation for a charitable partner for the FIFA World Cup in 1995 and, in 2006, marked the organisation of the finals in Germany by supporting a fund-raising campaign entitled '6 Villages for 2006', which raised $30 million USD.

This meant the creation of six new villages in Ukraine, Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa and Vietnam.

Television pictures beamed daily into homes across the world tell perpetually of the tragic plight of millions of men, women and children in all corners of the earth. The causes are many and varied from war displacement to the varied consequences of natural disasters and the scourges of poverty, famine and HIV/AIDS.

The SOS Children's Villages concentrate on helping the child victims of both natural and man-made dislocation. This work is not only about the basics of shelter and nutrition and creating a family life but also about education and recreation.

One of the recent projects was launched in Brovary, Ukraine, and Shevchenko says: "I learned about this idea four or five years ago and was immediately impressed because the issue of orphaned children is a big problem and probably not only in Ukraine.

"It's very difficult to give these children the attention they need so this was a very timely idea - to construct a place where they can all live as members of a kind of family. The children feel more like being in a proper home than in the old-style orphanages where there were large rooms and strict conditions. It's much better for their personal development and education and safety."

One of the new '6 villages' for 2006" is currently being built in the city of Brovary. There will be 14 houses, each under the care of a foster mother. One who cannot wait to move in with is Oxana who is currently looking after five orphans in a cramped apartment in a bleak tower block.

She introduces her 'family: 'There is ten-year old Lera who could not go to school because she had to look after her younger siblings. She is now using her skills on her new brothers and sisters; then there's Galya, aged six - she is animated and curious; next is Artem who is quiet and shy; then three-year-old Bogdan who is agile, lively and naughty; and finally the baby of 18 months, Svyatoslav who was almost certainly abandoned by his mother and suffers from health problems.

"It can often be demanding to provide a stable and secure environment for those who have often suffered hunger and neglect," continues Oxana thoughtfully. "But these are adorable children and, with love and hugs and understanding, they change every day. There are no more furrowed brows and they are looking forward to moving into their new home very much."

The same philosophy has been newly put to work on the other side of the world, in Vietnam where there are currently ten SOS Villages and a new one being built at Dong Hoi, which will house 120 children.

The nature of the family rescue work which the organisation undertakes was starkly illustrated by the story revealed by one elderly woman. She says: "I have nine grandchildren but their parents have all died. Before the one mother died, she asked me to look after the children but in no circumstances to give them away.

"But I didn't have the ability to care for them because of my old age and financial situation so I was introduced to the people at the SOS Villages - and eventually I realised this is what I should do for the best.

"I was hesitant at first but now I can see that the children are healthy and follow a better routine in their studying and daily life than I ever did. They will have a long and much brighter future."

The philosophy of the village movement and its practical application never deviates from the original four principals insisting on a structure with a foster-mother, brothers and sisters, family atmosphere all within an interdependent, interactive village community.

When the village receives information about children in difficulty - perhaps due too harsh weather conditions, which often cause problems in Vietnam, or unforeseen circumstances such as their parents' poor health or traffic accidents - then it is checked out. And if necessary, the children are taken into the village and cared for in the family model.

The emphasis on aspirational development is as important in Ukraine as it is in Vietnam. Lena Gavrilina, a Village social worker in Brovary, has a particular insight since she worked previously in one of the old state institutions.

She says: "It wasn't possible, in the place where I worked, to do much about improving child care. All we could do amounted to little more than idle talk. Within the SOS Children's Village, however, the work ethic is designed to surround children with care and provide the best environment for their personal development.

"I'm overwhelmed with gratitude to those people around the world who give money to causes such as this."

The Brovary project also demonstrates how the SOS Children's Villages work in conjunction with other social, governmental and international organisations. Local administrators work alongside the local authority as well as the international arm of the UK-based charity Everychild and the European Union's educational programme, TASIS.

As Ludmila Shostopal, deputy head of the local authority in Brovary, says: "There is nothing in the whole world which could be better for a child than a family."

Hermann Gmeiner would have agreed. The Austrian philanthropist, who had the equivalent of just $60 in his pocket when he launched his project, died in Innsbruck in 1986.

He is buried at the site of that first Children's Village in Imst. But his work goes marching on.