Virginie Brouard doesn’t do holidays – instead she uses any spare time and money she has to support a cause close to her heart: the daughters of Charity in Ethiopia, an order of nuns who work with street children, prisoners, the elderly, disabled and leprosy patients. Virginie left her native France when she was 19, giving up a university course, and came to the UK to work for Pierre Victoire, the chain of French restaurants, where she quickly learned all she could about the food and wine business. Five years later she opened her first restaurant La P’tite Folie, selling bistro-style French cuisine, in Edinburgh, while also looking after her six month- old son Milan. “It was very hard work – looking back I don’t know how I did it. But somehow I did,” laughed Virginie.
Three years later a second branch of La P’tite Folie opened in the West End, and in 2008 she opened Le di-Vin Wine Bar. Virginie has always wanted to help underprivileged children and her success now meant she was in a position to do that. But she wanted to make sure that she found the right charity. “I’ve always wanted to see Ethiopia so I went for a visit there three years ago. I wanted to find a charity that would help people who really needed help, and where I could check how the money was used. I contacted an order of nuns who ran the daughters of Charity, which has been running in Ethiopia since 1927, and asked if I could come and see them.
“I ended up staying for two weeks,” smiled Virginie. “They showed me their work: their focus is to provide basic health service to the needy people like orphans and vulnerable children and they are always desperate for sponsors, so that was the perfect choice for me. I chose to sponsor a feeding programme – the money I give goes towards buying food including grains, wheat, flour and sugar, which is made into a nutritious porridge and fed to around 800 orphans to make sure they have at least one nutritious meal a day. It also provides Famix, a supplementary food for malnourished babies. It was heartbreaking to see all these children queuing up with their plastic bowls. It only costs £70 a year to feed a child.”
These children are orphans due to poverty, illness, war – it’s not long since the war with Eritrea was over. Ethiopia is home to nearly five million orphans but unfortunately the government isn’t doing much for them, simply because there is no money. And according to the nuns, sponsors from the US and Europe are reducing their donations due to the economic climate. “I’ve since been back five times and, on my last visit, my son Pierre (six) and I were able to stay for six weeks which meant that I could see a lot more of the country than I have on previous visits. Oh my god, it is just horrible,” she said. “The need is unbelievable – there are five-year-olds working on the streets for money.”
So far Virginie has donated around £15,000. The orphanages she helps sponsor are based in Mekelle in the Tigray region, nearly 600km from Addis Ababa and close to the border with Eritrea. “It’s a pretty dodgy area and you have to be very careful,” said Virginie. But the horrors she has seen have been outweighed by the rewards. “I love going there and being with the children,” she smiled. “I help make food for them and play with them, and it’s great to see how protective the older children are with the younger ones. The nuns, led by Sister Medhin, are just fantastic, and as well as looking after the children, they run clinics and do a lot of work with HIV which is a massive problem there, as well as building housing for single women. “On my last visit I created a piece of ground that they could use as a play area and even managed to get some grass to grow – quite a feat when it’s so arid there. The children appreciate it – for them it’s a big thing to have a play area. As well as clothes I’ve tried to bring toys from home but they take a month to arrive so I went to the nearest town to the orphanage and bought a load of toys and balloons, which they really love.”
Virginie was upset to see some of the disabled children didn’t have wheelchairs and were literally dragging themselves across the ground. She tracked down a warehouse in Livingston which was able to supply dozens of nearly-new wheelchairs which she then had flown out to Ethiopia. There are no toilets at the orphanages as they’re so expensive to install, so the provision of these is something that Virginie would also like to see eventually. Many of her customers at La P’tite Folie and Le di-Vin know about her work and donate money, and last year she held a charity night at the wine bar which raised more than £2,000 for the daughters of Charity. “There is so much that is needed but I can only concentrate on it little by little. For now I’m enjoying focusing on these 800 orphans,” she said. When asked if she’d like to extend her business further, Virginie gives an honest reply. “My problem is lack of time, although I’m never happier than when I’m busy.”
As well as Milan (now 17) and Pierre, she also has a nine-month-old daughter, Genat. “I like to be in control and if I did any more I’d lose that control. “I’ve been so busy that it would be good to spend a bit of time together as a family and perhaps take a long weekend or even a holiday. And I’m hoping to go back to Ethiopia early next year – actually going there to see it first hand makes all the difference. I feel so lucky to be able to help.”