By Theo Cronin
“You felt as though emotionally you had abused them,” said Chris Connors, his voice raw and quivering with emotion.
The founder of the Coco’s Foundation had been recollecting the precise moment his charity came to be.
Helping orphans with HIV / AIDS in South Africa, it is an inspirational story of ambition and determination, of horrific abuse coupled with the innocent happiness of children.
It is also the tale of two HIV positive orphans, one living, one dead, whose befriending of Chris has changed the lives of hundreds of other people both here and abroad.
But how did a local hairdresser from Lower Beeding who readily admits ‘I don’t particularly like children’ come to run an international charity helping them in South Africa?
Much of the answer may stem from a powerful need to address injustices, inspired from hard felt personal experiences as child.
Now 43, Chris left Forest School for Boys in Horsham at the age of 15 unable to read or write with no formal qualifications.
“I was just branded as being thick and I couldn’t achieve. I tried my absolute hardest to do the best I could but it was never good enough.”
Like so many in previous generations, his dyslexia went untreated, his intelligence simply overlooked and misunderstood.
But outside of school once he started hairdressing success came quickly, and at 20 he opened his first salon, a second aged 25.
The serial knockbacks as a child had only served to push him harder, an innate self belief that he was no worse than anybody else always driving him on.
For Chris, hairdressing fulfilled his ambition to achieve. His three Coco’s salons in Billingshurst, Southwater and Crawley employ 40 people, most of whom are under 21.
And his journey has always inspired him to help these youngsters recognise and realise their ambitions.
In 2009 one of his teenage employees confessed he had always wanted to go to Africa to help children.
“Let’s do it,” said Chris, setting about a challenge to raise £10,000 to take seven of them out to South Africa to help build a trauma centre at an orphanage in Ubombo.
At that time Chris was ignorant of the fact that soon he would make a pledge to an HIV positive six year old that would change his life forever.
Thabiso was sat on his knee and sobbing, just as he had been on their first encounter three weeks earlier when they had arrived at the remote orphanage.
The trip had been an emotional rollercoaster. First there was the sheer delight and joyous laughs of the children set against the dire poverty of their circumstances.
Then came the shocking revelation that many of the 19 orphans were HIV positive, not because they had been infected in utero but, because they had been raped.
“I had no idea, I was completely naive,” said Chris. “My mind was just flipping. I was in a place all of a sudden where experiences, emotions and feelings were completely off my radar.
“In England I was earning money, building a little business empire, making sure Jack’s alright, and then suddenly I was with little kids who were not alright.”
Thabiso and he became firm friends though, the orphan shadowing Chris’s every movement, except on a visit to a local hospital where Chris met another child called Thabiso.
At 12 years old he weighed just two stone, his body racked by full blown AIDS – death was imminent.
“And there lies your challenge,” said Chris struggling to push the words past the ball in his throat as he recollected the encounter.
“Because you go back to the orphanage and the other Thabiso is there with this great big whacking smiley face - but you know his journey.”
At first Chris was determined to just make it the best he could for the orphans whilst he was there –he bought them all shoes with ‘the best £78 I have ever spent’ - but all this changed on the last day.
On his lap Thabiso sobbed, recollected Chris, the memory still proving emotional three years later.
What are they crying for, he remembered thinking, selfishly reflecting on an ‘amazing three weeks’ of ‘doing the charity bit’ and conquering ‘challenging experiences’.
We will never see you again, Thabiso had said in his child’s voice.
“It just hit me like a tonne of bricks,” Chris said close to tears, “because they were right.
“You felt as though you had emotionally abused them. You’d done your bit, patted yourself on the back, and said ‘I’m good’ and then you were out of there.”
Chris became determined this could not be. He whispered five words to Thabiso which grew into The Coco Foundation.
“I’ll see you in August.”
Thabiso’s face instantly shifted from tears to delight, while Chris relishing in his own revelation was also uncertain as to how he would return or what he had really done.
“All I knew was we were going to go back and see them in August,” he said.
True to his word they returned just a few months later and less than three years on The Coco Foundation has three projects in South Africa enabling orphans to improve their lives by providing food clothes and shelter.
On Chris’s most recent visit in January, one example clearly demonstrated how the charity’s work is changing lives.
An orphan ran up proudly showing off his school work and dramatically improved grades. Later Chris challenged his teacher, asking how such a marked improvement was possible in such a short time.
The answer was simple.
Since Coco’s Foundation had provided water to his community, the boy no longer needed to travel two hours every day to collect water - time he now spends on his education.
“What we are doing is giving people choice,” said Chris. “Put the basics in and then people can choose to help themselves.”
If you would like to know more, visit South Africa on a project, or donate visit www.cocofoundation.co.uk