The mission that changed my mind
Brian Phillips speaks to World Vision's Emily Withers
It’s a bizarre feeling meeting somebody for the first time, and knowing that when you next see each other you are going to be jumping out of a plane together.
Last Friday, I had the privilege of meeting Brian Phillips. A charismatic individual with a passion for change in the world’s poorest regions, he has been an ambassador for World Vision for the past four years. He sponsors no fewer than five children and is utterly dedicated to doing all he can to help transform children’s lives for the better.
An assistant editor for the RAF by day, turned Tai-Chi master by night, he uses his spare time to promote World Vision’s cause - often giving presentations encouraging people to sign up to our Childhood Rescue programme or to sponsor a child. He even donates all the funds he raises from his tai-chi classes directly to World Vision.
So, why does he do this? He told me how his upbringing deeply shaped his world view and how one encounter with a child in West Africa changed his life forever...
Brian grew up in Argentina, witnessing first-hand the devastation and injustice that poverty can cause. At a very young age, he took it upon himself to distribute food to those in need by collecting items in a wheelbarrow and handing them out. ‘I always had a desire to save lives,’ he explained.
However, due to the instability in Argentina at that time, he and his family emigrated to the UK when he was seventeen. Shortly afterwards, he was accepted into the RAF, and it was on one particular mission, he said, that his entire worldview changed.
“We landed in an airfield in a region in West Africa and as we were landing, there were children running across the runway and we actually managed to land without hitting them. They would run behind the aircraft and try and take anything they could out of the airplane, not theft, but things that we didn’t want like the trash because we’d eat well on the airplane and throw lots of food away. For them it was enough food to last the month. They took it home to the family.
"There was invariably a man with a big long stick chasing them off, shouting 'go away.' Smack, smack. As I was leaving the cockpit to go downstairs, there was a big red apple by the door that was saying 'Eat me, eat me.' I wasn’t hungry, I was well-fed and watered, but it looked so inviting that I thought I’d have a nice big chunk of this apple. I grabbed the apple and started walking down the stairs and was just about to bite into it when a child appeared at the bottom of the stairs.
"To be honest with you, I didn’t know if they were male or female, and I didn’t know how old they were, because some children were so thin through malnutrition. They could have been ten or six; I had no idea. They were wearing rags, with these enormous big brown eyes looking up at me. There was no way I could keep the apple for myself after that, there was just no way. Even though we were told not to give children anything, I had to do it; I had to give the child this apple.
"That was the wrong thing to do. When the other children saw they ran over and mobbed the child. They were all trying to kill each other over this one apple. The apple fell on the floor, and by the time they had finished, they realised there was no apple left. It had turned into mush on the floor, so they knelt down and started licking the floor. And I thought, 'No, no, no this is so, so wrong.'
"The gentleman with the big stick came and starting hitting them all again and they all dispersed and the one who I gave the apple to turned away and ran off the tarmac, but as they did so, they stepped on a landmine, and were gone in an explosion.
"My instinct was to run and help but I was stopped by a local chap who told me 'You can’t do that. It’s all mined.' So I said, 'Get some help.' He said, 'There’s nobody who can help. We have no doctors. We have no hospital.' And that’s when it happened. I had seen enough. I knew that when I left the air force, I wanted to dedicate my time to saving these children, whatever it would take.”
So Brian did just that. When he got home, he did some research and discovered that World Vision stood as the oldest and largest international children’s charity. So he signed up to sponsor one child, then two. He was later approached to become an ambassador for the charity, and his sponsored children became three, then four, then five.
Brian’s response to the suffering in the world has really inspired me, and even though the skydive may invoke a few nerves, I've been reminded that we're all part of something bigger: a movement, an attempt to play our part and to encourage others to do the same.
As the interview rounded off, Brian stated, "This is the wildest thing I have ever done for World Vision." I think that makes five of us.
Last Wednesday Brian jumped from a plane to raise awareness for the Remember a Charity campaign, but you don't have to go to extremes to become a living legend - remember World Vision in your Will and help future generations of the world's most vulnerable children. You can find more information about how you could leave a life-changing gift in your will here.