Oct 2015 at 16:25

Lily Hits New Heights for New Act4Africa Education Centre & Refuge – Anyone for a Wing Walk?

Read time 6 minutes

Thank-you to every one of you for your support, donations and prayers – news of ‘mission accomplished’ – wing walk complete below!

After the loss of Kathy Smedley, Act4Africa’s founder in August 2014 after a long and brave battle with cancer, I really thought we should do something to secure the charity’s longevity and honour her incredible vision. Kathy called on a few close friends in the year 2000 when she shared her ideas for setting up a charity and reducing the threat of HIV and AIDs in East Africa through better education. With 12 AIDS million orphans in Africa (more than the population of every UK school and college) she was passionate about improving health education in East Africa so that young people didn’t fall foul to the myths about the disease spread by many. She also recognised the need to give African women a voice and set up programmes such as the ‘girl effect’ to promote equality and prepare young women for leadership. Her passion was also for ‘the little ones’. She saw her job as a teacher at a primary school in Manchester as an honour, to nurture inquisitive young minds and lay the foundations for a life time of learning. Although she’d taught there for years, she stayed in contact with many of those 5 and 6 year olds that she’d taught and influenced, well into adulthood.

After Kathy’s death, discussions with her husband Martin led us to a natural conclusion – we should build a centre in Uganda to honour Kathy’s passions: A centre of excellence at which AIDS Prevention and Health Education Programmes would be taught to community and health leaders from across East Africa. A centre that would provide comfort and refuge for vulnerable women who had been impacted by HIV, and, an early year’s school – to nurture their children and give them a better start in life. The challenge was, how to raise the money?

Very quickly we were introduced to an engineering charity who were prepared to design the project and fund the build but we needed to find and purchase the land. Being renowned for taking on mammoth challenges and a bit of a fundraising nutter (coast to coast bike rides and organising 3 peak challenges have been historical challenges that I’ve taken on) I knew it had to be something big. It had to be something that would take me (and any other unsuspecting volunteers – I use the term lightly - that I could rope into it) out of our comfort zones. So what do you do when you really can’t stand heights but haven’t got the time or inclination to train for a Kilimanjaro climb or the like? You strap yourself to the outside of a bi-plane and take to the skies – of course!

‘….in the event of a crash, bi-planes tend to flip over, the wing walker being the first thing to hit the ground’

Wingnuts Paula, Lily, Elaine, Kathryn and Gill

So Saturday morning found me and five other unsuspecting ‘wingnuts’, Steph, Paula, Elaine, Kathryn and Gill, ‘winging our way’ (pun absolutely intended!) up the M62 through the drizzle in the hope of finding clearer skies at Breighton Airfield in Yorkshire. Our first attempt at the wing walking challenge had been cancelled due to bad weather in June. We were praying that we wouldn’t be faced with a repeat performance. Having endured a five month wait between touting the idea around every friend and colleague I could find to the actual wing walk day, I greeted my gang of girls with nervous anticipation. I needn’t have worried. In spite of a dire forecast, the skies cleared, the sun shone and we were significantly over-dressed in our ‘made for the day’ Wing Walking Sweatshirts.

Mike our pilot and his wife Jenny from Wing Walking Displays were there to greet us and put frazzled nerves at ease. Even the safety video and the warning that, ‘in the event of a crash, bi-planes tend to flip over, the wing walker being the first thing to hit the ground’ failed to deter any of my Braveheart team of women from climbing aboard and strapping themselves into the safety harness.

I, an apparently sane woman with all my mental faculties intact, was standing on the outside of a plane!

What’s it like? is a question I have been asked countless times since completing the challenge 48 hours ago. Well, not surprisingly, it’s the closest thing you can get to flying! I mean flying without the encumbrance of a 747 or any other commercial plane that you might usually experience when heading off for a quick jaunt abroad. The exhilaration of feeling the 100 mph wind hit your face and taking a true birds eye view of the toy town buildings below. You will never experience such freedom. I felt so close to Kathy as Mike the pilot swooped and banked over the miniature trees and airfield below.

Take off was like a trundle in a tractor over a bumpy field but getting airborne felt as easy as stepping off a kerb – the gentle rise to meet the clouds as the ground recedes below you and the realisation that I, Lily Newman, an apparently sane woman with all my mental faculties intact, was standing on the outside of a plane and there was a chap sat in the cockpit six feet below me flying it. Arms outstretched (somewhat briefly – the force of the wind makes it very difficult to maintain your pterodactyl stance) and laughing hysterically, I knew that Kathy, one of the most adventurous women you could every which to meet, would thoroughly approve of our bonkers endeavour. As a lover of climbing and a conqueror of Kilimanjaro and Everest Basecamp, she would have been the first in line to sign up for something quite so extreme.

I knew that she was with us. On a day where lightning and heavy rain was predicted, we were basking in sunshine.

All too quickly it was over, Mike landing the plane with such grace you’d have thought he was carrying a sleeping infant as his cargo. The girls whooped and cheered as we parked the plane at the edge of the runway and wingnut number 2, Kathryn stepped forward to go through her safety briefing, climb up onto the wing and take her place in the harness. All fear had been replaced with a real sense of achievement and an even greater sense of peace. I looked around the airfield, at the laughing gaggle of girls and their support crew, at Mike as he set the camera on the wing to record Kathryn’s flight and I knew that Kathy was with us. On a day where lightning and heavy rain was predicted, we were basking in sunshine.

I could almost hear her bossing God around –

‘Now don’t mess up the weather this time – the girls have worked hard for this so let’s make sure they have a good day.”  

Kathy’s Centre will be a place where fear will be eradicated from their lives…

It wasn’t a good day – it was an incredible day, made all the more special by those who were generous enough to sponsor our madness. We pledged to raise half the money to purchase the land for Kathy’s Centre. I’m thrilled to report that Martin has found the perfect plot in Uganda – around 3.5 acres with room for a vegetable garden and space to keep chickens and goats, helping the women who will call Kathy’s Centre their home to become self-sufficient. Space where fear will be eradicated from their lives. A space for their children to play and grow up in a safe place. A place that will change lives though education. We’ve raised £8000 so far and the donations keep on coming. The cost of the land? Just over £11,000 including fees. We are so nearly there.

Thank-you to every single person who has prayed for us, supported us and sponsored my wonderful gang and the amazing, life-saving, life changing charity that is Act4Africa. The question is, how do we top that as a fundraiser?! My husband has suggested taking on a ‘just sit still, relax and don’t move for 24 hours’ challenge. The reality for me? Far too tough. It’s just not going to happen is it!


Lily Newman is a founding member of the HIV and AIDS Prevention Charity Act4Africa. Since the charity was launched in 2000, over 1.5 million young people have been through one of their HIV and AIDS Prevention, Stigma Reduction or Women’s Empowerment Programmes. The charity employs and trains indigenous teams (every member of their staff has lost relatives to the disease) and delivers education programmes in Kenya, Malawi and Tanzania. To sponsor Kathy’s Centre, please log onto Lily’s fundraising page here.

Want to take on a wing walking challenge for yourself? Contact Mike and Jenny Dentith of Wing Walking Displays Ltd at

Lily Newman

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