Faced by the unimaginable suffering of hundreds of thousands of Romanian children, Jane Nicholson MBE founded the charity FARA. Here she shares the story of how it developed
In 2022, FARA charity shops celebrates its 30th anniversary. The first store opened on Fulham Road in August 1992, and has now evolved into 40 high street locations, serving 26 London communities.
Selling pre-loved clothing, toys, books and art, FARA has spearheaded the new breed of second-hand shops, which are beautifully merchandised, stylish and directional. FARA carefully curates public donations of quality second-hand goods into boutique retail environments.
For those of us old enough to remember the early 1990s, few will forget the appalling images of starving Romanian children in the news. The country’s communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu had fallen in 1989, and by early 1990 the world’s press was trickling in.
What they found was truly shocking: 600 state-run orphanages (ie institutions) containing hundreds of thousands of abandoned children. Most of these children weren’t even orphans; their parents simply could no longer afford to feed them.
Under Ceaușescu’s disastrous plan to boost the population and economy, contraception for women under 45 was banned, and families were expected to have at least five children. Poverty was – and still is – rife, and families faced the impossible choice of placing their children in institutions, or watching them starve.
In 1991, after seeing all this unfold in the news, Jane Nicholson flew out to Romania with a team of volunteers to help.
What they found would change Jane’s life, as it soon became apparent that these children would need long-term care, an improved quality of ongoing life and some hope for their futures. And so, with her background at Sue Ryder – also a charity organisation funded by a network of shops – Jane set up FARA, and in turn the shops, to finance the critical work in Romania on a permanent basis.
Nicholson collecting her MBE at Buckingham Palace
Credit: FARA Charity, UK
Tell us about your background
My job had previously taken me to all sorts of destinations – Albania, Macedonia, Poland. I was a trained nurse and chair of Sue Ryder, so no stranger to the work that healthcare services could provide to sick and disabled children.
What led you to start FARA?
After seeing images of children suffering, I couldn’t just turn a blind eye. My membership of the Carmelite Order of Prayer in the Catholic Church has been the foundation of my life. So, galvanised by a set of strong Christian values, I set out to Romania with a group of volunteers to work in the institutions providing medical care and sanitation.
What happened when you got to Romania?
Nothing could have prepared us for what we saw in the institutions; we were horrified by unimaginable sights. It’s how I imagined a concentration camp from the war. Rows and rows of metal cots, filled with emaciated, eerily silent children. I realised I could not leave until I had helped to free them from this misery.
Where did the name FARA come from?
FARA is the Romanian word for ‘without’, which I chose as these children were without a family. We wanted to remove them from the institutions and give them the loving, family environment that every child deserves.
Nicholson at the 15th Anniversary of St. Gabriel’s house, Romania
Credit: FARA Foundation, Romania
What was the original vision for FARA?
The original vision was to give children and families an alternative to the appalling conditions we were witnessing, to alleviate the suffering of these children. We wanted to give them the experience of a warm home, with access to special care at all times.
Our original aim was to transform the lives of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, and give them a real sense of family, love and belonging. Additionally, 60 per cent of Romanian children do not finish their education.
My conviction that education is liberating and enriching in all sorts of ways was translated into a commitment to assisting as many children as possible in that regard.
FARA is now one of the largest NGO care providers in Romania. What have the last three decades meant for the charity?
From opening the doors of our very first children’s home, St Nicholas’s, FARA has cared for over 10,000 children and vulnerable adults. We have supplied more than 46,000 hot meals.
Hundreds of children attending our therapy centres have been able to complete their education, some to degree level, who otherwise would not have been able to.
Our flagship programme ‘Tackling Poverty Through Education’ helps hundreds of families in the poorest, rural communities gain access to food and clean water, and provides an education for the children.
What place has your faith played in the setting up and running of the company?
My faith is at the heart of my life. What really changed it was when I came to work directly in the institutions and saw the suffering, the neglect and the abuse – I knew I would never leave them. Without faith I feel I couldn’t have sustained it.
They need love, and that’s the main thing we offer here in FARA. Love. Mother Teresa famously said: “It is not how much we give, but how much love we put into giving.”
The FARA store in Notting Hill
How did you get support?
We launched an appeal in our first year, and the charity shops followed a year later in 1992 – we now have 40 stores in London, serving 26 communities. FARA is also backed by wonderful patrons, including HRH The Prince of Wales, as well as teams of amazing fundraisers.
We always welcome fundraising initiatives too – from running a marathon to coffee mornings. Every donation makes a difference. Together we can provide the vital support to lift children and their families out of poverty and create brighter futures.
What are you most proud of having achieved so far?
Watching a child progress in confidence; physically, educationally and emotionally is satisfying enough. Witnessing a group of people build love, care and a sense of family – that’s what it’s all about.
I have been honoured to witness the transformation of lives and futures of hundreds of children and young people. It is a blessing to be able to meet their loving families, see them thrive in their careers and watch them lead fulfilling lives.
What new projects are you working on?
From January this year I was able to hand over the administration of the UK charity to the new CEO Libby Gordon and our trustees, so that I can focus on building and consolidating our projects in Romania.
This is where my heart is. I am currently looking at ways of building the Romanian organisation to ensure the growth and longevity of the organisation and its work. The more children and families we can help to build lives and give hope and bright futures to, the better.
Jubilee ready at FARA’s kids store in Chiswick Credit: Instagram
In order for FARA to continue providing this lifeline to the people of Romania, vital funds need to be raised. There are many ways you can help. You can donate unwanted items to any FARA shop, fundraise for FARA through your next charitable event (either individually or in teams) or you can set up a regular monthly contribution.
For more information on donating click here.
To celebrate FARA shops turning 30, on the 30th of each remaining month in 2022 every reader can get 30 per cent off in all FARA shops. Just show a copy of this article in any FARA store to redeem your discount!