The phone in the cold, draughty hallway rang shrilly and it just so happened, I was at home that day and able to answer.
‘Hello Paula?’ said a cheery voice.
It was a temp agency.
I was in my final year of university and in need of some extra cash, had registered with this agency, assuming they would have so many applications that I’d probably never get a reply.
But here they were on the phone, they’d received my form and were inviting me for an interview.
An interview? Seriously? I’d never had one of those before. What did you wear? How did you behave? I wasn’t sure I even wanted to go ahead.
However, despite my misgivings, standing in the chilly hallway, I scribbled down the details and accepted the offer, secretly thinking that I’d probably ring them in a day or so and cancel.
Little did I know, but that simple interview was to kickstart a chain of events that over the next 20 years, would be completely life-changing.
In the days leading up to the appointment I nearly cancelled, but on the day itself, I summoned up some guts, dressed in my best trousers and smart jacket and within days, remarkably, I’d landed an incredible job.
I was sent to the HQ of a local TV station, and my part time temp role (in between Uni lectures) was to take calls for the biggest daytime TV programme in the country, ‘This Morning’.
I loved it! Every day, there would be a televised phone in and it was my job (along with a team) to chat to viewers, record their comments and decide which ones would be put forward to go on air. Great team, great fun…I felt like I’d truly landed on my feet. I knew it was only a temporary job, but I was getting some great media and life experience.
And then there was big news.
This Morning announced they were moving the whole programme from Liverpool to London and unexpectedly, I was asked if I wanted to go with them. It was a BIG move. I’d only ever been to London a few times as a child, but now I’d graduated, I was available and it was an opportunity too good to be missed.
And so about 8 weeks later, my dad drove me (and a car packed full of boxes) down to London, where I began my new life as a 21 year old, working in the amazing craziness of daytime TV.
My new job was heading up the travel department. My team’s job was to get all the TV guests from wherever they were in the world to the studios (and back) in time for their on air slot. Throw in the factor of unpredictable flights, trains and infamous London traffic, the responsibility of the job was pretty immense.
But I loved it. I loved being in the studio with my guests, walking around with my talkback set on, calling chauffeurs to side entrances to whisk celebrities (the kind I’d only ever read about) home and dealing with all kinds of unusual travel dramas.
TV jobs can be hard-going though and after 2 years, I felt it was time to get more experience in PR (which is what I really wanted to do). And, over the next few years, I ended up working for aid and development charity, World Vision.
Still with me? (There’s a point to this long and convoluted tale, I promise!)
Working as the celebrity coordinator at World Vision, one of my first tasks was to highlight the increasing number of children who were being affected by HIV and AIDS across Africa. The statistics were horrifying and it seemed an almost impossible task, but somehow in my guts, I knew there must be a way to tell the story, in a way that people would really hear.
It then occurred to me that I might already know people who could help. And so a few phone calls later, a colleague and I found ourselves back in the Editor’s office at This Morning, asking if we could take the programme’s Agony Aunt, (the late) Denise Robertson and a crew to Uganda, to meet children being affected by the relentless spread of HIV.
Finally, after more discussion, we got a green light and some while later, we found ourselves landing in Kampala surrounded by flight cases of camera equipment.
Over the next week, we followed a planned itinerary and met some truly incredible people. We met families who had been devastated to lose 5 or more children to the scourge of Aids. One lady had buried 11 of her children and grandchildren and lived on a plot of land, surrounded by simple wooden crosses marking their graves.
I’ll never forget meeting one little girl who stood silently beside me, while the other kids danced around and played with the cheap, plastic toys we’d given them. This little girl though, it was like she’d given up, as though at 6 years of age, she didn’t have any joy left. Her head was covered with telltale white patches and I wondered if she too already had HIV.
Toward the end of the trip, we had a little bit of unplanned time one day, so we decided to go off the beaten track and see if we could find just one more story to record, to help finalise the film. I remember it being a warm and sticky day and we had to trek up a slight incline, carrying some of the camera gear. We came to a clearing and with the help of some translators, were led to the home of two young boys, Fred and Emmanuel.
At first, it was difficult to take in what I was hearing. But as the story unfolded, I learned these boys (both under 12 years old) were living alone as both of their parents had died. They were clearly hungry, Emmanuel sat in the corner of their simply constructed one-room house, with his arms wrapped round his body, shivering (despite the warmth of the day).
On the floor was a big, red tomato.
It looked juicy and delicious, but it was their only food. They were carving small chunks out of it and eating it, trying to make it last for as long as possible.
Thankfully, after filming their story, we were able to help them. We returned the next day with bags of rice, flour, oil and (fresh from the market), a goat! How I managed to wrestle a somewhat reluctant goat into the back of a pickup truck, is a story for another day!
When the programme finally aired, it generated a huge response for World Vision. Denise communicated the need brilliantly and the viewers responded in their thousands. Standing in front of the TV at work, watching the show go out and hearing all the phones ringing crazily behind me, is a moment I will never forget. It felt like we were (accidentally) part of something utterly extraordinary.
Over the years that followed, I never forgot Fred and Emmanuel. I had a couple of updates and I heard how much the programme had changed their lives. Thanks to the show, World Vision’s support and Denise’s epic fundraising, the boys were given a new home, were able to go to school and I heard they were now growing bananas on a small plot of land, which enabled them to have an income.
And then, at the beginning of 2018, something extraordinary happened.
I was sitting in a meeting at work and needed to look up something on LinkedIn. It’s not a site I use very often but as I opened the app, I noticed I had a message from someone called Fred.
Intrigued, I read it and quickly realised this was THE Fred…of Fred and Emmanuel.
Somehow, even though 20 years had passed, Fred remembered our visit with great detail and thanks to all the assistance they’d received, he was now part of the Denise Robertson Foundation, helping orphaned children. He and Emmanuel had even adopted an orphan themselves.
I nearly dropped my phone in complete shock and delight.
And as I left the meeting and returned to my desk, I found I had a voicemail from a UK representative of the Foundation, asking if I’d call them back.
It turns out they’d been looking for people who were on the original trip to Uganda for quite some time and they were really pleased to have finally tracked one of us down.
It was so great (and more than a little overwhelming) to get the full update from the boys and hear how well they were doing, more than 20 years after the programme had aired.
And so, all these years later, tomorrow (Oct 3) is the 30th anniversary of This Morning and all I can say is, if you’re around, you might want to tune in (or record it) for an update.
For me, through all of this, through 20+ years of an astonishing story, I am reminded of one simple thing – the big things, come from small things.
Going (reluctantly) to a job interview as a student and landing a seemingly insignificant part-time job led to a new job, new connections, a trip and ultimately two young boys having their worlds transformed.
On a grey day, we can easily despise the small things, turn over in bed, allow our nerves to get the better of us and yet, what if, those simple, ordinary, everyday things have the power to impact the world around us? If I hadn’t answered the phone that day in the draughty hallway, if I had cancelled the interview, so many things might not have happened.
Getting up each day might feel like a chore, as you go to a job you dislike, or have to break up arguments between children, get stuck in traffic or find yourself doing a task you really don’t want to do. But what if, every small action is part of a journey, towards greater, life-transforming things?
What if, today is the day, YOU will be the right person in the right place at the right time?
You might never see the effects or get the opportunity to hear what happened next, but what if?
** Update (Oct 12, 2021). This Morning recently broadcast another update from Fred and it’s amazing to see everything they are doing. For more information, take a look at The Denise Foundation.