An Edinburgh lawyer who lost her hands and feet following a serious illness and then set up a charity to provide people in developing countries with prosthetic limbs so they can walk has tonight (22 January) been named winner of a global humanitarian award in honour of the Scots Bard.
Olivia Giles OBE was presented with the Robert Burns Humanitarian Award (RBHA) 2015 at a special ceremony at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway – Robert Burns' place of birth – by Minister for Europe and International Development, Humza Yousaf MSP.
The Robert Burns Humanitarian Award – launched in 2002 and supported by South Ayrshire Council and EventScotland as part of Scotland's Winter Festivals with sponsorship from William Grant & Sons and The Herald, Sunday Herald and heraldscotland.com – recognises those who have saved, improved or enriched the lives of others or society as a whole, through personal self-sacrifice, selfless service or direct humanitarian work.
Olivia was selected as the winner from an incredible 120 nominations – the highest number ever received for the RBHA.
It was 13 years ago, after contracting meningitis and needing emergency surgery, that Olivia had to be told the devastating news that her hands and feet had been amputated to save her life.
Once back to full strength and very conscious how lucky she was to be alive, Olivia began to raise both money and awareness for the likes of the Meningitis Trust and other charities.
During this time, Olivia learned about the difficulties experienced by amputees in developing countries, who didn't have access to the same kind of healthcare and support that she herself had experienced.
Instead, many of these people – including large numbers of children – were ostracised from their community and Olivia set out to tackle this by founding the charity, '500 miles', just five years' after the loss of her hands and feet.
500 miles is all about supporting the development and delivery of prosthetic and orthotic services to people with impaired mobility in Malawi, Zambia and, to a lesser degree, in Zanzibar. Thanks to Olivia's efforts, 500 miles now has two centres in Malawi, run in cooperation with the Malawian Ministry of Health. Together, these centres now provide more than 1,650 devices each year to people who badly need them.
The charity also funds and subsidises people to receive prosthetic and orthotic devices in Zanzibar and Zambia. Olivia's work for the charity was recognised in 2010 when she was awarded an OBE by Her Majesty The Queen.
Olivia is in the throes of organising 'The BIG Dinner' on 7 March 2015, when she aims to raise £500,000 on one night with hundreds of dinners held in homes and restaurants across the country and donations being pledged.
Humza Yousaf MSP, Minister for Europe and International Development, said: "The Robert Burns Humanitarian Award recognises the selfless vital work that is undertaken around the world, every day of every year, to help others. Olivia's tireless work has undoubtedly improved the lives of the many people that don't have access to the same levels of healthcare as we do. Countless people with impaired mobility in developing countries have benefited from the leadership that Olivia has provided and live a better life thanks to prosthetics. She is a well-deserving recipient of this award and an inspiration to others.
"Now in its fourteenth year, the Robert Burns Humanitarian Award continues to be one of the highlights of Scotland's Winter Festivals programme which draws to a close on Burns Night. Scots and Scots at heart all over the world will be celebrating Robert Burns this weekend and I would encourage everyone to take the time to honour the life of our Bard and his enduring message of humanitarianism, egalitarianism and equality."
Olivia said: "I'm both shocked and overwhelmed to receive this award and thank the judges for this unexpected recognition. I consider myself lucky to have the opportunity to help out the people we work with and firmly believe that I got my second chance so I could help others get theirs.
"It's impossible to describe how it feels when you see a young girl walk for the first time thanks to a prosthetic leg we've provided or to hear that men who had to depend on family and friends to get around are regaining some form of independence because they are now mobile. It really means the world and I'm very privileged to be part of that.
"As a proud Scotswoman, it's a tremendous honour to receive the Robert Burns Humanitarian Award and I will continue to do all I can to live up to his beliefs of treating everyone as equals and working towards a fair and just society throughout the world."
The runners-up for the Robert Burns Humanitarian Award 2015 were:
Sompop Jantraka – Sompop is a Thai activist who has worked for more than 26 years to rescue children from exploitative labour, prostitution and child trafficking. In 1989, he founded the Daughters Education Programme (DEP), funding education in order to prevent vulnerable girls being forced into the sex industry. His work directly saved young women from an unimaginable life and also showed that women can be more valuable to their country as educated members of the work force than as sex slaves. Since then, Sompop has established numerous projects focused on helping young people reach their potential, find independence and contribute to their communities. And he continues to deliver anti-trafficking programmes throughout the region regardless of the threats this presents to him.
Sompop said: ""I would like to formally congratulate Olivia for winning this prestigious award. I believe it is vitally important that we who are looking to change the world and give voices to the down-trodden and the forgotten band together and support one another in our efforts. I am so incredibly honoured to have made it this far. Just bringing attention to the plight of the victims (survivors) of human trafficking and the vital work of the Development and Education Programme for Daughters and Communities Centre in the Greater Mekong Subregion is more than enough of an award for me, and I thank RBHA for giving me that platform. I look forward to keeping up with Olivia's mission and her future achievements, and to returning to DEPDC/GMS and the children there, who are the real heroes."
Dr Sanduk Ruit – Dr Sanduk Ruit has dedicated his life to ridding the world of unnecessary blindness – eye conditions that are preventable but are left untreated due to poverty or poor access to healthcare. Dr Ruit founded the Tilganga Eye Centre – the first out-patient cataract surgery facility in the Himalayan region – in 1994. He also co-founded the charity, Himalayan Cataract Project, with the sole aim of bringing eyesight back to anyone who needs it, regardless of their ability to pay. The Tilganga Eye Centre now treats 7,000 patients a week, with surgery fees waived for the neediest. And Dr Ruit often treks into remote parts of Nepal and throughout the Himalayas to treat those who can't come to the clinic. He has personally restored the sight of more than 100,000 people across Asia and Africa.
Dr Ruit said: "Being shortlisted for this award truly touched my soul. The RBHA award means a lot to the dozen organisations that I am involved with globally for alleviation of blindness and for the profile of Nepal and my congratulations to Olivia."
Councillor Bill McIntosh, Chair of the RBHA Judging Panel and Leader of South Ayrshire Council, added: "My warmest congratulations to Olivia on being named our Robert Burns Humanitarian Award winner 2015. All three of our finalists recognise that not everyone has the same choices, freedoms and opportunities – and what they have done to address this has changed tens of thousands of lives.
"Olivia's work to get people walking – some for the first time – is truly outstanding and has given people back their dignity and their independence. These are qualities that can be sadly lacking for people with disabilities in developing countries, yet Olivia shows them how worthy and valuable they are as individuals and shows them that they matter. And her selfless efforts are all the more inspiring when you realise that she has done all of this after losing her own hands and feet and having to adjust to a very different kind of life than she had planned.
"If Burns was alive today, I'm sure he would agree that Olivia is all that a humanitarian should be and a very worthy and deserving recipient of an award named in his honour. "
Paul Bush OBE, Chief Operating Officer for EventScotland said: "Scotland is the perfect stage for events and the Robert Burns Humanitarian Award is a key date on our cultural calendar each year. Each of this year's nominees are truly inspirational and embody the values of this famous award. Olivia, our winner for 2015, has demonstrated an incredible drive to improve the lives of others and has shown how such acts of selflessness can have a lasting impact."
For further information on the Robert Burns Humanitarian Award – including details of the previous winners – visit www.robertburnsaward.com or to join our RBHA mailing list, email firstname.lastname@example.org.