A-level student Letty McMaster knew exactly what she wanted to do on her gap year after school – so she headed off to Africa. But backpacking, sightseeing and heading home with a tan and incredible memories before starting uni were far from her mind. At just 18, kind-hearted Letty wanted to spend a month doing volunteer work at an orphanage. But the physical and mental abuse experienced by the children she met when she got there was to change this remarkable woman’s life for ever.

Because Letty ended up staying at the orphanage for three years, battling to protect the exploited youngsters – and when it was shut down she adopted nine who would have been made homeless. Now 26 she is legal guardian to 14 orphaned youngsters at a home she runs in Tanzania. Letty, who pays for their upkeep and education through a UK charity she set up, says: “These children are my whole life. They keep me going through the long hours of juggling everything. “I’m the parental figure in the house. Some of the little boys who never had a parent view me as their mum – but most see me more as a big sister as I’m not that much older than some of them.” And what an incredible big sister. And what a family. One of her boys, Eliah, was found on the streets in winter wearing just a T-shirt after his mum died. Now he’s in the top 20 pupils in his year at his school.

Fred, 11, had not eaten for days when he was spotted cowering in a dump in 2019. Now he has been accepted into a prestigious football academy. Iddy lost both parents at two and ended up in street gangs. Letty took him in four years ago and he is now a talented musician, played on local radio. But Letty, who now speaks fluent Swahili, keeps all of them as well-grounded as she is. “I’m just like any mum raising teenagers,” she says. “I made a commitment to them and I feel so blessed to have two families.” “Many orphanages are like this,” she says. “It’s all just a money-making scheme and an exploitation of the children. The abuse was horrendous. I’m sure Westerners donating money thought they were helping but they were causing so much damage. “I wanted to create a place for the children to call home where they would be safe and loved and no longer treated as if they were in a zoo.” When the orphanage was closed by the council in 2016, Letty fought for the right to open her own home in Iringa for the nine children left homeless. She founded Street Children Iringa as a UK charity to raise money for running the home as well as medical and schooling needs.

And since then she has taken on another five youngsters after meeting them on the streets. Letty – who has two trusted workers “their aunties” helping her – lives in Iringa nine months of the year, returning to the UK to fundraise through sponsored events and an annual charity ball – and to continue her education.

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