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Downton's Lady Edith lends hand to West Wickham charity fighting poverty in Haiti

PUBLISHED: 11:52 18 September 2013 | UPDATED: 11:52 18 September 2013

Founders of HHA Jonnie Horner and Carwyn Hill with Downton Abbey's Laura Carmichael.

Founders of HHA Jonnie Horner and Carwyn Hill with Downton Abbey's Laura Carmichael.

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As audiences were left bereft by Lady Sybil's death during childbirth in Downton Abbey, one of its stars made the decision to help prevent a similar fate happening to many women in Haiti.

Carwyn with a group of Haitian children helped by the charity.Carwyn with a group of Haitian children helped by the charity.

Laura Carmichael, better known as Lady Edith, has pledged her support to West Wickham-based Haiti Hospital Appeal (HHA) and is now the patron of the charity.

Set up by friends Jonnie Horner and Carwyn Hill in 2005, the charity offers medical support in the Caribbean country in the form of a maternity unit, community health centres and an ambulance service – all invaluable after the 2010 earthquake.

For Laura, introduced to the pair through a mutual friend, the decision to help HHA, in Coney Hill Road, was a “no brainer”.

She said: “What first amazed me was that they employ people there who don’t just fly in for six months. Their main plan was to set up the maternity ward and that became one of their many projects after the earthquake.

Laura as Lady Edith in ITV's Downton AbbeyLaura as Lady Edith in ITV's Downton Abbey

“On the show Sybil died of pre-eclampsia during childbirth, which most people will see as a historical concern because the show is set 100 years ago. But in Haiti it’s still a worry and doctors don’t have the resources to beat it.

“In a way we are pleased people still talk about Sybil’s death because it highlights that it can be fatal.”

It was a chance encounter with a Haitian pastor looking for somewhere to stay in this country that led Carwyn, of West Wickham, to set up HHA.

The pastor had come to share the critical state of healthcare in his country, where one in four children were dying before the age of five. It continues to have the highest infant and maternal mortality rate in the western hemisphere.

“I was really moved by the desperate conditions there,” remembers Carwyn, who visited Haiti.

“Specifically in the only government hospital in Haiti’s second largest city. The children’s ward was particularly harrowing. The stagnant smell, paint peeling off the walls, intermittent electricity, and rusty old cots.

“We saw an 11-year-old girl called Julie who’d passed away a few hours before we arrived. The doctor on duty explained that he knew exactly what was wrong with Julie and how he could have saved her, but he just lacked the basic supplies to do anything.”

Since his initial visit, Carwyn and wife, Reninca, find themselves spending most of their time in Haiti where they have set up a maternity and paediatric unit and a community health centre, which had 11,000 visitors last year.

Though the earthquake three years ago devastated the country, it’s a common misconception that all the nation’s problems have been caused by the natural disaster.

“The majority of the country is battling with issues of poverty that have been a problem for years,” explains Carwyn.

“Political instability and natural disasters have left the country with huge unemployment rates reaching 75 per cent. Families struggle to meet their daily food needs, with many facing severe malnourishment. Others suffer from poor sanitation, or no access to education.

“All these elements contribute to making Haiti the poorest country in the western hemisphere.”

For Laura, made a global star by her role in the ITV period drama, the plan is to visit Haiti this year – though her schedule can be hectic at times.

She said: “It’s difficult to deal with how the success of the show can change your life, but obviously if you can help someone there’s no question.

“This is almost all volunteers.

“They do it because it makes sense. If there’s anything I can do to help I will.”

To donate, or volunteer with HHA, visit haitihospitalappeal.org.

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