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The Girl Inspired by Cheetahs

Alice Barker Blog Photo

Life. What a great gift, huh? It’s a complex, crazy and tangled web that constantly mystifies us, subjecting us to forces that we don’t understand and yet are completely at the mercy of.

It flows through every living thing; a boundless energy that both sustains and consumes us, relentlessly subjecting us to a dizzying spectrum of human emotion.

While I consider myself to be very blessed and privileged, life has not always been easy for me. On 14th May, 1995, I entered the world three months early, via Caesarean and as red as a newborn baby bird. Eighteen months later, when I struggled to sit up and walk, the doctors would diagnose me with quadriplegic cerebral palsy, a condition that would later see me reliant on manual and then powered wheelchairs.

My childhood was a happy time, filled with friends and laughter, scooping out tadpoles from ponds using old jars and lifting up my granddad’s compost bags to see the worms wiggling underneath.

Despite my difficulties I was a very brazen child, shrugging off bruises, scrapes and sunburn before rushing out to play again.
Adult life, however, was a bit harder. I did well at school, excelling in my exams, and went onto university to study film and screenwriting. At that point, film was all I wanted to do; I wanted to make a movie that inspired people and caused them to take action.

By the time graduation rolled around however, I was jaded. I had passed the course with First Class Honours – even achieving the Dean’s Prize for ‘rising to challenges and demonstrating outstanding personal achievement’ – but my tentative early interactions with the Hollywood industry had left me sceptical, due to its fluctuating and fickle nature.

I left university unemployed and directionless, doing sporadic online volunteering for organisations – from my local library to The Polynesian Voyaging Society in Hawaii – to keep myself occupied.

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However, one sunny afternoon in early June 2019, I was reading my copy of HELLO! Magazine when I came across an article about the Naankuse Wildlife Reserve in Africa.

The sanctuary was run by Marlice and Rudie van Vuuren, who are friends with Angelina Jolie after she met them while shooting a movie in Namibia. Immediately enchanted by the scenery of Africa and the founders’ drive to change the world, I looked the organisation up online, and while I was there, looked at their volunteering page.

Immediately, I knew I’d be unable to do such a thing; the organisation wanted help with looking after the animals and scientific research. However I wasn’t deterred and, after some digging, found the email address for the sanctuary’s founder, Marlice van Vuuren. I told her about my successes and how I was fighting to make the world a better place, attaching my CV and asking if I could do some online volunteering work before hitting send.

I wasn’t sure if I would receive a reply; after all, why would such a place have time for me when there were elephants to protect and baby cheetahs to feed.

The very next day however, I was in for a surprise: I got an email from one of the sanctuary staff, Colette Massier. She told me that my email had blown everyone at Naankuse away, and that Marlice had forwarded it to her after being ‘truly touched by my drive and courage to change the world.’

Due to my beautiful writing style, Colette said, she would like to request my help writing newsletters and campaigns. And thus, I became an online volunteer for a wildlife sanctuary in Africa.

Meet Hannabella, our resident cheetah

Adjusting to life at Naankuse was simultaneously both baffling and easy. I worked hard editing fundraising proposals and drafting Facebook posts, but the role itself felt like something I was born to do, and it filled my heart with joy.

Before I knew it, I was part of a small team consisting of Colette, Sharon Racho and Fillipus Absalom, and despite five-thousand miles between us, we were communicating almost daily. I also couldn’t stem the flow of ideas I had for Naankuse: I came up with the concept of a children’s book centred around Lucky the cheetah, which I am currently working on, contacted English media outlets and agreed to do a weekly segment on Naankuse’s Facebook page, called Wheels in the Wild.

The staff were so impressed with my efforts that they recently set me up with my own Naankuse email address – I can even use the foundation’s logo as a signature. Before my adventure occurred, I was clutching at straws and desperate, on the verge of giving up. Now, my heart is filled with a happiness that makes every day worth living.

Thanks to Marlice, Rudie and all the other staff at Naankuse, I will no longer be known as just a poor disabled girl, but an indomitable warrior with the heart of a lion who stood beside cheetahs... and the best part is, I’m just getting started.

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