HARD KNOCK LIFE I was born in the slums of southwest Dublin in 1944. As a child, I had hardly any formal education. My mother came from a countryside family - she was a very devout Catholic and well-educated. She came up to Dublin to study, but she gave that up after she married my father. My father was a bare-knuckle boxer; he suffered some damage from fighting and was kicked out of police training school. After that he started to drink a lot - an alcoholic out and out. That was very hard for Mummy. She was sick a lot of the time - she had tuberculosis. I was the eldest girl, and I had to do everything I could to help my family. As things got worse financially, there were no textbooks, pens or pencils, therefore you took a lot of abuse at school. And you had to try to make peace as best as you could.
I watched my mother die in hospital when I was 10. I don't think there's anything more horrific than losing your mother. You feel completely alone. Intellectually, I knew she was dead, but emotionally, I always thought she'd come back - I think it was a way to cope with the pain. I'm happy that she left the foundation her values - not to hurt, judge or disrespect people; to go to church; and no matter how bad things get, stay clean with soap and water - being poor is not an excuse to be dirty; don't go overboard with pride, but don't lose your dignity; don't assume anything in life; and hard work didn't kill anybody.
THE CALLING At 18, I ran away to England to join my brother, Andy. I met a man, got married and had children. I'd rather not go into my marriage here - it was not the happiest - but the UK gave me opportunities I never had as a child. I couldn't believe the breaks I got and the sense of equality. I could go back to school, I went to workshops, I started my catering business. The health care was great. I never felt like an outsider. I did social work with the elderly, which I loved. I had an amazing life there.
In 1971, when my children were still young, I had the most vivid dream. In it, I could see the sky - it was raging, roaring crimson-red fire and black smoke. There were children running from a war zone, and they were burned. I could see their little faces so well - and I identified with the pain. The ground was opening up and they were going to plummet into the rift - so I had to catch them before that happened. I saw words in the sky, written in light: Vietnam. At that time, I had no idea where Vietnam was, much less that there was a war going on. What I can say is that the dream was meant to change things.
BLOOD AND SWEAT It was only in 1989 that I finally went where the dream wanted me to go. When I first arrived in Hanoi, I was naive. I just started walking the streets, trying to help anyone I could. I'd buy meals for old ladies; I'd bathe and house street-kids in my cheap hotel room; take them to hospital when necessary. I wanted to help them because I had been there myself - that was my thinking. I did a few things wrong in the beginning. I got into trouble with the Ministry of Culture for holding a charity art sale to show the expat world what exceptional artists the country had and also to benefit the children - I didn't clear it with them and they didn't like that.
In any case, it was a one-woman effort at the start. It wasn't until I got to Ho Chi Minh City a few years later that I first learned to fund-raise and build something. I lobbied the government to donate an old derelict building, where I built our first social and medical centre. I got some seed money donated by a British petrol company, construction gear from Singapore shipped over; then I went back to the UK on a fund-raising trip, telling my childhood story in Dublin [which can be found in Noble's book Bridge Across My Sorrows] to raise awareness and getting medical equipment donated from hospitals. To tell you how hard all that was would take a week. I hadn't even registered the foundation at that point. I think the reason the government began to accept what I was doing was because they saw how hard I worked and how little I had for myself.
In Vietnam and Mongolia [where Noble set-up another branch of her foundation, in 1997], I call them all 'my children' and they call me 'Mama Tina'. My biggest sadness is that I can't be with them all the time. Maybe that's a selfish thing. The love is just amazing - there is so much of it.
CHANGED LIVES [In 2002], I was asked to participate in the programme This Is Your Life in the UK and they surprised me by inviting one of the first children I helped in Vietnam to speak about me on the show. He's now got a graphic design business in Ho Chi Minh City. He spoke fondly about the tough love I gave - how I pushed him to study hard. I was recently in Australia at a charity gala for the foundation and this woman came up to me with her little girl and said, 'Mama, do you remember me?' And I knew her to be My, one of the first children we helped. She is now living in Australia and running her own jewellery business. Her daughter stuck to me the whole evening. Another girl - Mian - when she came to me all scraggly and full of attitude, I knew she would be one of the more difficult ones. She had a gruff way of demanding handouts. But I got her to find what her dream was and promised that if she worked hard I would be there to make it come true. She's now an international-level tennis coach, teaching in Ireland.
DESERTED NO LONGER We have been fund-raising this season in Hong Kong, with a focus on helping our efforts in Mongolia. I'm heading there to spend as much time as needed. We've been helping displaced families in Ulan Bator; many have left the desert because the winters have become so harsh that they can't keep the herder lifestyle. So the city is quite overloaded and crime and child abuse is up. We've helped 800 or so families find homes on the outskirts of town but it's not an ideal situation for the children. We need a building in town for a school and medical centre. That would give the children a better footing. I have a lovely image of a new building in bold reds and golds - the colours of the plains. I'm going to fight to make it happen, so I can keep the children safe and happy.
For more information about the Christina Noble Children's Foundation, visit www.cncf.org