Hibs fans put Sunday's derby into perspective with fifth anniversary of Dnipro appeal

IT STARTED with a simple gesture, a one-off act of kindness which would prove there's far more to football fans than just following their club.

• Steve Carr has collected numerous donations to take to Ukraine over the past five years as part of the Dnipro Appeal to help

hundreds of sick and orphaned children

When Hibs supporters realised their club had drawn a Ukrainian side in the Uefa Cup, it seemed only right to head to the away game with some bits and pieces to help some of the country's most impoverished and fragile young people.

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What Steve Carr and his mates ended up with, however, were the building blocks for a unique charity that has changed hundreds of deprived and unfortunate children's lives.

The Dnipro Appeal marks its fifth anniversary this year, a remarkable milestone for a charity which, back in 2005 when Tony Mowbray's Hibs met Dnipropetrovsk in the Uefa Cup, wasn't even intended to be a proper charity.

Since then, however, tens of thousands of pounds have poured into its funds, much coming from the pockets of fellow Hibs fans, and each penny destined to give orphaned and sick children of the Ukrainian city a fighting chance for a better life.

Later this month, the Dnipro Appeal will hold its annual charity dinner. For the first time, a Ukrainian brewery in the area is supplying some beer for the event, an indication of how the charity's early ethos of simply helping some orphaned and sick children is now spreading its wings and encouraging local businesses to come on board.

Guests will learn how the charity has grown to now support children at three orphanages and a TB centre, how its programme of improvements has done things like make play areas safe and how Hibs supporters have embraced a child sponsorship programme that ensures hundreds of orphaned youngsters' birthdays are never forgotten.

Most significantly perhaps, they will also learn how some of the children who were first to benefit from the fans' generosity are now embarking on lives they could never have dreamed possible before, by heading to college and university.

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It's a world away from what started as a few throwaway comments on the Hibs fans' website five years ago.

"It all started with that 2005 trip for the Uefa Cup game," explains Steve, 44, a security alarm engineer from Corstorphine.

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"A bunch of us thought it would be a good idea to give stuff to the kids and the whole thing just snowballed from there."

The original plan hatched by Steve and his mate Mark Strachan, 44, a business consultant from Livingston, to arrive armed with some Hibs strips, morphed into a full-scale collection of warm winter clothes, shoes and sports kits.

Money poured in from fans at a pre-match collection at Easter Road and businesses chipped in by donating items.

Eventually 13 stuffed bags were sent from Edinburgh, but as the Hibs fans prepared to make the journey to Eastern Europe, they had no idea it would be the first of what would become many.

Arriving in Dnipropetrovsk and meeting the orphaned youngsters would become a life-changing moment for everyone involved.

"There was this realisation that this was how these children lived. You were thinking to yourself ‘how can they live like this?' It was hard," Steve says.

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For what they had found were little children in desperate need of care. Some had been taken to the city's Predniprovsk Tuberculosis Children Centre on the outskirts of Dnipropetrovsk, starving, ridden with illness and without anyone to care for them.

There were children, some left at the orphanage by peasant families no longer able to care for them, running outside with only worn-out slippers to protect their feet.

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Inside the orphanage's crumbling concrete walls, behind its broken or boarded-up windows, were the most basic of facilities.

What had started as a plan to simply shower underprivileged youngsters with treats was now developing into something no-one involved could ever simply walk away from.

"I really thought it would be a one-off, that we'd do what we could and that would be it," agrees Steve. "Then when we got back people started to get in touch and say we should keep on doing it.

"We figured if people were happy to keep donating then we'd happily see what we could do, and people did keep donating."

Steve, a veteran of eight trips now, admits the second journey was one of the hardest. "It was a lot longer and we had a chance to see more of how these children were living," he says.

"We looked at different orphanages and saw there were other places that needed help, too."

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If there was a point where they may have felt overwhelmed, Steve and his Dnipro Appeal colleagues didn't let it stop them.

The Dnipro Appeal was officially launched as a registered charity. Within a year it had raised more than 20,000 for the children at the Predniprovsk Tuberculosis Children Centre, as well as a local pregnancy crisis centre and the smaller Odinkovka orphanage.

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Each time Steve returned, he saw a little more progress from the Hibs fans' generosity. His last trip was in September, where he witnessed a new element to the charity's work when children were treated to a remarkable overnight trip away from their orphanage to the freedom of a nature reserve.

"These are children who had never been to a zoo," notes Steve. "We wanted to do something to help give them memories of their childhood as well as the basic things like clothes and medicine.

"We wanted them to be able to look back and remember the time they did something really fun."

Seeing progress has helped Steve cope with the tragedy surrounding the youngsters' lives. But for the likes of Babs MacDonald, a key member of the charity since its roots were formed in 2005, it's enough to know she's doing her bit to help.

"I've never been there," she says, "but I live off the adrenaline of knowing that what we are doing with the kids is helping."

She has been on board since before that first Uefa Cup match, the result of which - a 5-1 defeat - now seems less important than what's happened since. She quickly offered her own support by helping to organise the Dnipro Appeal's first ever gate collection.

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"It just seemed a good idea," she says. "A nice combination - football and charity. No-one thought it would turn into this. It's incredible how it's taken off thanks to the supporters."

She is organising next Saturday's charity dinner, which will be held at the Forth View Suite at Easter Road.

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Television pundit Pat Nevin will be there, artist Jack Vettriano has donated a limited edition signed print for the raffle and ex-Hibs keeper Alan Rough has offered to take one raffle winner and two mates for a round of golf.

But while the Ukrainian beer flows, the guests' thoughts will be further afield - in Dnipro, and with the children whose lives have been changed forever.

n Tickets for the Dnipro Appeal Charity Dinner cost 35 each and are available from [email protected] or [email protected]