Eloise running at the Rio Olympic Games in 2016

For a few years now I have looked on from the sidelines and seen the impact of an incredible woman attached to her cause. This woman, talented to the extreme through her sport, was touched by an encounter so humbling that it changed her life and continues to impact the life of so many today, both around the world as partners to the cause or as direct beneficiaries on the ground in Uganda through the Love Mercy Foundation, which she co-founded with Olympian Ugandan athlete Julius Achon in 2010.

When starting the ‘women of impact’ series I knew that Eloise was going to be one of those women that I wanted to interview and get along-side to share her cause. So many have heard of the work that Love Mercy do, but there are so many that haven’t, and as a network at RMA, apart from the core of what we do in connecting and empowering our own women, my vision has always been to get along-side and support programs that impact women and children, so Love Mercy was one such program that deserves our attention. Eloise shares with us some of her history and how this lead to a chance encounter that fed her desire to run for something other than herself. We hope you enjoy her story.

Can you tell me a little about when you started running and what motivated you to keep going?

I started running when I was 5 at little athletics and joined a cross country running club. My mum was a good runner and we used to go to cross country every Saturday afternoon where I’d run the kids race. Mum used to meet up with a midweek running group called “The Billy’s Bushies”, I tagged along because they met at the trail at the end of our street- I would run with them for the first little bit until I got tired and then I’d turn around and try and beat my time on the way home” 

Could you give us a little timeline about how you got to where you are now in your running career…..

My first International experience was at 15 years of age at the World Youth Championships in Poland, where I placed 4th in the 3000m. I then went to the world junior championships the following year in 1998 in Annecy, France. In 1999, at 16 years of age, I ran the qualifying time for the Sydney Olympics for the 5,000m – 15.18. I was measured for the Olympic uniform and selected in the shadow Olympic team, but suffered my first stress fracture and would not be able to compete in Sydney.

In 2004 I was selected for the shadow Olympic team again and measured for the uniform only to get another stress fracture. 2006 was my first Commonwealth games in Melbourne where I placed 4th in the 5,000m. In 2008 I was selected for the shadow Olympic team and measured for the uniform, but again suffered a stress fracture before the games.

In 2010 I competed in the Delhi Commonwealth games 10,000m where I placed 6th and 5th in the 5,000m. In 2011 I competed in the World championships in Daegu Korea, but withdrew due to a stress fracture. In 2012 I competed in the London Olympics where I placed 20th in the 10,000m, and didn’t progress to the final in the 5,000m.

In 2013 I gave birth to our daughter India and in 2014 I was off to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow where I was 5th in the 5,000m. 2015 saw me line up for the World championships final in the 5,000m, placing 9th. In 2016 at the Rio Olympics I was 10th in the 10,000m, running PB of 31.14. I also made the final in the 5,000m and placed 9th. In 2017 I competed at the World championships in London 5,000m, and 10,000m and in 2018 the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast in the 5,000m and 10,000m. Now, in 2019 I am pregnant with our second baby due mid this year.

Eloise and daughter India

What has been your greatest sporting achievement/achievements to date?

Making it to the Olympics after all those years of trying and failing. And then backing up to go to a second one and actually performing how I believed I could. 

What has been your greatest non-sporting achievement to date? 

My daughters 4th birthday cake! 

When and why did you start the Love Mercy Foundation?

I started the Love Mercy Foundation with my friend, Ugandan athlete Julius Achon. He told me his harrowing story of escaping the atrocities of war and the challenges of poverty to go onto become a two-time Olympian. He shared with me his vision to return to his community and help people back on their feet after more than 20 years of civil war in the North of Uganda. So we thought we could use what we do and what we’ve been given to partner with him and help him carry out his vision. 

Eloise and Julius

What is it about running that connects you to your cause for Love Mercy?

I think the running community feel a connection to our story and the greater Love Mercy story because it was birthed around running and the struggles that we all face as runners – there are just so many layers to the story – but the main themes are perspective, finding hope after disappointment, collaboration and never giving up on a dream.

What role does running play with the Love Mercy Foundation and how can people help?

We have an amazing community of runners running events all over the world and fundraising for our projects in Uganda. It seems like such a simple thing – to run an event and ask friends and family to sponsor your effort – but it makes such an impact on the other side of the globe and in many ways it is life saving for people in these areas who are suffering. Just $50 will safely bring a child into the world in our maternity space at our clinic, $5 will treat a patient with malaria at our clinic, $30 will give a life changing loan of seeds in our micro loan farming program called Cents for Seeds, $200 will repair a well, $7,500 will drill a brand new well and give life giving clean water to an entire community who was otherwise collecting their drinking water from a contaminated swamp. It sounds heavy, and it is, but this is the reality in these areas that we areworking in.

We encourage people to come on a trip with us and see first hand their impact and the impact that it has made to entire families and communities. Each November we take a team to Uganda to visit our projects and to support Julius at the Julius Achon cross Country day that we run for school children. For around ten days we get up at sunrise and run each morning with Julius and then we travel out to visit the communities that we are standing alongside – women and families in our Cents for Seeds program, we attend (and even run!) the Julius achon cross country, we visit the Kristina Health clinic and maternity ward and we visit the wells that have been drilled so far and the communities that are now celebrating having access to clean water. Then we finish off the last 2-3 days of the trip with an epic Safari located on the Nile River. It’s an incredible trip! 

What would you like to teach your children about through the vehicle of running or whatever their passion may be?

I’d like them to grow to know that they can have a positive impact in the world no matter what they do… running or whatever they are passionate about and they can use that passion to drive positive change. 

What are some of the programs that Love Mercy provides and how does this improve the wellbeing of people in Africa?

Love Mercy Foundation’s projects operate in remote northern Uganda in many communities that have never had access to external resource. They are focused on empowering communities to overcome poverty after decades of civil war. These are the programs that we currently run:

Cents for Seeds: 

Cents for Seeds is a micro-loan agricultural project that works primarily with women in remote northern Uganda. Typically women are the primary income earners by way of farming. After a 25 year civil war, the nation was left devastated and without resource or education. Families returned to their land with nothing to farm, no tools to farm with and no money. What their very livelihood depended on, they had been stripped of. 

Cents for Seeds addresses this gap, empowering families to start providing for themselves. It is a hand up, rather than a hand out, as we endeavour to stand alongside women and cheer them on. From a $30 donation, a woman receives a 30kg seed loan (rice, beans or sesame) and is allocated into a group. The group will support each other through the growing season, and she has a community to lean on for questions. From this loan, she will harvest anywhere between 150 – 300kg. After returning the initial 30kg loan, the remaining can be used for food for her family, to pay for essential health care or to pay for her children to go to school. Women are able to send all their children to school off the back of this 30kg seed loan.  

Aside from the growing, she will learn how best to save her money in a VSLA group (Village Savings and Loans Association). Over time, her education and skill increases as she creates a path herself to walk out of poverty. She is a mum, just like you. She has the weight of her children’s hopes and dreams on her heart, just like you. With Cents for Seeds, she is empowered to change her reality. With 13,800 women in the project in 2019 and an average of 6 children per family, there is an estimated 82,000 children receiving an education as a result of Cents for Seeds. 
Our Impact Report has shown that women in Cents for Seeds have an average wellbeing of 3.5/5 after the first three years of the project. This is compared with a woman who has not begun the project scoring at 2.8/5. Better yet, wellbeing increases with time in project, with some women in year 6 and 7 of Cents for Seeds scoring 4.5/5. 
“When we invest in women and girls, we are investing in the people who invest in everyone else” – Melinda Gates 

The Kristina Health Centre: 

The KHC was named after co-founder Julius Achon’s mum. She was shot during the war and did not have access to the care she required. She was limited simply by her location and income. She died 3 days after being shot. 
The Kristina Health Centre is located in remote northern Uganda. The nearest hospital is a 72km journey away. It costs money, money that most people in remote villages do not have. The Clinic provides essential medical care to communities desperately in need, treating an average of 600 patients per month. The clinic provides primary medical care including triage, inoculation, disease testing, medication dispensing and outreach services. 

In addition, Maternal services have been offered since September 2017. This care is vital for expectant mothers and their babies that are located in a developing nation in rural and remote areas. If there is not access to care, women give birth in their homes in the village, or on the side of the road thereby increasing the risk of maternal and infant deaths. The Kristina Clinic has seen over 500 babies safely delivered under the care of trained midwives. Women are offered pre-natal and ante-natal care as well as education on breastfeeding. They are empowered to be the best mother that they can from the moment their precious gift enters this world. 

A mother and her baby at the Kristina Health Centre

Well Worth It: 

Results of our Impact Report showed that access to water was significantly affecting levels of wellbeing in communities in Cents for Seeds. We soon realised that Women and children walk anywhere between 5-10km 3x per day, depending on their location, to get to a water source. It prevents women from working her land to earn an income and provide food for her family and takes children out of school, thereby continuing the cycle of poverty. The water sources they walk to are often not even clean, but just an open area of surface water riddled with disease and bacteria. Sickness becomes rife, and impacts entire communities.Through a partnership with a Perth based company, Water for Africa, Well Worth It is providing communities with access to clean water in the village. 

If running was taken away from you tomorrow, do you think that your impact would still resonate with people and how?

I think Love Mercy is so much bigger and goes beyond just me having the ability to run fast… or run at all. I’ve been so humbled at how I’ve been able to use running as a platform to bring light to the plight of the people we stand alongside in Uganda.. if running was taken away we would just find another way to spread that message so as to allow our sphere of influence the opportunity to be a part of something amazing and life giving. 

For more information and to support the Love Mercy Foundation head to www.lovemercyfoundation.org