Dunedin student helping to empower the disabled

Robbie Francis, founder of the Lucy Foundation, is helping to raise awareness of social...
Robbie Francis, founder of the Lucy Foundation, is helping to raise awareness of social enterprise and the disabled community. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.

A Dunedin  student cannot forget the human rights abuses against disabled people she witnessed in Mexico three years ago and is now making an effort to help.

The memories were so powerful, they became the catalyst for University of Otago PhD student Robbie Francis forming the Lucy Foundation in 2014.

The foundation is a social enterprise merging coffee production and the employment of people with disabilities.

Ms Francis (27), originally of Hamilton, who has an artificial leg, said she had never considered being an advocate for the disabled community until she saw how disabled people were often treated in other countries.

Ms Francis was born with phocomelia, which meant the bones in the lower half of her body did not develop properly before birth.

"I realised I was a woman with an education, with a disability ... that I actually have a responsibility to reach out to communities that perhaps don't have those things and work with them to empower them.''

She hoped to work closely with volunteer groups at the university to raise $60,000 to establish a Lucy Foundation representative in Mexico.

In January, she returned from a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, where the foundation is working with locals, both with and without disabilities, to produce coffee and export their product to New Zealand.

The foundation aimed to change the perception of disability to one which was based on "inclusiveness'' and "sustainability'' of the disabled community through trade, she said.

"Many [ethical trade companies] don't consider disability, but disability affects gender, disability affects all religions, all ethnicities, all ages ...''

The foundation was working with a Oaxaca community organisation and a core group of coffee-producing families in that area to produce enough coffee for an initial export to New Zealand.

A coffee company, which she did not want to name yet, had indicated interest in the project, she said.

This week, the university is marking volunteer week, to acknowledge the importance of voluntary work, something which Ms Francis said was alive and well on campus.

"So often, young people get such a bad rap.

"That is not what I see.

"There is a strong sense of working with community.''

margot.taylor@odt.co.nz

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