Canaan Kennedy talks with
Founder of FireFly International
I became interested in Ellie Maxwell when my grandmother told me about her trips to London where she visited the Maxwell's at the Alresford house in Hampshire, England. My grandmother showed me a picture of Alresford house and told me that Ellie used to visit her in New York City where she worked for Bertelsmann and told her stories of Bosnia. I came to find out that Ellie founded an organization called Firefly, and I knew that Ellie died in 2009. I wanted to learn more so I decided to email her mother Virginia Maxwell who has been friends with my grandmother since 1970. I asked Virginia seven questions.
1. Can you tell me about Ellie when she was a child.
She was the third child born within 2 1/2 years so never had the time devoted to her that the other two did. But from a very early age she carved out a place for herself - she read enormously.
We had a second hand book shop in Alresford, I once saw a pile of books set aside - and asked what they were doing with them, they said they kept them for Ellie as she used to come in and 'devour them'!
At primary school she wrote very slowly and after she died one of her teachers brought me a piece of her work she kept for over 25 years, she said given Ellie more time than her other teachers as she realized Ellie took longer because she was looking for much more complicated words, and she said the piece she had could never have been written by any other 8 year old and that was why she kept it all those years.
Our house was open to the public and one year when I found the numbers of people coming had gone down, I discovered Ellie was waylaying people at the gates, saying don't bother about the house, come and see the nursery wing where I live, it is much more interesting and I will only charge you 50p (about $1.) Under her mattress we found lots of 50p's! When we had our first financial drama, it was very close to Christmas, and I found Ellie had taken a Christmas job washing dishes in the local pub so as to be able to buy us all Christmas presents.
She was very kind and very funny, and never felt - as did many of her cousins - that she had come from a very important family. She used to exasperate her teachers at boarding school as none of her work was in on time and they would always say how badly she would do at exams and then when the exams came (owing to the amount of reading she always did) she always did well, much to their irritation!
2. Was she always interested in helping people ?
Before university she had a 'gap' year and went to Bosnia - it was just at the end of the civil war. 1995-96. She really found her identity at this time - and first of all she set up a haven in a shed for the children in a small town in Northern Bosnia which was multi ethnic and where there had been many atrocities. With her they were able to play games, read listen to music and draw - none of this was possible in Brcko at that time for children.
She returned to university at Edinburgh, but every evening and weekends would go off to raise money for this place in Bosnia - she had become very good friends with someone who had been in Sarajevo for 5 years during the war whilst the Serbs had it under siege. So she (Gordana) and Ellie set up Firefly. Firefly developed and they had better facilities, and then volunteers at first Ellie's friends, came over and they would take the children in broken down buses past all the political boundaries which existed at the time and still do) to the coast for holiday camps which they organized, sometime 200--300 at a time. But the main point is that it ensured that Croat, Serb and Moslem children all played together and grew up as friends - after the terrible sectarian issues that tore the country apart.
3. When did Ellie start Firefly.
At university she was awarded by the Queen, young achiever of the year for what she was doing in Bosnia.
Then the Princess Diana Foundation awarded Ellie £25,000 - which she used to develop what was now Firefly - She went on to have two Fellowships - the Bertelsmann Foundation for young achievers and the Clore Foundation - ditto. Then she was named Catholic Woman of the Year. She used both those fellowships to live on and also to develop Firefly - as towards the end of her life she had also embarked upon support for Palestine but always working with locals, she realized no charity is successful if you parachute in foreigners to tell locals what to do. It’s necessary to listen to what they think they need.
4. Please tell me about something about the shelter in Bosnia, and what she did there.
She was amoral in a moral sense - for example - when there were Bosnians seeking to emigrate to England they had to have confirmed jobs here - she would issue them confirmation of work in this country for Firefly (although if you looked at Firefly's accounts there was no way they could further employ more people) but she knew these people and once they arrived they soon found jobs and were able to bring up families and lead useful lives. She also brought over a poet going blind, once here and staying with her, she was able to get him treatment he would not have had in his country. There were countless stories like that about her.
When she was dying many of her relations, all Catholic, thought she should begin to prepare for the her death - Ellie would never admit she was going to die, and right up to the last day she was hoping to find a cure- in sharp contrast to the philosophy of her relations.
5. Today what type of work do you do to keep Firefly going?
After she died, we raised money via several events and bike rides, and walks, and donations to buy a permanent base in Bosnia for Firefly. Then we set up Trustees, and they are amazing, very young (in 30's) all very socially committed and very bright. One had already started a very similar charity in Palestine called Project Hope.
6. What do you want Ellie's legacy to be ?
I think her legacy is Firefly, it is so much what foreign involvement should be - listening, working with locals, humour, acceptance and love really.
7. What is your family doing today, your husband Peter and children Ben, Laura and Elizabeth.
Lizzy (your grandmother's Godchild) has not been well, but politically I think she would be called an anarchist. She identifies with the disadvantaged (has joined political squats) and believes change comes from the base it cannot be imposed from above.
Laura (who your mother also knows well) works with Afghan and other nation's children who are asylum seekers. This is a difficult work as with our immigration laws now it is more than likely that many of the children with whom she works may well be returned to their countries.
Ben works with an investment bank, not as a banker per se, but he has been given a department whose purpose is to encourage investors that they can invest in 'moral- ecological' investments and still make money. He also devotes much time to Ellie's charity and helps in fundraising.
Peter is now more or less retired, he has worked with several charities and the UN in Bosnia, Iraq, Kurdistan, Afghanistan and South Sudan, so he has had his fair share of conflict.
Ellie was an inspiring young woman. She cared about the human condition in the world. She was and still is a role model for young women around the world.