The 500 miles story: Olivia Giles



500 miles ( is a charity that supports amputees and other people with mobility difficulties in sub-Saharan Africa. The story behind 500 miles is a remarkable one. At the peak of her career as a lawyer in Edinburgh, working long hours for major clients and enjoying a busy social and networking life, Olivia Giles suddenly became unwell with septicaemia, her life hanging in the balance. . .

Following quadruple amputations and months of recovery and physiotherapy, with the aid of prosthetic limbs, Olivia regained her mobility – and her ability to apply mascara, make chocolate brownies and drive. She had a second chance at life. For many, that might have been enough. But Olivia was very aware of her good fortune to be living in a country where free healthcare had allowed her to become mobile again. She decided to do something to help amputees who don’t enjoy that privilege.

In 2007, Olivia set up 500 miles, which has gone on to establish two prosthetics and orthotics clinics in Malawi as well as supporting services in Zambia and Zanzibar.

Anyone who has set up a business in the UK knows about the legal and bureaucratic hurdles to be overcome. These are magnified when you need to secure premises, manage construction, recruit and train staff and provide funding for projects in another continent. As well as the distance issue, there are different laws, practices and cultures.

500 miles doesn’t simply supply components and materials, even pre-used ones. Olivia explains that this is because the Charity aims to establish ongoing sustainable and affordable prosthetic and orthotic services.

Long-term success also depends on ensuring there are enough well-trained local prosthetists and orthotists to provide quality services that don’t depend on overseas support. 500 miles therefore sponsors training and if the 2014/15 cohort of six students qualifies, will have sponsored 18 African technicians.

Working with the Malawian authorities and with support from the Lord Provost and International Office of Glasgow City Council, 500 miles opened its first clinic in Malawi in 2009. With funding from Maitri Trust, it opened its second in 2012. Thousands of patients have now had prosthetic and orthotic fittings at the 500 miles clinics.

Among them is Susan Banda. Susan is 20 and was the first patient of the 500 miles centre in Mzuzu, Malawi. She was born with deformed legs and had never been able to stand or walk, spending her whole life in a wheelchair or crawling on the ground.

With her new prosthetic legs, Susan can draw water and carry it on her head. She is at school full time, walks everywhere and wants to work with people with disabilities.

500 miles has announced the launch of the BIG dinner (, a one off event that will take place on 7 March 2015, involving hundreds of individual dinners across the UK and beyond, all linked by social media and a web-streamed live celebrity dinner. Fred MacAulay will host an online broadcast featuring many stars – some of whom will be available to bid for in a live online dinner date auction.

“The NHS provided my prosthetics free and they have given me a second chance at life but people in many parts of Africa are not so fortunate,” says Olivia. “Even though an average artificial limb or limb support costs as little as £175, many people will unnecessarily spend their lives in a wheelchair or worse, on the ground. By hosting or attending a dinner for the BIG dinner on 7th March, people will be helping to transform lives forever.”

Olivia hopes that hosts will be creative about the dinner they organise, but it doesn’t matter what they do, as long as fun is the main ingredient. “They can throw a ritzy dinner party or treat their friends to a takeaway curry, we don’t mind, we just want people to get involved.”

“We hope to raise £500,000 from the event. I realise that’s a lot of dinners but most people enjoy eating with friends and family anyway and March 7th 2015 offers the chance to be part of a unique event, offering life-changing help to people fighting to maintain their independence and make a fresh start.”

Nick Nairn is on board as the BIG dinner’s resident chef and for dinner hosts who need a bit of help or inspiration, will be providing regular online guidance, exclusive to all those registered. Registration via the website,, requires a minimum donation of £25.

Olivia adds: “We should never take the future for granted, but chances are you will need to eat something on Saturday 7th March 2015, as will the people you like spending time with. Why not get the date in your diaries, register your dinner and start planning the fun?

And while you’re sitting down to dinner in your country, someone in Africa will stand up and walk”.