Ed Sheeran wrote an exclusive op-ed for PEOPLE about his journey to Liberia in support of the Red Nose Day campaign

By Ed Sheeran
April 21, 2017 08:00 AM

Ed Sheeran visited a village in Liberia as part of his 2017 Red Nose Day contribution. During his trip, the singer chatted and got to know kids who had been impacted by the West Africa Ebola breakout in 2014. What follows is Sheeran’s account.

When I told friends I was going to Liberia most of them said “Why?” quickly followed by “Be careful.”

Comic Relief had invited me to make a film for Red Nose Day and I really wanted to put my own spin on it. I’d visited Ghana earlier in the year with friends and everyone I met had been so positive. I was determined to show the same optimistic and progressive side of Liberia.

It was my first day of filming and I was in West Point, the largest and most dangerous slum in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia. I’d spent the morning visiting an education project which is using Comic Relief cash to help disadvantaged kids in the township.

Everything was going to plan. I’d had a fantastic welcome and although it was obvious that everyone was living incredibly tough lives, the kids were all smiling and happily running around. I sat in on one of their lessons, played football with some of the boys and enjoyed an after-school game in the playground. It was just as I had hoped. There was optimism everywhere.

Then I got my first reality shock.

A young girl asked if she could sing to me. She said her name was Peaches and she had this huge, cheeky smile on her face. In my head I was thinking how wonderful and positive my trip was turning out to be. I was seeing the real country and it was great.

As she sang a gorgeous hymn Peaches started crying. Big, fat tears were rolling down her cheeks. I asked her what was wrong and she said she was sad because her father had taught her the song.

Peaches’ dad was one of the thousands of victims who died during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. When the epidemic hit, the slum was put into lockdown with hundreds of families left to fend for themselves. As bodies piled up in the streets there was not enough food or medicine inside the quarantine.

In my whole career I have never cried on camera but I’m completely overwhelmed. I can’t imagine what this little girl has witnessed and I break down. I feel ridiculous and guilty about crying but I just can’t stop myself.

When Peaches invites me to see where she lives, she can hardly believe it when I say yes. The big cheeky grin is back on her face.

As I head down into the centre of the slum, I realize the morning’s tour had just been the tip of the iceberg. I’ve watched the videos made for Red Nose Day and always think it can’t be that bad, but it really is. It’s more than just a hand-to-mouth existence for these kids.

It’s hell. The stifling alleyways are crammed with filthy wooden shacks that look like they could collapse at any moment. I’m careful not to step in the rotting rubbish and food scraps lining the path, but there’s no escaping the smell. Thousands of families are living in squalor and there’s a stench of sewage everywhere. This is where Peaches calls home.

As she proudly shows me her bedroom, I’m relieved that the little girl at least has a space of her own. I can’t quite believe it when she tells me she shares the two room shack with eight other people. Her mum, aunt, brothers, sisters and cousins have all been sleeping here since the Ebola outbreak. Even with just two of us in the room it is so hot and suffocating that it feels like a sauna.

The heat and cramped sleeping arrangements are the least of Peaches problems though. Not only did she lose her dad in the recent Ebola epidemic, she also lost her education. With her mum unable to afford books or a uniform, Peaches has been forced to drop out of school. The 12 year-old now spends her days cooking, cleaning, fetching water and doing anything she can to bring in some money to help feed her extended family. In what little free time there is she hangs around the school playground, desperate to join in one of the lessons.

Over the next few days, I meet more and more kids like Peaches. The “lucky” ones have parents or relatives to look out for them. The unlucky ones are homeless and sleep rough on the beach amongst the rubbish and human waste. The one thing they have in common is they all just want to go to school. They know it’s their only chance of escaping a hellishly hard life in the slum.

It’s so different from my childhood in the U.K. that it seems completely unreal to me. At their age I had a bedroom with posters on my wall and model planes on my ceiling. These kids have the clothes they sleep in. That’s it. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m totally overwhelmed.

But there is hope.

With money raised through Red Nose Day, Street Child Liberia has been working hard to reunite homeless kids with their parents or relatives and offers business loans to help get families back on their feet. They have been using money raised by generous people like you to help two hundred disadvantaged kids go back to school — and Peaches will now be one of them.

Seeing the difference this money is making has definitely been the highlight of my trip. I’ve been involved with Red Nose Day back in the U.K. my whole life, but it’s only standing in a Liberian slum that I finally make the connection between what we do back home — and now in the US too — and what that means to a kid like Peaches.

It costs just $60 to provide a child, living and working on the streets of Liberia with everything they need to go to school for an entire year. I’ve spent that on a round of drinks before which is crazy. But it’s not just pens and paper this money buys, it’s a future. Peaches will never get her Dad back but there’s still time to save her education. With your help even more kids like Peaches could have the chance of a better life in Liberia. They just need a little helping hand getting there.

To get involved and see more about Ed’s trip to Liberia please visit http://www.rednoseday.org/Ed. The Red Nose Day campaign to end child poverty returns in the U.S. on Thursday, May 25, in conjunction with the a night of special programming and the third annual “Red Nose Day Special” on NBC.