Brenda Johnson, 67, is helping disabled Zambian orphans but airline Emirates says  she can’t fly with children’s clothing unless she pays an £800 excess

“I’M just an ordinary woman doing a little something,” said Brenda Johnson.

The thought of coming across as believing she is in any way special causes the devout Christian obvious discomfort, but she grasps any opportunity to raise awareness of the cause she serves.

“My philosophy is about trying to make a bit of a difference in whatever way I can. It might be small but if we all make a difference in a small way, small steps add up to big ones,” she said.

Not all of the public reaction to Brenda’s tussle with Emirates has been supportive.

“I read some of the responses on your Facebook page and I was accused of being a do-gooder. What I do is not about being a do-gooder.

“If you’ve got the time and the energy, then why not?

“We all need help from time to time, and we’re lucky around here because we’ve got people around us who support us and the resources.

“I think sometimes we take that for granted. These kids have very little.” The orphanage Brenda helps is in Mongu, an eight-hour Jeep ride across the Kalahari from Lusaka. It’s a Leonard Cheshire home whose residents are awaiting artificial limbs.

“They’re all there waiting for limbs to be fitted. The flying doctor comes once every three months with a team of technicians and arms and legs are fitted. The physiotherapy is about rehabilitation.”

The causes of the limblessness are many.

“It’s due to Aids, malnutrition, snake bites and sometimes swimming in the Zambezi and coming into contact with a crocodile,” Brenda said.

During Brenda’s first visit – she spent six weeks there in 2015 – a UN transport brought 13 people who had lost legs during Congolese civil strife.

The orphanage also has a mother and baby unit where about 20 babies await club foot surgery. “For the kids it’s all about what they can do and what they can’t do, so you’ll see them playing football on their knees because they don’t have legs. You’ll see them on a climbing frame hanging by maybe the one hand that they’ve got,” Brenda said.

“They’re full of joy. I remember I went over with a whole lot of stuff like pencils and crayons – and they’d never seen balloons before.

“I took those little things of bubbles and as we were playing with the bubbles on the playground the mums and babies came up to join us.”

Brenda is originally from Croydon. Her father was a maintenance engineer for a perfume company and her mother a home-maker.

After leaving school she worked at her local library before training as a teacher in London.

“My very first teaching job was in the heart of Dockland – Bermondsey,” she said.

“At that time, in the 1970s, it was a very rough area.

“I don’t know why, but I deliberately chose a school in the roughest area that I could find. I absolutely loved it.

“From that point on I felt that that was where my talents lay, working with disadvantaged children – loving families but disadvantaged.

“That’s kind of stayed with me, because from there all of my teaching has been with challenging situations or challenging children.”

Between 1977 and 1983, Brenda worked in Arlington, Virginia, specialising in family support and helping young people to build their self-esteem.

On returning to England, she moved to Swindon to be closer to family members living in the town and worked as a specialist behaviour support teacher.

“For every behaviour there’s a reason,” she said. “Throughout my teaching career I would hear parents talk about their children – sometimes, ‘Oh, he’s a pain’ or whatever, or ‘He’s a nuisance, you won’t be able to do anything with him’ – and I always found that in everybody there is something good worth fighting for.”

Brenda joined Holy Family Church, in Marlowe Avenue, and soon volunteered for work such as visiting housebound people and taking them communion.

It was while visiting a nun who was recovering from hip surgery that Brenda learned in detail about the work of the orphanage “I don’t know how it came about but she suddenly said to me, ‘Would you consider going over there?’ Before I realised what I’d done I’d said, ‘Yes,’” Brenda said.

On her first trip she took educational supplies and assisted teachers.

She also helped an elderly man, using some money donated by a Holy Family churchgoer in honour of her late mother. The donor asked that the money be used to help an older person if possible.

It was used to build a sturdy new shack for a blind man who had only a straw mat and a stool to his name, and who faced enduring a rainy season in a ramshackle hut with a plastic sheeting roof.

Brenda’s next trip, beginning in May, will last for two months. As before, Brenda will pay her own fare and her own lodging costs. This time she will take underwear; children waiting for artificial legs often scoot across the ground on their bottoms, which makes for a lot of wear and tear.

The goods are paid for through donations and fundraising events.

Next weekend there will be a cake sale at Holy Family, and donations of cakes are welcome.

On Sunday, April 2, beginning at 3pm, there will be a fundraising auction , and donations of saleable goods are invited.

Brenda is also hoping to hear from anybody with contacts in the courier industry who can arrange for the extra underwear to be transported.

“If they could do that it would mean that the children would physically be more comfortable.

“They get through so much underwear. They’re on the floor most of the time and when they’re skidding around playing football, when they’re crawling around the floor because they can’t stand, it gives them dignity.

“They feel that because they’re getting nice pants with cartoons on, people really care.

“They feel that they may be 5,000 miles away but we have done this for them because they are special.”