By Stephen Dafoe
Morinville – A group of Morinville grandmothers and others got together over the weekend to organize a white elephant sale and silent auction in the basement of the Morinville United Church. Although the event had all the trappings of a community basement bazaar, including used books and freshly-baked cookies, proceeds from the event are earmarked to assist communities thousands of miles away.
For the past few years the group, calling themselves Hands Across the Sea (HATS), have been raising funds for the Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, an organization that provides assistance to the plight of African grandmothers, something Lewis became aware of in his role as Special Ambassador to Africa for the United Nations.
“He [Lewis] realized after years and years of being in Africa that it was the grandmothers who were running the villages and the communities, especially after the AIDS epidemic hit Africa,” said HATS co-chair Louise Horstman. “The middle age people – lots of them have died off. The grandmothers are raising all the orphans.”
Horstman explained there are presently an estimated 13 million orphans on the continent being raised solely by grandmothers, a difficult situation given the conditions in many African countries.
“Often they have no money. They’re very poor. No jobs. Nothing,” Horstman said, adding once the campaign to assist African grandmothers started it caught on with Canadian grandmothers. “There are now 250 grandmothers groups across Canada.”
Horstman said HATS was one of the first in the nation and started after she happened to read about the program in a book that featured a chapter written by Lewis.
“I thought if I can get a couple grandmothers in the church interested in it, so be it,” she said. “We have people from a number of churches and a number of neighbourhoods near Morinville, and we’ve just done fundraising and things like that to help out, and that’s what they’re all doing all across Canada.”
Locally, HATS have raised more than $13,000 for the cause, including $1,250 raised during the Feb. 19 white elephant sale and silent auction.
“It goes directly to projects that the grandmothers in Africa have envisioned and proposed,” Horstman said. “They have to be well-reasoned out projects and there are a few field people who check out the projects [to] make sure they are running right.”
Horstman explained many of the initiatives are two- and three-year projects in one of the 13 Sub-Saharan African countries, and include funding education and students.
“The children there are not allowed to go to school unless they have uniforms and pay school fees, which they cannot afford,” she said. “Sometimes it’s been to promote a money-making industry by the grandmothers so that they can support themselves.”
One volunteer who has seen first hand where the money goes is Louise Barr of Edmonton-based Grandmothers for a New Generation (GANG). Barr travelled to Swaziland to the historic African Grandmothers Gathering and said she was moved by the experience.
“We were able to break into groups and go out to some of the projects that the Stephen Lewis foundation supports,” Barr said, adding it was a rewarding experience because it allowed the Canadian observers to see where the money they had raised was going. “We talked to these people first hand to know the difference it’s making in their lives on a day-to-day basis.”
Barr explained the money often supports basic necessities, including food, shelter, school, and even the purchase of coffins for the parents of children who have died from AIDS.
“They have nothing,” Barr said, noting some of the communities the program supports may not have power, water or even the ability to feed the orphaned children more than once a day. “It just breaks your heart. There’s such a disparity between our country and their country. I guess I came away thinking – and I’ve kind of always thought this – to do nothing is just not an option. You just can’t be back here and not want to help. That’s why I volunteer.”
HATS are currently looking for more people to join the cause locally. Volunteers need not be grandmothers to join the organization. Anyone wishing to assist can contact Louise Horstman at 780-939-5858.