Gwen Naden understands first-hand that to make a difference for people living in poverty-stricken African, it starts with helping just one person.
The pay-it forward philosophy, the beneficiary of a good deed repaying it to others, has helped changed the life of the Lake Country grandmother.
She found an outlet to pursue her love of sewing by joining the Gifts To Grandmothers charity organization, which raises funds for African families by selling sewing and tote bags made by the group members.
Six years ago, Naden was struck by a disease that zapped her energy. For four years she endured the symptoms until recovery, at which point she noticed an ad in the Capital News posted by Gifts To Grandmothers looking for volunteers to work on sewing projects for charity.
“So I followed up on the ad and checked into what the group was about, and it has change by life,” said Naden. “Sewing has always been my hobby but the real benefit for me was the social value, getting together with a similar minded group of women and not have to talk about yourself or your problems.
“It is very fulfilling for our ladies to make new friends and do something worthwhile. Thursday is a day we look forward to every week from September until the end of June.”
Gifts To Grandmothers began in Kelowna back in 2007 with three members, and today has up to 40 ladies who turn out every Thursday, from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., at the Trinity Baptist Church in Kelowna to sew their bags. While most of the ladies are grandmothers, what they do all share is a love of sewing.
While not affiliated with the church, Trinity Baptist has provided the group with a space to work and store their sewing machines and fabric, about 90 per cent of which is donated for their sewing projects.
The Kelowna group has also seen a sister off-shoot group start up in Saskatoon to join in the fundraising efforts.
The goal of Gifts To Grandmothers is to improve and empower people’s lives, to give a hand up rather than a hand out.
The finished bag products are sold at a variety of venues around the Okanagan from Penticton to Vernon—on consignment to local retailers, Creative Chaos, Penticton Famers’s Market, City Park events in Kelowna.
The group has raised $425,000 over seven years, and collects about $5,000 a month in sales revenue and donations, 100 per cent of which is steered into charitable initiatives.
“We continue to support about 20 youngsters from primary grades to university, and right now a young man has set his sights on being a doctor. We feel very strongly that education is the path to the future for these young people,” Naden said about the African youth they have helped.
Another specific example saw the group help bring three teenagers to Kelowna from Ethiopia to live, after wading through lengthy delays in bureaucratic red tape to bring them over.
“The are now living with an uncle and his family. Two have attended KSS and one is at UBCO. They had been living with their grandmother, who has since died.”
Naden said the opportunities presented for youth in Canada to pursue their lifestyle and career dreams are far beyond what any African youth living in poverty can comprehend.
“We take it for granted where we live, but to these kids, it is mind-boggling for them to see those opportunities before them. It blows their mind to think that such a future can exist for them, how affluent our part of the world is.”
One of the outlets Gifts To Grandmothers has affiliated with to reach out to African children and their families is Carli’s Kids, an initiative started to save as many children in Africa as possible from abuse, starvation, abandonment and a lack of education.
It was started by Carli Travers, a Vancouver graduate of Douglas College where she served her community social work diploma by working at at HIV/AIDS clinic in Masaka, Uganda. She fell in love with the country and returned home with the dream of starting a charitable venture to help poor Ugandan families and children.
Naden says that desire to help runs strong among her group as well, as some of the members have traveled to African to see first-hand how their fundraising efforts are helping people.
“Because of the AIDS epidemic, in many cases the grandmothers are raising the grandkids because their parents have died. I think there is a global awareness of what is happening, of some of the terrible things these young children are subjected to in the world, ” Naden said.
“We all realize we can’t change the world overnight, but if we just put one child through school, to get an education and give them a future, that’s making a difference.”
In looking at the totality of Africa’s poverty, Naden agreed with Oprah Winfrey’s assessment of why she started a school for girls in South Africa, that you can’t fix all the problems besetting Africa at once, but if you can do one thing individually or as a group, it will add up and start to downscale the enormity of what needs to be done.
And Naden said it was unbelievable to her after joining Gifts To Grandmothers how many other groups and individuals in Kelowna are involved in fundraising and charitable projects to help people in Africa.
“We want to bring these youngsters into a new generation that offers them opportunities that didn’t exist for their parents or grandparents,” Naden said.
After a summer hiatus, the group will reconvene for its regular sewing sessions starting Aug. 28. For more information about how to join, contact Gwen Naden at 250-766-0323 or check out the website giftstograndmothers.com.