OCOP: Helping grandmas in far-off lands

(Contributed) Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign is part of Stephen Lewis Foundation.

by Phil Melnychuk, Maple Ridge-pitt meadows news Oct 4th

When Maria Raynolds takes up a cause, it’s with 100 per cent commitment and a determination to see that what she would like to get done actually gets done.

Her latest cause, one that’s she’s pursued for eight years, is raising cash to give to thousands of grandmothers who find themselves the sole caretakers of their grandchildren as the ravages of AIDS continue to decimate the population in sub-Saharan African countries, such as Zambia or Uganda or Somalia.

“We give them money to help themselves,” said Raynolds.

“So our goal is mostly to empower them.”

That empowerment takes place thanks to the fundraising efforts of the Golden Ears Gogos, one of several groups of grandmas in Metro Vancouver that raise money to support the Stephen Lewis Foundation Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign.

Gogo is a common word for grandma in Africa. Raynolds helped form Golden Ears Gogos in 2010.

The Stephen Lewis Foundation provides money to support grandmothers to keep the families together, where the young parents have died of AIDS, leaving their children orphans and dependent on whoever can care for them.

In addition to simply helping put food on the table, the money allows grandmothers to fight for property rights and access to pensions.

For example, if a son or husband dies, leaving the grandmother alone, the grandmothers can often lose their homes to a male member of the family.

“These grandmothers are so incredibly strong. We can all learn from them,” Raynolds said.

The grandmothers in Africa have strength in numbers because they advocate for themselves as a group, she adds.

In Maple Ridge alone, the Golden Ears Gogos have raised more than $100,000 in the last eight years through sales of their homemade arts and crafts.

And there seems to be no stopping the local grandmothers, or people of any kind, from helping out.

Every monthly meeting draws about 20 participants.

“It’s a super group of women,” said Raynolds.

Last spring, Gogos from around Metro Vancouver met in Maple Ridge for a region-wide spring celebration.

One fundraising product that’s worked particularly well is crocheting necklaces. Now, about 30 Gogos create that handicraft, maximizing the production of a profitable product.

Homemade cards, book markers, plants and lavender products sold at the Haney Farmer’s Market are other means of raising funds, along with an annual Christmas dinner and silent auction, catered by cooking students at Samuel Robertson Technical secondary.

One of Raynolds’ major motivations in helping families to escape the cycle of dysfunction that can come from losing parents. Children raised without families, themselves, don’t know how to be parents.

“They’re the grandchildren left, that have to be taken care of. They’re put into an orphanage. The family falls apart; the community falls apart.”

It will take generations to recover from that, Raynolds adds.

She sees a parallel in Canada’s indigenous communities, where trauma from the residential school experience is felt for generations.

Maybe that’s a way of learning from the past to ensure it’s not happening again, she added.

“I think that’s why it’s so important to me.”

And there are actually double the numbers of grandmas in Africa who need the help, compared to those who actually get it, she added.

Prior to joining the Golden Ears Gogos, Raynolds was active at the Community Education on Environment and Development Centre, where she’s still a member, and formerly served with the now-defunct Pitt Polder Preservation Society.

She also led the cause with the Campaign for Pesticide Reduction, which led to the restriction of cosmetic pesticides for households in Maple Ridge in 2007.

Under Maple Ridge’s bylaw, championed by Raynolds, anyone who wants to use pesticides or herbicides has to apply for a permit.

While that bylaw remains in place, it’s often ignored and the city isn’t creating awareness of the bylaw, she said.

“So many newcomers don’t know we have a pesticide bylaw,” Raynolds said.

“It’s a bylaw on the books and the stores are carrying it again.”

To keep her spirits up, Raynolds has a magnet on her fridge, which reads: “Volunteers are our biggest resource.”

“At a time when there is so much strife, poverty, degradation and sheer evil in our world, I look to my fridge magnet and it gives me hope,” she said in a letter earlier this year.

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