Grandmothers in Canada get it.
Unfazed by the enormity of the AIDS pandemic in Africa, they’re rolling up their sleeves and hosting bake sales and auctions, dinners and fundraisers to support grandmothers and their orphaned grandchildren in 15 countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Ilana Landsberg-Lewis, executive director of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, believes “the CanGo Grannies are part of the genesis of a new social movement in Canada.”
The CanGo Grannies’ story began in 2004 when Stephen Lewis, who was at the time the UN special envoy on AIDS, gave a presentation in Kamloops describing the unexpected challenge grandmothers were being tasked in sub-Saharan Africa. He spoke of a generation of grandmothers who were, and are, raising their grandchildren after their own adult children died from HIV/AIDS.
That presentation resonated with the audience, spurring three women to begin the CanGo Grannies, a local grassroots organization whose mandate is to raise funds and awareness for these African grandmothers.
“There were three women in the audience who said, ‘We just have to do something about this.’ They themselves were grandmothers,” said Mary Baker, a CanGo Granny since 2007.
Since its inception the group’s numbers have grown from three to 80 with a core of 20 members. Ann Milliken knew she had to join after hearing one of Lewis’ speeches.
“(He’s) such a compelling speaker and so dedicated to the cause of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa,” explained Milliken. “I heard about the CanGo Grannies and thought, ‘As soon as I retire, I want to join.’ ”
Over the last nine years the CanGo Grannies have hosted a wealth of fundraisers, raising over $165,000 for the Stephen Lewis Foundation.
Their most notable fundraiser was the Great Canadian Quilt, where the Grannies wrote to hundreds of Canadians seeking patches to compile a quilt. Their request was heard and the result featured signatures by famous Canadians ranging from Wayne Gretzky to Jean Chretien to Joni Mitchell.
“The quilt they did was so breathtaking. It was a beautiful work of art, it was a very creative idea to have every notable Canadian you could think of, to do a quilt,” says Landsberg-Lewis. “What grandmothers groups come up with to raise awareness for grandmothers and grandchildren is quite exceptional.”
The quilt went on a journey across the country before being purchased for, Baker recalls, approximately $25,000.
Although that was the group’s most ambitious project, it really is the ongoing grassroots fundraising and education that keeps the CanGo Grannies strong.
“We do everything from crafts and book sales to dinner auctions, art auctions. The thing is to try and keep it varied,” says Baker.
Their next fundraiser is the Flower Power Plant Sale. Milliken said the plant sale was a success last year raising approximately $1,500 for the foundation. It’s just one more way local actions have global impacts, and the Grannies know that every cent raised makes a difference to thousands of lives.
Today the CanGo Grannies are one of the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s 245 Grandmothers to Grandmothers groups in Canada who’ve collectively raised $17 million.
“I think [what’s] terribly important is what’s happening in Canada as a result of these grandmothers groups,” says Landsberg-Lewis. “And when you talk with these grandmothers they’ll tell you their own stories of transformation. Coming together in these groups gave them an extraordinary sense of purpose and solidarity with African grandmothers, solidarity with each other. The grandmothers in groups across Canada talk about how they’ve become global citizens, how their grandchildren see them differently, and how their adult children see them differently and how people in their community have rallied around the cause.
“Grannies have not always been elevated as they ought to be. But I think there’s no question for grandmothers who are involved in this movement, and for the people in the communities around them, that the way they see the vibrance and the vitality and the contribution that these older women in our midst still have to make, and that they can be at the cutting edge of what it means to be involved in a global context and in addressing the human condition.”
CanGo Grannies’ Flower Power Plant Sale
Great power can come from something as simple as a flower.
The CanGo Grannies of Kamloops are hosting their second spring plant sale to raise funds for the Stephen Lewis Foundation, and ask that the community come out and support the cause. They’re also asking anyone splitting their own perennials, or who have extras, to make a plant donation to the sale.
When? Saturday, May 25 from 8 a.m. until noon
Where? St. Andrews on the Square, Kamloops
As a true grassroots initiative this sale has a broad reach from the local children who’ve planted seeds, the grannies who’ve organized it, and the Kamloops community of supporters who are all lending a hand to help grandmothers in Africa.
To make a plant donation or to learn more about the CanGo Grannies phone:
Ann: 250-374-0114 or Harriett: 250-554-2648
All photographs were generously contributed by Mary Baker.
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