Tag Archives: volunteerism

Do-goodery on wheels (Call for sponsorship)

The Friends for Life Bike Rally is an annual week-long cycling trip (Toronto – Montreal) fund raiser with proceeds going to the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation. If you live in Toronto, you might know somebody who’s done or is doing this amazing ride. I do, and I’ve offered to help him publicize his effort through the blog. Why? A couple of reasons: The FFL rally is a creative and interesting fund raiser for super-good cause, and Christopher is a fellow soccer player having his own adventure in do-goodery.

Also, after watching him dance around in various states of undress, a little PR was the least I could do. Let me explain: Christopher Hayden’s alias is Bruin Pounder, and he’s a performer in BoylesqueTO, Toronto’s all-male burlesque troupe. He’s also the founder of the ARTWHERK! Collective, and an all-around good guy. Though he’s not sharing all of his plans for the event just yet, he confides that Bruin will making an appearance somewhere along the 660km ride.

“This will be my first year participating in the ride,” says Christopher. “One of my main interests in this event is supporting the PWA. They have been leaders in providing support to people living with AIDS in Toronto since 1987. This isn’t something I’m doing necessarily as a gay guy, because HIV/AIDS affects people from so many different communities. I am doing the ride to support my city, promote HIV/AIDS prevention and to help provide services to people that are living with AIDS. Money is great but so is participation. We owe it to our communities to tell stories and advocate for things we believe in.”

What do you get for your donation, you ask?

“Any donations over $20 get a tax receipt … and my plan is to make a t-shirt with the names of all the people who sponsor me on it. I will wear it one day during the ride to show Canada who has got my back (literally and figuratively) for this challenge.”

Ready to make your tax-deductible donation and get your name on that shirt? Click here to reach Christopher’s donor page.

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Do-goodery: achieved; Mountain Birds outfitted and undefeated

Day before yesterday Craig drove out to Potsdam, which is beyond Mdantsane, past NU-18  where the rural areas meet the township. There, he delivered the equipment we collected and got to watch the Mountain Birds practice.

At practice in Potsdam

Two Mountain Birds at practice in Potsdam

Coach Sandile and his son at practice in Potsdam

Coach Sandile and his son at practice in Potsdam

The Mountain Birds are currently undefeated, and prepping for a match against the second-ranked team later this month.

Mountain Birds in their O'Grady's jerseys

Mountain Birds in their O'Grady's jerseys

Craig reports that the equipment delivery resulted in a rash of “complicated handshakes and hugs”, and he writes, “Thank you again to everyone who had a stake in making this happen. The joy and appreciation witnessed by me on the many faces of this struggling township team just served as a reminder of how important the spirit of giving is…”

Since the equipment packet left Canada, I have received many inquiries about when I will start the next program. The simple answer is: I don’t know.

The Mdantsane Soccer Kit Drive program was unique in a few key ways:

1) Independence: We did this without involving bureaucratic or governing bodies. This allowed us to circumvent some barriers (postal delays, paperwork) but ultimately relied on a unique set of circumstances (i.e. that we had people travelling where we needed to go) that will likely not present themselves again. In other words, this was an extremely successful one-off.

2) Environmental impact:  From the beginning, we were committed to the idea that this program should work to redistribute existing goods. The obvious way around postal/Customs issues is to avoid shipping equipment, but by sending money to be spent in-country only one issue is addressed: that of getting the team their kits. It does not help reduce consumption; it does not redistribute existing usable goods; it does less (in my opinion) to connect communities.

3) Community: This program was a beautiful example of geographically disparate communities connecting through a shared love of soccer (football). Much has been researched and written about the unifying power of sport, and organizations like Right to Play, Girls in the Game, and the Federation of Gay Games, to name a few, promote sport within their communities (international, girls, and LGBT respectively). I wholeheartedly support these initiatives but it is gratifying to see that similar outcomes can be achieved on a more grassroots level. We succeeded here without a budget and without corporate sponsorship. And we connected two very distinct communities on a much more personal level than if it had been through a larger organization. I feel that the Mdantsane Mountain Birds are “my” team. I want them to succeed. And I hope that everyone who contributed to this effort feels the same sense of pride and connection and engagement.

If I can figure out a way to replicate the success of the Kit Drive without having to abandon these ideas, I will.

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A holiday story

Last Monday evening I packed up the Mdantsane soccer equipment into the Goodlife duffel and three string bags. Hoisting the whole lot onto my back I made my unsteady way towards the door. As I staggered past the full-length mirror, I was startled into a spit-take: Father Christmas was staring back at me.

Now, I don’t observe Christmas. By the time I hit my mid-30s I was tired of waking up on January 2nd exhausted, emotional and penniless, so a few years back I announced to my loved ones that I was no longer going to celebrate. This doesn’t mean I’m a Scrooge. It means I am free to give gifts when the spirit moves me, even if that is in May or September or July. It means I have a bit of money in my pocket. It means I spend those final weeks of every year considering what has come before and what I will accomplish next.

In 2009 I made it halfway around the world, met amazing people doing critical work in their communities, and lent a hand. I learned that getting help is often as simple as asking. I saw the generosity of strangers and friends. And when I returned home I knew myself as part of a global community – a community of do-gooders, of soccer fans, of adventurers and storytellers. My world was both bigger and smaller, and I wanted nothing more than to reach across the ocean and connect these places.

The Mdantsane Village Soccer Kit Drive was one way to accomplish this. For me, the program was about more than providing equipment, though that was the ultimate result. I wanted to leverage the unifying spirit of soccer to do good by the teams I met in Africa and my own community. We have so much in the West. It’s scandalous, really – in my soccer league each player is outfitted with their own jersey and socks each and every season. And each and every September when the sun finally goes down on the pitch, these items become useless except as mementos. It’s wasteful and it’s a shame.

This is what I was thinking as I sat at the sideline of the dusty pitch watching the Mdantsane Mountain Birds kick their opponents’ asses in borrowed cleats. If, as we know, there are seasons worth of good, unused soccer equipment growing dusty in the closets of Toronto… and if, as we know, it is expensive to send goods from here to there and improbable that they will arrive intact if at all… then we must find another way. For me, this was not about sending money – it was about connecting two communities; it was about redistributing what is already available.

Then a remarkable thing happened: Craig told me that on his holiday trip home to Philadelphia he’d bring empty suitcases so he could fill them with cleats and jerseys. Philly is a lot closer than Mdantsane Village. A single conversation cut the task down by approximately 12,800 kilometres. Now we only had to get the goods to Philadelphia. And then another remarkable thing happened: my friends Tedd and Garry offered to drive the equipment to Philly during their holiday trip to New Jersey. Suddenly all I had to do was the collection. And then the remarkable things began to tumble over other remarkable things. My request was met with such enthusiasm that I was overwhelmed by the response. Players that I only see during the summer travelled out of their way to meet me. My entire summer team agreed to donate jerseys so I could ensure the Mountain Birds would receive a full matching kit for themselves. And even now I am receiving calls asking if it’s too late and when the next Drive will happen.

So when I saw myself in the mirror with a bag of presents on my back I snapped a picture. I felt “the joy of giving”, an emotion that’s been sullied for me by years of cynical exploitation. I also felt thankful and proud and connected – and ready to begin organizing the next Kit Drive.

That evening I met up with Tedd and handed over the parcels. And this morning my phone lit up with this message: The stuff made it over the border fine. So thank you to everyone to who participated in big and little ways. I just got confirmation that the equipment is passing through Scranton en route to Mdantsane Village. See how little this big world is (and vice versa)?

Toronto to Mdantsane Village via Scranton

Toronto to Scranton. Next stop Philadelphia, then Mdantsane Village, South Africa.

Happy holidays, everybody.

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Do-goodery update: LAFN donation module online

Fresh off the interwebs: The Loaves and Fishes Network web site is now donation-enabled for international donors through the use of their very own PayPal button.* This means that you can donate to this extremely worthy organization using your own PayPal account or a major credit card.

Wondering who LAFN is? Get introductory information here and here,and read about my ride-along with a trainer here.

* Special thanks to Warren Canning from LCDbauhaus Productions for helping with the code implementation.

Speaking of PayPal, detail-oriented readers may have noticed that my PayPal donation button is gone. I was recently informed that I am in contravention with PayPal policies for reasons that remain obscure to me but that appear to have to do with the fact that I accepted money and took it to the women of Unakho in Mdantsane Village. To quote their letter, “…we request that entities wishing to accept donations on behalf of a charity or other non-profit organization provide evidence of their legitimacy.” I’m not sure whose legitimacy I am supposed to establish, but as Unakho is simply a group of women (not a charity or a registered non-profit) and I am just someone who gave them money (as opposed to a legitimate entity), I am in a bind. For the duration of this imbroglio, PayPal has restricted my account, the upshot of which is that they have frozen the $100 gift my mother deposited for my birthday. Way to crack down on the baddies, PayPal!

I do remain hopeful that this will be satisfactorily resolved and that I will be thoroughly educated on the rights and responsibilities conferred by PayPal button use. In the meantime, if you wish to donate to me and my writing, please use the Contact Me page to make arrangements.

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Do-goodery: engaged

Great news! Remember this post about Unakho, the women’s group in Mdantsane Village? Well it generated some notice from my Canadian friends, and today I am taking an envelope stuffed with donations to Mama Celia.

As Craig and I jump into the car, he flashes his cheeky grin. “Do-goodery: engaged!” he exclaims, and throws the BMW into reverse. I am a little numbed by the realization that this will be my last trip to Mdantsane… That, and the diabolical hangover perpetuated by too many oversized Windhoeks at the Duncan Village shebeen last night. These final days are reserved for all the important pilgrimages that I have not yet taken, and despite feeling like turds on toast I am excited about today’s mission.

The forty minute drive feels like a week and a half as I spend it directing my laser-intense attention on a spot on the dashboard while the car bucks and rolls over the speedbumps of NU13. Sending Craig as my ambassador was out of the question, African Tick Bite Hangover or not.

Mama Celia’s house is an RDP with a small yard in front and a larger sloping garden in the back where she grows vegetables to feed herself and the people in her community. Inside, the place looks a lot like any number of homes I have been in, with the exception that the couch cushions are bedazzled with hand embroidered appliqués that reassure: “God is Good”. We sit, and I give a very short speech and produce the envelope.

There is something about Celia that does me in. I noticed it on our first meeting and now again, as I stand hugging her compact body I feel a little overwhelmed. She’s older and calm and powerful and warm. I am so pleased to be able to bring a gift, but I also feel certain that she will continue her work with or without my help. This, after all, is the women who inspired me to recognize the hand of god.

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LAFN ride-along

Mandindi is the embodiment of “Mama”: warm, open face; easy smile; patience. She is a trainer for the Loaves and Fishes Network, which means that she goes into the communities and trains the women who run the childcare centres in a rounded program designed to foster children from physical, emotional, and educational development perspectives. Today I am her guest as she does her job. We will drive into three communities and drop in on a total of seven centres.

In the van, Mandindi is telling that she’s been doing her job for 15 years (only recently with LAFN) and she loves it. “I always wanted to work with the children,” she says. “There was never anything else.” Her English is very good and she is surprised and encouraging when I try a little isiXhosa. “You can say that?” she laughs when I correctly pronounce a name on a passing road sign. I still have to pause mid-word on both sides of a click but I am beginning to read things properly and I like the way the language feels – like humming with a mouthful of poprocks.

The first place we stop is Vergenoeg, which means “Far Enough”, as in the place is far enough away (from the city). This centre is a small plot of land with two shacks on it plus a playground and two vegetable gardens. I realize that South Africa has begun to change my perspective; as I enter the tin and cardboard shack I think that it is very nice – and it is. It is warm and cozy and the children all turn to me with smiley faces and fingers covered in playdough and give me the thumbs up. “Hi, hi, hi,” they say, and I reply, “Hi!” They wave; I wave. They give me the thumbs up; I give them the thumbs up. The place feels good. By North American standards it would be a scandal, but it’s different here. People are working with almost nothing and there is a real beauty to what they’ve created.

Not every centre feels this way. In some, the children seem confused, disoriented – and this makes sense. Many of them have lost their families and have no idea who the people taking care of them are. At one centre the children form a flash mob and surround me, chanting “Mama! Mama!” and touching my hands and arms. I know that “Mama” is a term for woman, but I check with Mandindi. “Are they calling me Mama because I am a woman?” I ask. “Yes,” she says. “Mama is an older woman.” In mock offense I say, “Are they calling me old?!” and she laughs but explains that many of their mothers are no more than teenagers. She says she gets called grandmother.

After Vergenoeg we go even farther, to Scenery Park. It is here that I see the first of the LAFN structures. Mandindi calls it a hut but it is a solid wooden outbuilding, about 15 by 20 feet with a peaked roof, lighting, and insulation. An LAFN employee negotiated with the company that was selling the little houses to let them go at a reduced rate. “This is one of our extreme makeovers,” she explains. “We want to do the baby’s shack next.” I ask about the word painted on the wall: zinkwenkwezi. “It means ‘stars’. These kids are reaching for the stars.”

At the next centre the children run up to the gate yelling, “How are you! How are you!” I am used to not understanding; I don’t even hear them. Mandindi says “They’re speaking English, saying ‘How are you?'” and their words come into focus. “I am fine!” I say, then “Hi! H! Hi!” because it is the other thing we all know. Later, I ask Mandindi what I can say to them when they speak isiXhosa to me and I don’t understand. I hate just standing there, shrugging. “Say ‘I love you’,” she tells me. “They all know that.”

The final place we stop in is Khayelitsha, a cluster of RDPs at the top of a steep dirt road several miles away from Scenery Park. The dirt is dry and rocky; there are few trees. Like almost all RDPs, these are painted in candy colours: pink, sea foam, yellow, blue.  It looks like a bag of allsorts has spilled over the mountainside and the implied playfulness is weird. I ask Mandindi about it and she says the government paints them these colours.

Khayelitsha is desolate. There is no grocery, post office, or gas station, just gaily-coloured RDPs and litter. “All these people are from Duncan Village,” Mandindi is saying. “They lived in the shacks but the government didn’t want them there so they moved them. But there is nothing here and it is too far from the city to walk in to find work. They have to pay for taxis. Sometimes they borrow, but what if they do not find work for that day? Then they are in debt and cannot get home.”

There is a single centre in Khayalitsha, so every child except 20 or so will not have any childcare. As we drive through Kayalitcha I see children and toddlers playing in the dirt among the litter and barbed-wire and sheet metal and rocks.

I am beginning to understand what Loaves and Fishes is doing. They place a lot of emphasis on the details of child development. Tiny playgrounds coerced out of the dusty ground are more stimulating when the fence is painted bright yellow. A bit of carpet in the baby shack means fewer scraped knees. A desk to sit at, a place to wash your hands.

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Unakho

I am in an unpainted cinderblock RDP house in NU8, Mdantsane Village. This is the centre for a women’s group called Unakho, which means “God can”.  I am the guest of Celia, and she is explaining to me that every meeting begins with a prayer. We bow our heads and close our eyes as Celia delivers a prayer in isiXhosa and English. She gives thanks that God has delivered His servant to them today, and I realize that she means me.

Celia has prepared a written explanation of the centre, which she reads from a hand-written page. The centre has been in operation for 12 years. Their mission is to provide youth and kids with balanced meals, to teach them Bible lessons and work/life skills, and to give them a place to play and have fun. As well, she is trying to raise money to pay for food, school uniforms and tuition for those who cannot afford these necessities. The last holiday club (programs that take place when school is out) ran for five days, served 180 kids, and cost 7000 rand. All of the money was out of the five organizers’ pockets. Although Unakho is a registered charity, it has not received any external funding.

There is a phrase here – to fall pregnant – and now I think I know why.

We have been meeting for about 40 minutes when a girl arrives at the door. She is crying; she has an infant in a carrier on her chest. The woman who runs the centre addresses the room: Now listen to this. And we turn and face this girl who cannot be more than 18 years old.

“When I was three months old my mother threw me away,”  she begins. Her words tumble out urgently for 25 minutes. She had a child with a man she is not married to. He took many girlfriends. She tested positive for HIV and he began to beat and rape her. She fell pregnant again. He abused her. She petitioned for a protection order but withdrew the charges. “If he is in jail who will pay maintenance?” The boyfriend threw her and her children out of the house. She does not know if her baby is HIV positive. She has no home, no food, no diapers, no medications. “Tell me,” she says, looking directly into my eye, “What am I supposed to do?”

Sounds like falling to me.

“Ok,” Celia says when the girl is finished, and the women lean in over the low coffee table. After about 15 minutes everybody leans back in their chairs. Celia explains that they have prepared a plan. The girl will visit the hospital where there is a program that will give her access to food, medication, job training and housing – and she will keep her children.

I have a standoffish relationship to religion; God and I are not speaking. Being referred to as a “servant of God” makes me feel uncomfortable and claustrophobic. My life does not have room for an Almighty but I would be small-minded and foolish if I did not recognize that god is in this room.

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