Marie Henry, left, and Barbara Halparin (photo by Barbara Halparin)
Don’t yearn to push your pedals to the max up the Sea to Sky Highway among thousands of lean, spandexed superbodies? Then do I have a fondo for you: the Grannyfondo, aka Solidarity Cycle 2023.
On Sunday, Sept. 10, Grandparents Day, a team of 30-plus grandmothers and their grand-others will conquer 100 kilometres of dike trails and farmlands in the Fraser Valley, all in the service of the Stephen Lewis Foundation Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign.
Among the cyclists will be grandparents Darcy and Marty Billinkoff and Marie Henry, as well as myself. We’re all members of Tikun Olam Gogos, one of 18 Gogos groups in the Lower Mainland. Gogo is an African term for grandmother (or the oft-used “granny”), and the Hebrew phrase tikkun olam means repairing the world. We are grandmothers and grand-others aiming to alleviate the scourge of HIV/AIDS that continues to ravage Africa.
We ride in solidarity with our African partners, the millions of grandmothers in 15 sub-Saharan nations who are raising their grandchildren, orphaned by a disease that continues to overwhelm, despite the progress that has been made worldwide in the areas of treatment, prevention and education.
Inspired by these intrepid women, we ride with hearts full of the knowledge that we are a part of a life-changing movement in which aging women who feel increasingly powerful in their lives are moving the world forward.
Darcy Billinkoff, an avid cyclist, and Janine Reid of Royal City Gogos, conceived the idea for the Solidarity Cycle after learning of similar events in Victoria and Ottawa. Reflecting local inclinations, they envisioned an experience that would be challenging yet doable: a one-day, 100-kilometre ride with a 50-kilometre option. Cyclists are fully supported with nourishing meals and treats, insurance, route maps, GPS, first aid, a service vehicle, a photographer and, of course, a Solidarity Cycle T-shirt. To date, Solidarity Cycle, now in its seventh consecutive year, has raised more than $308,000 for the Grandmothers Campaign.
If you love to cycle, we would love to have you along for this fun-and-fund-raiser, whether or not you are a member of a grandmothers group. If you wish to support the team with your donation, we would love that too! To register or donate, go to solidaritycycle.weebly.com.
Members of the Tikun Olam Gogos show off some of the paddles being auctioned, until Oct. 10. (photo by Paula Simson)
Last fall, Sue Hyde, dragon boat master and member of Tikun Olam Gogos (which loosely translates as Grandmothers Repairing the World), walked into a board meeting with a hand-painted paddle she had decorated herself. Her idea was to sell paddles like it to raise money for the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign, which supports grandmothers in Africa who are raising children orphaned by AIDS.
Tikun Olam Gogos is a Jewish charitable organization, sponsored by the Sisterhood of Temple Sholom, and it is dedicated to fundraising for Grandmothers to Grandmothers. The board was in favour of Hyde’s idea – and one of the board members bought the paddle on the spot. Paddles for African Grandmothers was born.
Hyde had access to more than 30 vintage paddles and the Tikun Olam Gogos asked various artists to paint them. The resulting paddles are being auctioned off until Oct. 10 at tikunolamgogos.org/on-line-auction.
“The paddles were done by a selection of different artists, including one stand-up paddle done by a Syrian refugee,” Tikun Olam Gogos member Sunny Rothschild told the Independent. “The rest are meant to hang on the wall. The paddles are amazing, intricately carved as well as painted. Some are two-sided and some aren’t.”
The fundraiser will culminate with an evening concert on Saturday, Oct. 13, featuring the City Soul Choir and a meet-and-greet with the artists. Winning bidders can pick up their paddles then.
Marie Henry, the founder of Tikun Olam Gogos, also spoke with the Independent. The Tikun Olam Gogos are part of the Greater Vancouver Gogos, which includes more than 25 groups.
“I was visiting in-laws in Kelowna, and I went to a public market and saw a stall where women were selling beautiful tote bags. I found out they were supporting the Stephen Lewis Foundation,” she explained. “I came back and joined the group in Vancouver, but the only problem was I was the only Jew in the group and events kept conflicting with the Jewish calendar. ‘This is crazy,’ I thought, ‘I’m going to form my own group.’”
Henry did just that, in 2011. Today, the group, which is named after the Jewish concept of repairing the world (tikkun olam) and the Zulu word for grandmother (gogo) has Jewish and non-Jewish members. Henry said that only some of the members are actual grandmothers, with the rest being “grand others.”
There are a few hundred Grandmothers to Grandmothers groups across Canada, as well as organizations in the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States. Tikun Olam Gogos has sold more than 2,000 tote bags, with all profits going to the Stephen Lewis Foundation. That’s some $200,000 in donations from tote bags, said Rothschild.
“The admin costs are 11% of all the monies raised, one of the lowest rates of all charities in Canada,” Henry added.
While Henry takes care of notes and minutes and other administrative details for the group, she said, “We have a lot of really talented women in the group, like Sunny, who takes responsibility for part of the group and helps run it.”
Rothschild joined Tikun Olam Gogos almost four years ago, when she was slowing down her career as a lawyer and had more time for volunteer work. She is active in sewing the group’s signature tote bags, as well as taking turns selling them at local craft fairs, where the Gogos get a chance to tell people about their work and the Stephen Lewis Foundation. “That’s the best part,” she said.
“I have a Post-it up in my house – ‘May my life be for a blessing,’” said Rothschild. “This is one of the things that I do because I want my life to be meaningful and to have mattered.”
“The reason that I started this group when I found out what they are doing,” said Henry, “is to help these grandmothers raise up to 15 grandchildren. My grandchildren live a life of privilege and I feel so horribly guilty that these women in their senior years have to suffer so horribly badly. Doing this, I feel useful. In the final analysis, we are performing tikkun olam.”
“I don’t think that the governments in Sub-Saharan Africa understand the revolution that is going to take place because of these women becoming empowered,” said Rothschild. “There are amazing stories of what women are doing, standing up for their rights. It’s really quite amazing what’s happening.”
“The support that we give them helps them to do that,” added Henry. “I see this as the same to the way that suffragettes in North America stood up for their rights, and here it’s happening in a similar way nearly a hundred years later.”
For now, Henry and Rothschild are hoping the community will come out to support Paddles for African Grandmothers at the Many Rivers to Cross concert.
“We’ll be selling tote bags,” said Rothschild. “People can buy a glass of wine, there will be food too – it will be a lovely event.”
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
Left to right are Anne Andrew, Marie Henry, Stephen Lewis, Joyce Cherry, Darcy Billinkoff and Dawn Alfieri at the African Grandmothers Tribunal, which was held in 2013 at the Chan Centre. (photo from Stephen Lewis Foundation)
The Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign, in conjunction with the Stephen Lewis Foundation, is supporting grandmothers of sub-Saharan countries in their efforts to raise their orphaned grandchildren, whose parents died of the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Tikun Olam Gogos, one of the local groups participating in the campaign, is hosting the Voices for Africa fundraiser on June 15 at Temple Sholom that will feature the City Soul Choir and a marketplace.
Marie Henry, volunteer administrator of Tikun Olam Gogos, talked to the Jewish Independent about the Stephen Lewis Foundation, the Grandmothers Campaign and Tikun Olam Gogos’ place in it.
“Stephen Lewis Foundation was created 10 years ago,” she explained. “Before that, Mr. Lewis was an NDP politician. After he retired from the Canadian political scene, the United Nations appointed him to look at the AIDS epidemic in Africa. What he saw there was shocking: 18 million children had been orphaned in Africa because of AIDS. Their grandmothers had to step in to raise the children. After he returned to Canada, he was determined to help them. That’s how the foundation started in 2006, and Lewis applied to Canadian grandmothers to support it. He knew they could do it. They had resources, experience, determination and time.”
According to Henry, there are now more than 240 groups across Canada associated with the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign. They all include in their name the word gogos, which is Zulu for grandmothers. “The movement’s already spread to the U.S., England and Australia,” she said.
The funds the campaign gathers go to the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which in turn supports the grassroot initiatives of the grandmothers of AIDS orphans in sub-Saharan countries.
Henry explained how it works. “The foundation can’t give enough money or food or shelter; the need is just too great,” she said. “Instead, the grandmothers have to come up with an initiative of their own that would improve their condition. It could be a small business that needs a startup loan. It could be a community garden to grow food for a number of families, and they need seeds. Or it could be an educational opportunity, to teach the children and their grandmothers how to prevent AIDS or how to access and administer medicines in case they are already infected. Many children are [infected]; they have been infected before they were born. Many grandmothers also need legal help and education to keep the roof over the children’s heads.”
The latter problem stems from the inheritance traditions in some countries where, after a husband dies, his widow doesn’t inherit property, the husband’s family does, explained Henry. Even if the law says otherwise, the husband’s family’s actions are not always lawful. Many of the grandmothers and their orphaned grandchildren live in small villages without access to legal or medical help, and could be kicked out of their homes by the deceased husband’s relatives. So, the grandmothers themselves have to come up with the programs, depending on what they need in their particular country, area or village. They then apply to the Stephen Lewis Foundation for funding.
“There are several regional directors in those countries, all local women,” Henry said. “They read the proposals, visit the people, assess the projects and decide if the money should go to this particular program. A year later, they would check if the program works, if it should be re-funded, or maybe not. The grassroot programs receive all the money – no government of any of the countries involved receives one dollar, no bureaucracy benefits. The foundation keeps its administrative cost to 10%, which is one of the lowest of all charities. The rest all goes to the people who need it.”
Henry herself got involved with the campaign almost by accident. “I was visiting my family in Kelowna,” she recalled. “We went to a farmers market and I saw those beautiful totes. The woman who sold them was a member of one of the Gogos groups. They made and sold tote bags to raise money for the foundation. I loved the idea. I found a group in Vancouver and joined it, but there was a problem. I was the only Jew in the group and, often, their meetings fell on the Jewish holidays, when I couldn’t attend. I decided to create my own Jewish group and, of course, I started with my synagogue, Temple Sholom. Everyone was very supportive. Our group, Tikun Olam Gogos, first met five years ago, in May 2011.”
Currently, the group has 29 members, mostly retired women, some grandmothers themselves, others not. They meet once a month, discuss group business and create the kits for their totes. Several group members are experienced seamstresses who sew the totes of various sizes. Others apply their creativity to the trimmings and beads. Still others are good at sales. Everyone finds something to do that agrees with their personality and skill level.
The group’s tote bags are sold at craft fairs. To date, they have raised more than $120,000 for the Stephen Lewis Foundation. Many of their fundraisers include an entertainment program as well as a marketplace. The June 15 fundraiser is no different: it will feature the choir, under the direction of Brian Tate, and a marketplace of crafts by Tikun Olam Gogos, South Van Gogos, Welisa Gogos and Van Gogos, as well as a silent auction, wine bar and dessert. Tickets are available at eventbrite.ca.
Olga Livshinis a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].