They are continent apart, but a bond is felt between grandmothers who gathered in Red Deer Saturday and the women in Africa who are doing their best to hold their families together in the face of an AIDS pandemic.
Vicki Strang, chair of Grandmothers of Alberta for a New Generation (GANG), said she went to Africa a year and a half ago to see how their fundraising dollars were being used to help communities.
She came away deeply impressed by the efforts the older generation of women are making to hold their families and communities together in the face of devastating disease that has often taken so many of the younger generation.
“I was just overwhelmed by what I saw there in terms of how brave and strong they are,” said Strang, who lives in Edmonton.
Across Canada, hundreds of grandmothers responded from a call from the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which was set up six years ago to provide grassroots support in 15 African nations.
There are now 220 grandmother groups in Canada, 13 in Alberta, which fundraise and raise awareness of their African grandmother “sisters” and their efforts to care for their orphaned grandchildren.
About 60 grandmothers from nearly a dozen groups across Alberta gathered at the Sunnybrook United Church for the first Alberta Grandmother to Grandmother Conference.
Organizers hope to turn the networking event into an annual meeting to share experiences and participate in workshops on fundraising, advocacy, education, communication and organizational challenges.
“I really saw the need for us to communicate with each other,” she said.
“We couldn’t just work in our little areas because you would quickly get tired and burn out.”
Shirley Challoner, chair of Red Deer’s GrammaLink-Africa, was pleased with the turnout, which saw grandmothers come from groups based in Edmonton, Calgary, Carstairs, Sherwood Park, Morinville and Lethbridge.
Challoner said the gathering energizes the different groups and gives them a sense of solidarity.
Leah Teklemariam, programme advisor for the Stephen Lewis Foundation, said the grandmother groups have raised $6 million since 2006.
The money goes to grassroots programs for the grandmothers in Africa who have become a vital part of their communities.
“They are really fundamentally lessening the impact of the pandemic at the community level,” she said.
While the foundation offers support, Canada’s grandmothers are guiding the direction of their fundraising efforts themselves. “It really is their movement,” she said.
“In one way it mirrors what grandmothers are doing in Africa — coming together.”
Grandmothers have become key health care and social service providers in many communities. They help orphaned children, offer bereavement support, offer sexual and reproductive health guidance and address gender inequality issues. Grandmothers are even learning to oversee land and inheritance issues to ensure that family lands are not lost when parents die.