The continent of Africa has helped me fall more deeply in love this year and I couldn’t possibly set up a romantic Valentine’s dinner without giving a nod to its guttural beauty and spirit. In February I worked with kids in Liberia with Right To Play Canada and then my husband raised money in August for Canada’s first blood cord bank by summiting Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Throughout the year, our kids’ school fundraised to build water wells in South Sudan.
We have a pretty soft spot for travel. And Africa. But especially for including your children on educational and exciting journeys. Safaris aren’t just for adults anymore – and we have a hunch that taking kids early on these African expeditions will positively affect them (and our planet) for many years. andBeyond’s WILDchild program takes kids to Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa, and creates daily missions and excursions for children in the care of rangers, trackers, babysitters, and cooks. BTW, the ‘Poo Walks’ have nothing to do with Winny.
It has been several days since my return from Liberia and I feel as if I am missing a big part of myself. The kids’ faces and gentle touches to my hands are constantly in my thoughts, and the friendships formed with the local Right To Play volunteers and staff are ones I will cherish forever. Conversations with Olympians Clara Hughes and Rosie MacLennan motivated me to become a better human being, and experiencing so much poverty with fellow parent Lori Harasem made me play even harder to generate smiles from the kids.
The adults and teenagers we met had experienced terrible things in their lifetimes with a war that ended very recently. Some had lost parents and raised themselves. Most had a loved one who experienced sexual assault. And every adult associated with Right To Play worked tirelessly to restore hope for the next generation. Every day the same volunteers (many had no employment themselves but chose to devote their days to teaching children through Right To Play activities) emerged into an empty space and performed magic. It was like a slow motion film. The waiting children would all turn, smile and organize themselves into a ‘great big circle’ so they could begin. The rhythms of their responses to the leader of the game formed a percussive music. The empty, litter-filled space had become vibrant and full of life.
Looking back on the experience, there is one thing that resonates: hope. Despite dire circumstances in every community we visited, the smiles, cooperation and respect for one another was extraordinary. I was brought back to the basics of life: drink fresh water, keep your clothes and environment clean to prevent disease, help your neighbour. A young boy bathed meticulously in a large bucket by the side of the road. A woman carrying a huge bundle on her head picked over potato leaves in a market to find the best choices for her family. A twenty year-old on a motorbike saw the Right To Play sign on our van and gave me a huge thumbs-up. It was all about hope.
The new department of women and family in Liberia has made women’s rights a priority and there are billboards against the abuse of women and talking about seeking immediate medical help if you are assaulted. Those were jarring to see. But one sign on the side of the road resonated. This one advertisement was a definition of ‘Mother’: a person who ‘makes something out of nothing’. That is exactly what I witnessed. These women generated a meager income buying bleach in bulk and selling it in small bags, buying a case of water packets and a block of ice and hoping for extreme heat so they may sell a few individual bags of water to quench thirst in their community.
Right To Play has never taken a parent ambassador to a field visit and it was a profound experience. I felt like an Olympian with the amount of interest directed toward me! But I was clearly not nearly as disciplined or accomplished – I wasn’t great at playing the soccer games (I fell flat on my face in front of 300 kids and sprained my hand). As a parent, I felt a powerful connection to the children and parents. Right To Play has everything covered for the children who are able to participate. But the kids whose parents don’t prioritize play are missing out. Many parents keep their children out of school to assist with washing or to take a long walk to wells for water. I felt that not only could I connect with the kids as a parent, but talking to the parents was so important. Their eyes would light up when I talked of my kids or asked for instruction on making a baby wrap out of a piece of towel.
As a mother and publisher, I can make a promise. I will never stop supporting the incredible work done by Right To Play. My kids are now playing the games and I intend to do everything in my power to support the organization because it spreads hope. And it is clear to me from meeting the people of Liberia that hope is all one needs.