Cover story: Find out how Der­mot Hamil­ton and seven other lo­cal he­roes are show­ing the world how much we care

Richmond Hill Post - - Contents -

This Christ­mas, Lau­ren Ste­wart is giv­ing new mean­ing to the ex­pres­sion “home for the hol­i­days.” The 29-year-old art ad­min­is­tra­tor from Thorn­hill is trav­el­ling to Nepal through Habi­tat for Hu­man­ity’s Global Vil­lage pro­gram to help con­struct a home for a fam­ily in need. For two weeks, she will work along­side the lo­cal com­mu­nity and other vol­un­teers to build a house out of bam­boo and plas­ter us­ing tra­di­tional con­struc­tion meth­ods. It’s her sec­ond time vol­un­teer­ing abroad with Global Vil­lage — the first took her to Hon­duras in 2011 — but trav­el­ling to Nepal has al­ways been a dream of hers. “I’m ex­cited,” she says. “I’m in­ter­ested in learn­ing more about the Hindu cul­ture there, wit­ness­ing the spir­i­tual ac­tiv­i­ties of the Nepalese and how they are in­te­grated in their daily lives.” But for Ste­wart the spirit of giv­ing back is not just rel­e­gated to the hol­i­days. She vol­un­teers with Habi­tat for Hu­man­ity year round on their Toronto-based con­struc­tion sites. “I try to be as ac­tive as pos­si­ble in the com­mu­nity,” she says. “It’s been a busy year … but I try to do it at least once a month.” For Ste­wart, although vol­un­teer­ing at home and abroad are equally re­ward­ing, the dif­fer­ence is in how it shapes her per­cep­tion: “I think travel changes you. When you are con­fronted with dif­fer­ences in the way peo­ple live, you see things dif­fer­ently.” — Char­lotte Her­rold

For Der­mot Hamil­ton, giv­ing back is a nat­u­ral out­growth of prac­tis­ing grat­i­tude in his daily life. The 35-year-old TV in­dus­try pro­fes­sional and part-time para­medic says the de­ci­sion to vol­un­teer in dis­as­ter-rav­aged com­mu­ni­ties over­seas was sim­ply borne of an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for hav­ing what many peo­ple don’t. “I’ve got so much to share,” Hamil­ton says from his home in Rich- mond Hill, mere hours be­fore de­part­ing for the Philip­pines. Hamil­ton will spend close to a month this hol­i­day sea­son vol­un­teer­ing with Toronto-based aid agency Glob­alMedic. This marks his third trip with the or­ga­ni­za­tion — last De­cem­ber he was in Pak­istan, and in March he trav­elled to Ja­pan to help vic­tims of the Fukushima Dai­ichi nu­clear dis­as­ter. He chooses to work with Glob­alMedic, he says, be­cause it’s a smaller or­ga­ni­za­tion, so all do­nated re­sources go di­rectly to the tar­geted com­mu­ni­ties rather than to sup­port­ing a large staff. In Cebu, Hamil­ton will be pro­vid­ing med­i­ca­tion and med­i­cal sup­plies, as well as teach­ing lo­cal re­lief work­ers how to use new wa­ter pu­rifi­ca­tion equip­ment. He re­ceived rapid-re­sponse train­ing from Glob­alMedic in Toronto but says that one can never know what to ex­pect in the wake of dis­as­ters as dev­as­tat­ing as ty­phoon Haiyan. “I’m ap­pre­hen­sive,” he ad­mits. “But I do know that I’m equipped to han­dle what­ever presents it­self. Work­ing as a para­medic back home, it’s sim­i­lar: you go in to sit­u­a­tions not re­ally know­ing what’s hap­pen­ing, but you have the knowl­edge and skills to as­sess and re­act in the ap­pro­pri­ate man­ner.” — CH

In the de­vel­op­ing world, peo­ple with low in­comes of­ten have dif­fi­culty ac­cess­ing fi­nan­cial ser­vices, par­tic­u­larly loans and credit, from the main­stream bank­ing sec­tor. Bor­row­ing money to buy live­stock or grow a small busi­ness is a hit-ormiss af­fair that in­volves cor­ralling fam­ily mem­bers or ne­go­ti­at­ing with in­for­mal money­len­ders who fre­quently charge ex­or­bi­tant in­ter­est rates. Since the ’70s, mi­cro­cre­dit in­dus­tries have been pop­ping up all over the world in an effort to sup­ply peo­ple with low in­comes with af­ford­able, re­li­able loans. In Kyr­gyzs­tan, Toron­to­nian Ok­sana Ko­valenko is with one such or­ga­ni­za­tion. On a nine-month fel­low­ship with the Aga Khan Foun­da­tion, a non-profit devel­op­ment or­ga­ni­za­tion, Ko­valenko is work­ing at the First Mi­cro­cre­dit Com­pany, whose mis­sion she de­scribes as “to serve the poor and al­low them to have ac­cess to fi­nan­cial ser­vices so they can boost them­selves out of poverty.” A busi­ness grad­u­ate who ad­mits to be­ing skep­ti­cal about main­stream busi­ness, Ko­valenko speaks with en­thu­si­asm about the po­ten­tial for mi­cro­cre­dit to change lives. “In be­tween my univer­sity years, I went to do an in­tern­ship in In­dia, and that’s when I found out about mi­cro­fi­nance and what it was. I kind of fell in love with it,” she says. “I just wanted to find some­thing that al­lows busi­ness to do good for society.” Ko­valenko, who lives in the Stee­les and Bathurst area of Toronto, is cur­rently based in the southern city of Osh, which, at 255,000 peo­ple, is Kyr­gyzs­tan’s sec­ond­largest me­trop­o­lis. Although the state lan­guage is Kyr­gyz, as a for­mer repub­lic of the U.S.S.R., most peo­ple speak Rus­sian, as does Ko­valenko, who grew up in Latvia. “Be­cause I speak Rus­sian, some­times peo­ple think I am lo­cal, which is re­ally nice as it makes me feel less like a for­eigner,” she says. — David Pater­son

Peo­ple in Zanz­ibar live by the motto “pole pole.” It trans­lates in English to “slow slow,” a no­tion that re­flects life on the semi-au­tonomous is­land just off the coast of Tan­za­nia. True to the motto, po­lit­i­cal life on the is­land has been slow to re­cover from over a decade of vi­o­lent po­lit­i­cal clashes be­tween the in­cum­bent Chama Cha Mapin­duzi (CCM) and the Civic United Front (CUF). The ten­sion erupted in Jan­uary of 2001. Po­lice gunned down pro­test­ers in the streets — killing 35 and wound­ing over 600 — fol­low­ing an al­legedly fraud­u­lent elec­tion, ac­cord­ing to a re­port from Hu­man Rights Watch. To­day,

the is­land youth are get­ting ready to take the po­lit­i­cal reins and usher in a new era of sta­bil­ity and progress. Twenty-twoyear-old Ruby Sni­der­man is help­ing Zanz­ibar’s fu­ture lead­ers make a dif­fer­ence at the grass­roots level. “I think that be­ing a global cit­i­zen and car­ing about is­sues af­fect­ing those in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries is so im­por­tant in this day and age,” she says. Sni­der­man ar­rived on Oct. 1, and will teach with Youth Chal­lenge In­ter­na­tional ( YCI) un­til Dec. 10. Af­ter that, she’ll trek solo into the Tan­za­nian main­land. “Hav­ing the chance to talk about what I’ve spent the past four years learn­ing has been re­ally ex­cit­ing,” says Sni­der­man, a grad­u­ate of McGill Univer­sity’s in­ter­na­tional devel­op­ment pro­gram. Zanz­ibar is a dra­matic de­par­ture from Cana­dian cam­pus life for Sni­der­man, and class­room pre­sen­ta­tions of­ten be­come open fo­rums of dis­cus­sion as her stu­dents share life ex­pe­ri­ences and ask about life in Canada. “A pair of girls did a pre­sen­ta­tion on teen preg­nancy. They said the rea­son for teen preg­nancy was that girls can not con­trol them­selves dur­ing ado­les­cence, and the ways to tackle this prob­lem did not in­volve con­tra­cep­tion. We were pretty shocked,” she says. Sni­der­man has drawn in­spi­ra­tion from her host mama, Sabra, a young mother work­ing for the Zanz­ibar Min­istry of Fi­nance while earn­ing a mas­ter’s de­gree in eco­nomics. “She’s a great fe­male role model in a society where many women don’t have the same op­por­tu­ni­ties I’m af­forded in Canada.” — Jeff Lagerquist

Fif­teen years af­ter it be­came a democ­racy, Cam­bo­dia’s sys­tems of rep­re­sen­ta­tive govern­ment re­main weak and dom­i­nated at ev­ery level by the Cam­bo­dian Peo­ple’s Party. Work­ing to bring more voices to the ta­ble at a lo­cal level is Ali­son Schneider, a devel­op­ment ex­pert work­ing with Vol­un­tary Ser­vice Over­seas. A for­mer Toronto res­i­dent who lived in the Av­enue-Eglin­ton area be­fore mov­ing to Cam­bo­dia in June, Schneider is work­ing in the town of Kratié on the banks of the Mekong River in east­ern Cam­bo­dia where she gives ad­vice to a district coun­cil rep­re­sent­ing around 10,000 cit­i­zens. “My role is to help them work bet­ter with the gov­er­nors, with the com­mune coun­cil and to work with civil society as well,” she says. Kratié is in a rel­a­tively poor part of the coun­try but has po­ten­tial to grow as a tourist des­ti­na­tion, and Schneider is work­ing to en­sure as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble are in­volved in the im­por­tant de­ci­sions that will have to be taken as its econ­omy de­vel­ops. But she says that can be a strug­gle in a cul­ture where meet­ings are usu­ally dom­i­nated by the high­est rank­ing per­son. “That means smaller voices, the ones that aren’t as self-as­sured or aren’t used to be­ing lead­ers, they don’t get to speak as much,” she says. “So we are try­ing to give fair play to all the dif­fer­ent voices in the room.” The hol­i­days are likely to be a low-key af­fair for Schneider. She ex­pects to join some of the other Cana­dian and Filipino vol­un­teers in the area for a spe­cial meal and, though not a Catholic her­self, maybe at­tend their church ser­vice be cause “that seems some­thing Christ­masy to do.” — DP

When you think of in­ter­na­tional med­i­cal charity Médecins Sans Fron­tières, im­ages spring to mind of doc­tors work­ing to bring health care to poor and des­per­ate peo­ple in some of the world’s most dif­fi­cult cor­ners. But doc­tors can make rel­a­tively lit­tle im­pact with­out the med­i­ca­tions and equip­ment they need to do their jobs. That's where for­mer Bayview res­i­dent Caro­line Gre­nier comes in. Gre­nier is on a nine-month mis­sion with MSF, su­per­vis­ing the stor­age and dis­tri­bu­tion of medicines in Lulimba, a re­mote vil­lage in the east of the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of the Congo. Work­ing with a team of 11 Con­golese staff, Gre­nier en­sures that life-sav­ing drugs get to where they are needed. “It is very im­por­tant as MSF sup­ports three health cen­tres in the area and a hos­pi­tal that we built,” she writes in an email. D.R. Congo has been racked by civil wars and po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity since the mid-1990s, which have led to pop­u­la­tion dis­place­ment and the break­down of health care sys­tems. In South Kivu, the prov­ince in which Lulimba is lo­cated, around a dozen armed groups are ac­tive, and malaria, cholera and TB are rife. A small vil­lage, Lulimba has no run­ning wa­ter, elec­tric­ity only from gen­er­a­tors and is an hour’s flight from Bukavu, the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal. The 36-year-old Gre­nier, who stud­ied in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions and po- lit­i­cal science at Glen­don Col­lege, is based in a com­pound with nine other in­ter­na­tional staff where they live in small houses made from mud bricks with cor­ru­gated metal roofs. How­ever, de­spite the poverty, Gre­nier says there is a strong tra­di­tion of gen­eros­ity and shar­ing. “It is very in­ter­est­ing to see com­mu­nity liv­ing be­cause we are so used to in­di­vid­ual liv­ing in the West,” she writes. As the hol­i­days ap­proach, she ad­mits be­ing apart from her fam­ily at Christ­mas is dif­fi­cult but ex­pects there will be a party or din­ner for her team. “I will make the best of it and cel­e­brate it with my new fam­ily in the Congo,” she writes. — DP

“Back­pack­tivist” may not be a term in the Ox­ford English Dic­tio­nary, but it’s one you should know. At Op­er­a­tion Groundswel­l, groups of so-called “back­pack­tivists” — backpacker­s do­ing more than just see­ing the sights — head off to for­eign lands for pur­pose­ful tours. Co-founded by David Berkal, the non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion got its start six years back when a frus­trated Berkal was un­able to find a suit­able way to vol­un­teer abroad. “I was look­ing to do some vol­un­teer work abroad and was some­what dis­ap­pointed with the op­tions out there,” he says. This hol­i­day sea­son, Berkal will help lead a group to Gu­atemala. The coun­try is still re­cov­er­ing from 36 years of civil war, with acute poverty — es­pe­cially among indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties — wide­spread mal­nu­tri­tion and poor lit­er­acy rates plagu­ing the land. Cur­rently a Stan­ford MBA stu­dent, Berkal, along with a num­ber of his class­mates, will be trav­el­ling with a spe­cific goal: “We’re fo­cus­ing on the cof­fee in­dus­try,” Berkal notes. “Look­ing at the en­tire sup­ply chain of cof­fee — from seed to shelf. We’ll be meet­ing with some of the big play­ers.” Gu­atemala is known for its cof­fee, claim­ing the num­ber two spot in high-grade cof­fee pro­duc­tion world­wide. How­ever, cit­i­zens them­selves aren’t big con­sumers of the prod­uct, and the land is be­ing rav­aged by for­eign min­ing com­pa­nies keen on earn­ing big bucks. A jam-packed itin­er­ary will see Berkal and co. hop from the bustling cap­i­tal to tiny com­mu­ni­ties, glean­ing first-hand knowl­edge about so-called fair trade from the Gu­atemalan Na­tional Cof­fee As­so­ci­a­tion and oth­ers. In San Miguel Es­co­bar the team will work on the slopes of Vol­cán de Agua with cof­fee co-op As Green As It Gets, a col­lec­tive of farm­ers, ar­ti­sans and en­trepreneur­s. Later, the group will head to Santa Anita, where they’ll as­sist ex-guerilla com­bat­ants with the con­struc­tion of the com­mu­nity’s new cof­fee pro­cess­ing plant. For much of the trip, the vol­un­teers will be hosted by fam­i­lies. “We’ve found some pretty in­cred­i­ble part­ners,” Berkal says. “It’s go­ing to be an in­ter­est­ing trip!” — Karolyne El­la­cott

Far re­moved from the wartorn dis­as­ter-rav­aged places most in need of aid, the 3,000 lo­cals in Ne­gril, Ja­maica — whose im­pov­er­ished lives are eclipsed by the va­ca­tion ve­neer that at­tracts 1.3 mil­lion tourists an­nu­ally — des­per­ately need work. Many live in shacks with no elec­tric­ity or wa­ter. Jobs at ho­tels are sought af­ter for their steady wage. De­mand is grow­ing, but cur­rent staff needs to be ready to train new hires. “They will be hir­ing more peo­ple, but be­fore they do that, the man­agers want to make sure cur­rent staff are up to a cer­tain stan­dard,” says Toronto’s Alex Bue­nafe, of the Cana­dian Ex­ec­u­tive Ser­vices Or­ga­ni­za­tion. His job in De­cem­ber is to use nearly two decades of ho­tel ex­pe­ri­ence to teach staff at Ron­del Vil­lage — a 50-room ho­tel — how to cater to their guests like pros in three weeks. “Some­time’s it’s a sim­ple as get­ting them to say, ‘Hello. Good morn­ing. How may I help you?’ with a smile,” he says. But prob­lems are of­ten more se­ri­ous. When a ho­tel man­ager in the Philip­pines wouldn’t ac­com­pany him to her kitchen, Bue­nafe smelled trou­ble.“I had to walk through a filthy back al­ley, down a lane and past a wood shop that smelled of var­nish. The win­dows didn’t have screens, and their stoves and stor­age weren’t clean,” he says. A sin­gle out­break of food poi­son­ing can de­stroy a busi­ness’s rep­u­ta­tion and dash any hopes of hir­ing lo­cals des­per­ate for jobs. Still, Bue­nafe says no busi­ness is be­yond his help. “We can teach any­one with the right at­ti­tude,” he says. — JL

North Yorker Ok­sana Ko­valenko; Thorn­hill res­i­dent Lau­ren Ste­wart; Rich­mond Hill res­i­dent Der­mot Hamil­ton

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