A group of women from Chilliwack are preparing to return to their friends in Kenya.
They’ve built lasting relationships with women of all ages in the impoverished rural community of Kakamega in recent years.
As Mary Anne Westeringh and seven others from Chilliwack’s Voice of Hope team walked down the path into the town last year, one woman – Alice – dropped her gardening hoe to the ground and came running to them.
“My friends! You came back! You remembered me,” she had called out with a big smile on her face.
That joy alone would be enough reward in itself to keep these volunteers coming back year after year, Westeringh says. But they have plenty more to offer.
The women that the Chilliwack group assist are all widows. Though they vary greatly in age – from early 20s to older than 75 – they all have the responsibility of providing for their families after having lost significant others or children to HIV/AIDS.
Westeringh recalls one elderly woman named Freida who lost her four children to the disease. She cares for 10 young grandchildren, putting in hard work and labour every day to provide them with food, water and education.
From Westeringh’s very first trip, she understood how important it was merely to provide some meaningful connection and communication with the women.
“I realized, simply by entering their homes and listening to their stories, that that alone brought so much joy to their lives,” she said. “That was imprinted on my mind – how lonely they were. Nobody cared about them.”
Most of the women don’t have anyone to lean on as they work tirelessly to make ends meet. Small measures to brighten up their day make a real difference.
“They’re just trying hard to survive. By caring about them, sitting with them, and leaving a little food and handmade gifts, that made such an impact.”
Throughout the year, the team takes a multi-faceted approach to assist the community through a variety of projects.
In the past, the Chilliwack team raised money to build a well, allowing the entire community to benefit from fresh, clean water.
Their gardening program continues to blossom. The widows are trained in sustainable, efficient agricultural practices which allow them to grow food to feed their own families, and sell the excess in market to bring in some income.
Furthermore, Voice of Hope is helping to build additional classrooms to allow more children to get an education, and they’re working on building an emergency children’s home to provide safe housing for young people who are living on the streets.
“There are a lot of people in our community that are contributing to this project,” Westeringh says. A team of eight will head out on the next service trip coming up on October 12, but many more are helping out behind the scenes. Some are sewing feminine hygiene kits, clothes, aprons and making gifts for them, and others take on fundraising efforts throughout the year.
The Chilliwack volunteer group is hosting a breakfast and bottle drive fundraiser on Saturday morning to support their service projects.
From 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. on June 18 at the Free Reformed Church (45471 Yale Rd.), next to the Service B.C. office, they will be serving a hearty pancake, bacon and egg breakfast. They’ll also be selling stroopwafels, a delicious Dutch treat that sells out every year.
Volunteers will be collecting as many cans and bottles as possible on-site. The event raised $5,200 last year.
All donations go directly to the projects in Kenya. Each team member covers all of their own costs. Learn more at hungryforlife.org.