International Dinner

As 245 women gathered on March 16, 2008 for an evening of sharing, we were treated to a refreshment table of punch and small snacks, and a projection of slides of various previous WTB events. The tables were decorated with colorful cloths inspired by a variety of cultures, and clothes from all around the world adorned the walls.

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Danya Wellmon, co-founder of WTB, welcomed the assembled members and guests to a festive evening at WTB’s fourth International Dinner where women of various faith traditions were seated together at tables.

Mara Sapon-Shevin‘s community-building exercise of making bracelets and sharing helped table mates get to know one other. Members from six different faith traditions offered blessings on the food and our community. Our traditional vegetarian buffet, coordinated by Daryl Files and provided by members and guests as well as local vendors, was varied and delicious.

Following the meal, Renee-Noelle Felice presented an original tale: “The Day Grandmother Turtle Judged a Talent Competition.” In response to a request to judge a talent competition, Grandmother Turtle had agreed, on the condition that the animals work in teams to create something beautiful and useful. The animals not only organized aquatic and avian and acrobatic events, they created a category called “creations,” which included a beaver-lodge, an ant-mountain, and a spider-woven dream-catcher. But the final creation, a large urn full of clean, clear water, was produced by a team that included mammals, insects, and birds. Grandmother Turtle was so pleased with the result of this inter-species cooperation that she placed the vase in the sky, and created a special being to care for it forever. This water-bearer, known in Western culture as “Aquarius,” can still be seen on clear nights, pouring starry water from the jug created for the day the animals held a talent competition.

Gay Montague, WTB vice-president, introduced Rita Fratto, a social worker from the Syracuse Housing Authority who spoke about “RAPP: A Lifeline for Children.” RAPP is Relatives as Parents Program, a support group for those raising their grandchildren or nieces and nephews. Relatives raising relatives is not new to the present era, it is age-old. There are many reasons relatives gain custody: addictions, emotional illness, incarceration, emotional or physical neglect. Many of these young parents are too young or are not ready to take on the responsibilities of a parent. What is new is that there is now a nationwide program which encourages and promotes the expansion of services for grandparents and other relatives who have taken on the important work of caring for children outside the foster care system.

The Syracuse program began in 2004 when the Syracuse Housing Authority received a grant from the Brookdale Foundation. Funding currently comes from the Onondaga County Department of Aging and Youth and the Brookdale Foundation. Syracuse University students enrolled in Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in social work programs work as interns.

Along with other responsibilities, Rita is local coordinator of RAPP, which consists of about 35 active participants and is in contact with many more. They welcome any care giving relatives, but the majority are grandmothers. Rita looks for clients where ever she is, finding stressed-out caregivers even in line at Wal-Mart.

Caregivers in the RAPP program meet on the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month for coffee and conversation. This is a no-pressure, supportive environment to share and receive emotional support and information on various topics, often from professionals such as lawyers and educators. They discuss what they have in common, such as not having the freedom that they expected when their own children were grown, the loss of “my time” that is again filled with parenting duties. Sharing can move these women alternately to tears or to laughter.

On the third Monday, family meetings offer a space for intergenerational families to mix and socialize with dinner and fun activities. A recent gathering included 13 grandkids, which look forward to being with families that are like their own. The consistent theme of all of these meetings is the love these families have for their children. For more information, contact Rita Fratto at 475-6181 x 4372. If you know of a caregiver in need of support, or if you wish to volunteer or donate, she will be happy to speak to you.

Next on the dinner program was Ann Port, president of WTB, who explained that she believes in synchronicity, not coincidence. She said, “The universe presents us with opportunities; it is our job to recognize them and take action.” A year ago when WTB was beginning to think about this dinner, a Canadian friend told her about a program of the Stephen Lewis Foundation that she was involved in. Interested, Ann searched for more information and shared it with the WTB Council. She told us that Stephen Lewis is a Professor in Global Health at MacMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario as well as a Senior Advisor to the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York. He served as an elected member of the Ontario Legislative Assembly from 1963 to 1978. From 1984 through 1988, he was Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations. From 1995 to 1999, he was Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF. From 2001 through 2006 he was the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. It was meeting those devastated by the AIDS pandemic in Africa that led Dr. Lewis in March 2003 to found an organization to ease the pain of those who are infected, their caregivers, and those they leave behind – approximately thirteen million orphans. He is now the chair of the board of the Stephen Lewis Foundation in Canada, as well as co-Director of AIDS-Free World in the United States.

The Stephen Lewis Foundation is based in Toronto, yet few Americans have heard of it. Ann thought it would be wonderful if they would send a representative to our dinner so we could spread the word about the good work of the organization. When she contacted the Foundation, it enthusiastically accepted her invitation. Ann introduced Mary Anna Beer, an advisor to the Stephen Lewis Foundation, who interrupted her family vacation in Tampa to be with us.

Mary Anna Beer had a career in teaching. When her children were grown she became active in Habitat for Humanity, which involved traveling to impoverished countries. After retirement she became involved with studying HIV/AIDS issues in Tanzania, South Africa, and Kenya, often working with the Stephen Lewis Foundation right from its start in 2003. The Foundation now has over 100 programs in fifteen sub-Saharan countries.

 In 2006 Mary Anna Beer was appointed Advisor to the Stephen Lewis Foundation on the newly formed Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign. This program provides grandmothers with food, school fees and school uniforms for their grandchildren, income-generating projects, counseling and social support, and coffins to allow for a dignified burial of their loved ones. The Campaign also ensures that the world knows about the plight of these grandmothers. To publicize the program, one hundred grandmothers from thirteen African countries came to Toronto for the International AIDS conference being held there in 2006. Ninety of these women had never been on an airplane. The Foundation arranged for their passports, and even provided shoes and suitcases to those in need. They were met by two hundred grandmothers from across Canada whose job it was to listen to the African grandmothers, build solidarity, and then raise awareness and funds in their own communities and influence their government. The message of the African grandmothers was that they did not come just for themselves – rather they represented thousands who face the same struggles, and they expressed awe that these foreigners who seem to have so much, cared about them who have nothing. Today the two hundred Canadian grandmothers have grown to two hundred groups representing over five thousand women.

Since 2002 Mary Anna Beer has traveled to eight African countries in her work, and personally took most of the photos in the slide show that she presented, many at the request of her subjects who want the world to know of the severity of their situation. She has been witness to the horror of the AIDS pandemic, and its effect on the lives of survivors, and is passionate about the work that the Stephen Lewis Foundation is doing. Worldwide, 8000 lives are lost to AIDS every day, but 75% of these deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa, creating thirteen million orphans. Mary Anna told us a story about a school in Swaziland with 350 children, 250 of which are orphans.

The Stephen Lewis Foundation provides badly needed palliative care for AIDS victims, care for caregivers, bereavement counseling, and income-producing tools such as sewing machines. Women are disproportionately affected because they are poorer, unempowered, more vulnerable, and without the right to refuse sex. When adult children become ill, their mothers step in to care for them, sometimes becoming infected in the process. Mary Anna met women who buried all of their adult children, then took on the care of their grandchildren and those of their neighbors as well. One grandmother had twenty children living with her, and was feeding forty children at lunchtime. Other children are not so lucky, and live in child-headed households where the oldest in the group is ten years old. Mary Anna was happy to report on one seventeen year old boy caring for his ill grandmother, raising his siblings, working, and attending school to get his diploma. When she returned a year later he had graduated and was doing very well. She said that the Stephen Lewis Foundation has facilitated many similar success stories.

These grandmothers have the same medical problems common to their age group, hypertension, diabetes, etc., with loneliness and grief added. Because of lack of understanding of AIDS, some have contracted the disease from caring for dying family members. Because of the stigma of AIDS, they may not admit to the cause of the deaths or their own illness. The Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign brings these women together to decrease their sense of isolation and build a community of support.

In some countries, sixty percent of orphans are cared for by grandmothers. These children can be confused, angry and upset at being abandoned by their parents, worried about the lack of money for food, clothes,and school fees, and distraught by any signs of illness in their grandmother. One child told Mary Anna, “Please pray for our grandmother; she’s all we have.”

The Stephen Lewis Foundation does not create new programs but rather supports established programs that emphasize home-based care,providing money for food and school fees. They give comfort and affection to repair the psyches of children and adults who have lost so much. They fund prevention messages, and combat the code of silence that permits infection to spread, and gender inequality to flourish. Small, continuous infusions of money help the African grandmothers help themselves. They support the work that African grandmothers are doing themselves, and consider them heroes, not victims.

 Mary Anna Beer explained that the Stephen Lewis Foundation caps administrative expenses at ten percent. She has read the WTB website and is impressed with what we have done so far and hoped her presentation would move us to act. She asked us to donate, and specify that we want contributions to go to the Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign. But Mary Anna also asked us to spread the word in Syracuse about this chance to extend the borders of our compassion. She reminded us that Al Gore said future generations will ask, “Why didn’t our parents do something about this when they had a chance?” And the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told us, “Our lives begin to end on the day we become silent on those things that matter.”

Tanya Atwood Adams asked us to act on the information we had received this day. Donation envelopes were available for both RAPP and the Stephen Lewis Foundation, and we could indicate our desire to volunteer as well. The teenagers who had been our dinner servers and table-clearers were standing by with baskets to receive the donations, or they could be mailed later.

Betsy Wiggins, WTB co-founder, thanked both of our speakers for their compelling and compassionate presentations.

Cantor Francine Berg closed our evening with a benediction that included blessings from various traditions: “amen, so be it, blessed be, may this be so, and bodhi svaha.” She invited all to join her with the words printed on the last page of our program. As we dispersed, women excitedly discussed what we had learned, and what we wished to do next individually and as a caring group.