Jeff Heuchert email@example.com
There's no such thing as too much of a good thing.
Just ask Linda Willis and Carol Hamilton, founders of Stratford-based charity Change Her World. On Wednesday they celebrated a one-of-a-kind milestone – 10,000 collected and distributed pairs of underwear to assist young girls living in an impoverished country where such basic necessities are not a given.
According to the women, a lack of underwear is a serious issue for girls and women in poverty-stricken parts of the world, including Malawi, Africa, where they have focused most of their humanitarian efforts over the last three years. Girls who are menstruating will often miss up to four days of school each month because they don't have the proper protection. The underwear also provides another layer of protection against sexual assault – an ongoing problem in Africa and many other poor countries.
"Many of our young girls are vulnerable. Many are orphans or they're being taken care of by elderly guardians who aren't aware what's going on," Willis says. "No one wants to leave their house without underwear; you feel naked without it. So it adds a layer of confidence (to the girls) as well.
"And it shows them that someone cares about them. That means a lot to them too."
The focus at Change Her World is removing barriers, like the cost for uniforms and supplies, that prevent girls from attending and staying in school. Willis, a retired teacher, says she has been told Change Her World is the only charity in that part of Africa that assists students beyond secondary school. In addition to collecting underwear and clothing, the charity provides basic medical and hygiene kits, mosquito nets to combat malaria, and bicycles for girls who travel great distances to attend classes.
Willis and Hamilton have visited Malawai three times since the charity was formed, most recently this past spring to monitor the progress and assess the needs. While the women mostly coordinate efforts from here, a group of about 100 volunteers in the local communities of Chilumba and Mzuzu/Ekwendeni carry out activities. The charity has been responsible for renovating a girls' hostel, putting a new roof on a school, improving sanitary facilities, and even building a foot bridge over a river.
But it was the gift of 10,000 pairs of underwear that the charity wanted to commemorate, gathering with local supporters at the bandshell on Veterans Drive in Stratford to enjoy a refreshment and learn about the latest work in Malawai.
"It's no small feat to collect 10,000 pairs of underwear and ship them to a developing country," Hamilton says, adding she and Willis felt it was important to mark the accomplishment and recognize the people who made it all possible.
"People don't realize that as Canadians we can do some significant things in the world, and we can do it from here. "
Donations of underwear have been received from individuals, women's groups and church organizations across the region, Hamilton notes. Other people in cities like London, Mississauga, and Chatham have set up their own collections (the Change Her World website lists all the drop-off sites in Ontario). Hamilton, whose background is in health care and just last month opened a new clinic in Stratford for families struggling with parenthood, is optimistic the charity's presence will continue to grow and expand across the country.
They're always looking for more underwear, she says.
"We need thousands and thousands of pairs," she adds. "It's a gift that (the girls) couldn't ever dream of having."