Growing up in South Africa, Barb Phillips witnessed the poverty in her home country.
Though she lived in relative privilege herself, it’s something she still sees whenever she returns home: “A grandmother in her late 70s in a hut with no running water with maybe four or six or eight grandchildren,” she says as an example.
“She has to try and scrape to find the money to send them to school.”
The Stephen Lewis Foundation estimates that 11.6 million African children have been orphaned because their parents have died from complications related to AIDS.
In many cases, grandmothers, who have just buried their own children, step in to fill the gap.
It’s clearly a daunting task. But grandmothers from across Canada are stepping forward to help.
The foundation’s Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign raises money to support their African counterparts who are caring for young children whose parents have died from complications of AIDS.
For the last six years the Yukon group, which Phillips is a part of, has been the most northern chapter.
On Oct. 26 the group will be hosting an art sale as their latest fundraiser.
The money they earn will go to the Stephen Lewis Foundation to be used for projects likes counselling, HIV testing, business skills workshops, micro-credit loans and support groups.
“I’m involved in supporting a lot of different organizations but particularly this one because of the work that Stephen Lewis has done,” said Sharon Westberg.
“You know that real work is happening and the money is going where it’s needed. Whether it’s kids here or kids in Africa, it’s still human beings around the world that need help.”
The local art sale will be selling pieces from the estate of Rene Carlson, who died in April.
The long-time Yukoner had a vast collection including paintings, prints and Inuit soapstone carvings from around the North.
After discussions with Carlson’s family, the group agreed to host the sale and take a commission.
Carlson sometimes attended Grandmothers to Grandmothers herself and would volunteer whenever she could.
The sale is something she would approve of, friends say.
“She would be very thrilled about something like this. She would like her art to go to local people who love it,” said Audrey McLaughlin.
The collection is made up of hundreds of items and is appraised at a total of $54,000.
It includes things like a hand-beaded baby belt, a variety of dolls, carvings, and original prints from artists like Jim Logan and Jim Robb.
About three years ago McLaughlin, a former chair of the Yukon group, travelled to South Africa and Swaziland with 43 representatives from chapters around Canada.
They met with more than 2,000 grandmothers from different countries around Africa.
None of the women were asking for cash, she said. They were all interested in how to make money.
“These are women, despite their age, who want to be self-sufficient.”
She witnessed one program where bed sheets were being handed out. When the group returned the bed sheets were gone.
It turns out the locals had been using them as shrouds to cover dead bodies.
“I think no matter where you are, we’re pretty privileged people. I think we have a responsibility, I think we all feel that, both locally and globally,” said McLaughlin.
The Yukon group has a mailing list of about 80 people they can call on for help – both grandmothers and not.
The core group of seven are all familiar faces who volunteer around the territory. With more than 40 grandchildren between them, they also know what it’s like to care for a grandchild that you love.
“I think it also came from me, just having my own grandchildren. Just trying to look after my grandchildren for a day, I find it exhausting,” Phillips said.
The whole room chuckles, but no one disagrees.
“I just find it so exhausting. I think, how on earth could you have six kids in a mud hut with no running water… and no money.”
The Grandmothers to Grandmothers art sale takes place Oct. 26 from 1 to 7 p.m. at the Westmark Whitehorse.
Contact Ashley Joannou at