Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A random list of gratitudes, in no particular order

     Having never been one for goal-setting, the end of the year appeals to me more as a time for reflecting on where my life is at than as a start point for setting goals that may or may not be achievable in the next 12 months. As John Lennon so eloquently noted, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. (In the spirit of goal-setting, perhaps I should pick 2016 as the year that I finally get that truth tattooed on me. I've been talking about it for long enough.)
     So I got to reflecting this morning. And I guess it’s not surprising that my thoughts turned to all the things I’m grateful for, given that I’m currently sitting here in my comfy home in the Managua heat, still in love after 19 years, practically giddy to have recovered from two herniated discs in my neck this past spring, and fresh off a terrific two weeks of travelling Nicaragua with a couple of our grandkids.
     Herewith, a list of personal gratitudes to herald the end of one year and the start of another. It’s by no means a complete list – just the things that popped into my head today. I wish for all of you that you find gratitude in the things that have gone well, and the resilience to get through the things that haven’t. Today, I’m grateful…

·         For having been a teenage mother, because what that translates into at the age of 59 is the chance to hang out in Nicaragua with two teenage grandsons when I am still fit and healthy enough to do adventurous things with them like hiking up volcanoes. Not to mention the great joy of having had more than 41 years of being a mother, and a ton of quality grandchild time for almost 17 years now.

·         For having been born and raised in a country with a high-quality, accessible education system, decent salaries, and publicly funded health care, because growing up in a country like that is a lifelong gift that gives you a giant leg up in this world no matter what happens after that.

·         But at the same time I'm also grateful for the opportunity to experience life in countries with none of that, where I have seen that even downsides can have upsides, and that countries where people have no choice but to figure out their own survival are capable of great innovation, adaptation, resilience and compassion.

·         To be part of a vast extended family that definitely gets fed up with each other from time to time but fundamentally understands that family is forever.

·         For whatever mysterious forces drove me to leave my really great private-sector job as a journalist back in 2004 and venture into non-profit work, where people’s stories still make up the bulk of my work but in ways that make me feel much more connected to meaningful change.

·         I am grateful that a lot of people are scared to live in Honduras, because that meant that the first Cuso International post I tried for back in 2011 had sat vacant for the two years prior to that, which in turn meant that my basic tourist-level Spanish passed muster and I got the post. And a whole other world opened up to me.

·         For a four-month strike in 2002 at the Times Colonist that at the time almost gave me a nervous breakdown, but ultimately revealed to me that I could easily live on half my wages. That revelation set me free.

·         For all the people who have opened up their homes, pets and possessions to Paul and I since we become “homeless” in 2012, welcoming us to care for their stuff while they are vacationing and making it possible for us to live as gypsies. (Well, except for our 2002 PT Cruiser. Come on, even a gypsy needs a caravan.)

·         Grateful to my parents and my piano teacher Kaye Wilson for hammering discipline into me at a young age, because I have put that to use in so many ways over the years, most recently to be able to learn Spanish as well as a new instrument (the accordion) that’s small enough to accompany me in my wandering.

·         For being a sickly kid who experienced being teased and judged, because that has made me into someone who never takes her health for granted and feels a kinship with anyone who has experienced being an outsider. And there’s a lot of us.

·         For all the times I failed, felt my heart break, stumbled, erred. Failure has taught me how to get back up again, and freed me from the nameless dread that gets in your way out of fear that you might fail.

·         I’m grateful that even before I knew that the man of my dreams needed to be someone who could help my youngest daughter with math, embrace cheap travel and a life of uncertainty, and be a kind and patient grandfather to my then-unborn grandchildren, I found my way to just such a man. Here’s to many more years together, Paul.

·         For whatever it is in my genetics that led me to be a person who can’t hold onto resentments and disappointments for very long. Life’s too short to be bitter. Happy 2016, everyone.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Casita Copan: The home of Mami Zoila

Casita Copan Home for Abandoned Children

Background and Project Outline

December 2015

The goal:

 Raise $15,000 to cover 12 months of maintenance costs (approx $1,200 per month) at one of the three family-style homes that Casita Copan operates for abandoned children in Copan Ruinas, Honduras. This particular project will focus on the home of Zoila, who has made a commitment to be the permanent foster mom of five children ages 6 to 11 – Maria, Jesus, Estrella, Alex and Rosario – and live at the casita with them until the youngest one turns 18. While Zoila was offered two days’ a week off, she has chosen to work full-time, 7 days a week – just like any other mom. Her own mother, Juana, is a foster mom at one of the other casitas.

Facts on the Casitas:

  • The three homes opened in July 2014 and cost about $15,000 a year to maintain, roughly $1,200 a month, which includes rent, utilities, maintenance, food, water, medicine, salary for Casita mom, school fees, and weekly visits with a psychologist.· Two of the casitas have four children living in the home, and one has five. 
  • There were a number of sibling groupings living at the former orphanage Angelitos Felices (closed down in July 2014 by the Honduran government); these children continue to live together in the same casitas. 
  • Each casita has a permanent foster mom who lives at the home and participates in all the activities that any mom might do for her children. 
  • The children are in their casitas on weekdays from 4 pm, Saturdays from 1 pm, and all day Sunday. On weekdays they go to school and then to Casita Copan (the main center) for tuoring, special activities, etc. This approach gives staff a chance to check how they are, address medical needs, ensure sessions with our psychologist, etc. The Casita model blends the best aspects of permanent foster care with the oversight of a children's home. 

Specifics on the casita run by "Mami Zoila"

The foster mom:

Zoila is from Nueva Esperanza, a small rural community on the outskirts of Copan Ruinas. A middle child in a family of 6 children, Zoila always helped out at home by taking care of her siblings and later her nieces and nephews. Though she loves children, she never wanted to get married because (in her words) she "didn't want to work for a man." She started working at Casita Copan in 2012 and the kids immediately bonded to her because of her calm, affectionate nature and her infectious smile.

When the Casitas opened in July 2014, she was the first person the organization asked to be a Casita mom - a serious commitment since she was asked to care for the kids in her care until they turn 18. (A 13-year commitment in this case, as the youngest child in Zoila’s casita was 5 when the home opened last year). It goes without saying that the kids love her dearly and all call her "mamá." Side note: She is the daughter of another Casita mom, Juana.

The home:

Zoila’s casita is a bright, happy place. The walls are decorated with pictures the kids have drawn, and diplomas and certificates from school. All of the kids help out with the household chores and as soon as they get home, they wash their clothes and help Zoila fold the laundry. Some play with blocks on the floor while others go into their bedrooms to relax while they wait for dinner. The children are usually in bed by 8 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays, they like to get out the puzzles or coloring books and play on the patio, watch movies, go to church, or take a trip to the Mayan ruins.

The children: 

Rosario is 11 years old. Her mother died in childbirth and Rosario's father didn't have enough money to care for her, so he entrusted her to the care of the orphanage "Angelitos Felices." He died a few years later. Living on her own at the orphanage, Rosario grew into a fiercely independent, tough, and intelligent girl. The smaller kids looked up to her and relied on her to care for them when adult supervision was scarce. Rosario loves to sing, dance, and draw and really loves to watch music videos. When she grows up, she wants to be a teacher. This isn't surprising since she still loves the role of caregiver and is always helping out the younger kids and teaching them new things. She is going to 5th grade next year. 

Alex is 10 years old and the brother of Estrella. His mother was just a teenager when she had Alex and the police removed him from her custody because of extreme malnourishment. He entered Angelitos when he was about one year old. Alex is energetic, creative, and very affectionate but still struggles with anxiety. But that doesn't stop him from trying. Right now he is very into dance and has incredible acrobatic skill - he can walk on his hands, do crazy flips, and is starting to learn some basic breakdance techniques. In the past he wasn't sent to school regularly so he is only in 3rd grade, but he is a good student and was elected class president this year. Alex is incredibly helpful to his Casita family and always make sure the others are helping out too. He's still not sure exactly what job he wants when he grows up but he wants to have enough money to build a house where he and his sister Estrella can live. 

Estrella is 7 years old and the sister of Alex. She was taken into an orphanage when she was a baby because of malnutrition and later sent to Angelitos. She is a born artist. She is inquisitive, thoughtful, creative, and already shows above age level technical skill in her drawings. Right now she's into drawing butterflies, flowers, and animals and she always draws free hand. Estrella is such a sweet and kind girl that everyone likes to be around her and she has made lots of friends at Casita Copan. She just finished first grade and is doing very well so far. When she grows up she wants to be an artist and when she is "medium sized" she wants to be a ballerina.

Maria is 6 years old and sister to Jesus. Her mother has severe epilepsy and so she was taken out of her mother's custody by the police and placed into Angelitos Felices when she was about 3 years old. Maria is a spitfire. She is bright, bossy, and has a great sense of humor. She just finished kindergarten and was one of the most advanced among her classmates. Maria loves to be around people and you will usually find her at the center of any game (although she will definitely want to be the one to go first, so watch out!) When she grows up, she wants to "plant flowers all around." 

Jesus is 9 years old and brother to Maria. When Jesus entered Casita Copan, he displayed severe behavioral and developmental issues and we were very nervous about how we would react in his new environment. While he still loves to be in his own world, he has changed dramatically. He is incredibly gifted and has a remarkable talent for puzzles and math. Even though he often escaped from his 1st grade classroom to play on the swings, he was one of the first in his class to learn to read and he earned a 88% average. Jesus has now become affectionate and respectful with adults that he cares about and trusts and is turning into a wonderful young man. His favorite thing is to make people around him laugh. At his Casita, he is relaxed and helpful. When he grows up, he wants to "fix things" although I think he may end up more interested in computers since that is currently his favorite pastime! 

Note on Alex and Estrella's birth mom: Mirna has 5 children and his pregnant with her 6th. Only one child still lives with her. She suffered severe physical and sexual abuse as a child and has struggled to maintain a steady job or income. She admits that she never cared for her kids like she wanted to and was sometimes too rough with Alex. She never had a chance to care for Estrella since she herself was malnourished when she had her and didn't have money to feed her. Mirna comes from La Entrada (an hour away by bus) once a month to visit her children now that she has permission to see them. She is shy around them but has the same sweet and helpful personality as her children. She always helps out at Casita when she can and smiles constantly, just like Estrella and Alex.

Note on Maria and Jesus's birth mom: Maria has severe epilepsy that started when she was a child. Casita Copan provides her medication but because of the severity of her condition, she still has seizures and her intellectual development was stunted by the frequency of her seizures and falls. So she often forgets to take her pills and does not maintain a healthy diet which only makes things worse. But Maria loves her children fiercely. She is the only mother that comes to visit her kids every single Wednesday and somehow always manages to bring them food and drinks. She helps them with their homework, draws with them, and always encourages them to behave well and study hard. She would like to be able to care for her children again one day, but her medical condition makes this unlikely.

Bang for your buck:

· Just 5 per cent of donations to Casita Copan go to administrative costs.

· Click here for the Casita Copan web site and more background information. (It's a registered charity in U.S. and Honduras, and Canadian charitable tax receipts are available if donors contact the organization first to arrange for how to make those donations)

· Click here to sponsor a Casita directly 

· Click here to sponsor an individual child for $30, $60 or $90 a month

Monday, December 07, 2015

Then and now: The children of Angelitos find their dreams at Casita Copan

It will soon be four years since we first met the kids living in squalor, smell and deprivation at what was then the Angelitos Felices home for abandoned children in Copan Ruinas, Honduras. 

We were on our first Cuso International placement and needed a side project for our weekend hours. Once we made our first visit to Angelitos, we knew we'd found it. Friends and family back home did so much to help us make life better for the children during our two-plus years in Honduras. 

Together we raised $30,000 for a range of projects that included new tile floors, a vastly improved water system and renovated bathrooms, clothes, school uniforms and supplies, and weekly excursions to someplace fun for the 14 children for pretty much the whole two years we were there. (The regular visits to a local pool were the highlights, and all the kids learned to swim during our time with them.)

But everything comes to an end, and in April, 2014, we had to return to Canada. One of the great joys of my life was that within weeks of our sad goodbyes to the children, the Honduran government finally stepped in and removed the kids from Angelitos. They were put into the loving arms of the fledgling Casita Copan project and Emily Monroe, a young American who had been living in Honduras for a number of years at that point and putting in enormous effort to try to get the children moved into a better situation. She had already started a day care for impoverished single moms and their children in Copan, and within weeks of the news of Angelitos' impending closure, quickly opened three "casitas" in Copan that now house these children in family-sized groups with a permanent house mom. 

Emily's involvement has not only changed the lives and dreams of these children, but has meant my partner Paul and I can continue supporting them and watch them growing up. Hope you enjoy this series of then-and-now photos of the children, who are all doing great. I urge you to add Casita Copan to your Christmas giving plan! 

Beautiful Belkis is 15 and a young woman with hopes and ambitions - so far from the silent, timid girl she was when we first met her. I will never forget the wonder and joy on Belkis's face as she learned how to swim during our pool trips.

Eduardo is now 16 and living with his brother Naun and two other former Angelitos boys in his great new casita run by Juana, who knew all the children from her Angelitos days. The future of Eduardo worried us because vulnerable boys are at such huge risk of being drawn into gang activity. But he's well-supported now and doing great.

Sweet Elsy is eight now and living in a casita with her two younger sisters. With a developmental disability, Elsy not surprisingly had behavioural problems at the old home, but is now a happy girl growing up in a proper family.

Alba is the daughter of one of the impoverished women with few options who typically ended up working at Angelitos in exchange for a place to stay and some food. Mom Fanny now works at Casita Copan, and her three children - Alba, 8, Juan, 5, and baby Iker - are all with her and the family is thriving. While the 3 casitas are an important part of the work that Emily's organization does, what is arguably even more important is the terrific day care program and support/training for single mothers that Casita Copan also provides.

Angie Nicole (seen in the 'before' photo with Angelitos caregiver Juana, who is now a Casita Copan house mom) was such a sick little baby when we first saw her, the youngest of three siblings all living at Angelitos. Now she's a sparkling four-year-old and lives in a beautiful, clean home with her two older sisters.

Little Zoila was one of three sisters living at Angelitos, and was significantly behind in her development when we met her. Happily, not any more! She's five now and living with sisters Elsy and Angie Nicole at one of the casitas.

Jesus is nine now, and he and his sister Maria are the other brother-sister set living in the casita with siblings Estrella and Alex (and "big sister" Rosario). Small donations make a big difference in Honduras - $100 will cover the costs of primary school for a child, and $500 provides a year of medical care and any necessary medication for 30 children.

Ah, Juan Carlos, we won't soon forget your mischievous grin - and it's clear you've still got it! He's 10 now and living in a casita with Jose Manuel and the brothers Naun and Eduardo. His nickname was "Chino" because he had a vaguely Asian look to him, and he absolutely hated that nickname. We made sure to never call him that, but I sometimes wondered if the other kids even knew what his real name was. 

Sweet Jose Manuel basically didn't walk when we met him at age three, which the Angelitos people told us was because his blind mother carried him everywhere for fear of losing track of him up until she had to give him up. True or not, I don't know. His walking did improve, although his feet always seemed to give him trouble. He was the heartbreaker at Angelitos, so often left to sit neglected in a corner, quietly crying. Now he's six and full of life, just like every child should be!

Juan is five and the brother to Alba. The two children lived at Angelitos with their mom Fanny during some of our time there. As noted in Alba's writeup, Fanny now works at Casita Copan and the family is doing much better, as you can see by Juan's smiling face! Emily did a great campaign recently based on what the kids want to be when they grow up, and Juan wants to be a policeman so he can "get the bad guys."

This photo of Maria disturbed me to no end when I took it shortly after we got involved at Angelitos, as her raggedy-tag outfit, giant shoes and the filthy appearance of the upstairs area where the kids all slept spoke volumes about the conditions at the place. But look at her now! She's six now and living in a casita with her brother Alex and others.

Naun and Alex - shown here in the 'before' photo with little Jaidy, who is now in state care elsewhere in Honduras - were a couple of our favourites, notable for their spirited cartwheels and backflips (Alex) and complete excitement over any outing (Naun). Alex took his time learning to swim during our pool outings, but slow and steady got him there, and he was so proud. Naun is now 11, and Alex is 10.

The lovely Rosario, who was always the one who I thought could be anything she wanted if she could just get out of Angelitos. She was the only true orphan of the group. And now she's an 11-year-old princess, finally in a place to be able to realize her dreams and put her significant intelligence and drive to work.

First to learn to swim, street-smart like you couldn't believe from his time as a seven-year-old living on the streets of La Entrada - Arnold must be 13 now, and has gone back to his family. I am choosing to believe he is well and happy. Here he is pictured during our time in Honduras, enjoying his new bunk bed built by a wonderful group of Louisiana men who came to Copan specifically to build beds for the kids at Angelitos. Up until then, they were mostly sleeping on filthy foam mattresses on the concrete floor, and some just slept directly on the floor. 

Fernando had gone back to his family before Angelitos closed, but ended up abandoned again. Happily, he has now been adopted by a woman who works for Children's International and is in a happy, stable home about 40 minutes away from Copan Ruinas. He's 5 now.

Jairo has gone back to his family and is living with his sister and grandmother. Casita Copan does whatever it can to help abandoned children return to their families, and when that isn't possible, it supports family visits so the kids can continue to maintain a relationship with their families.

These 3 sisters - Johana, Noelia and Janine (seen here with Angie Nicole) - were returned to their family in La Entrada very suddenly one day when we were still in Honduras. We never got a chance to say goodbye. They were from a very troubled family, but their dad regularly showed up at Angelitos to visit them and they often tried to sneak in cellphone calls to their wandering mother (Daisy, the woman who operated Angelitos, didn't like the kids to have contact with their parents). We will have to hope that they, too, are doing well. They would be 11, 16 and 17 now.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Nicaraguans can grow their own food, but not without land

     Who has the right to own land?
     In countries like Canada, we decided some time ago that it’s either government, aboriginals or people with enough money to buy a piece of tierra firma, and many of us get along just fine without owning land. While almost 70 per cent of Canadians own their own homes, it’s not a prerequisite to happiness.
     But the issue is more complex in countries like Nicaragua, where owning land can make the difference between being able to feed your family and going hungry.
     Subsistence farmers in Nicaragua can survive on the most minimal incomes if they own enough land to grow their food. Their basic diets of corn and beans may be monotonous and not diverse enough to guarantee good nutrition, but at least the calories are sufficient to keep a family going. 
     But that breaks down when a poor family doesn't own land or can't plant on someone else's land.
     If you have to buy your beans and corn at the local market, you’re going to need money – something that’s in scarce supply in much of rural Nicaragua. If you have to rent land to grow your food, every harvest has to be sufficiently productive that you don’t find yourself in the hole at the end of the day. With little access to affordable credit for land purchases and climate change wreaking havoc with production cycles in Nicaragua, these are difficult days for small-scale farmers. 
     Land ownership is a critical concern for the 2,200 women farmers that belong to the organization I work for here in Managua, a federation of women’s farming cooperatives that goes by the acronym FEMUPROCAN. Much of the organization’s advocacy efforts these days are focused on one section of an agricultural reform law that promises credit to women farmers so they can buy their own land, but has never been enacted.
     Only eight to 12 per cent of the country’s private lands are owned by women.  That places them at a huge disadvantage, not only in their ability to feed their families but to be able to participate in the country’s economic development. They’re up against the culture as well; even when a farming family does own land, more times than not the title is in the name of the husband only. In the event of his death, it’s not uncommon to see that title pass to his brother or other male member of the family, leaving the wife with neither land nor recourse.
     Without land of her own or her name on title, a woman in Nicaragua also struggles to qualify for credit – vital for small farmers given that they have to borrow against tomorrow’s harvest to be able to afford the seed today. Bank interest rates are brutal, upwards of 30 per cent.
     This year has been particularly harsh for FEMUPROCAN’s members in the parts of Nicaragua hit hard by drought, where some farmers who rent their lands are so afraid to lose what little they have that they didn’t even plant at the start of the second growing season in September.
     In Somoto, a particularly dry region, a woman farmer told me that with land renting for around 2,700 cordobas ($120 Cdn) per hectare, poor farmers risk ending up worse off financially than if they’d never planted at all if the rains don’t come on time. The owners of those lands expect to be paid regardless of how the growing season turns out.
     And with no additional money to buy more seed if the rains start late and the first crop dies in the field – as has happened this year in the country’s “dry corridor” – farmers are in some cases choosing to scrap the whole season and wait until next May to plant, hoping that the drought will be over by then.
     That means at least one member of the family will have to find day labour somewhere between now and then, because otherwise there’s no money for food. But day labour is in short supply as well, seeing as most of that work involves earning money by helping land-owning farmers with their own harvests. With the drought now in its second year, this is a tough time to be a small-scale farmer in Nicaragua.
     The solution is simple enough: Find ways to help women buy farm land. FEMUPROCAN's members have said over and over again that they don't expect to get anything for free, but they're going to need realistic interest rates, a generous amount of time to pay back their loans, and at least a little understanding that in a year when the weather doesn't cooperate, they're going to be strapped and might need a break. 
     It's all doable. Unfortunately, nobody's doing it, and probably won't be until Nicaragua works out the whole other complicated issue of a largely non-functional land registry system.
     But as I’ve come to expect from Central American farmers after almost four years of working here, they carry on. The Somoto woman I spoke to said all of 2015 has been a disaster, from the drought that disrupted both of the year’s two growing seasons to the community well that ran dry. But then she smiled, shrugged, and added that the women of FEMUPROCAN will just keep fighting the good fight. “That’s what we do,” she said. 

Thanks for supporting our work in Central America with a donation to Cuso International! Here's our fundraising site. 

Saturday, November 07, 2015

On going viral and feeling hope: My letter to the prime minister

Update Nov. 10: My Facebook post has now been shared 9,879 times and garnered 13,577 likes. My son's original post was shared 285 times, and a separate post of my post on the wall of Meanwhile in Canada got 7,331 shares and 7,751. Wow.

I have a Facebook post that is in the midst of going viral. You know, like that '70s commercial for Breck shampoo, where one woman tells two friends, and they tell two friends, and next thing you know the TV screen is full-up with people telling each other about shampoo.

I have often fantasized of going viral for some of my posts around sex work, but this wasn't one of them. This was a post in which I shared my son's post about his feelings as a federal fisheries biologist at the news from his supervisors on Thursday that he was now free to talk to the media or anyone else, because the muzzle order silencing Canada's scientists that the Harper government had imposed had just been lifted.

His post made me feel warm and fuzzy, so I shared it thinking that my own Facebook friends would like a chance to feel warm and fuzzy, too. And then everything went crazy.

I knew something very strange was going on when, within the first hour of posting it, it had been shared 400 times. The left bottom corner of my screen was flickering and flickering with one notification after another of the post being shared and liked. (It kind of felt like the time I ate a piece of marijuana-butter cake and started feeling the effects within 15 minutes, which is really fast. My initial thoughts of "Hey, cool!" quickly shifted to "Oh, shit..." as the implications of where things would be going from there sunk in.)

As I write this, it's been 23 hours since I wrote the post, and it has now been shared 4,823 times. Four different media outlets have contacted me trying to track down my son. The Toronto Star even managed to find his home phone number, and never mind that even his own mother doesn't know the damn number.

What I have come to see through the popularity of that post is just how oppressed, bitter and sorrowful Canadians had become under the Harper government, and how hungry they were for optimism and hope again. I wonder if we even knew how dejected we felt until the day of the election, when even apolitical types like me felt our hearts lift at the prospect that maybe, just maybe, the Dark Lord had been vanquished and hope was possible again.

The events of the day inspired me to do another thing I'd never done: Write a letter to the prime minister. It just seemed like the right thing to do, to let him know that a simple post about a fisheries biologist being able to talk again about what he knew had struck such a chord that thousands of Canadians felt moved to share the joyful news. In its own small way, it was like the fall of our own little Berlin Wall. I could practically feel everyone running into the streets and calling from the rooftops: "The scientists are unmuzzled! We're free! We're free!" If I were the prime minister, I would want to know that something my government had done had triggered such an outpouring of relief and giddy emotion.

Here's the letter I wrote. The number of shares/likes has grown exponentially since I wrote it last night; in the 20 minutes it has taken for me to write this post, in fact, the number of shares has increased to 4,967, and the likes are at 6,591. People, we were so desperate for change.

Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister. Thank you, Canadians, for turning out to the polls and voting against a repressive, authoritarian, anti-democratic, fear-mongering and just plain awful government. So good to remember what hope feels like.

Hi, Mr. Prime Minister. I thought I'd share this little story from my day today as heartening evidence of just how happy Canadians are to feel the winds of change blowing across our country. 

I'm an old journalist turned communications consultant, and I've got around 1,900 Facebook friends. I generally set Public as my privacy settings for my posts because it seems to me that information wants to be free. While I am accustomed to a decent number of Facebook "likes" and shares, on a really good day with the cutest photo of my new granddaughter, I would still only expect maybe 200 likes.

But today, that all changed. Today, I shared the post of my son, a federal fisheries biologist, and added a few comments of my own. Here's what I posted:

My son is a fisheries biologist with Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Here's his spirit-lifting post from yesterday. "It is official. At an all staff meeting today with some of the best scientists in the world, certainly the ones who know our coast better than anyone (and I am lucky enough to work for some of them), we were told that it's ok to talk to the media or anyone about what we do without permission. That's how surreal it was. That's how things changed over night."
I feel like I'm in one of those post-apocalyptic movies where there's nothing but darkness and sorrow and hard times, and then right at the end of the movie there's a scene of the sun rising over a new world and it's like everything just might turn out OK. People, we must never again let our government plunge us into such a fearful, secretive, divisive state.

And the Facebook world went crazy. I posted that 10 hours ago, and it has been shared 2,568 times. It has 2,984 likes. People are completely ecstatic about that post, and I have come to see that the unmuzzling of scientists is like a metaphor for the dark days ending for so many of us. Thank you for that. 

I'm sure there will be many tough days to come, and days after the honeymoon is over and everyone is crabbing at you. But I will remember this day, and that I realized for the first time today just how deeply my fellow Canadians and I had sunk into despair and hopelessness after 10 years of an oppressive, fear-mongering, arrogant and hateful government. 

Thank you for doing what you said you'd do. Thank you for your gender-equal cabinet, and your respect for smart people who care deeply about Canada. Thank you as well for reconsidering Bill C-36, another issue I feel so passionate about. Thank you for giving us back hope that we no longer have to be ashamed to be Canadians - ashamed to have a government that had descended to the depths of hatred to try to stay elected. It's like we have been living our own version of being behind the Berlin Wall, and it feels so good to see that ugly, divisive wall falling. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

#Rolls4Strolls: Let's put an RV back on Victoria's sex-work strolls

Fundraising was never my thing in my journalist years, and I felt very awkward about it back in 2004 when I realized that as the new executive director of Peers Victoria, fundraising was going to be one of the most important parts of my job.

But there quickly came a point in those early fundraising days where I realized that I didn't mind asking people for money, because I knew just how important that money was to achieving whatever it was we were trying to do. It wasn't long before I was making dozens of speeches a year calculated at attracting new supporters for Peers, and got involved in the crazy-making work of organizing a musical talent show for three years running (Victoria Idol) just so we could keep those desperately needed dollars flowing in.

Since starting to work in Central American for Cuso International in 2012, I've gone on to raise money for impoverished children and their families in Honduras, and for Cuso International as well. With 11 years of community fundraising under my belt, I am now just fine with putting my hand out and asking anyone for a donation when it's for a cause I care about.

One of my first fundraising campaigns for Peers in 2005 was to buy a used RV that our late-night outreach team could use on the outdoor sex-work "strolls" in Victoria as a mobile drop-in. I had no idea how we were going to do it (raising money for sex workers, so profoundly stigmatized and misunderstood, is just about as tough a fundraising pitch as you'll ever have to make, trust me), but then a local businessman appeared out of nowhere with $10,000 in his hand and poof, it was done.

Ten years passed, and the outreach team and outdoor sex workers loved that RV right into the ground, and a second one as well. The team has been using a little passenger van for the last two years after the last RV gave up the ghost, but it's just not the same.

There's no kitchen for boiling water for soup, hot chocolate and coffee. No room for loading up donated coats, scarves and such to bring down to the stroll. No warm, welcoming indoor space where people can just take a break from their work and have a few laughs. No private place for a sex worker in crisis to pull an outreach worker aside for a few moments.

So here I am again, back helping Peers find the money for another RV. Not living in Canada right now does make it more challenging to help with fundraising, but I can still help in the background with things like crowdfunding, tweets, and other communication strategies. I can, for instance, write this blog post, and hope that someone reads it and thinks, "Hey, that's a good idea. I want to be part of that."

Maybe that person will be you. And if it is, just glance over there on the right-hand side of my blog and see that GoFundMe link for #Rolls4Strolls. Click on it and give whatever you can.

I know, I know, there are a thousand people like me clamoring for your money, and we've all got causes that in our opinions are the most in need of your support. I won't try to tell you that $5 is barely more than what you pay the barista for a cup of coffee, because that line's probably wearing thin.

But if you've got $5 to give, please do. There are 140 or so outdoor sex workers working off and on along the cold, dark streets around Government and Rock Bay. They've never stopped talking about how much they loved the days when Peers had an RV.

Donate to #Rolls4Strolls and help Peers get another RV out there. Whatever the size of your donation, it matters. And it will go a long way to demonstrating to an extremely marginalized group of workers that they matter, too.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Walking in Managua: Pedestrian tips from the front line

 My walk to work is quite a bit longer this time in Managua, about an hour each way. It gives me more time to reflect on all the ways I could be killed in traffic. 
     Managua certainly doesn’t have the craziest traffic I’ve ever had to walk through; I have, after all, lived to tell the tale of crossing the streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. But fresh from a summer wandering along the coddled streets of Victoria, Managua is quite enough crazy for me at the moment.
    So herewith, a few words of advice for those who would be pedestrians in a busy Central American city:

Cars rule. Never assume that any driver is going to slow down for you to cross the road. Never assume that they even see you at all, even if they appear to be looking right at you. Yes, every now and then you are going to spot a crosswalk, but you’d be out of your mind to think it means anything at all. 

Do way more than simply looking both ways. Approach every road crossing as if you were a CIA agent anticipating an assassin coming at you from an unknown direction. 
    Sure, the nice little green man is signalling that you can walk, but don’t trust him. Sure, the guy in the lane closest to you is smiling at you and giving you a friendly go-ahead wave. But what about the guy in the lane next to him? Or the motorcycle that is almost certainly coming straight up the middle of the two lanes? Or the guy turning left against the lights? Or the guy turning right from the street down the way – the one who’s gunning it to clear the intersection you're crossing before the light changes? 
    Think of it this way: If there’s a car anywhere in sight, it just might run you down. Act accordingly.

Always look behind you. This is probably my most common error. I look both ways, step into a side street to cross it, and boom, a car comes hurtling from behind me doing a high-speed left-hand turn to sneak through a big line of traffic travelling in the opposite direction.
    Equally deadly are the cars coming up from behind that are turning right into some parking lot or gas station whose entrance you are walking past. Back in Canada, such cars dutifully wait until you’re safely out of their way before turning in. Not in Managua.

Never assume that being on a sidewalk means you’re safe. Aside from major pedestrian hazards like cracked cement, giant open storm drains, tree roots, dangling electrical wires, dog poo and wildly uneven surfaces, it’s not unusual to encounter a motorcycle driving along the sidewalk toward you. A couple days ago, I had to jump out of the way of a small car making its way along. Do not allow yourself to grow comfortable.

And anyway, a lot of the sidewalks just end. And just like that, you don’t have so much as a gravel shoulder to walk along. All of a sudden you go from being a relatively happy pedestrian on a sidewalk to someone who’s scrambling to get out of the way of fast-moving buses that are pulling in to pick up passengers, or inching your way around a higgle-piggle of strangely angled parked cars, food vendors, and clamorous hordes of tired Nicaraguans trying to get home on those buses.

The safest place to cross is between stopped cars, not in front of them. Let’s say you’ve got a choice of crossing the street at a controlled intersection, or walking a few metres further up and weaving your way between the cars that are stopped waiting for the light. 
      Pick the weaving option. There’s just way less risk when you can pick and choose which stopped cars to walk in front of, and more chance of escaping unscathed if the line of traffic suddenly starts moving.
      But remember to watch for those motorcycles coming up between the lanes of traffic. Walk. Stop. Peek. Walk. Repeat.

Embrace medians. What lovely things they are, turning impossible four-lane highways into manageable two-lane chunks. And they’re great for standing on while you take a photo of all the traffic coming at you.

Get yourself a good pair of shoes. You do NOT want to be doing all this bobbing and weaving in shoes that are slippery, high-heeled, dainty, or otherwise unsuitable for a last-minute dash when all goes wrong. Never mind what the Nicaraguans are wearing – they’re experts at all of this. Get yourself a sturdy pair of runners and don’t worry about fashion faux pas.

Save the “empowered pedestrian” crap for when you’re back in Canada. You know what I’m talking about: Waving an angry fist in the air at a driver who came close to hitting you; thumping on the hood of a car as you walk past to signal your annoyance that he’s protruding so far into the intersection; fixing the driver with a steely, disapproving gaze to convey Just How Mad You Are; crossing the street at the speed of a tortoise just to prove the point that you’re the one in control.
     It’s hard enough to take empowered pedestrians back in my own land. Down here, they’d just be run right over. Come to think of it, that might be the one endearing feature of Managua traffic. 

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Early intervention changes everything for children with disabilities, health challenges

Tytan Beckford's family had to make the horrific decision
to ampute part of Tytan's feet when he was born without
fibula in his legs.
  Gotta admit, it was kind of fun being back in reporter mode this summer as my partner Paul and I worked up a four-page newspaper supplement for Children's Health Foundation of Vancouver Island.

     The stories of families of children with disabilities can be hard to listen to, because nobody likes having to think of children experiencing the pain, surgeries, life limitations, and whirl of therapies that the kids we wrote about have had to face. Our own granddaughter was born right in the middle of the period when we were doing this work, and we couldn't help but imagine her in a similar situation with each and every heartbreaking interview.

Twins Nolan and Asher Trousdell on their way into Grade 1
this fall. Read the family blog at
 Yet the hope and determination of the families are what will stay with me. They get knocked down, but they get up again. They endure unbelievable amounts of stress, sadness, and wholesale disruption of their lives and dreams, yet they stand alongside their children and together, they make it work.

    I have new admiration for the dedicated people who work in the field of children's health and development, and new appreciation for the worth of these services - not only for the children whose lives are literally being turned around through early intervention, but for society as a whole. There's something magical about the ability of a brain of a young child to adapt to limitations and challenges, but making use of that magic is all about the right interventions in those early years from birth to age five.

     Early intervention not only changes the course of a child's life, it dramatically improves the chances that children can reach their potential in school, work, and life overall. Early intervention ensures we have active, healthy, and engaged citizens ready to build an even stronger future of British Columbia.

    The supplement is in today's Times Colonist, and you can read it here on the foundation's web site.

Hannah Harris, whose family spent a total of 115 nights
at Jeneece Place after Hannah and her twin sister Hailey
were born premature and with a long list of health
challenges. Read more about the Courtenay twins
on their mom Bonnie's blog at

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Nicaragua: Developed but unequal

  It’s a typical Saturday afternoon at the flashy Metro Centro mall in Managua, Nicaragua, and the joint is jumping. As I watch a young barista crank out $4 iced cappuccinos at the Casa de Café kiosk, I find myself reflecting yet again on the mysterious phrase “developing country.”
  To those who don’t know this part of the world, the phrase suggests poverty and deprivation - chicken buses spilling over with skinny peasants making slow progress along dirt roads; neighbourhoods of rickety houses built from bamboo and banana leaves; poor people with seven or eight children scratching out meagre livings in tiny villages.
  Paul and I are just beginning our third posting as Cuso International volunteers in Central America. I suspect more than a few of our acquaintances back home imagine us living in just such a country. They assume that working with non-profit organizations in countries like Nicaragua and Honduras means giving up the good life.
  Yet the reality of life in a modern-day Central American city looks a lot like life in Canada in many ways. And the more time I spend in the south, the more my confusion grows over what we mean when we talk about development.
  All the stuff of “developed” countries like Canada exists here in Nicaragua, from beautifully maintained highways to fancy malls, big universities, well-equipped hospitals, 60-inch televisions, pricey iced-coffee makers, and luxury cars. The view from where I’m sitting as I write this is of attractive pink-plaster houses with immaculate gardens as far as the eye can see.
  But were I to walk a few blocks to the eight-lane highway that cuts through this part of town, I’d see a different view.
   I’d see wooden shacks with thin curls of smoke coming out from wood cooking fires inside. I’d see skinny dogs sleeping on dirt floors and families in worn hand-me-down clothes shipped in bales from the U.S., sitting in cheap plastic chairs in scrubby dirt yards. Employment is scarce and notoriously low-paid for families in those kinds of neighbourhoods.
  So the real problem is not a lack of modern conveniences, it’s that so many people who live here can’t access them. The problem is not a lack of development, but of inequality – both in terms of income and in having the political clout to be able to change that reality. The World Bank rates Nicaragua as the second-poorest nation in Latin America and the Caribbean, but that poverty definitely isn’t shared equally among the country’s six million citizens.
  The bad roads, rickety houses, and impoverished families that come to mind for those who haven’t been to Central America do still prevail in many rural areas. Rural development efforts tend to concentrate along three lines: Helping people improve food security through better agricultural practices and diversity; encouraging people to engage more effectively with their governments; and helping communities organize themselves better to prevent or respond to emergencies such as floods, mud slides, drought and other natural disasters. (I haven’t seen much development work focused on the needs of the urban poor.)
  It’s important work, of course.
  Better and more diverse agricultural yields can mean the difference between life and death for subsistence farmers, as can better logging practices that stop the deforestation that turn a regular rain storm into a devastating flood or slide. Democracy is still a fragile concept in Central America, and building a more informed and engaged citizenry is an integral part of sustaining that. Development work that improves the lives of women and girls is fundamental to improving a country’s economic performance.
  But can those efforts change the structural inequalities, cultural habits, and harmful government policies that feed the growing gap between rich and poor around the world? I don’t know. Like so any other global problems, it’s complicated, and there are many competing interests at stake – most notably, the interests of consumers in wealthy countries like my own.
  For instance, Central American farmers wouldn’t be nearly so poor if they got paid more for their crops. (The price people pay for the coffee beans in their iced cappuccino is about 100 times more than what the farmer got for growing them.)
  Workers in the giant maquilas that make clothing, auto parts, and electronics for the world would benefit immensely from higher wages. The countries that host those maquilas would have more money for infrastructure, education, health care, and social programs if the multinationals that owned the factories paid taxes, like they would have to do if the factories were located in wealthier countries.
  But in the global market, consumers demand low prices. Were the government of Nicaragua to take a stand on behalf of factory workers and farmers, corporations doing business here would instantly start scoping out even poorer countries where they could set up shop. The resulting loss of jobs and markets would be disastrous for the country.
  And consumers around the world would barely blink, because it’s our buying habits (which in turn are fuelled by our own falling purchasing power as the income gap grows in our own countries) that have led to this situation.
  What to do? Pay attention. Reject easy labels that hide what the real problems are. Come see for yourself. No country’s problems are ever as simple as they appear from a distance, nor are any of us as different from each other as we might believe.

Thanks for supporting our work in Central America with a donation to Cuso International! Here's our fundraising site.