Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fighting famine one bag at a time

Niverville woman remains focused on doing her part to feed hungry

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If feeding millions of hungry people in Somalia seems overwhelming, consider following a Niverville woman's example by cutting that problem into smaller bits, somewhere around the size of a shoulder bag.

Over the last four years, Joyce Kehler Hildebrand has been sewing bags and purses in her basement studio, offering them for sale online and donating the money to feed people in Africa.

"I feel I'm doing something," says Kehler Hildebrand, 43, about her ongoing project called Bags 4 Darfur, which has raised $25,000 for the United Nations World Food Program and other aid programs.

"I understand it's not enough, I understand it doesn't solve it, it doesn't fix it, but that doesn't make me not responsible," the mother of four says about the 11 million people in East Africa facing food shortages due to drought.

Over the last month, aid agencies have been soliciting funds from Canadians to address the food crisis in East Africa, where three million people in Somalia are facing a famine and millions more in Kenya and Ethiopia are facing food shortages.

Although crisis funding is necessary and welcome, long-term projects big and small are crucial to addressing hunger in East Africa, says Robert Granke of Canadian Lutheran World Relief.

His organization is working with farmers to introduce drought-resistant crops and funding wells in villages in Ethiopia so thousands of people can have a safe supply of drinking water.

"It's always good if people get beyond the general and broad issues and think about the specific," Granke says about the work of smaller organizations like his.

"We're not going to solve the poverty issue in Africa, but we'll help people in specific villages."

For Kehler Hildebrand, her Christian faith motivated her to start raising money after she heard about the situation in Darfur, Sudan, where nearly a decade of civil strife has killed 400,000 people and forced millions more into refugee camps.

Taking to heart the biblical admonition to love her neighbour, she considers the people of Darfur her neighbours as much as the ones who live right next door to her in Niverville, where she runs a daycare from her home, which is decorated with an eclectic mixture of vintage furniture, coloured glass and old patchwork quilts.

"Because I believe in God, I have a certain amount of accountability there, because I've been taught this is the right way to live," says Kehler Hildebrand, referring to her Mennonite roots.

It's rare to hear about a longtime commitment like that of Kehler Hildebrand, says the director of international programs at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

"It's amazing that she's carried this forward for this many years," says Joan Barkman.

Whether it is making bags, growing a field of pumpkins to sell as do some food-grains bank supporters, or another local endeavour, Barkman says small projects serve two purposes: They raise necessary cash for food aid, and they provide a connection between people in Canada and those in need in another country.

"It gives you more of a sense of involvement than simply writing the cheque, which I think is important, too," she says.

Barkman says donors have stepped up their giving to the food-grains bank recently to address the current crisis, and the organization recently committed $6.1 million for food aid in East Africa.

Instead of lamenting problems she can't solve on her own, Kehler Hildebrand remains focused on sewing and selling bags, and she encourages others motivated by their beliefs to find some way to help.

"You can't fix a famine and you can't fix Africa," she says about what one person can do.

"But if you consider 50 cents a day would feed a child in Africa, you can do that."

brenda@suderman.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 6, 2011 J13

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