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North End grandmothers reach out to Uganda

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As if they don’t have problems of their own, a group of North End grandmothers have managed to buy seven pigs, nine chickens and a sewing machine to help a group of grannies in Uganda get on their feet.

The St. John’s Grandma Support Group, which started more than five years ago to help North End grannies raising their grandchildren, is now watching its fundraising cash help grannies 12,000 kilometres away.

In Kampala and surrounding villages, many grandmothers are raising children orphaned because of the AIDS epidemic, just as many grandmothers in the North End are raising their grandchildren in the absence of capable parents.

"Their hardships are worse than ours, even though we don’t come from wealthy families and we have our struggles," said North End grandma Pat Lippai, who is still raising two 17-year-olds.

"They’re our sisters," added Debbie Strong, who has been part of the grandmas' group for about five years. "We adopted them."

A kid-friendly social about a year ago at the Winnipeg Convention Centre cleared $9,000 and the grannies went on the craft-sale circuit to bolster than amount. They made it official and formed a charitable group called Grannies Gone Global.

Then, last summer, the group’s coordinator Chris Penner linked up with a new grandmothers’ group in Kampala and travelled there to dole out the cash to women with sustainable projects to pitch.

"It’s like micro-loans, except we’re not asking for the money back," said Penner, the former vice-principal of St. John’s High School in the heart of the North End.

Penner is now the assistant superintendent of the Interlake School Division.

Most women wanted pigs or chickens they could raise to create a steady source of income, but others bought a treadle sewing machine to sew clothes for sale. Another woman bought a market stall to resell baby clothes, which netted her an extra $32 a month. One almost-blind, 86-year-old grandmother raising 15 grandchildren started a business selling charcoal, commonly used as cooking fuel.

The extra $4 or $6 a week helps the Ugandan grannies buy food, clothing and, most importantly, pay school tuition. That was a surprise for many of the North End grannies — that the only way to get an education in Kampala is to pony up hefty school fees.

Penner said an 8X10 group photo of the North End grannies hangs on the wall of nearly every home she visited in Uganda.

The North End grannies are now turning their attention to Northern Manitoba, where they hope to offer help to grandmothers on remote reserves.

But they also want to nurture their ties with Uganda. At their monthly meetings at the high school, the North End grannies have a coin jar to raise money to fund snacks and drinks at the monthly granny meetings in Kampala.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

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