VOLUNTEERS DON’T SET UP SUCCESSION PLANS by Jim Taylor.
In case you missed it, last week was National Volunteer Week. What, nobody volunteered to tell you? I’m hardly surprised. Volunteering typically occurs in the background, unseen, unnoticed. Only aspiring politicians publicize their volunteer activities.
And yet an estimated 2.7 million Canadians contribute close to two billion hours of volunteer service every year. Without volunteers, every charity in the country would grind to a standstill. Non-profits would generate deficits. Hospitals, health clinics, airports — all use volunteers to ease your passage through their premises.
At this time of year, I think particularly of a volunteer who has changed the lives of 45 single-mother families in Bolivia, the poorest nation in South America.
The women had been the wives of miners at a tin mine, in Oruro, high in the Andes. Then the world price of tin crashed. The mine closed. In that machismo culture, the miners abandoned their wives and left for new jobs — and new families — elsewhere.
A volunteer from Save the Children Canada found the women, penniless and starving, on the streets of Cochabamba. All up and down the Andes, women know how to knit. The Canadian organized a group of them into a knitting cooperative, called Minkha — which means, in the local Quechua language, “women working together.”
A NEW VOLUNTEER TAKES OVER
The cooperative had been going for ten years when Beverley Edwards-Sawatzky first attended a sale of their sweaters in 2001. She fell in love with the quality of the knitting and the concept of the project. The next year, she flew to Bolivia, at her own expense. to meet the knitters personally and to make sure that income was really going to the knitters, not to invisible marketing agencies.
Since then, she has organized annual sales of Bolivian sweaters in Edmonton, Calgary, Cranbrook, and most recently here in Lake Country. The sales have forwarded close to a million dollars to the Bolivian knitters. It sounds like a lot of money, but Edwards-Sawatzky calculates that the knitters actually earn about $1.64 an hour. The most skilled knitters may earn as much as $300 a month, after the costs of their wool and other supplies.
It`s not much. But as Edwards-Sawatzky points out, “In one generation, they have gone from total poverty to owning and operating their own business.”
Unlike most other charities, no Canadian gets paid. No one. Nothing. Every penny earned in these sales goes to the women who knit the sweaters. In their homes, on the streets, on a bus, their needles never stop.
Renowned clothing designer Kaffe Fassett was so impressed by the quality of Minkha work that he personally donated some of his exclusive patterns to the women.
In Canada, the sweaters — for men and children as well as women — typically sell for up to $250 each. “It sounds expensive,” admits Edwards-Sawatzky, “but in Canada it would cost that much just to buy the alpaca wool.”
Other items like scarves, shawls, and children’s sweaters sell as low as $40 to $70.
In addition to alpaca, the women also knit garments using Peruvian pima cotton, which Edwards-Sawatzky calls “the Cadillac of cottons.”
“When I used to knit for the Bolivian people,” recalls Alcida Callejas Quevedo, “my payment would buy two pounds of sugar. With the payment from Canada, I could buy 104 pounds of sugar!”
Another woman, Yola Nina Leon, was pregnant with her first daughter when she began knitting with the Minkha Cooperative 18 years ago. That first daughter is now training as a nurse. Her second daughter plans to
become a human rights lawyer.
Another knitter’s son recently graduated as a doctor, and has come back to serve the people of Cochabamba.
NO ONE TO TAKE OVER
But after 16 years, even the most dedicated volunteers run out of steam. And therein lies the weakness of the volunteer movement. In my experience, volunteers rarely train successors. I don’t know whether it’s because, as unpaid workers, they don’t consider themselves essential to the enterprise. Or because they’re so busy doing worthwhile tasks that they don’t have time to mentor someone else to take over.
You need an umbrella organization of some kind that takes on the task of maintaining a pool of volunteers.
The result, in this case, is that this will be the last public sale of Bolivian sweaters. Edwards-Sawatzky simply cannot carry on indefinitely.
Unless someone else — or some on-going organization — takes the Bolivian women under their wing.
The final sale will be held at Winfield United Church in Lake Country, 3751 Woodsdale Road, on May 13, between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.
Copyright ? 2017 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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