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Guest blog by Lisa Letwin

Philanthropy, the Power of Possibility

I signed up to be a part of a group of women from across Canada, called Women UNlimited who are making a difference in the world through a partnership with UNICEF. I didn't realize I would find myself in a group of women who would be auspiciously referred to as philanthropists. I obviously knew that we would be giving money to an internationally acclaimed charity organization, but I hadn’t taken ownership of the word, nor realized the power of possibility the word possessed.

Ghana, October 2019 was the first field trip for UNICEF Canada’s Women UNlimited four-year journey.

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[© Jennifer Thompson]

Honestly, I didn’t know what I was getting into. It seemed appealing to help children, especially at a time when I was questioning my life and the overall meaning of it all. But nothing could have prepared me for the actual experience of going to Ghana with five other like-minded Canadian women and two representatives from UNICEF Canada.

My fellow travelers were brave, wholehearted and highly intelligent women from across Canada, Allison, Jen T, Jen R, Cristina and Raegan. We were shepherded by our nimble and gifted UNICEF Canada representatives Linton and Teri, and together the eight of us experienced something that I can only describe as the most life-changing trip of my life.

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[© Elio Stamm]

After a brief attempt at acclimatization in Accra, we were whisked off to the most rural parts of Northern Ghana. By this time we had gathered other insightful, experienced people onto our team, members from UNICEF Tamale and UNICEF Accra. Together we travelled for four days in perfectly synchronized unison in five white SUVs over miles of copper colored, undulating dirt roads in and out of remote communities.

The power of possibility in observing

As the hours passed in the back of the SUV, bouncing through gulches and gullies, in between visiting rural villages and meetings with the King, Chiefs and community leaders, the puzzle pieces started to click into place.

We were there to see first hand the barriers to adolescent girls completing an education in the Northern Region of Ghana; and endeavoring to eradicate these barriers through our philanthropic contributions.  The girls can’t go to school if there are systemic issues like no water, hygiene or sanitation, lack of child protection, pregnancy and menstrual issues preventing them.  

I realized, it is one thing to intellectually understand these issues while say watching a social issues documentary on Netflix, but quite another to feel the searing heat of the scorched earth, burning your feet through your shoes while holding young hands and gazing into children’s eyes.

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[© Elio Stamm]

Bearing witness is not always easy.  On our first day in the field we visited a health facility and sat knee-to-knee, with young girls, huddled together, cradling babies and pregnant bellies, listening as they shared, sometimes with unbearable anguish, about how they got here, and how desperate they were to continue their education.

At first, I felt incapable of confronting the realities of these young girls’ lives, the abject poverty, and the unspeakable heartbreaking consequences. I could hardly look into their brave, yearning eyes. These girls were resilient, stronger than me.

Although their pain was palpable, they inspired me, and eventually I shared my own adolescent menstrual challenges and in that moment, I remembered we are more the same than we are different.

The power of possibility in listening

As we rolled through several remote communities always greeted by music, dancing and celebration, I started to understand and see the difference that UNICEF was making on the ground.

We were able to visit communities that had proudly built latrines, water sources, schools and safe spaces. We witnessed young girls thriving in math and sciences; innovation; and open discussions about real behavioral issues that were holding them back.

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[© Elio Stamm]

Change is slow, but I felt hope and optimism that what we are doing with UNICEF will help adolescent girls access education, and in doing so enable them to help their communities prosper.

The power of possibility in giving

As we headed back to Accra, the field trip coming to a close, the systemic puzzle pieces falling into place and the connections between us women from Canada and with those we met solidified, I remembered Melinda Gates profound words:

“When you lift up women, you lift up humanity.”

I am proud to be one of six philanthropists, of the larger group of female philanthropists from across Canada who had the opportunity and privilege of this experience with Women UNlimited and UNICEF Canada, to visit Ghana and see first hand the power of possibility in adolescent girls’ education.

Our lives, and with hope and love, those we met, are lifted.