Doing good at Christmas

If you’re anything like me, Christmas creeps up and takes you by surprise every year. It seems like the months between the long and sultry days of Summer and the cold, rainy and dark days of Winter just fly by. I’m often left wondering where my year has gone. My mother often said that the older one gets, the quicker the years go by. But I believe that the years fly by because I do so much. I don’t believe in getting older. Age is a state mind.

For me, the festive season is not only a time to celebrate with family and friends but also to look back over the year to what I’ve achieved and to figure out what challenge I’ll rise to in the year to come. It’s also the magical time for giving.

This year giving for me took the form of filling 100 ‘Christmas stockings’ for underprivileged children aged 1 to 18 in South Africa. The actual shopping for these gifts took place when I visited Cape Town in October. It was a teriffic activity to be part of. It’s thanks to Amor Strauss from Cordaid Urban Matters in Cape Town that I was able to become involved.

Santa’s Shoebox is the organisation that facilitates the giving experience. They also get schools involved since school children in South Africa are given a social responsibility in the school curriculum. The school children decorate a standardised shoebox as part of their social responsibility project and benefactors buy the contents to fill the boxes. Each box has a unique identification number which relates to a specific child. This ensures that a 16yr old doesn’t receive gifts for a 5yr old. The benefactor is given a specific budget to stay within, which quite honestly, is the biggest challenge of all.

Admittedly Amor and I had loads of fun trying to be as original and smart as possible about buying the gifts on a very strict budget. But I suppose the biggest kick for me, was negotiating loads of ‘freebees’ from many department stores when they heard what we were doing. Many thanks go to the management of Edgars, Truworths and Woolworths in Paarl. I do hope the kids enjoy their Christmas gifts as much as we did buying them.

I wish you perspective and a stress free festive season. Look around you and appreciate what you already have and you may realise that you already have everything your heart desires. Happy holidays!

Camping, or is it luxury vs. poverty?

As soon as you start living your dream, your dreams evolve.
When I was a young child and still living in Scotland, camping was all the rage. Or at least, I was led to believe it was. My father would attach a roof rack to our car so that an enormous tent could be placed on the roof and there would still be enough space in the trunk for everything my mother needed to pack. And, let me assure you, we never had to look very far for all the mod cons of home. I’m certain the kitchen sink went along although I have no proof. I do however have the polaroids to prove that a number of evening dresses were packed since my mother would transform into a very elegant princess to go out with my father at night. Come to think of it, my mother probably loved camping as much then, as I love it now. Not very much at all!

The last time I truly enjoyed camping, was when I was in my early twenties and in love with a windsurfer who owned a ‘one and a half man tent’. After all these years, I’m still trying to find the half a man that the tent producer was marketing to. Needless to say, the tent could only be described as cozy.

Remembering my youth, the tent was family sized. It had at least 5 separate rooms, with ‘doors’ which could be zipped up to divide bedrooms from living rooms and kitchens from patios. Holiday snapshots show very happy children in swimming costumes, buckets and spades, sea, beach, caravans and of course jumbo-sized tents. Camping vacations were great fun-filled family times.

Earlier this year I spent 7 days in Cape Town, South Africa with 3 wonderful friends. We had a marvelous time, the weather was perfect and the accommodation was a far cry from the camping sites of my youth. We rented a car and I played tour guide for the week, driving my friends around to see all the beautiful places you expect to see in the Cape, but we also saw the bad and the ugly.

If you’ve ever visited Cape Town, you may have seen the ‘informal settlement’, Khayelitsha. When you drive passed Khayelitsha, you see children of all ages playing football alongside busy roads. There are no sidewalks, just stretches of bone dry soil which turns to mud in the rainy season.  It’s dusty or muddy and the children are dirty and happy. And, fortunately there is still a lot of laughter to be heard. Many older children however, turn to drugs to ‘escape’ the hardship that they live in and regularly skip school as they just don’t see the need.  It’s very easy to become invisible as a child in Khayelitsha; the shanty town, where homes are made from road signs, advertising boards and other scrap metals, leaning against one another for support. Water is often a tap located 5 kilometers from home. There are electricity cables, but that doesn’t mean to say that the people can afford to use it. There are very few mod cons.

“There is more space between the tents and caravans on a European camping site than between those homes,” one of my friends said. “I’m sure my boyfriend’s one and a half man tent was far more comfortable and we know that the ablutions on any Dutch camping site are luxurious by comparison,” I replied.

My friends then realized why I had packed my clothing in a weekend case and had foregone the use of my suitcase to load it with 4 used laptops. I met Lucinda Timoney, a volunteer at LifeXchange in December 2010. Lucinda and LifeXchange’s other volunteers teach young adults simple things like reading, writing and life skills. Adults whom at some stage in their lives have dropped out of school. It became apparent to me that for these volunteers to do an even better job, that they needed equipment to teach computer skills. Fair Chance Foundation has strong links to the NGO Close-the-Gap. Close-the-Gap collects ‘old’ computers from companies and redistributes these to needy organizations around the world. And don’t be concerned, these laptops don’t end up on third world country landfills. Computer equipment is tracked, traced and disposed of correctly. My friends at Close-the-Gap were more than happy to help me and I made LifeXchange the happy owners of 4 laptops. LifeXchange volunteers now teach e-learning and computer skills to their students. It’s really rewarding to hear about their great work and the difference that it makes.

When I went camping in my twenties, the short walk to ablutions for water, the lack of electricity and general feeling of discomfort, was all part of learning, growing up and getting back to basics. I now realize that the camping sites of my youth can be considered 5 star by many people’s standards;  getting a basic education is not guaranteed; and, electricity and water should not be taken for granted.

Every little bit that we do counts, Often it’s linking people to people in our networks, calling in a favour, or just rolling up our sleeves and getting the job done. In the words of Mother Teresa, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”

Let’s make waves! Namasté.

A change is as good as a holiday

As soon as you start living your dream, your dreams evolve.
Summer in Europe sees droves of people flocking to warmer climes. Absolutely anywhere is better than the country that they live in. They need a change of environment, a change of culture, a change of language and preferably a major change in temperature. People around me choose hotels and resorts off the web, generally taking total stranger’s word for it that their destination will be just what they want to it be….. Heaven on earth. And if they are lucky and everything has panned out the way they planned, they return after two to three weeks, relaxed, tanned and happy.

This need for change in Summer has always amused me. Not because I’m not in favour of change but, because this need for change generally only occurs around vacation time. At any other time of the year try shouting out the words reorganisation, change management or new strategic vision and the announced change is not embraced in quite the same way. There’s change and there’s ‘change’, if you know what I mean.

Am I the only person that loves change?

My most recent change was to ‘celebrate life’ on my birthday. I’d just not been seeing the necessity of celebrating my birthday. I mean, this phenomenon of becoming a year older sounds as bad to me, as any major company reshuffle does to my colleagues.

The next change was to celebrate life, on the actual day of my birthday, with family, friends, acquaintances and a total stranger. Yes, you read it correctly……..a total stranger.

And, the final change, was to ensure that no one would bring me presents. Any ‘presents’ would be donated to charity.

I had a fantastic time and I know my guests did too, as they are still talking about the ‘life celebration’ amongst themselves. The total stranger I invited presented her company to us; Love, Peace and Chocolate. A company driven to satisfy the sweet tooth of its clients’ whilst supporting SOS Children’s Villages. A deliciously charitable initiative, and, one to make any choc-o-holic smile! 50% of my generous ‘present’ was donated to Pink Ribbon. Did you know that one in eight of the women that you know may develop breast cancer? Therefore, a more than worthy initiative? And the other 50% was donated to my personal favourite, Hope Village.

So, if celebrating yet another birthday sounds as good to you as root canal treatment or a company merger, try arranging a ‘celebration of life’. I can assure you, “a change is as good as a holiday”.