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Joan Kelley Weisshaar Walker Headshot

A Humanitarian in High Heels

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Ladies, I want to talk to you about your feet. Where they take you, and how the journeys you encounter all come down to how you got there.

I have the privilege of authoring a chapter of the latest book in the series Making it in Heels. I write about the challenges I face as a professional woman in Toronto. I can boldly say I have the means to live the life I dreamed of, but I've been using my feet to take me to places that expose me to the difficult realities of humanity and the reasons we as Canadian women have the power to change so many lives, just by our walk.

I have been to six countries with an NGO, five of them in Africa. My most recent trip was to Mozambique. A defining moment was meeting an HIV-positive woman named Artemisa whose husband had recently died of disease, leaving her with seven children. The straw hut in which they lived was smaller than my closet at home and full of leaks and holes in the walls and roof. The NGO I was travelling with had stepped in to help and had built the family a new home with luxuries like a cement floor, a door, screen windows and mosquito nets.

Artemisa had a few dishes and some livestock. The family had gone from desolate to hopeful because aid workers were able to identify that Artemisa desperately needed help and they were able to give basic necessities so some quality of life was returned. It is amazing to see positive change in action, especially when the need is so raw.

My family now sponsors more than 20 kids through World Vision. I was able to meet two of them in Rwanda where, to this day, you can't find an young adult or older person who has not somehow been devastated by the genocide. The country is still recovering from the unthinkable brutality that took place. It is harsh and shocking to hear what people had to endure. One of my sponsored children, Dina was not even born at the time of the genocide and she has quite a story. Her father was a police officer and was "expected" to kill his own wife and children because he had married a woman from a different tribe. Not being able to bring himself to do it, he instead killed himself. His pregnant wife sought refuge with her husband's family who kept her tied up and raped and beat her repeatedly. Somehow she survived but was left HIV positive and with spinal damage so she can't carry things on her head as most African women do, making it very difficult for her to find work and care for her family.

It is amazing what the human spirit can endure. My sponsored girl, Dina, was the baby born shortly after the genocide ended. She was 10 years old when we met, dressed in a pretty yellow dress and very excited to meet her sponsor. We bonded, to say the least. Years have passed since I met Dina. This past Christmas I had a beautiful card from her with a simple message "to my sponsor, I love you, I will never forget you." The card sits on my desk as a reminder of Dina and how life would be different if our roles were reversed. When I get frazzled at the hectic pace that we keep and tell my kids for the third time to get off their video games, I remember how blessed I am. I sometimes wonder what Dina is doing in the quiet of Rwanda when she has time on her hands to think. She has grown into a young woman now and the fact that she still loves me and thinks of me is the reason for all of us to stand up and do something.

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Good Friday and the Rwandan Genocide
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