03/20/2012 12:47 EDT | Updated 05/20/2012 05:12 EDT

Winnipeg retiree helps less fortunate as a volunteer in Mexico

CHICXULUB, Mexico - She's sometimes called St. Sharon of Chicxulub.

Sharon Helgason, a retired nursing administrator from Winnipeg, cringes when she hears that term from Canadians and Americans in this small town near Merida, in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

The energetic advocate for the needy, who founded the Chicxulub Food Bank in 2005 and other aid programs, has also been talked about as "Sharon Helgason and the Canadians" because she has inspired retired Canadians to volunteer in this part of Mexico.

Some arrive in late fall or early winter dragging extra luggage filled with clothing, knitting, school and Christmas gift items.

Every month Helgason and a team of volunteers from across Canada, distribute food bags containing beans, rice, cooking oil, sugar, powdered milk, pasta, salt, cookies, and detergent to about 90 families who line up outside The Bamboo Club, a Chicxulub restaurant. Vitamins are given to babies and children under 10.

The goal of the non-profit food bank, which has no affiliation to any church or government, is to provide a better future for the community's poor children and their families.

The project has mushroomed since Helgason, with the help of a Mexican woman, Rita Sanchez Hidalgo Morales, launched the food bank seven years ago.

The needy families, who have been screened, are supported by members of Adopt-A-Family who donate $75 a year to support the program.

More than 200 American cruise ship passengers, whose trip itinerary includes helping others, have been supplying her with school supplies since 2007 when they found her name and mission online thanks to Google and Trip Advisor.

When their ships dock in Progreso, they disembark with filled backpacks and carry-alls. Helgason meets them and takes them on school tours to Chicxulub.

The variety of programs Helgason has launched since she retired in 2000 to Yucatan's northwest is impressive.

She has helped countless faces to light up every Christmas when hampers are given out and each family on the list gets at least one warm blanket for the winter.

The vitamin project, funded by a Winnipeg friend of Helgason's, was started because of the high incidence of malnutrition in the community.

Helgason cannot forget hearing about a boy named Jonathan who told a teacher he was lucky if his one meal a day was a wiener.

"I know that still goes on," she says.

Seniors' programs are continuing at a Progreso nursing home where Helgason first started to volunteer in 2001.

A newborn baby program ensures that mothers receive donated baby clothes, including quilts made by a Winnipeg woman, as well as formula and vitamins for the first six months.

Children look forward to Saturday baseball camps and activity groups where they learn English every winter when Canadians come to volunteer.

"This will help children become better prepared for future work situations," she says.

Helgason also started a school psychology program in 2008 that includes workshops for parents on violence and bullying and a program on sexuality for Grades 5 and 6.

"They most often get their sex education on the street or somebody's computers," she says.

And thanks to her and the donations from Canadians, students are now going to elementary school with shoes and uniforms.

On her to-do list are clinics to supply preventive dental care and programs for back care, as well as a regular craft fair to showcase native handicrafts in the town square.

One of the greatest needs now, she says, is to find permanent funding for the school psychology program — a cost of $7,000 a year.

Her biggest goal is for the Chicxulub people to accept their program as their own. Then Helgason would step back to do fundraising.

Her energy is enviable.

She walks six kilometres twice a week from Chicxulub to a Progreso nursing home to lead its daily chair exercise classes that she developed in 2001.

"She just goes and goes non-stop. As long as she is doing something for someone, she seems to re-energize herself," says long-time colleague, Karen Evans of Winnipeg, who has known Helgason for 30 years. She is job shadowing Helgason on a cruise ship day with a group from Alabama so she can learn how to do the job when her friend is busy at something else.

Helgason had plenty of sleepless nights in the beginning worrying about how she was going to pay for the food bank and other projects, but funding has always seemed to fall into place — something that she refers to as "someone is working magic somewhere."

Ten couples from Ottawa who wintered in neighbouring condos, and her sister and husband, were her first sponsors and have continued their support.

A surprise phone call in the early going made Helgason feel more certain that her ideas would work. The call came from a woman in Toronto who said, "We have heard about your mission and we want to give you $2,000."

It was a daughter-in-law of Dr. Andrew Simone, founder of Canadian Food for Children, a charity that collects funds and food for starving children around the world.

Simone, his wife and daughter-in-law came down with three suitcases full of donations and wanted to meet the poor.

He offered his help and to continue with financial donations.

When he asked her what her answer would be if he could do one thing to make her mission better, her reply was, "To be able to issue tax receipts (to donors)."

Simone granted her wish through his organization.


—Suzanne Bourret is a Canadian freelance writer.

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