Saturday, December 15, 2007

The true spirit of giving

MUN grad experiences the true spirit of giving - by Heidi Wicks, Special to The Telegram, St Johns, NL, Canada

Memorial University graduate Gioia Montevecchi is not spending Christmas at home sipping Purity syrup this year. Instead, she’ll be trading the snow for sand, giving instead of receiving. Montevecchi is a participant of the CIDA/IYIP (Canadian International Development Agency/ International Youth Internship Program) in conjunction with MUN’s Marine Institute (MI). The program links a Canadian organization with one in a developing country on development projects in various sectors, funds the project and appoints teams within both organizations to work together towards completion. Most projects are based on aquaculture in rural communities and focus particularly on providing sustainable training to non-traditional learners. To date, MI has secured more than 85 funded projects in over 35 countries. “CIDA has been a dream of mine for several years now,” Montevecchi explains, “so when I was accepted for this competitive internship placement, I knew I would do all I could to fully embrace the experience.” And she’s not just saying that. Instead of travelling in her spare time, like many participants would do, Montevecchi (along with friends Fran Leigh and Alexa Ridgeway) has partnered with local non-profit organization Epic Arts CafĂ©, which promotes inclusion, social integration and community regeneration through the transformative power of creativity. Montevecchi’s team will produce educational enhancements in the form of a card game, designed to help deaf children in Cambodia learn to communicate and interact with their loved ones. The card came will incorporate Khmer Sign Language that children will find fun, accessible and easy to distribute.

Moving experiences
Montevecchi is moved by her experience abroad, emphasizing the value of world awareness. “We travel every few weeks to Kampot Province (south of Cambodia on the gulf of Thailand) to work with the kids at Epic Arts,” Montevecchi says. “My first experience there left me speechless. Epic Arts Cafe is a tiny little cafe in Kampot, below their dance studio, that exhibits art and crafts the kids have created. Many of the hearing impaired kids are talented break dancers. The staff at the cafe are five deaf individuals who are so inspiring and eager to teach anyone who walks through the door a little bit of Cambodian sign language. They gave us a sign name as soon as we arrived that first day and are so excited to see us back ever since. There is only one series of books on the Cambodian sign language, only available to those lucky enough to attend school. Our aim is to develop a children’s card game that will encourage learning among children and families that will be available to anyone interested. The money earned from the game will go back into the cafe. We have already developed the game and completed taking pictures of all the signs we would like to include with the kids from the centre. Now we need to start getting it together, but need to find some sponsors to help pay for the development of the game.” The CIDA has helped Montevecchi exercise her passion to work in the international development field, particularly with a focus on empowerment in women. Her goal is to leave something sustainable in the rice-fish integration project (on which she is working in her internship placement). “I’ve found that what I often see as the smallest of steps can be the biggest successes within this organization,” she says, “even just working with them on their budgets, organization, or time-management skills can be so important, especially when partnering with a Canadian organization that has such different cultural concepts — the concept of time is very different in Cambodia and was one of the biggest adjustments for me when I first arrived.”

Spring hope
As for her little-big pet project, Montevecchi’s hope is that she and her colleagues can get it off the ground and put some of the games into print before she returns home at the end of March. “Cambodia is so beautiful,” she continues, “and the spirit and resilience of these people in the face of such adversity inspires me every day. I cannot articulate what the experiences have meant to me, only that I have never felt so motivated to do everything I can for them.” As for the sand instead of snow this Christmas? “It’s going to be really hard for me to stay away from my family and friends this Christmas,” she says. “But what this experience has meant to me is the greatest Christmas gift I could ever ask for. These people … when you have the power to hold love above everything else, everything material, what else is it that you really need? They seem to see this so clearly, and it is likely due to the disasters and genocide they have faced. They see so vividly concepts that our societies do not grasp in our ever-so-structured world — work, work, work, rush, rush, rush. We need to stop and be healed, be humbled, be grateful, we need to live more like Cambodians.” Link: Epic Arts.

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