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Grandmothers of steel: Victoria group gears up for annual 275km charity cycle

Victoria Grandmothers for Africa raises money for grandmothers in 15 sub-Saharan African countries hit by AIDS pandemic

By Emily Vance
September 9, 2022
Community
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Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Grandmothers of steel: Victoria group gears up for annual 275km charity cycle

Victoria Grandmothers for Africa raises money for grandmothers in 15 sub-Saharan African countries hit by AIDS pandemic

By Emily Vance
Sep 9, 2022
Submitted
Submitted
Community
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Grandmothers of steel: Victoria group gears up for annual 275km charity cycle

Victoria Grandmothers for Africa raises money for grandmothers in 15 sub-Saharan African countries hit by AIDS pandemic

By Emily Vance
September 9, 2022
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Grandmothers of steel: Victoria group gears up for annual 275km charity cycle

If you find yourself on the Island Highway between Sept. 9 and 11, you may catch a glimpse of a group of cyclists on their way south for an annual 275km ride. They’re not your average bikers, though: they are a group of women aged 55 and over, and they’ve been training for months to make this journey.

Though some ride for the love of it, and some for the health benefits, each stroke of their pedals is also dedicated to communities of women across the globe—ones they’ve never met, but that many feel a deep personal connection to. The group is Victoria Grandmothers for Africa (VG4A), and they are part of an international movement known as the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign. 

The campaign raises money for grandmothers across the African continent who have become primary caregivers to their grandchildren, or other children, whose parents have died from the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Grandmothers to Grandmothers was started by the Stephen Lewis Foundation in 2006, and has grown to include 170 grandmother groups across Canada. They also have chapters in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Since its inception, the campaign has raised $36 million, supporting grassroots and community-based organizations led by women in 15 countries across sub-Saharan Africa.

Victoria Grandmothers for Africa at Mile Zero in Victoria. Photo: Jane Player (Submitted)

Lisbie Rae is the chair of the communications team for the VG4A. She joined an Ontario branch of Grandmothers to Grandmothers in 2007 after hearing Stephen Lewis speak about how the AIDS epidemic was impacting countries, communities, and families in Africa. 

“I was so moved, and so touched by the position of women, in particular grandmothers, in Africa who had to bury their own children who died of AIDS, and then turn around and they had multiple grandchildren, who were depending on them,” Rae said.

The projects supported by Grandmothers to Grandmothers are all led at the local level. That way, communities are empowered to create the solutions that best work for them. Their partners across Africa work on projects that range from programs that support youth empowerment to providing childcare and support services for vulnerable community members.

“They have all the ideas, they know what has to be done, because it's their community, their families,” Rae said.

Lisbie Rae with Ida Mukuka Nambeya, Senior Advisor to the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign, visiting from Zambia. Photo: Submitted

Rae travelled to Swaziland in 2010 for a conference of grandmothers from across sub-Saharan Africa. It was an experience she described as “totally life-changing.” She described watching the exchange of ideas take place between community leaders, as women shared strategies on a range of issues, from reducing elder abuse to increasing political advocacy and representation of women in local government.

“I was heartbroken for some of their stories, but also totally inspired by the solutions that they're finding, and by their sheer determination to make life better for their grandchildren and for other children,” Rae said.

The Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign is guided by three central tenets: awareness, fundraising, and solidarity. The annual bike rides cover all three. Each rider works to create a network of sponsors for their individual ride. In that way, they share the stories of the women they are supporting, and raise money at the same time. In addition, the group hosts a community dinner and silent auction every two years, and members sell crafts at local markets. To date, the Victoria chapter said they have raised over $1 million for the cause. 

The solidarity component of the campaign manifests in several different ways. It’s apparent in the way that Rae speaks about the work they do: with the utmost respect for the women across the globe whose work they support. It’s also immediately apparent in the way that the group of riders trains together and supports each other.

“When we are together, we're unbeatable. We can do anything,” Rae said.

She echoed the sentiment of one woman she met during her Swaziland visit: “when I'm with my grandmother friends, I am a grandmother of steel.”

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Christine Scott is a long-time member of the VG4A, and certainly a grandmother of steel herself. At age 76, this year marks her 15th ride with the group. 

“I feel very grateful that I'm still healthy enough to do it. Not everybody of my age has been privileged that much,” Scott said.

Scott rides for a multitude of reasons, and the friendships forged during the time of training and cycling together are a big part of it. She is particularly excited about the 11 new riders for whom this will be their first ride with the group.

“I look forward to deepening some of the friendships through the riding. Because we're together for three days,” Scott said.

She is a grandmother herself, and while she said she loves the time spent with her seven grandchildren, she is also grateful to be able to take time for herself.

“I'm always very mindful of the fact that our sister grandmothers in Africa don't have that privilege. They’re doing it 24/7,” Scott said.

The solidarity between grandmothers also extends to different chapters of the organization. The night before the race, the VG4A members attend a dinner hosted by the Campbell River branch of Grandmothers to Grandmothers. During the ride, grandmother groups from across Vancouver Island will meet the Victoria riders as they pass through each community. Some stand and wave by the roadside, and others host coffee and snack breaks for the cyclists as they make their way southward.

As the group is composed of 27 riders, they split into three groups for safety and ease of travel. On the first day of the race, they’ll cycle roughly 100km, from Campbell River to Qualicum Beach, where they will stay for the night. The next day’s route runs another 100km, from Qualicum Beach to Chemanius for a second night stopover. The third and final day is a 75km push from Chemainus to Victoria. 

Though the third day is the shortest part of the route, it includes the steepest climb and the one that Rae says is the most difficult: the Cowichan Bay hill. There is a short break, though, when the riders cross over the Saanich inlet via the Mill Bay ferry to avoid the Malahat.

As this race begins, another race is coming to a close: the VG4A hosted a virtual ride from Aug 13-Sept 9, where members have the opportunity to create and carry out their own races.

Members and supporters of VG4A will gather at Mile Zero, the end point of the Campbell River-Victoria race, at 3pm on Sunday, Sept. 11. Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps will lead both the three-day racers and the virtual cyclers in for the finale. The celebration is open to the public, and anyone is welcome to attend.

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Grandmothers of steel: Victoria group gears up for annual 275km charity cycle
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