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Five questions with change-maker: Letha Sandison

Sunday, December 19, 2010 by Marianne Elliott

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Maggie Doyne and Letha Sandison

Letha Sandison and I have known each other online for more than four years, and I’ve watched with deep admiration as she has built Wrap Up Africa, which is – as far as I know – the only NGO focused on improving access to treatment for pediatric cancer in Africa.

Wrap Up Africa’s mission is to ‘provide hope, empowerment and support to Ugandan families struggling with cancer.’

This year I finally met Letha in person, and knew I had found a kindred spirit and a friend for life. Letha brings a beautiful balance of  heart/compassion and head/clarity in her approach to her life and work, a balance that I believe is essential for effective service, social change and enterprise.

Wrap Up Africa clothingWith Wrap Up Africa Letha has developed a hybrid (combining sustainable entreprise with social support) approach to poverty eradication and health program support. The entreprise part of the model is a line of fashion clothing and works by creating jobs through local partnerships.The clothing is beautiful (see the photo on the left and check out the website), and Letha and her team have gone to significant lengths to ensure that the entire production process supports the local textile industry.

I’m thrilled that Letha agreed to answer my five questions for change-makers and I’m really looking forward to our live Twitter chat (Monday 20.00 GMT, 15.00 EST, 12.00 PST or Tuesday 09.00 NZ, 07.00 NSW) – more details on that below.

What is it that breaks your heart?

It breaks my heart that today where you live often determines if you live.  The children that have cancer in African would have a 75% better chance of survival if they had been born somewhere like the US or Europe.  It is so difficult for me to reconcile that there really are two different worlds we live in.

I can not imagine being a mother in a place like Uganda, watching my child suffer and grow more ill with each passing day (the tumors we typically see have a 24 hour doubling time so you can literally see the kids getting worse) and feeling powerless to help.  I want to help the children have the best chance possible to fight their cancer.

What fills you with hope/joy?

Wrap Up Africa childrenI am filled with joy when I play with the children and hear them laugh.  They have a deep wisdom that I think often arises when one is confronted with a life threatening disease.  They all have such wonderful goals for their lives and want to be doctors, teachers and nurses.

I really think that these kids could be the ones to help create lasting change in their countries if we can help them survive.  They understand what is really  important.

I also love sitting with the tailors while they are working and just talking with them, listening to their stories and thoughts on Africa. There is something so primal about a group of women sitting together and sewing. I often think about how far back this tradition stretches and feel connected to all the women before me.  I have learned so much by sitting and listening and just being with these ladies.

What are you doing about it?

Wrap Up Africa tailorsWe are working hard to create a market for our clothes.  They are beautiful and I am so proud of how far the tailors have come!  Ultimately we hope to generate enough funds from sales to pay for the care of all children who cannot afford it.  We want our treatment programs to be self funded so that they are protected and secure.

While we work towards this goal we are seeking help to get at least 365 children into care by the end of March.  That is less than half the children who need treatment.

In addition to building our brand we are working hard to raise awareness about cancer in Africa.  We have been working with the global cancer community and speaking around the world on the issue and about our programs.  We are also launching our treatment program and our education/outreach program which hopes to identify cases earlier, teaching people about what cancer is and how is causes illness and where to seek treatment and finally to help support children in getting access to the treatment they need.

How did you get started doing this?

In March 2007, I visited Uganda with my husband, who works with children with HIV and malaria. As I walked through the pediatric cancer ward, I was astonished by what I saw.  Families were living all over the grounds, sleeping outside, huddling against the building for shelter for months at a time.

Parents and children had come from all over Uganda and as far as Congo and Rwanda for care at the hospital, but the care is costly and there is virtually no aid available. Parents would often have to decide whether to use their savings to pay for chemotherapy for one child while they had other children to feed at home.  Wrap Up Africa was born on that trip and I have been advocating for these families since.

What do you do to take care of yourself and to make sure your work is personally sustainable?

I think this is a challenge we all face.  I admit I am not always good at it and in fact am just exiting a period where I completely neglected self-care for about six months.  I find that I am pretty inconsistent when busy and tend to sacrifice taking care of myself.  I am working to be better about striking a balance and keeping myself from getting so run down that finally my body revolts and I get sick.

I try to meditate each morning. I really love it and don’t know why I let myself skip it when busy!

I have a 27-minute practice that I do that really helps me and when I am consistent with it has a transformational effect on my mental state, stress levels and overall well-being. I also keep a journal and love a good long bath with a book.  Finally, I have really great girlfriends.  I feel so blessed to have a group of friends that is so loyal, helpful and willing to be there when needed.

Do you have any advice for someone who dreams of doing what you do?

The best advice I can give is to just do it.  I really believe that if one is passionate about something, willing to make personal sacrifice, can bring love and presence to their work (even when times get tough…and they will) and most importantly never give up then anything is possible.  I try to view obstacles as opportunities and remember there is always a way forward and often through challenges I have been lead to better solutions.

We are all capable of using our gifts to make an impact no matter what scale or where that impact occurs it is a wonderful thing when people decide to engage. There is nothing special about me, if I can do it then anyone can!

What can people do to help?

Wrap Up Africa childrenOne way to help is to buy our products at wrapupafrica.com. Another is to help us with our Chemo for Christmas fundraising event.

We are seeking to get 365 children into treatment in Uganda and Ethiopia by the end of March.

You can make a donation through our website.

It would be great if people can donate either a flat rate or sign up to donate $25 a month or spread the cost of treatment for one child ($1000) over the year by signing up for a $85 dollar a month donation. It would also be great if people are willing to help spread the word and forward our newsletter or website to friends and family.  The more people who help the easier it will be to reach our goal of 365 children in care.

How you can help

Make a donation – if you (alone or together with friends) can donate $85 per month you will be providing treatment for one child with cancer.

Spread the word – write a blog post, or send an email to your friends and family. Or support Wrap Up Africa by connecting with them through social media and then helping spread the word.

Follow Wrap Up Africa on Twitter

Like Wrap Up Africa on Facebook

Live Twitter chat with Letha Sandison

If you have any questions at all for Letha – and I can think of hundreds even after spending days on end with her in Amsterdam this year – then you can chat live with Letha and I during my last Zen Peacekeeper chat for 2010 next Monday (Tuesday in NZ/Australia)

When: Monday 20.00 GMT, 15.00 EST, 12.00 PST or Tuesday 09.00 NZ, 07.00 NSW

Where: Twitter!

How: To join the chat you need to have a Twitter account (if you are new to Twitter you might want to check out my free Zen Peacekeeper Guide to Twitter). We use the hashtag #zpchats for our Zen Peacekeeper chats. All you have to do to join in is send a tweet using that hashtag. If you like, you can direct your question to Letha (@LethaSandison) or to me (@zenpeacekeeper), but you don’t have to. As long as you include the #zpchats tag we’ll see it and Letha will respond. Sometimes I also jump in with responses if I think I have something useful to add, or if I just can’t keep quiet…

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2 Responses to "Five questions with change-maker: Letha Sandison"

  1. Leana says:

    Lovely interview. The work Letha and WUA is doing is so important. Very inspiring!

  2. […] forget we have a live Twitter chat with the amazing Letha Sandison today in my last Zen Peacekeeper chat for […]

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