Woodstock charity goes global
Some people regularly head to the beach or the mountains for their summer getaway. Kristin Choitz, Woodstock, has journeyed to the African country of Zambia for hers, and it’s not just for fun.
As a child she was drawn to the culture and geography of Africa that she learned about in school. Finally, in 2008, she had the opportunity to go to Zambia as part of a mission trip to build an orphanage. Since then, she has returned every summer.
“I knew then that I was being called to do something more,” she said. “What I saw were women and children who were either affected or infected by HIV/AIDS.”
With a 78 percent unemployment rate, Zambia — a former British Colony once known as Northern Rhodesia — cannot sustain the family support costs of women whose husbands have died of AIDS. Nor can it absorb the expense of women and children cast out because they are an inconvenience.
“By the time of my 2009 visit, I started to make ground connections in Zambia,” Kristin said. “Women were learning new trades such as making jewelry and basket-weaving, but we needed to connect with more structure.”
From Woodstock, she founded the faith-based organization Extending Hands and partnered with a Zambian group called Community for Human Development. Together they found marketing outlets for the women’s goods and made arrangements for selling them in the United States.
By 2010, Kristin, with the help of her husband, Ben, registered Extending Hands as a Non-Government Organization in Zambia — comparable to a nonprofit organization in the United States — pulled together a local board of directors and acquired 501(c))3 status here so donations to the group may qualify as tax deductions.
This summer, Kristin was joined by four other women from McHenry County for the full three-week trip and her husband for the last week. They held a two-day seminar for women in the city of Lusaka. The theme was abuse: defining it, recognition of the symptoms and how to avoid having it affect women’s self-images.
The group also provided a sewing training session. A professional teacher taught the women how to sew. His salary and the cost of the machines were made possible by a monetary donation from members of Grace Lutheran Church in Woodstock.
“Women are treated like property in Zambia and are still being regularly beaten and raped,” Kristin said. “We are not there just to meet their physical and practical needs but those that are more emotional and spiritual, too.
“And they are very receptive,” she said. “They looked us in the eyes, told their stories and thanked us for coming.”
Hearing the stories and seeing Kristin’s dedication made it imperative for Ben to join her this year. He needed to see it for himself.
“This need is never going to go away until there is a culture shift in Zambia,” he said. “There must be an establishment of equality between men and women.”
During his visit, he found some men receptive but not very motivated to change. He said there is a very strong economic basis to the problems in Zambia.
With such a high unemployment rate, men are challenged by women being trained to make money — possibly more than their husbands. And the few industries and job opportunities — such as the manufacture of charcoal — are ruining the environment.
“They have killed off all of the wildlife for food and have burned down the trees for charcoal, but they have to eat,” Ben said. “If they are to improve their standard of living, they just have to find other economic means to make a living.”
In Extending Hands’ search for support, Kristin and Ben often hear that people are more inclined to give money and time to address local problems. However, the group sees this as shortsighted.
“We don’t live in a bubble anymore, and we have to deal with worldwide issues,” Kristin said. “The world has become so small, and we cannot pretend that the kind of social support we enjoy in this country is global.”
Ben said help for the people of a country like Zambia is necessary and beneficial to the economy of the United States. He pointed to the fact that several countries, such as China, have drastically improved their situations through the development of trade with other countries.
“If a middle class were developed in Zambia, it would create a whole new market for Western goods,” he said. “This would benefit our local business community immensely.”
To further their commitment, Extending Hands will hold a fundraiser entitled “Under One Sky” from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 30, at the Gardens of Woodstock on Swanson Road. Tickets for the evening cost $30 and include appetizers, beverages and a cash bar. There will also be a silent auction and Zambian jewelry available for sale.
For tickets or information, visit www.extendinghands.org.