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(Jérôme Mireault For The Globe and Mail)
(Jérôme Mireault For The Globe and Mail)

The gift in giving

Christine Penner: ‘Even those who feel powerless can enact positive change’ Add to ...

What inspires people to give? And what do they get out of it? We asked readers to tell us about people who make a real difference in their community, then asked experts in the science of altruism how their generosity pays off for more than just those they set out to help.

In the summer of 2005, the busy vice-principal of a school in Winnipeg’s north end decided to devote part of her time off to visiting the homes of every student in Grade 7 or 8. There were 459 of them, and Christine Penner was shocked to find that more than half of her charges lived below the poverty line.

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What saddened her more, however, was the overwhelming number who were in the care of their grandmothers – the parents weren’t really in the picture. “There were a lot of social concerns,” Ms. Penner says.

A few months later, she had the exhausted grandmother of a very difficult child in her office, and asked the woman if she’d like to go for coffee sometime. On a whim, she approached two others, who jumped at the chance to discuss trying to raise kids in a cash-strapped community and at an age when, Ms. Penner says, “they don’t necessarily have the health or energy levels they used to.”

When the time came, she adds, “they chatted like long-lost friends ... and decided to meet again,” and even more grandmothers joined in.

That was the genesis of Grannies Gone Global, which has grown to 40 members. “Many live below the poverty line,” says Ms. Penner, 51, “but they came to me and said they wanted to start fundraising for their African sisters.”

In the past five years, they have raised $30,000 through Christmas craft sales to help grandmothers in Uganda. Buoyed by that success, they turned to raising funds for communities closer to home. A visit to the Fisher River First Nation more than 200 kilometres north of Winnipeg led to the creation of another grandmother group, along with a third in southern Manitoba near the U.S. border.

Now, there are plans to expand into Haiti. “I’m truly humbled at how one conversation in my office ... ended up in an international aid organization,” Ms. Penner says of the group, which became a registered charity in 2011. “Grannies Gone Global proves even those who feel powerless can enact positive change.”

As for herself, Ms. Penner, who is being promoted to superintendent of schools in the Interlake region next year, says that “I’ve always had a heart for the underprivileged and a real passion for humanity.

“Any time you can help build self-confidence and self-esteem in people – and try to do what you can to lift people out of poverty – is very rewarding. The African grandmas have told us nobody has ever thought of us forgotten grandmas here in Uganda.”

Positive outcomes

Ms. Penner’s story demonstrates the power of good relationships (or “high-quality connections,” as positive psychologists call them): the ability of like-minded people to energize each other and achieve great things. Positive relationships do this by helping people grow, learn and create. Together, the grannies are not only eager to make a difference but capable of doing so.

– The Canadian Positive Psychology Association

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