The letters came from all over the world. They were from women who had survived war, who wanted to share their stories of recovery with the organization Women for Women International . This week, Mary Baldwin students visiting the program’s Washington headquarters helped sort the correspondence by country — Bosnia, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo — stopping on occasion to read.
The words inspired Holly Johnston, a first-year student from Danville.
“Being able to hold and read the letters from different countries helped me see just how much [Women for Women] changes the lives of these women,” Johnston said. “Some of the letters that they wrote were heartbreaking: stories of how their families had been torn apart from war and the daily struggles to support their families. Yet they were so thankful for the opportunities that Women for Women International was giving them.”
The work was part of a day of service for the students, all members of CGIU: Changemakers for Women — the Mary Baldwin group formed to help support women around the globe.
“The Women for Women staff were very encouraging of these students’ hard work and commitment to helping Women for Women,” said Heather Ward, Mary Baldwin director of international programs.
Accompanied by faculty and staff, they toured the Women for Women offices, stuffed hundreds of sponsorship kits, and met with various members of the organization’s team, including those in charge of grassroots marketing, corporate relations, volunteers, and those sponsorship letters.
“While the women told stories of heartbreak and war,” Johnston noted, “there was a hopefulness intertwined throughout each letter that one day, everything was going to be all right.”
Founded in 1993, Women for Women International aids women in countries where war has devastated the local economy, demolished villages, and torn apart families. Mary Baldwin has a special relationship with the program as it was the first college in the United States to partner with the organization on an ongoing basis. CGIU: Changemakers for Women formed after students attended the inaugural Clinton Global Initiative University, or CGIU, in 2007. Women for Women Executive Director for Global Programs Karen Sherman delivered Mary Baldwin’s 2009 Commencement keynote address.
Although the Changemaker group is small, it has international reach. Last year, the students met their goal to provide vocational skills and human rights education to five women around the globe and are on track to support 10 more women by November.
“[The letters we read] made me realize that every cent matters in trying to help these women get out of the struggle they face,” said Seattle native Mawa Ali, also a first-year student at Mary Baldwin. “They really brought the names of women like Elis and Adel to life. One woman talked about her son’s death during the war in Bosnia, but also how her family and the sponsorship are helping her through tough times.”
Among the Mary Baldwin students on the trip was Berra Kabarungi , former program director for Women for Women’s office in Rwanda. Ward said students shrieked with excitement when they saw photos of Kabarungi around the Washington office, including one with Hillary Clinton.
During lunch, the Mary Baldwin contingent heard from Agnes Umunna, who talked about her work with women in her native Liberia and child soldiers. The radio journalist and author of And Still Peace Did Not Come — a biographical account of the civil war in her home country — also spoke at Mary Baldwin in 2008.
“The trip re-energized me for this semester,” Johnston said, “and for the upcoming school year.”