Part 1 of 3 – Finding the Charity
Many readers are probably already aware of the Quilt Aid Project, which was inaugurated in 2009 to raise money for Ethiopian women suffering from obstetric fistula. Blueberries is again proud to be involved in this worthy and inspiring cause in 2010, and is one of only 12 quilting shops nationally chosen to participate. Midweek Moments recently spoke to Helen Stubbings, one of the founders of the Project, to get some of the background of this amazing story of benevolence intertwined with creativity.
“We had the idea of Quilt Aid before we had the charity,” Helen explains. “We wanted to use what we were already doing (quilting) to somehow help others, and in a way that didn’t really affect people’s pockets or lifestyles. Once we got the idea of Quilt Aid sorted out, we then had to find a charity.”
Selecting the most appropriate charity proved more difficult than anyone had anticipated. Helen trawled through dozens of websites and spoke to all kinds of different people in the quest for a cause that ticked all the right boxes for Quilt Aid’s purposes.
“Primarily we wanted it to be women helping women, or women helping children,” says Helen. “We ended up going through World Vision because we wanted it to be an international thing, something that people from other countries could participate in where we were all helping someone in a common place. If we’d settled on an Australian charity, there was a danger that people from other countries might feel that they should be supporting something in their own back yard rather than in Australia.”
Finally, after an exhaustive search, Helen’s attention came to rest on the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia and the work of Dr Catherine Hamlin. “It was because I happened to see a documentary on the ABC about the hospital and Catherine Hamlin,” Helen says. “It was very moving. I went out read Dr Hamlin’s book, Hospital by the River. It was a very strong, often disturbing, book. World Vision helped to connect us. I started getting their newsletters and learning more about them. I knew then that we’d finally found the right charity for Quilt Aid.”
Tune in to ‘Women Helping Women’ next week to find out about the work of the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital and Dr Catherine Hamlin.
The Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia
Part 2 of 3 – The Hospital by the River
Helen Stubbings already knew the basic story of the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia when she read Hospital by the River, the strong and “often disturbing” book written by the hospital’s founder, Dr Catherine Hamlin. Any doubts Helen may have had as to whether or not this was the right charity for Quilt Aid were well and truly gone after reading the book.
Obstetric fistula, although both preventable and curable, is nonetheless a nasty condition. The fistula occurs through damage to the bladder or rectum caused by complications during labour and can lead to incontinence, an ulcerated vaginal tract, severe infections and even paralysis. The baby is usually stillborn. On top of these horrific symptoms, women suffering this condition are often abandoned by their husbands and ostracised from their villages, forcing them into lonely existences of shame and isolation. The World Health Organisation estimates that between 50,000 and 100,000 women develop obstetric fistulas every year with up to three million women currently living with the condition, mostly in developing countries.
Dr Catherine Hamlin, an Australian obstetrician and gynaecologist, first became aware of the plight of Ethiopian women suffering obstetric fistula when she and her husband worked on a three year contract in the late 1950s to establish a midwifery school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. As obstetric fistula had been completely eradicated in developed countries by the beginning of the 20th century, the Hamlins were unfamiliar with the condition. When local women who were incontinent, foul-smelling and often crippled and destitute, began presenting at the hospital, the Hamlins realised that the problem was widespread and began researching to develop techniques for a cure. No-one else at the hospital knew what to do with these women.
Dr Catherine Hamlin
The Hamlins worked tirelessly to develop techniques to cure the condition, spurred on by the grim plight of its female sufferers, both medical and social. The Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital was finally opened in 1974, successfully treating almost 1,000 women a year until Dr Reg Hamlin’s death in 1993. His widow continued their pioneering work, extending and upgrading the hospital, and in 2003 establishing Desta Meder (“Village of Joy”), an on-site community specifically designed for the 7% of fistula patients whose symptoms are so serious they’re unable to be properly treated, preventing them from returning to normal village life.
The Hamlin College of Midwives was also established as part of the hospital, training young Ethiopian women with the goal of a midwife for every village, hopefully eradicating obstetric fistula completely. Dr Hamlin, now aged 86, still performs surgery every Thursday morning, and by 2010 the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital has treated over 35,000 women with a 93% success rate. It remains the only hospital in the world dedicated to providing free treatment for obststric fistula. But without any government funding, it is completely dependent on charitable donations to continue its important life-saving work.
“When I learned about the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, I knew we’d found our charity,” Helen Stubbings says. “It ticked all the right boxes, especially being global and about women helping women.”
Helen knew they were ready to make the leap from planning to implementation. The details of Quilt Aid were in place – the 12 quilting shops throughout Australia and the 12 designers had all been selected. Now it was time to put it all together and help the thousands of Ethiopian women for whom it’s so desperately important this necessary medical intervention remains properly funded.
Read Part 3, the final instalment of ‘Women Helping Women’, to find out how Quilt Aid operates and what you can do to help.
Part 3 of 3 – Sewing for a Cause
With the Addis Ababa Hospital in Ethiopia now firmly in its sights as the recipient of funds raised, the Quilt Aid project was finally able to move into gear. Founder Helen Stubbings worked hard to coordinate the various elements that would each be playing such a crucial role in the success of the project, especially the 12 quilting shops and designers.
“Initially we thought it’d be easy to select 12 shops as there’s so many in Australia, but as it turned out we really struggled to find 12,” Helen explains. “We had criteria that each shop had to fulfil, the main one being they had to have a good e-commerce website so people could order online. We’re actually a little bit behind in Australia in that regard. They also needed to have the skills, reliability and service background to run something on this kind of scale, and also a good credit history with fabric companies.”
Another criteria Helen cites is that each shop needed the skills to develop a quilt, something that’s beyond the experience level of many of the little online stores popping up throughout the country.
“Selecting the 12 designers was also something we approached quite carefully,” Helen says. “We asked designers who we thought had a big marketing presence individually. The idea was to use the combined marketing force of the 12 designers and the 12 shops to help spread the word. The designers we ended up selecting all suited the project style-wise as well.”
From the individual quilter’s point of view, Quilt Aid operates on a similar basis to a regular Block of the Month, except that each block is sold from a separate shop nationwide. All 12 blocks can be viewed on the Quilt Aid website. Each shop also has its own finishing kit, and the quilter is able to choose whichever one they want. The donations come from a three-tiered system – the shops, the designers and the fabric companies.
“We’ve expanded it from last year when the donations were just coming from the designers,” Helen says.
‘Ribbon of Hope’ by designer Janelle Wind from the Janelle Wind Collection.
This is the Quilt Aid block available from Blueberries.
Another big change from 2009 is that this year Quilt Aid is working directly with the Sydney-based Hamlin Fistula Relief and Aid Fund, which is helping to coordinate the project with the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital. “World Vision was great last year, but because it’s so big, once a project has reached the amount it said it would, that’s almost the end of it,” says Helen. “We ended up getting very little feedback from last year’s effort. Working directly with the Fund in Sydney will keep us more connected to the charity.”
As part of its fundraising and awareness work, the Hamlin Fistula Relief and Aid Fund is organising the screening of a special documentary detailing the Hospital’s midwifery prevention strategy. Lighting a Candle will be screened at Macquarie University on Tuesday 19 October at 8pm. To purchase tickets, which also includes a light supper, go to www.hamlinfistula.org.au or phone 02 8007 7435. Separate fundraising screenings can also be arranged at other locations.
“We’re so pleased we ended up going with this particular charity because there’s a lot of women who became involved simply because they saw the link or because they really felt compelled to help with that charity,” says Helen. “In the end, it’s all about women helping women. Living in a developed country like Australia we just don’t understand that there are some women living like that.”
How can I help this worthwhile cause?
Visit www.quiltaid.com.au for all the details, to view the Blueberries block and finishing kit for 2010 click here.