Vineyarder enlists neighbors to help Zambian children

Marsha Winsryg and Nora Karasik
Marsha Winsryg, the woman behind the African Artists' Community Development Project, and her daughter, Nora Karasik. Photos by Mae Deary

By Pat Waring - November 15, 2007

The Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center took on the bustling air of a colorful African marketplace last Saturday evening. Visitors crowded around long tables laden with handmade crafts as young women in brightly patterned dresses assisted customers and passed homemade hors d'oeuvres. Highlighting the event was the premiere of "Waging Peace in Zambia," a film that Marsha Winsryg and her daughter Nora Karasik made during their visit to Africa last spring.

Benefiting two children's facilities in Zambia, the fund-raiser was the latest in Ms. Winsryg's efforts to help children affected by AIDS and other disabilities in that country. Her one-woman campaign has found a warm reception with neighbors here on the Vineyard where she has held several private benefit crafts sales. On Saturday night that support was strengthened as the audience viewed the moving and informative documentary.

Susan Phelps
Susan Phelps chooses from the big selection of brightly printed fabrics on the sale table at the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center.
Ms. Winsryg, an artist and early-childhood educator in her usual daily life, began her transformation into a benefactor for African children when she and her older daughter, Gia, traveled through Africa seven years ago. Visiting countless marketplaces, they were deluged with requests from native craftspeople to carry their goods back to the United States for sale. Ms. Winsryg brought a few items home, selling them to recoup her purchase price.

But during her African journeys, more than just being impressed by the beauty of the landscape and fine handicrafts, Ms. Winsryg was also struck by the level of human need, especially among children. And she was painfully aware of the devastation of AIDS there.

"I decided I could not read one more article about AIDS and not do something about it," she said in a telephone conversation last week.

Rachel Curtin and Lila Fischer
Rachel Curtin (left) and Lila Fischer helped Ms. Winsryg at the event, and also sold crafts from Ghana, a project Ms. Fischer started.
She came up with the idea of selling the goods at a profit and returning those profits to Africa. After some research, she discovered the Mama Bakhita Cheshire Center in Livingstone, a facility for disabled children. Although AIDS did not necessarily cause all their conditions, the need was great, and Ms. Winsryg knew that her modest donations would be useful.

More recently, she forged a connection with the Upeme Hope Children's Home in Kamaila, an orphanage for children with AIDS. Contributions from the sale of the crafts now go to both of these facilities, helping to purchase medical equipment for Mama Bakhita and to help pay for educating the young people at Upeme Hope. Ms. Winsryg has formed a non-profit organization, African Artists' Community Development Project (AACDP), and has a small board of directors who help with the fundraising efforts. Since there is no overhead, all sales profits go to the two agencies.

"'Waging Peace' is a telling document of the indomitable nature of the human spirit and the marvels that occur when people have a chance to express their spirit and vitality," wrote Julian Wise in the Nov. 1 Times Calendar section.

Susan Thompson and Abbe Burt
Volunteers Susan Thompson (left) and Abbe Burt pitched in to help organize the event.
The film intersperses shots of dramatic scenery and vibrant marketplaces and villages, with beautiful close-ups of dark-eyed, smiling adults and children, and interviews with staff at the two facilities, explaining their challenges and goals. Ms. Winsryg herself narrates. Visits to the children's facilities are captivating, and it is hard to believe these vibrant youngsters are struggling with health problems.

"Watch them sew, watch them concentrate - it's wonderful!" Ms. Winsryg said, as the film shows her leading the Upeme children in a puppet-making workshop. "Look how bright their spirits are!"

Later, Ms. Winsryg shared her vision that others would do what she has done - import African crafts to benefit small non-profits in the country. She said that the crafts are a valuable resource that can bring significant support for Africa if marketed appropriately.

"Africa is full of crafts," she said. "You can't go anywhere there without finding beautiful handmade things."

Items that drew the attention and admiration of the guests included woven baskets, carved bowls and serving implements, jewelry and animal figurines in wood, bone, ebony, and malachite. Many women left wearing chunky bracelets or necklaces and the glowing green malachite beads that show promise of becoming a special kind of Vineyard fashion statement, proudly indicating that the wearer has helped a worthy cause. Fiber art included ornate ceremonial cloths, wall hangings, useful patterned shoulder bags, and yards of brightly printed fabrics.

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Ms. Winsryg, who has visited Zambia four times, said that despite the ravages of AIDS there are hopeful signs. "Now people are talking about it, trying to do something," she said of the once-taboo disease.

After greeting guests, overseeing sale tables, and making sure refreshments were ample, Ms. Winsryg took a moment from her chores. She said she was happily surprised by the robust turnout and the crowd's enthusiasm. Mostly, she was happy to finally be able to share her experience of Zambia with her Vineyard neighbors. "I'm so happy to have people see the actual thing," she said with a big smile.

She will show the film again and offer crafts for sale at the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury on Sunday, Nov. 25, following the morning worship service. She also will sell crafts at various locations during the holiday season, and will take the film and exhibit to several off-Island venues.

"I hate to think what the future is going to be like in Africa if things don't get changed," said Ms. Winsryg. And although she knows that as one woman the help she can give may be modest, only touching a few people, she is determined to do whatever she can to make change happen.

For more information, contact Marsha Winsryg, 508-693-4059, or visit aacdpafrica.org. Donations may be sent to: AACDP, P.O. Box 3000, P.M.B. 3051, West Tisbury, MA 02575.