HUGGS Canada fundraising evening, Friday, Oct. 18 at 6 p.m. at North Vancouver's Seymour Golf and Country Club. $60/$25 huggscanada.com
From one student to 46, those involved with HUGGS Canada have continued to increase their reach and play an important role in helping youths in need in India receive an education and go on to support themselves, their families and community.
The North Vancouverbased non-profit, an acronym for Helping Underprivileged Girls and Guys Study, is celebrating its 10-year anniversary this year and representatives are viewing it as an opportunity to share their story and look back on their journey, as well as continue to look to the future, having seen the positive benefits and impacts of their work firsthand.
At the helm of HUGGS is founder Lisa Heel, 42, having been inspired to launch the organization following a volunteer trip to India in 2002. "HUGGS Canada is a dream and I never, ever thought it would become a reality," she says. "And to see it 10 years young and growing is more than my dream could have ever been."
Her mother, fellow North Vancouver resident Marilyn Gullison, was born in India and lived there on and off until age 24. She also plays a strong role in the organization as a founding director.
HUGGS takes a direct approach to supporting and empowering youths in Vizag, Andhra Pradesh (the southeastern coastal state where Gullison and her family lived), to pursue secondary and careeroriented post-secondary education. Primarily a volunteer-run organization (they have 25 volunteers and one paid part-time employee in Canada), those involved locally conduct fundraising and outreach, and work with three employees in India to liaise with students.
HUGGS not only covers the cost of their students' tuition, it takes care of all of the students' needs, including health care, food for them and their families, personal hygiene products, school uniforms and supplies, and transportation. HUGGS also runs a study centre, providing an opportunity for students to come together in a peer support and mentoring model, and access computers, tutoring, and a quiet, clean and safe place to do their homework.
Gullison, 77, encourages community members to come on board, "Because they can make a difference and that is the exciting part about a small grassroots (organization)," she says.
HUGGS has graduated 20 students so far and is currently supporting 26 youths. HUGGS' first student, Viveka, is now 25 and working as a cardiothoracic nurse and is able to support her family, buying them the house that they previously rented. "It made me realize that one person in the family can make such a big difference to the whole welfare of that family," says Heel.
Other graduates have gone into education and computer science. One has completed his studies and has come on board as a paid HUGGS educator, and another is working in microloans management, both giving back to their community.
"I love to hear the success stories," says Heel.
HUGGS is currently experiencing growing pains and hopes to find a larger space to house its study centre in the coming months.
Heel also hopes to engage local students, particularly high school, with the organization and invites both youths and teachers to come on board. She and Gullison extend the same invitation to all community groups, saying they welcome any opportunity to come and speak about their work, and the need and potential for change that exists. Volunteers are also welcomed, including those with grant writing experience.
To support their efforts as well as share their story and celebrate their 10th anniversary, HUGGS is presenting a fundraising evening Friday, Oct. 18 at 6 p.m. at North Vancouver's Seymour Golf and Country Club. The evening will feature Indian food, student updates, a sari demonstration and silent auction.
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