Class Projects Can Change the World

By Deb Cummings

Alumna Carolyn Reicher has been awarded a Governor General's medal for her work with women in Afghanistan, and it all began in an international development course at UCalgary

The telephone call came late in the day after Carolyn Reicher, BA’86, had just left work. The next morning, when she read the words “Governor General” on the call display screen, she assumed someone from that office was looking to speak at the Calgary Public Library, where Reicher works.

Or so she thought.

She soon discovered that nobody from the GG office was on a speaking tour but, rather, that she was the cause célèbre, now being feted for her previous work in co-founding the organization dubbed Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (CW4WAfghan). For that, she and partner Janice Eisenhauer, BA’99, LLD’16, were about to be awarded a Meritorious Service Cross from the Governor General.

“I was surprised, tickled and gratified,” says Reicher, manager of the service design support team at the Calgary Public Library. “Then I started thinking about all the other people who have been associated with CW4WAfghan for so many years.” What started as a hypothetical project in an international development course at UCalgary now has nine chapters in Canada, several hundred volunteers — and thousands of people that their efforts support.

The story goes back to 1997, when Reicher, who was then working on a second degree, met fellow student, Eisenhauer, who had read an article by Sally Armstrong in Homemakers magazine that directed Canadians’ attention to the plight of Afghan women. Eisenhauer suggested the issue become a springboard for their school project. So invested did they become that, when the course project ended, they said, “We can’t let this go,” recalls Reicher. That led to a year of research and forging critical connections, most importantly with the soon-to-become award-winning author Deborah Ellis, who went on to publish The Breadwinner in 1997, an acclaimed novel about an 11-year-old girl who is forced to provide for her family under Afghanistan’s Taliban rule. Eisenhauer and Reicher formed CW4WAfghan and began contacting women in Afghanistan.

Alumna Carolyn Reicher

“That’s when things really hit home for me,” recalls Reicher. “Women in Afghanistan couldn’t work, they couldn’t go to school, they had to wear a burka. And here I was — working, going to school, driving my own car, dressing the way I wanted.

“At first, all I could see were the differences, but, over the years, I realized that our core was very much the same. What do many women talk about — their kids and family. What do we all want? Good health care, education, safety. We are far more alike than we are different.”

In 2004, Reicher and Eisenhauer travelled to Afghanistan to witness what impact their work was having.

“At some point in most of our lives, you realize that you have to do bigger things that involve more than just you,” says Reicher, a mother of two. “My kids lived in fear while I was gone [visiting Afghanistan], but they also knew that I believed that, as a human being, we need to leave the world a better place. If not, you’re just freeloading.”

After stepping away from the organization from 2011 to 2017, Reicher is once again involved with plans to serve on the Board of Directors and contribute to the group’s fundraising goals. And Deborah Ellis remains an inspiration for Reicher. “I don’t know if Canadians realize that Deb donates 100 per cent of the royalties of the book to CW4WAfghan. That’s astounding.”

As for the power of volunteering, Reicher suggests, “choose something that makes you want to quit your job to do it. Pick something that is going to work with your life stage and something that gets you very, very excited. That’s what will keep you around. And believe that what you do will make a difference. Don’t think the problem is too big and that you can’t fix it by yourself. You don’t have to . . . there are others who will help you.”

A case in point: Reicher still remembers the first presentation she and Eisenhauer did. “Someone thrust two $20 bills in my hand and said, ‘Go and put this to good work.’”

To date, CW4WAfghan has raised about $8 million in donations and has trained thousands of teachers and tens of thousands of students.

Alumna Carolyn Reicher
Alumna Carolyn Reicher working in Afghanistan

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