In our digital and globally connected world, it’s nice to look up every once in a while and take in all the good things going on around us. I’m setting out with a new series for Rampage highlighting just that: Montreal individuals, groups and organizations who are working hard to meet a social need, either locally or elsewhere in the world. I haven’t come up with a name for the series just yet, and I’d like your help. Please leave your suggestions in the comments. Plus, if you know of a person or group who you’d like to read about, please let me know!
My first story is about The Okala Foundation, founded by Tamara Davy in 2006. She and a dedicated group of a handful of volunteers serve on the board of directors of the foundation and work to improve the lives of the children in the villages of Cameroon in which they operate. Okala means “care” in the local language. The Foundation’s tag-line is “Self-sufficiency through education.”
Tamara and I spoke recently and I’m honoured to share her unique tale.
Tamara’s story began while backpacking around South America in 1999, where she met Charlie. Charlie is a monkey who had become dependent on alcohol while living in an all-inclusive resort where she and others would finish the vacationer’s half-drunk alcoholic beverages. She was staying at a woman’s house to detox. Living there together over several weeks, Tamara says she developed a fascination for working with primates. When she returned home to Quebec, she began volunteering at Canada’s only chimpanzee sanctuary, the Fauna Foundation, which (amongst other things) gives a safe home for former biomedical research chimpanzees. After about five years of working here, she met Tom (a chimp), who was from Africa. Inspired to see where Tom had been born, Davy searched the web and found a chimpanzee sanctuary in Cameroon that accepted volunteers, and went.
During the year she spent in the forest with the chimpanzees, she would occasionally go into the villages. She recalls being unable to believe the conditions the children were living in. They didn’t have a proper school and most of them didn’t even bother going regularly. Wanting to do something to help these kids, she took to Facebook where she created a group of mostly family and friends who very quickly raised enough funds to sponsor 56 children. The group grew and the Okala Foundation was born.
Since that time, the Okala Foundation has accomplished some truly wonderful feats. They have built three schools and one clinic which employs villagers for building and teaching, as well as helping meet urgent and preventative healthcare needs. They provide school books to the kids and, since they began teaching in 2007, the literacy rate has gone from five to 95% (!). They also feed 400 kids with a hot lunch prepared by local women. As a grassroots organization run by volunteers, all of the money donated to sponsor a child through the Okala Foundation goes precisely where it is needed.
When I expressed my awe at how much Okala has accomplished in just a few years, Tamara remarked: “It was pure desire to just help and grew very organically. I never in my wildest dreams thought it would grow to this.”
The Okala Foundation have a new goal going forward, digging wells to provide clean water to the villages. Here are some highlights from parts our conversation about the upcoming Okala Gala to raise funds for this project.
Stephanie Weiner (SW): How can people get tickets to the gala?
Tamara Davy (TD): Tickets and if they can’t attend the gala, any donation is really appreciated.
SW: What can patrons of the gala expect?
TD: The evening starts at 7, with local entertainment. Our DJ is DJ Dee, who is fairly well known in Montreal. Two performers from Les 7 doigts de la Main, Patrick Leonard and his girlfriend, Genevieve Morin, and two gentlemen from Africa, Vouyo and Patience who will play. We’re honouring film director/producer, Jimmy Kaufman. He is an amazing character, he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro for the Montreal Children’s hospital. The food is going to be amazing, drinks as well. There’s a silent auction, a live auction for Swiss International business class seats, a $5000 diamond necklace…
SW: What part of the evening are you most looking forward to?
TD: The whole thing! It will be amazing to see all those people come together for the Okala Foundation. It’s gonna be heart warming. I cried most of the night (at a fundraiser) in Prince Rupert where we raised $30 000. People’s hearts have really been open and it’s amazing.
SW: If you could tell people one thing about Okala Foundation or the Okala Gala, what would it be?
TD: I think I would come back to the global community idea. We’re all coming together for this one thing to help kids that are so far away from us. It’s not as far as we think it is anymore and the event is trying to bring awareness to the fact that we’re really a community and a lot tighter than most of us think. I hope someone sees this and is inspired. And that if they ever travel somewhere and see that there is a need, that they do something like start a Facebook group, too.
Moved and inspired by what you’ve read here? You can make a donation or buy tickets to the Okala Gala here.
The Okala Gala to benefit the Okala Foundation at Espace Reunion (6610 Hutchison) May 2. 7 p.m. $150.