It seems ironic to find 30-year-old Sylvia Charczuk worrying about her biological clock when already she has 3,000 children. But her energy is so prodigious, her determination so single-minded, that it would take a very special kind of partner to fit into the scheme of things. She knows this, of course, but still “the kids come first.”
In the summer of 2003, this “untrained, unarmed, unstoppable” Canadian philanthropist adopted the village of Ban Kiukacham in northern Laos. The projects she started there now enable 14 hill tribe communities to send children to kindergarten and use the new library.
“But that’s only the first stage,” she says, golden-haired, golden-skinned and radiating energy. “Stage two involves building two dormitories so that teachers and children who travel a long way can stay over during the week, establishing teacher training courses that include a special needs program, and increasing the number of college and university scholarships from five to 10.”
Currently Sylvia is in Tokyo to organize a music-based fundraising benefit — “MTV Chiki Kids Fundraiser” at MTV Studio Cafe in Omote-sando — on July 16 from 7:30 to 11:30. There will be a live band with Maori musicians, solo singers, African drumming, belly dancing, food and drink, raffles and auctions. “I’ll show a video made in Ban Kiukacham to put the event into context, say a few words.”
Of Ukrainian, Polish and German parentage and born on the Baltic, Sylvia was taken first to Frankfurt by her mother and then on to Canada. “I was 7 when we landed in Toronto. Having no English, we hooked up with a German tour group to get into the city. My mother was a real go-getter.”
School was tough. “At that time non-English speakers were looked down on, with ESL classes held in the broom closet. Luckily Mother Nature gives us a survival mechanism and I was fluent in six months.”
Overcoming such adversities made her strong but at a price: “It’s because I lost out on my childhood that I’m so passionate about kids being given the chance to fulfill their dreams.”
Restless with “the system,” she dropped out of university, went to Mexico to teach art, returned home with typhoid, went back to university to graduate and then headed for Asia. “I’ve always paid my own way, writing, selling my paintings, teaching a little business English and art.”
Learning about Laos — the most heavily bombed country in the world and one of its poorest — she began journeying to the capital, Vientiane, and then into the mountains. “At one point I met a woman who knew a little English, and asked her to write a few sentences in Lao: ‘My name is Sylvia. How can I help? What do you need?’ I passed through many villages, but in Ban Kiukacham, the children clustered around as never before.”
She showed her piece of paper to a local woman, who first burst into tears and then brought the village chief and his wife, who in turn summoned other elders and officials. “When I left, after communicating in the sand and leaving behind 20 kg of supplies from my backpack, I had promised to help provide the tools for their children to gain an education and so provide hope for their country.”
Little did she know that the small village she had adopted supported many others in the surrounding countryside, with thousands of children living in poverty and no means to learn how to read and write. “It was lucky I didn’t know. It was overwhelming enough to have taken on responsibility for Ban Kiukacham.”
Back in Toronto she started a nonprofit organization called the Chi-ki Children’s Foundation to raise funds toward the health and educational needs of her kids. “I learned you have to go through the system to change the system. Chi-ki? ‘Chi’ is energy, and ‘ki’ from Reiki, which I studied in Japan. So energy is balance, as in ying and yang.”
Numerous fundraising events and appeals for donations over the next couple of years enabled a kindergarten and library to be handed over to the village last month.
“This is not about imposing my Western values on another culture. I’m not an oppressor leading the oppressed. All the books in the library are Lao. The committee (elders, police, communist cadres — all men) tell me what they think the village needs. If the kids are not in the equation, I say no. Everything is for the kids.”
And here Sylvia quotes Gandhi: “What’s not given is lost.” She is concerned only with proving that individually we hold the power for change. “I can’t change the world, but I can help Ban Kiukacham, creating a butterfly effect. Giving is the key.”
To illustrate her personal philosophy, she draws three triangles, labeling the sides with directional arrows: children-education-Earth; body-mind-spirit; love-forgiveness-acceptance. “Educate children and they will look after the Earth, with each succeeding generation better understanding the need to improve, protect and heal the soil.”
She is not religious or even “spiritual”: “I worked this out for myself. Most people die unprepared for death, as they live unprepared for life; my purpose is to live and die without regret.”
Sylvia’s supporters range from hippies to pro golfers in Europe, China, the Americas. “One guy pulled $500 out of his pocket. DJs in Toronto are set to raise money and awareness in London. Women send clothing. A European couple in a tuk-tuk gave me a bag of pencils. Lee Norrie (now in Wales) cycled the length of Japan to raise money.”
She ties a white cotton cord around my wrist. “The villagers use them in the Baci ceremony to show gratitude. Last month I had so many they reached my elbow.” She also hangs two tiny hearts around my neck, embroidered by her children — Hmong, Akka and Karen: “They make them to sell. I buy them, pass them on.”
Sylvia, who does not watch TV or read papers and describes herself as anarchist, trusts in the universe . . . in each and every day leading her somewhere. If she walks, she says, the way becomes a path. If she doesn’t walk, weeds will grow. Chi-ki’s mission statement is equally simple in its integrity: Be the change you want to see.