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SOUTH WESTERN ONTARIO COMMUNITY IS SPONSORED BY:

Jeff Heuchert

Jeff Heuchert

Margaret and Harold Erb display posters from previous years’ old-fashioned Christmas concerts. The final show, in support of Stratford and Area World Aid, will be held this Sunday, Dec. 2, at St. John’s United Church.

Concert a swan song for local charity

Jeff Heuchert
Gazette staff

A local charity that has spent the past 38 years supporting various humanitarian causes in developing countries will disband in the new year unless it can attract new members to take over annual fundraising responsibilities.

Since forming in 1974, Stratford and Area World Aid (SAWA) has raised close to three-quarters of a million dollars through annual initiatives like its old-fashioned Christmas concert and  spring rummage sale. But like many other clubs of its nature, SAWA has been struggling to maintain its annual commitments due to a declining and aging membership.

“It’s sad, we’re going to be sad about it,” says Harold Erb, a founding member of the group, which despite maintaining as many as 20 registered members, has far fewer  people involved on a regular basis.

“I can think of half a dozen of us who are over 80 (years old),” notes Harold, “and we’ve got another group between 65 to 75, but then nothing below that.”

SAWA was started by a group of local residents who came to know each other through participating in charity events in Stratford throughout the late 1960s and early ’70s, one of the more popular being the Miles for Millions walkathon, which aimed to alleviate third world hunger and poverty.

“We were of like mind, and we thought it made more sense if we continued on because we all believed in this type of cause,” says Harold, of the group’s beginning.

The end of SAWA will also likely mark the end of the Christmas concert at St. John’s United Church, which will still be held this year on Sunday, Dec. 2 at 7 p.m.

The event, which showcases some of the best young talent in Stratford and Perth County, has been faithfully organized each year by Harold’s wife Margaret, who approached SAWA  with the idea in the late 1970s.

From the beginning, Margaret modeled the concert after the Christmas shows her father would organize back home in Switzerland when she was growing up.

“All the children would take part … the whole village would come, and my dad would have everybody doing whatever they could do best,” she recalls.

Each  year, Margaret attends as many of the local Kiwanis Festival performances as she can, looking for young musicians to invite to perform at her concert. Each year she successfully recruits about 20 acts.

“I went to Kiwanis morning, noon and night,” she says, with a smile, “it was quite a job, but I loved it.”

As usual, admission for the concert, which the last few years has raised about $1,500, is by free-will donation.

For many years, SAWA directed  its annual funds, typically between $6,000 and $8,000, to an organization called Pueblito Canada, which  helped establish a children’s village in Central America. One of the dwellings in the village was even named Casa Stratford to recognize the significant contributions the local community had made over the years.

“They would get couples who might have had one or two children that wanted to take in more and move them all into a house,” says Harold, of the village, which he and Margaret visited in 1999. “Besides having a school they would have a garden, they would have chickens, pigs, various things.”

Most recently, SAWA has supported Families for Children and Doctors Without Borders, but at different times in its past has directed funds to organizations like CODE, Habitat for Humanity and Guatemalan Relief depending on  where the group’s members decide the need is greatest.

Harold says SAWA will run one last rummage sale at St. Joseph’s Church in February, at which point, barring any new interest from the community, the  group will make its final donation.

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