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From blizzards to the Amazon: Volunteers head to Peru to build houses

  • Pure Art Foundation volunteers: From left: Diane Gigniac, Liza Rumjahn, Leslie Blake-Cote, Jennifer Gruner, Bessie Karagianis, Brigitte McKinnon, Liam McKinnon, Sam McKinnon, Renault McKinnon, Suzi Cote, Gay Gruner, Charlotte Payette, Bob Mason, Leo Sarazin, Robert McKinnon. Missing: Suzanne Laplante, Diana McDougall Deakin, Josie Preteroti, Shanti Rumjahn, Ya Wan Xu, Ying Lu.
    Pure Art Foundation volunteers: From left: Diane Gigniac, Liza Rumjahn, Leslie Blake-Cote, Jennifer Gruner, Bessie Karagianis, Brigitte McKinnon, Liam McKinnon, Sam McKinnon, Renault McKinnon, Suzi Cote, Gay Gruner, Charlotte Payette, Bob Mason, Leo Sarazin, Robert McKinnon. Missing: Suzanne Laplante, Diana McDougall Deakin, Josie Preteroti, Shanti Rumjahn, Ya Wan Xu, Ying Lu.
    Photo credit: Navneet Pall, The Gazette

As the biting wind of a major snowstorm raged outside, a group of volunteers gathered in a Vaudreuil office last week to discuss the final details of their upcoming trip to the intense heat of Peru’s Amazon Basin.

This week, as they have for the past three years, the founders of the Pure Art Foundation, Robert and Brigitte McKinnon, will take volunteers to the poor of Pucallpa, Peru, where they will build two houses, check up on a medical clinic built last year and put plans together for next year when they will do it all over again.

To date, the foundation has built 12 homes, five wells, two medical centres and two sewing centres, and sponsored 265 children for school in the impoverished region.

It’s an effort based on commitment, says Brigitte McKinnon.

“Those who come to Peru and see the power of providing basic shelter for a family that has never had such a thing rarely return home unchanged.”

Volunteer Suzie Côté, who is the group’s translator and is returning to Pucallpa for the third time this year, echoes this sentiment.

“I had done work for Pure Art Foundation for some time before having the opportunity to go to Peru myself, and when I left, I was intrigued,” Côté explains. “But what happened was that I came back a different person.”

The volunteers, who pay for their travel and accommodations themselves, are from all over the West Island and the Vaudreuil-Soulanges region. This year, there are 24 volunteers in total who come from Beaconsfield, Pierrefonds, Pointe-Claire, Hudson, St-Lazare and Rigaud, as well as the downtown Montreal area.

Each volunteer brings their own experience and care to the CAST (Construct a Structure Today) program. But this year, there is one story that perhaps goes deeper than most.

It’s the story of Beaconsfield’s Gay Gruner, widow of Dr. Peter Gruner, who was widely known for his founding role in the West Island Palliative Care Residence. Dr. Gruner had planned to make this trip with his wife of 20 years in 2011.

“When Peter and I first met the McKinnon family and learned about the inspiring work they are doing in Peru and other places, we immediately wanted to join them as volunteers,” explains Gay Gruner.

But fate had another path for the couple.

“We made such plans for our trip to Peru,” Gruner explains. “We both felt so strongly about it, it was like the fulfilment of a dream. But then I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and we put our trip on hold until I could recover.”

They then made plans to join the Pure Art volunteers in 2012. But sadly, it was again not to be.

“In January 2012, Peter died quite suddenly of a massive coronary,” Gruner says, then pauses before continuing softly.

“It made me wish I had just gone with him to Peru in 2011 anyway. I’ve learned not to postpone anything now.”

In addition to its work in Peru, Pure Art is now expanding its reach to East Africa with STOP (Screening Tanzanians Offering Prevention). The McKinnons travelled to Tanzania in January and returned with a new mandate to fund a mobile women’s health clinic to screen women for cervical cancer.

“You can be paralyzed by what you see in these places of great poverty and need,” Brigitte McKinnon says simply.

“Or you can act.” —-

For more information, go to www.pureartfoundation.org

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