Role Model Julia George switches fund-raising from politics to destitute children. Julia George had one child in each arm and several others clinging to her shoulders and legs when she realized this was exactly what she needed. Here in a Third World country, she felt she belonged. The children starving for her touch were orphans infected with HIV/AIDS, hundreds of them left behind by parents who had already died from the disease. Just months earlier, her life had been completely different. George’s world was wrapped in extravagance: cocktail parties, politicians and buzzing cell phones. For three years, she had been a chief fund-raiser for Denver’s 2008 Democratic convention. By November, she was burnt out, ready for a real change.
“After the excess of the convention, I needed a wake-up call. What I saw in Ethiopia was shocking and really shook me to the core,” she says. George’s opportunity to travel to East Africa came because of a business lunch and a pair of knitting needles. It was during lunch one day that she met Strings Restaurant owner and philanthropist Noel Cunningham. Unfortunately for her, he barely noticed her that day. He was caught up in conversation with her boss, Denver convention co-chair Steve Farber. They were discussing Cunningham’s passion: destitute children struggling to get a hand up in a small village called Yetebon halfway around the world.
Cunningham wanted Farber to help him raise $10,000 for a library program there called Ethiopia Reads. Farber was interested, but George was completely struck. “I wanted to DO this!” she says. “I’m Australian. We’re really big on the underdog.”
The self-decribed “Aussie girl” with the black spiral curls showed up at Cunningham’s Strings restaurant several times hoping he would notice her enthusiasm. “I would say, ‘Hi there,’ and he was like ‘Yeah, whatever,’” she says. Cunningham laughs, remembering her persistence, “So I’m thinking to myself,’OK, here we go. Another hanger-on wanting to come with us to Ethiopia. What the heck is SHE gonna do?'” As a matter of fact, she was already sending out e-mails to her convention contacts pumping them for the $10,000. It got Cunningham’s attention. As you listen to them, the Australian and the Irishman, you can’t help smiling at their banter as the accents fly.
Cunningham: “So I asked her, Are you good at anything?”
George: “And I say, yeah, I’m really good at knitting.”
Cunningham: “And all of a sudden I have this vision of Julia teaching knitting to the kids at the Mother Teresa Orphanage, and (the idea) just went BOOM!”
Last Fall, in anticipation of the Ethiopia trip and teaching kids to knit, George lugged suitcases filled with donated yarn in every color. The women, men and children at the orphanage learned quickly. But knitting needles are expensive. “How much is a pair of knitting needles?” Cunningham is sitting at George’s desk and waves a cup of light brown coffee at her. “Five or six bucks,” she responds. “That kind of money would be impossible for a 15-year-old kid,” he explains. “So they’re knitting with their fingers. But over time, they’ll learn to do it with sticks” is her comeback. Yetebon villagers have already earned enough money to bring food, medicine and schoolrooms to the community by selling their handcrafted beadwork jewelry. The Hope Bracelet Project, created by Cunningham and his wife, Tammy, has generated half a million dollars. The Cunninghams and George hope that handmade scarves will be the next moneymaker. There is a shared vision of football stands filled with Colorado teenagers at the Saturday game wearing scarves designed in their high school colors. It’s a fashion trend in Europe to wear them during soccer games, and they figure it can work here too. “How cool would it be to wear a scarf knit by an HIV/AIDS-positive kid?” asks George. The plan is to use only quality wool and silk yarn produced in the Ethiopian community. Cunningham continues, “In America we buy stuff from the developing world out of guilt. You don’t wear it. But this will be something that won’t sit in a drawer.”
Cunningham and George start talking at once, they’re so excited about the idea. They’ve only known each other 12 months, but they are on the same page.
George is never too far from her knitting and her phone. At times both hands are weaving yarn and the phone is in her ear as she pushes for donations. As a professional political and charitable fund-raiser, she’s had her hand in everything from the Olympic games to last year’s historic Democratic convention. She spent four years of her life putting together performer and ticketing agreements for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. “I was staff No. 1498,” she comments. “By game time, they had 220,000 staff and volunteers.” An American boy she met during the games led her to Colorado a decade ago. The romance didn’t work out, but her next job would be a doozy. Her experience with the games put her in perfect position to help bring the Democrats to Denver. “I remember the day Gov. Dean called and said, ‘You’ve got the convention.’ I was with Steve (Farber) from the word Œdot. From the bid process to Obama’s speech on that Thursday night,” she explains. She and Farber were the $65 million team, working for three years at a 24/7 pace, drumming up financial support.
But the rat race of the political world caused her to rethink a promise she made to her grandma when she was just 5 years old: “I looked up at her one day and told her I wanted to save the world.” George did not feel she was saving the world working in politics. Fund raising at this grand level had become a game of
adding zeroes. In contrast, remember the Ethiopian library Cunningham was talking about? Last month, George raised the $10,000 he needed in just one day. “There’s a donkey-mobile which travels the countryside to families who live on farms. Those donkeys pull up with books on their backs. The kids are clamoring for these books. Some of them are used and torn. Then you’ll see a child in the field sitting there reading,” she says.
George has run five marathons; she’s lived in Barcelona and London. But that was the good life. Eastern Africa was good in a different way and heartbreaking in another. When she describes her experiences there, she stares straight ahead. She remembers every day that 1,400 school children at Project Mercy would line up for their morning and mid-day meals. Many of them had walked two miles to get to class in bare feet. George would give each student a scoop of watery porridge for breakfast. At lunch, bread was an extra treat. She recalls, “The baskets are loaded with bread, but they keep getting empty and someone fills
them up, and then they’re empty again. And then I look around and there was no more bread. And I said to Noel, ‘Where’s the rest of the bread?’ and he just looks at me and looks down and it was like ‘Are you kidding me? There’s 300 kids still waiting for bread! But there were no temper tantrums. No sulking. You just look at them, and they see it in your face, and it’s OK. And they just walk away. It was this silent resignation. I was just absolutely stone faced.”
Though George had prepared herself for the helplessness she would feel in Africa, she was not ready for the emotions she would have once she got back to the Land of Plenty. She was resentful. She was angry. “On the nightly news, mothers were complaining in their neighborhoods because they want the bus to
stop here or there,” she says. “There were piles of food in the grocery store.” Cunningham advised George to channel her anger into affecting change. That’s when she decided to quit her high-stress job with Farber and roll up her sleeves.
This year much of her time has been spent as a volunteer developing her knitting project and organizing the Hope Ball put on by the Cunningham
Foundation. Proceeds support the Foundation’s four charities. One of those is Ethiopia Reads. Some of the money also helps Rick Hodes, a Denver physician who donates his time helping Ethiopian children who have cancer, heart disease and spinal conditions.
Another chunk of the funds is funneled to Mother Teresa’s Orphanage in Addis Ababa. And the fourth operation benefiting from the ball is Project Mercy, a compound in Yetebon southwest of Addis Ababa that has built a hospital and runs a school. “There’s a lot of adrenaline in fund raising. It’s that thrill when people say ‘Yes, I want to do it. I want to get involved,’” says George.
Her cell phone rings. It’s Denver Post society columnist Bill Husted. “Hi, Bill. Yes! I AM stalking you!” she laughs. George hangs up, satisfied he is going to mention the ball in his column. She picks up the phone again to go down her list of possible donors.
“My goal is to raise $10,000 each day. Monday, I raised 10,000. Tuesday, I went over. Wednesday,
not so good. Today, I think I can do it,” she says.
Since the convention, she is down to one Blackberry, and Costco shopping is out of the question. It’s the excess that bothers her. After seeing kids starved not only for food, but for books and a hug, she knows she doesn’t need to buy 30 lightbulbs at a time … or four tubs of spinach dip. She’s changed her life so that she shops only for what she needs. The next trip to Ethiopia happens in November. George anticipates her return to the orphanage where children are waiting to jump on her back, to be held and to be taught a skill to help them survive. The Aussie girl is making good on her promise to her grandma to save the world. One scarf and 10 fingers at a time.
By Carol McKinley