Yorkton Paper 96
By Mark Claxton
Al Gerwing loves his work.
As the 75-year old Lake Lenore resident speaks for more than an hour about his efforts on behalf of homeless children in the slums of northeastern Brazil, his passion is evident.
Gerwing uses words like "horrified" to describe his first reaction to the plight of Brazilian street kids. He speaks glowingly of the "marvelous: people at the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) who have helped him in his work. And he still finds the supportive response of Saskatchewan communities "unbelievable."
One word that never crosses his lips, however, is "retirement."
Gerwing will turn 76 in February; and after a 48-year teaching career, eight return trips to Brazil, and dozens of tours of the Prairie provinces, he still packs his bags every year and travels to a Saskatchewan town or city, where he single-handedly produces and directs a full-length musical play and forwards every dime of the proceeds to projects for the homeless in South America's largest country.
With the support of CIDA, Edmonton – based group Change For Children, and St. Joseph's Save The Children Fund of Spruce Grove, Alta., Gerwing brought only a suitcase and a passion for musical theatre to Yorkton in October 1998, where he began telephoning area churches, drama groups, music teachers and community organizations in search of local talent to perform in the Gilbert & Sullivan light opera H.M.S. Pinafore, a Satire of straight-laced English mores and mannerisms that is one of his personal favorites.
The musical comedy will be staged at the Anne Portnuff Theatre in late April and will feature only local singers and musicians among its lead roles, chorus members, and orchestra.
Gerwing first saw H.M.S. Pinafore as a grade 12 student in Humboldt and the experience has stayed with him.
"It knocks my socks off," he said in a Jan. 15 interview at the bed-and-breakfast he calls home during his Yorkton stays. "I couldn't believe how it moved me."
Gerwing has staged Pinafore in several Saskatchewan communities since.
" It's very accessible to the audience," he said. "Sometimes (in musical theatre) the story gets so convoluted, and then when it's all sung, the audience isn't quite sure what the story-line is.
But that's not true with Pinafore. It's so transparent, that they can focus on the satire and have fun."
After a series of initial rehearsals in January, Gerwing will be flying to the state of Alagoas in Brazil for the ninth time, accompanied by representatives from CIDA who will lean upon his translation skills in Portuguese to see for themselves the results of Gerwing and hi colleagues in the state's city slums.
Tens of thousands of poverty-stricken families have been forced to the slums in recent years as Brazil's wealthy landowners, some of whom own more than 10 million acres of prime arable real estate, move to mechanized agriculture and evict workers and their families from the land.
"They'll kick the whole 20,000 (laborers) off in one fell swoop," Gerwing said. "Where do they go? The city slums.
"The man, he's going to go somewhere to see if he can find work. The woman takes in washing and feeds her kids. If she gets sick and dies, because there's no health care there, all the kids are on the street."
Gerwing was first confronted with the growing social disaster in Brazil during a 1979 visit to Alagoas, where several friends had made their homes. He was so moved by the plight of the street children, some of whom have been shot and killed by state police viewing them as a nuisance, he has labored on their behalf ever since.
Inspired by Brazilians like retired teacher Lourdes Monteiro, who has raised roughly 2,000 children since she first opened her home to street kids in 1979, Gerwing spent every dollar of his $90,000 retirement savings on projects devoted to schooling and rehabilitation for Brazil's orphans.
"My finances were wiped out in one fell swoop," Gerwing recalled. He was finally forced to turn to non-governmental agencies in Alberta and Saskatchewan for help. A recipient of the 1989 Order of Canada, Gerwing has turned his love of theatre into an annual fundraiser. His productions have included performances in Humboldt, Melfort, and Wainwright, Alta.
Years after many would be enjoying a leisurely retirement, Gerwing still does one show every year and speaks to community groups and churches about the Brazilian situation every chance he gets.
"The opportunity to do social justice education, that always turns my crank," he said. "The possibility of winning new friends for the poor in Brazil, that is certainly an impetus."
Gerwing still gets amazed at the response he receives from local volunteers when he arrives in a Saskatchewan community for the first time.
"Holy smokes, they don't even know me, and they're all saying "yes," he said with a laugh. "That's one thing that sustains me, when you get people interested in helping. That's always a morale booster."
Gerwing is also sustained, however, by an abiding anger at the injustice that condemns thousands of families in Brazil every year to a lifetime on the filthy streets of a slum.
"This is the situation that we in the First World are fostering," he said."Just this week, the big financier took $45 billion in capital out of Brazil and so now the Brazilian economy is starting to collapse exactly like it did in Indonesia. The financiers are crucifying one people after another.
"The world is being made very safe for investors, and very unsafe for the poor.""The financiers are crucifying one people after another. The world is being made safe for investors, and very unsafe for the poor."