Andrea Puszkar of Halifax spent five months in Zimbabwe on a Crossroads Canada program, working to get children off the streets and back into homes with their families or neighbours. An accomplished potter, Andrea is now executive director at St. George’s YouthNet. (Joel Jacobson)
By Joel Jacobson BRIGHT SPOT
THE EYES, face and smile have the warmth and compassion of an artist, and of a woman interested in making a difference.
That’s what Andrea Puszkar is all about.
The Halifax resident is a potter with a fine-arts degree from NSCAD University.
She is also the executive director of St. George’s YouthNet, a program offering hot lunches and after-school programs to inner-city children.
Eighteen months ago, Andrea left work to spend five months in Zimbabwe as a volunteer youth worker, helping street kids as young as four and five reunite with their families or join families that would accept them.
"I would have stayed longer but didn’t have the resources," she says.
Andrea was born in Regina, Sask., 32 years ago. She studied art in British Columbia but after realizing that would only give her a two-year diploma she decided to come east where she could earn a bachelor’s degree.
She says volunteering got her in the job market. "People need jobs, and the jobs are out there," she reasons. "I volunteered and that got me going.
"When I got my fine-arts degree, I immediately volunteered at Visual Arts Nova Scotia and, within two weeks, and with luck, was offered a paying position, filling in for someone getting married."
That opened the door to a job at the 4C’s Foundation, a private group dedicated to supporting community art projects for youth in Halifax Regional Municipality. She also opened the Turnstile Pottery Co-operative with eight other people, running classes for the public as well as having a place to create her own art.
Andrea has always had a need to roam. She’s seen much of North America, travelling, at most, a month at a time. In 2005, after six years with 4C’s, she needed to go again.
"I didn’t just want a holiday," she says. "I wanted to spend time somewhere where I could be involved in a community. I’d never lived in another country but, at an international fair at Saint Mary’s University, found information about Canadian Crossroads International."
Crossroads is an international non-profit organization supported by the Canadian International Development Agency, other government and non-government funders, and individual donors. Its goal is to create a more equitable and sustainable world through learning, solidarity and collective action.
"My skills were suited to Zimbabwe but I was naturally nervous because of the political situation. I was assured I’d be safe so I left my position at 4C’s and went there in September 2005."
She brings out dozens of photos of Zimbabwean children, faces glowing when their pictures are taken.
"My job was to build a database of street children and help relocate them into homes. These were kids, five to 14 years of age, living on the streets (of Mutare, a large city near the Mozambique border in eastern Zimbabwe)."
Andrea says she was shocked at the treatment of children, thought by many to be "lower class," and alarmed at the way women were treated, although, she says, it seemed to be culturally acceptable.
She helped run an after-school program for children who had gone back to homes. "We kept them off the streets, away from begging after school, something they had always done all the time. It worked. Out of 40 kids we placed, we only saw one go back to the streets."
Andrea returned to Halifax last April. She quickly found a job at YouthNet, keeping youth engaged in an after-school program.
Each day, 20 or more children rush to YouthNet for lunch that is provided voluntarily by people of the parish and community. At 3 p.m., another, mostly different group of 20 youngsters storms the facility moments after school lets out at St. Patrick’s-Alexandra School next door. Two paid staff and many volunteers run the program.
"We offer a snack, talk about their day, play some basketball, and offer various activities daily, like cooking, art, skipping, music, African dance, circus skills such as juggling, and even leadership programs," says Andrea.
She compares the children in Mutare with those at YouthNet. "They are really totally different. The Zimbabwe kids don’t have loving families. They embraced everything we offered them. They were excited to have any attention and I adored them," she says, her eyes glowing. "They picked up on that."
Here, she says, the children want to do activities but don’t show the same affection "because they get it at home and school."
The Zimbabwe experience helped Andrea develop relationships "with people you would not normally associate with. Growing comes with that. And here, youth from the community develop friendships with our volunteers, many from local universities, and it changes the mindsets. Both sides show growth."
While she acknowledges she was always kind and caring, she’s seen changes in her attitudes.
"It made me more aware of global issues, specifically in Africa and Zimbabwe. I continue to support, financially as best I can, organizations that work with street kids."