By Neil Armstrong
TORONTO, Ontario (Wednesday, June 15, 2022) — Educator and philanthropist, Kamala-Jean Gopie, says an award from her alma mater, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto, is very special for her.
She is the recipient of the 2022 Leaders and Legends Award, in the category of Global Service, based on her work in Malawi.
“This award celebrates an extraordinary individual for their commitment to addressing the world’s social and humanitarian challenges, with a noticeable global impact,” commented committee Chair, Professor Kristin Snoddon, who presented the award at the virtual OISE Alumni Association’s Biennial General Meeting (BGM), held on June 8.
Also in attendance were OISE Dean, Normand Labrie; OISE Alumni Association President, Matt Stodolak, and Sim Kapoor, Director of advancement and external relations.
In 2020, Gopie received the Nelson Mandela Humanitarian Award at the Afroglobal Television Excellence Awards, in recognition of her work in the African country.
“Education has been the driving force for the work in Malawi, first for Happy, then for pre-schoolers and now for students to go to secondary school. For me, it is also proof that taking a chance on someone with a dream is worth doing, that it does not take huge amounts of money to make a difference/impact and that one is never too old to give back,” Gopie recounted.
Gopie reminisced that the initial amount of money was US$10.00 to Chimwemwe Mussa, (whose first name in the Chichewa language means ‘Happy’), a young man from Malawi she met at a street market in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2016, noting that she was over 70 years old at the time.
Recalling their conversation, Gopie said, “I started to talk to him and just something about his manner. When I came back and I told people about it, I said all I can tell you is I just found him to be wholesome.”
He told her that he was from Malawi, his father was dead, he had six siblings and he was working to try to take care of his family.
Happy told her that they were very poor and that he had gone to a high school, run by an NGO, but hadn’t done well in grade 12. He really wanted to be a teacher.
“And I think that was the clincher, when he said to me, I really want to be a teacher but I couldn’t,” says Gopie, a retired teacher.
It took a month before she was able to find a way to get some money to him in South Africa, because he didn’t have a bank account.
She had sent $500 CAD so he could get back home, because it is a 4-day bus trip from Cape Town back to Malawi.
She told him to check about going back to school, and he found a couple of schools and, finally, decided on one, where he could complete his grade 12 education.
Working through People Bridge Foundation, Gopie and donors, she approached, sent money to Happy for the construction of a school.
Initially, they were thinking of registration for 30-40 kids, but their expectations were exceeded when 90 were registered.
Gopie paid the first $3,500 out of her pocket for the school and People Bridge sent $1,000 from donations from her friends for the school.
The association with People Bridge allows donors to receive tax receipts and the organization would become an agency.
Gopie said there are enough donations, from her friends in People Bridge, to support the school, in terms of just salary for a couple of years.
The People Bridge Charitable Foundation is dedicated to reducing poverty and promoting good healthcare in communities around the world, while also being responsive to emergencies, wherever they may be.
“That’s my legacy — that if there’s a school in Malosa, which would not have been there other than that, then that’s my giving back,” says the ebullient philanthropist.
That initial meeting also resulted in Happy becoming a certified teacher, the school being named after Gopie, different work initiatives for the local women and men, a water borehole being built, and other projects in the village.
Last October, Gopie took some tablets with her to Malawi for students, and hopes to purchase some more to take, when she goes in the fall.
“With your help, we are supporting 12 students (8 girls and 4 boys) to attend secondary school. The funds from the sponsors cover school fees, registration and exam fees, and uniforms. Funds from other supporters cover the cost of food and housing for the 8 girls, who live in a house close to the school; bicycles for the 4 boys; and school supplies,” notes Gopie in an email she sent out after returning from Malawi.
“Because of your support, we are making a significant difference in the lives of these young people, who are anxious to get an education. I thank you very much for your support, as you join Happy and me, to give a hand up by providing educational opportunity.”
In April, Happy told her that he would be getting married to his love, Memory, at the end of the month. It was a legal ceremony, however, the religious ceremony will be held in the villag, when Gopie visits in October.
The philanthropist says the Global Service Award is really special and significant to her. “Nothing I ever anticipated, as I went about my business, doing what I found fulfilling in my life.”
Gopie’s philanthropy stretches beyond Canada and Malawi. Earlier this year, she was also involved in a virtual fundraising event for healthcare in St. Ann, Jamaica.
“During the pandemic, some of us thought of ways of helping vulnerable populations. The St. Ann Medical Outreach is the result of such thinking. It is an initiative to give back to a place (Jamaica), which has a very special place in our hearts,” she said.
The graduate of Queen’s School in Jamaica worked for the Jamaica Library Service, before leaving Jamaica in 1962 for New York, where she attended business school for 15 months, before migrating to Canada in 1963.
She worked initially as an assistant librarian for the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and, subsequently, attended the Toronto Teachers College that began her career in teaching, which lasted more than 30 years.
During those years, she completed a BA and MEd at the University of Toronto, taught in elementary schools, was a teacher-librarian, a consultant for equity in the curriculum, a university lecturer and an education officer in the Anti-racism and Ethno-cultural Equity Branch of the Ministry of Education.
Upon retiring from a life in education in 1998, she was appointed to the Immigration and Refugee Board, where she served for eight years. Gopie was appointed a part-time commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission in 2006, a position in which she served for two years.
Her commitment to social justice and equity was evident in her involvement in several community organizations, including the Jamaican Canadian Association (JCA), Metropolitan Children’s Aid Society, Ontario Housing Corporation, the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, Beatrice House and United Way of Canada, where she was Vice-chair for two years.
Her love of the Arts led to her volunteering or fundraising for institutions, such as the Harbourfront Corporation, National Ballet of Canada, Roy Thomson and Massey Hall, Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Toronto Arts Council and the Royal Ontario Museum.
Known for her philanthropy, Gopie, who was invested with the Order of Ontario in 1996, supports many causes that seek to enrich and improve the lives of some of the most vulnerable in society.