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The Beginnings of Self Help Crafts (Ten Thousand Villages) in Saskatchewan:
Irma Balzer's Story, told by her daughters Monica Dalke and Rita MacDonald
In a letter dated May 31, 1965, J. M. Klassen, Executive Secretary of MCC (Canada) wrote to the newly formed executive of MCC Saskatchewan, Rev. Isaac Block (chairman) and A. K. Klassen (secretary) as follows:
MCCS executive fully supported this recommendation, and the request was officially extended to Irma.
Simultaneously, while these discussions were happening at the executive level, Irma and Bernhard Balzer were experiencing an empty nest for the first time in twenty-two years. They were looking for something meaningful to do with their lives and considering fostering children.
When Irma was contacted by MCC Canada and asked whether she would consider launching the Self Help Crafts program in Saskatchewan, they had a difficult decision to make. Together, they struggled to discern the direction in which God was leading them. Irma consulted Rev. J. J. Thiessen, who said to her, "Many can foster children, but not many can start a new program." He obviously knew Irma. She was well known for her energy and for her ability to inspire and organize others. She accepted the challenge of promoting the work of MCC, both the Self Help Crafts program and the material aid program, in churches throughout Saskatchewan.
In Irma's words (Excerpts from "A Historic Sketch of the Women's Auxiliary of Mennonite Central Committee Saskatchewan - W.A.M.C.C.S.", housed in the MCCS Archives): "In November 1965 Mrs. Edna Ruth Byler brought a sample kit to the meeting of the newly formed Women's Auxiliary of MCC Sask. She explained in glowing terms that the purpose of this project was to give the poor and handicapped in the third world a chance to use their skills for earning a livelihood, giving meaning and dignity to their lives, rather than be humiliated by depending on handouts and charity. Mrs. Byler was such a tiny lady that she could barely pop her head out behind the high pulpit. But, oh! what a great work she started, sold the items in her Akron gift shop, travelled across the continent to promote it, gave herself completely to this task till cancer and diabetes put an end to it." This may have been Irma's first and only in person meeting with Edna Ruth Byler. Her initial connection with Mrs. Byler was through seeing some placemats that her oldest sister, Eliese Quiring, had purchased, and ordering some as well.
Irma continued: "During the first year of Self Help, orders were taken from the sample kit that Mrs. Byler had brought. From the second year on there were always items available for cash sale. It often took a year for a special order to arrive. But the advantage was that there were more choices as to size, colour and pattern; e.g. one could order over 230 different kinds of tablecloths if one counted the sizes and colours for each pattern in the Jordan needlework." She had an amazing memory for these details as, years later at events like church conferences, she could identify who owned which tablecloth, including colour and pattern number and size. "Naturally more and more people started to come to our house, the only Self Help place at first, for gifts for weddings, birthdays, etc."
By 1966 Irma was fully engaged in implementing the project throughout Saskatchewan. She arranged meetings in General Conference and Old Mennonite churches, and over the years, the churches increasingly invited all the women in their communities to these events. With Bernhard helping to load the car to the top with boxes, she travelled from church to church, often in adverse weather, stayed in homes, set up displays, took orders for crafts, and told stories about the disadvantaged people of the third world and how this program was bringing hope and dignity to them. If the comment was "We do not need anything," Irma replied with "Just think of the starving children." She expected people to support this great MCC project. She was a force who genuinely believed in helping.
She really was a force. Those who attended one or more Self Help Crafts meetings in the churches across Saskatchewan remember and still talk about what an amazing, dynamic, inspired and inspiring speaker Irma was. She told stories of the beginnings of MCC, and how those had personally impacted her family. She told stories of the impact Self Help Crafts was having in lives, families, and communities in many parts of the world. She spoke of the cause and why it mattered, how it was an opportunity to make a difference. She was wonderful!
Irma tells this story: "Sometimes at the meetings, especially in remote areas, children were present as well, which at times created interesting incidents; e.g. the one time when two boys wanted to help repack after the meeting and were to put the Taiwan animals into the box. What were those elephant tusks? Really ivory? Wasn't ivory very expensive? . . . Unpacking at the next meeting most elephants were minus tusks. (The glue was rather weak.) When I returned home after a week from that round trip, lo and behold, a package in our mail with the full number of missing tusks and a note, 'We are sorry.' No signature."
Every year Irma did the rounds of the churches two times; in the first half of the year the focus was on promoting Self Help Crafts and also active support of Material Aid, and, in the months preceding Christmas, delivering the orders. She felt great pressure to get everything to everyone on time for Christmas. She "travelled hundreds of miles every week promoting Self Help Crafts." (The Saskatchewan Valley News interview, Sept. 25, 1996, 50th anniversary of Ten Thousand Villages) She was often exhausted, driving home late at night with the car windows open and singing hymns to keep herself awake.
Bernhard and Irma agreed that they were "doing this for the Lord and let's not count the miles." (The Saskatchewan Valley News interview, Sept. 25, 1996). Nor did they count the cost of keeping the gas tank full and the car running well.
Bernhard's behind-the- scenes support of Irma's more visible work was complete. He was a master at packing the car for her endless road trips, and also at loading the boxes when they arrived at the post office, and then unloading them.
The local postmaster, Nick Sawatzky, made his own cheerful contributions. He would contact Irma, and in great excitement she would rush to town. He would have the heavy boxes at the back, and have to hand them out through the window. He was always very helpful.
Shipments were originally stored in the unused front porch space in the farmhouse, with the unpacking and sorting in the dining and living rooms progressively taking over more and more of the house. Space had become almost a crisis issue when local businessmen George Dueck and Don Regier donated an unused, unheated store in Laird for use as a warehouse. Bernhard was involved in building the shelves.
It was cold while unpacking the items and organizing and repacking them for delivery! But it was also a lot of fun. Many were involved in that work and fun. Through helping, they also experienced the importance of this work.
For example, at the celebration of Irma's 90th birthday, Doris Pedersen said to her, "Sometimes I helped with inventory lists or unpacking materials. One time we found a wooden bread plate that was cracked so you let me take it home. I'm still using it and almost daily I think of you. I think of your faith in action, of the incredible energy and compassion you showed to help less privileged people in the world, and it also reminds me of good times that we have shared."
That was part of Irma's gift - she was able to engage so many other people from the community in the work - Nick Sawatzky, George Dueck, Don Regier, and many volunteers who willingly helped in any way they could.
There were sometimes broken items in the shipments which could be repaired and then sold at discounted prices. Walter Neufeldt excelled at doing those repairs. It was wonderful to have such a craftsman give of his skill and time.
Perhaps Elmer Neufeld, who had been board member of and then treasurer for MCCS and who identified himself as Irma's "friend and former colleague" at her 90th birthday party, said it best: "There is one other person who needs to be mentioned at this time. This person is Bernhard Balzer, your dedicated late husband and partner. It was he who kept the home fires burning while you dedicated yourself to the Crafts program. It was truly a partnership."
Bernhard's support continued when Irma came home exhausted, and then sat at her desk all day - and often late into the night. The work, in some ways, had only begun when she arrived back home. MCC (Akron) would send her lists of products and producers and she would order directly from them. In those years the items were mostly from Jordan, which consisted of needlework, olive wood carvings and mother-of-pearl jewellery from Palestine, now West Bank, needlework, brass, jewellery and padded jewellery boxes from India, wooden salad bowls and trays from Haiti, carved animals from Taiwan, and clothing from Hong Kong. She came from each trip with individual orders which needed to be consolidated for each church. Then, these needed to be reconsolidated into one order placed directly with each producer. She spent hours at her desk, creating immaculate records. She used carbon paper to make triplicate records - for the producers in each country, for MCC (Akron) and a copy for herself. Irma herself never took her husband's complete and untiring support for granted. In her tribute, at Irma's 90th birthday party, Kathy Klassen said: "Your boundless energy and devotion were amazing. I appreciated the credit you always gave to your family for freeing you up to do this time-consuming work."
More than likely Irma also added personal letters to the orders, getting to know the producers and their families, forming friendships. Evidence of this is a personal gift from her contact in Bethlehem, a New Testament with mother-of-pearl covers. This was never part of the inventory. The inscription reads:
"After 1971 the Self Help project was changed to a cash sale basis only, with no ordering of specific items by individual customers," (Excerpts from "A Historic Sketch of the W. A. M. C. C. S.") at which time Irma retired from this work. When she was interviewed in 1996, she recalled that "sales of Self Help Craft products in the province increased from nothing, when she first started, to $2000 in the first year and almost $20,000 when she stepped down." (Saskatchewan Valley News article, September 25, 1996).
Irma's support of Self Help Crafts, later on Ten Thousand Villages never waned. Both she and Bernhard spent way beyond their budget in buying wonderful gifts for their children and others from Ten Thousand Villages. This was the place to be extravagant. It was "helping others to help themselves." That was her motto.
She willingly, and with much joy, volunteered to work in the Global Village Crafts office during the seven months (1977-78) that Toni Peters, then the Director, and her husband, Fred, Executive Director of MCC Saskatchewan, were away on an MCC assignment in India and Bangladesh. As Elmer Neufeld recalled, "You were going to spend two days a week, and those two days quickly expanded and before we realized what had happened you had begun to work three and four days a week. You never complained. You saw the work that needed to be done and you just did it."
The legacy of Irma's passionate and devoted work has lived on. One cannot know all the ways that her commitment to this calling made a difference. Some examples are known. Ruth Toews (again on the occasion of Irma's 90th birthday party) said: "Your words and example have made a deep impression on me and influenced my life. I volunteered at Global Villages when the store opened in Edmonton in 1985. In 1996, it became Ten Thousand Villages and I took the job as co-manager. You awakened my interest in this project and it has grown since . . . . This job has become my love and passion. Thank you for being my mentor and role model."
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