Gisela Becker: A Backyard Hero with a Global Impact
The image of the city of Detroit throughout the country and abroad is one of hopelessness. But the town that needs all the help it can get has something to offer others, starting with one person in Metro Detroit who sees needs far beyond the city and reaches out to meet them.
In a small, inconspicuous house in suburban Detroit, a transatlantic charity named St. Paul Nonprofit Charitable Organization (SPANCO) thrives under the leadership of Gisela Becker. An 80-year-old immigrant from Germany, Becker has turned her garage and her home into a warehouse for SPANCO, filled with goods for the developing world: clothing, sewing machines, school supplies and toys.
In 1990, after the death of her husband, Paul, she decided to travel the world, which had always been her dream. On her travels in 1995, Becker was in Turkey and met a boy from Ghana on a bus to the airport. The boy, named Uriah, was returning home after his job as a deckhand. He told Becker about his homeland in west Africa and how hard it is for his family to survive. They had neither the tools nor the training to make a good living.
Before they parted, Becker gave the boy some money and promised to stay in touch. She sent over tailoring equipment, she paid for Uriah's sister to go to school, and she did her best to help his family.
Then Becker decided she wanted to see the impact of her help firsthand. In 1997, she flew to Ghana and visited Uriah's family. She witnessed the distress and pain of the people of Ghana. She was especially touched by the children, who were sick or orphaned by HIV/AIDS. She concluded that more had to be done.
So she founded SPANCO in her husband's memory. Its mission: "to empower people in developing countries, starting with Ghana in Western Africa, to become self sufficient in the areas of education, agriculture, and health care."
Becker moved quickly to raise the capital to complete her projects. She began paying for the schooling of kids in the village in Ghana. Persuading kids to go to school is an easy sell in Ghana, since it's one of the only places where they know they will be fed and sheltered. Becker has also been able to raise enough money to build a clinic and support five orphanages that support 380 childen. SPANCO recently installed a water tank and a well to help quench the seemingly constant drought.
In addition to her major projects, Becker is collecting goods from the Detroit community on a day to day basis. Often, when Becker is out of town, people will drop off donations for sorting later. Becker had to move her car out of the garage because it is mostly filled with donated goods.
With volunteers, she sorts donations and stores the boxes until a big shipping container can be brought in and filled for the people in Ghana.
"Ms. Becker is living proof that everything happens for a reason," said volunteer Maurice Hill. "She helped me realize how fortunate I am to have family, friends, and a safe environment to live in."
People have noticed Becker's work. In January 2007, she won the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "Keep the Dream Alive" award from the Archdiocese of Detroit. That year, SPANCO was also granted status as a charity in Germany. SPANCO now has an office there, too.
Gisela Becker, the tireless philanthropist and neighbor, provides not only hope for the people of Ghana but for the whole metro-Detroit community.
Michael St. Germain is part of the “TIME 11,” a group of Detroit area high-school students working with Assignment Detroit. He recently graduated from Cranbrook Kingswood in suburban Detroit and will be attending Johns Hopkins University in the fall.
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