Gems & Java

by Megan Stacey

Friends, food, shopping, and doing good – what’s not to like?

Mothers with a Heart for Ethiopia’s flagship fundraiser, Gems & Java, has become a pillar of Woodstock’s local fundraising scene.

Longtime guests say that once you go, you have to go back, usually with a few extra people in tow.

“We brought my mom for Mother’s Day one year, and as soon as my sisters came they were like ‘oh my gosh, this is crazy’ and they fell in love with it, too,” said Lori Otto, who’s attended the event from the very beginning.

She’s introduced many people to the fun that is Gems & Java, recruiting most of the female relatives in her family, including her daughter and one of her daughter’s friends.

“My daughter is just 18 and she comes and goes crazy. She shops and shops and shops,” Lori said.

“I found it’s just such a good time for getting everybody together, all the girls.”

Gems & Java has changed as it picked up steam over the past six years. The very first event drew about 100 people. These days more than 500 guests come to enjoy the merriment.

“It keeps growing every year. Every year the committee adds something to make it exciting. It’s never boring because you never know what you’re going to get,” said Judi VanDeCappelle, a longtime donor and guest at Gems & Java.

It keeps growing every year. Every year the committee adds something to make it exciting.
— Judi VanDeCappelle

There are some constants, of course, like good food, impeccable Ethiopian coffee, and an inspirational speech from Shelley Green to update guests about the impact of their funds in Ethiopia.

But the Bags & Baubles Boutique is another area of constant change. The offerings there have expanded just as much as the crowds at the event.

“It was like going to a little boutique when it started, to a shopping mall, now,” said Lori. “It is just so much fun to go. You feel like you’re in a real store.”

Every guest at Gems & Java is able to select one complimentary purse, scarf, or piece of jewellery. Additional pieces can be purchased, and all the proceeds support Mothers with a Heart for Ethiopia.

Lori still remembers what she chose at the very first event.

“It’s a black, leather purse. It was brand new, it had never been used, and now I use it for dressing up,” she said. “The purse is designed like an elephant, the handle goes around and it’s the elephant trunk. It’s really cute.”

One thing sticks out in her mind: “There’s so much to choose from.”

It’s the same story at the silent auction table.

A group of dedicated volunteers work for months leading up to Gems & Java, soliciting gift cards, handmade craft items, and tons of other unique products to entice donors.

“We brainstorm ideas for the kinds of items that we think will generate some excitement on our tables,” said Kim Leuverink, chair of the silent auction committee.

Think pottery, gourmet gift baskets, handmade charcuterie boards – there’s something for everyone.

“We work really hard to make the silent auction appeal to a wide range of people, and we always try to make sure we include some really unique items,” Kim said.

Last year proceeds from the silent auction cracked $10,000.

“It’s always exciting to see those bids run up,” Kim said. “To think about how much that can do for people in Ethiopia is pretty gratifying.”

To think about how much we can do for the people in Ethiopia is pretty gratifying.
— Kim Leuverink

And both events have brand new items on display, both in the Bags & Baubles Boutique and atop the silent auction tables, for both the Friday and Saturday events.

It takes a lot to make the two days run smoothly. Lisa Green is in charge of managing the volunteer power at Gems & Java.

“The cause is a great one – helping people in Ethiopia is exciting – and every little bit donated as volunteer time or money is useful,” she said.

Lisa thinks it’s the social time and the feeling of connection that keeps both guests and volunteers coming back.

“A lot of ladies have said that they so look forward to this event to spend the afternoon or evening with their friends for a great cause.”

It’s that great cause part that stays with guests long after they leave the music and jewellery behind. Many are brought to tears by the stories that Shelley shares from Ethiopia. There are new projects to announce, and updates to share.

The impact, the lives changed in Ethiopia, makes all the thousands of hours that go into the event worth it.

“She can tell it just like it is. She’s a very good speaker. She never ceases to hold my attention,” Judi said of Shelley’s speech.

“Each year you think, ‘there’s just such a need.'”

Each year you think, ‘there’s just such a need.’
— Judi VanDeCappelle

And the grassroots nature of Mothers with a Heart for Ethiopia has some distinct advantages when it comes to donations.

“I honestly believe that when I donate money for something specific here, Shelley is making sure that gets done. I don’t know about other people, but that’s really important to me,” Judi said.

Donors at the event – and those that contribute from afar – know that they’ll be able to see and hear exactly where their dollars went in Ethiopia.

“Because of who we are as Canadians – generally speaking we’re pretty fortunate people here – I think they just see the need to help people who struggle on a daily basis,” Kim said.

“I think that really pulls heartstrings.”

If you’ve never experienced Gems & Java, this is the year to jump on board. Once you see the event in action, it’s likely you’ll be a devotee. 

Feature Story: Mini Gems & Java

by Megan Stacey

It was twice as big – and twice as fun.

When a pair of sisters hosted the first-ever Mini Gems & Java in London last year, it was a modest in-home event with a couple dozen people. This year, they doubled their committee, and upped the ante. 


The guest list jumped from 25 to 50 people, and a few extra walk-ins snuck in. The second annual event was a great success, and raised a whopping $4,000!

In our affluent world, it’s pretty hard not to reach out to people in other countries that are in so much need.
— Alice Vangerweg

“In our affluent world, it’s pretty hard not to reach out to people in other countries that are in so much need,” said Alice Vanderweg, who hosted the 2015 Mini Gems & Java in her home near London, Ont.

 “When we do just a little wee bit, it helps them so much – and that’s so awesome.”

Alice and her sister Agnes Claus started the Mini Gems & Java tradition, and given the rousing success of their event in year two, they’re hoping to keep the momentum going.

“If we’re healthy and well, we’d like to make it an annual thing,” said Agnes.

The feedback the London committee received from guests was overwhelmingly positive.

“They love the event, the fun of it,” Agnes said.

“This is just a fun evening out. I mean who can resist jewelry? It’s fun watching them shop,” Alice added.

Pat Degelman came to the event to support her niece, who was on the organizing committee. She had great success finding treasures in the Bags & Baubles Boutique.

“I got about five different things. And if I don’t wear them, no problem - I just wanted to give some money, you know? That’s what’s important for me,” she said.

Pat said she’d certainly come to another Mini Gems & Java event.

That’s no surprise to anyone who’s been involved with Gems & Java events in the past. 

“We find so many people are repeat guests – if they come once they’ll come again, just like the main Gems & Java. They want to be there again next year,” Agnes said. 

And though putting on a Mini Gems & Java is a big undertaking, “it’s all worthwhile in the end,” Alice said. 

The sisters noted that their two new recruits made all the difference this year.

The event wouldn’t have been possible without Lisa Wedlake and Kristin Somerville, recent additions to the Mini Gems & Java committee.

“They came with so much vim and vigor, and the legwork they did was just tremendous,” Agnes said.

Clearly, that hard work paid off.

St. James Westminster Church was decked out, and the decorations struck the perfect balance of glamour and authenticity. Party favours mimicked MWAHFE’s “scribble heart” logo, and beautiful large-scale photographs of Ethiopian women and children surrounded guests.

A wonderful pianist added light and joyful tunes and the Ethiopian coffee ceremony drew dozens of interested guests.

Volunteers from Mothers with a Heart for Ethiopia staffed the Ethiopian Marketplace, selling jewelry, coffee and even debuting the newest offering, hand-knit Bears for Busajo!

But for most, the highlight of the night is hearing Shelley speak about Mothers with a Heart for Ethiopia and the projects the organization supports.

“I’m really impressed that all of the money goes towards supporting the children and the other causes,” said Kelly, another guest at the Mini Gems & Java. She gladly drove in from Waterloo to support a family member on the committee.

Kelly had another personal connection, too.

“I really wanted to come because my daughter’s best friend is adopted from Ethiopia. It’s kind of near and dear to our hearts,” she said. 

Hearing Shelley speak about the realities – and the potential – in Ethiopia at Gems & Java in Woodstock is what originally drew Alice and Agnes to the cause.

What [Shelley] saw in Ethiopia and what she experienced there just grabbed our hearts.
— Alice Vanderweg

“What she saw in Ethiopia and what she experienced there just grabbed our hearts,” said Alice.

Agnes is confident their event, including those personal words from Shelley, will have the same effect on guests. 

“We saw Shelley’s heart for these needy people. If we could do a small part to make a difference for one person or more, we were thrilled to be a part of that,” she said.

 “It’s just a privilege to help others.”