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May 26, 1999


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Toronto Sikhs Mark Khalsa Celebrations By Raising Money for Children's Hospital

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Sonia Chopra in Toronto

In the celebration of the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Khalsa faith, Toronto's Sikhs have raised about (Canadian) $ 500,00 in pledges for The Hospital for Sick Children Foundation's Herbie Fund.

They chose the Herbie Fund because they wanted to help poor children from across the world get treatment. The Herbie Fund was established by Gina Godfrey and her husband, Sun Media President and CEO Paul Godfrey, in 1979 in response to the plight of seven-month-old Herbie Quinones of Brooklyn, NY, who suffered from congenial birth defects. The family could not afford the series of surgeries. Herbie Quinones is healthy and doing well today. And the fund has since helped 390 children from 77 countries in providing life-saving surgical care

The Sikh Sangat fundraiser involved six Punjabi newspapers, 11 radio stations and six television programs. The radio-thon, telethon and newspaper blitz ran from April 10 to April 18. There are about 150,000 Sikhs in and around Toronto.

"The whole Punjabi media got together to do this Sikh Sangat fundraiser. Our goal was to raise $ 100,000 and we exceeded it by five times," said Jagdish Singh Grewal, 32, businessman, community activist and organizer, who last week spent hours calling up all the people to reconfirm their pledges.

"It was absolutely unbelievable. It was everybody. It was individuals, it was organizations, it was media and it generated a lot of publicity," said Grewal, adding the pledges began from $ 10 and went up to $ 6,000.

"There were people who collected from co-workers who were Canadians -- Muslims, Hindus and from other faiths...this appeal cut across all cultures and religions," said Grewal, adding that the other thing that stood out from the fundraiser was the fact that every single donor from all religions, added the extra dollar.

"That was done because of shagun (good omen) by some people and I think for others it was, sort of, symbolic, as if to say God is one," Grewal said.

Grewal also said that there "are still people calling but we've had to turn them away." And he added that $ 100,000 had been collected on the first day of the fundraiser.

"The community spirit which came across during this fundraiser was phenomenal and the pledges which were raised surpassed our expectations," said Angela Goldman, development coordinator for The Hospital for Sick Children Foundation.

Seva Singh, 40, a real estate broker, who pledged $ 511, said he closely identified with the "spirit of togetherness and involvement that events like these can bring. It transcended life, its routine and everything ordinary."

"It was a way of creating something, something that would help everyone." Singh said.

Singh is also in a position to know exactly how the fund can change lives. Ten years ago, a child was born to close friends of his -- the child had been born with his feet backwards and underwent an operation -- in his case covered under the universal health care system -- and today the boy walks normally.

"This is a major achievement for our community. This is probably the first time that so much money has been raised, big money from big hearts," said Baltej Pannu, 31, editor of a Punjabi weekly Nagara and one of the organizers of the fundraiser, who had also run several ads in his newspaper for the fundraising.

Pannu said this was the first time such a grand celebration on a large scale had been organized, making the community the cynosure of the mainstream media and the world.

"There were ads in papers, radio and television all night and all day and the community response has been heartwarming and so tremendous," said Pannu, who added he like many others had never forgotten how the Herbie fund had helped children.

He recalled one highly publicized case of two Pakistani twins who shared one head, they were operated on and only one survived. "The medical community has made tremendous strides but these must be supplemented by financial resources," Pannu said.

Grewal said the anniversary of Sikhism was celebrated in quiet, intense, thoughtful and meditative manner, "as if people were searching for something within, questioning their hearts and souls.''

He said while the goal of the community had been to reach $ 100,000 -- several had expressed the wish that they wanted to collect $ 500,000 -- because five is tied to the five symbols of Sikhism -- Hair (Kesh), Sword (Kirpan), Underwear (Katcha), Comb (Kanga), Bracelet (Kara).

For many, the celebrations all over the country were a time of awe and wonder.

"It has been 300 years of this religion. It has endured. I thought it was just a chronology but all these people who came to the gurdwaras, they all share my belief and it is real to all of us," said Daljeet Kaur, 24, an architecture student, who donated $ 11 because she felt that she "had to add my contribution to the cause."

Grewal said some people released balloons, red and blue, while others distributed sweets and in honor of the occasion, the Canadian post office printed a commemorative Sikhism postal stamp which was released on April 19, 1999 to celebrate the anniversary.

Pannu said in the 25 gurdwaras all over the city, prayers were held to commemorate April 13, 1699 where Guru Gobind Singh first initiated the path of Sikhism.

Grewal said there were Baisakhi celebration held in Skydome, one of the biggest stadiums in the city on the same day that the anniversary celebrations were being held in Anandpur, the birthplace of Sikhism in India.

He said the special celebration in the stadium -- which had cost the gurdwara $ 125,000 to rent for one day -- where 80,000 people had gathered had been very inspiring to both young and old people. One young man told him, "So this is how it must have been years ago, when people came together and promised to follow one single path of life."

Grewal said he wanted to tell the young man that he "had captured the spirit of the celebration, the religion and the people but he disappeared and became one with the crowd."

"And in the end," Grewal added, "I watched the crowd stand united and that made me very proud."

Anyone wishing to donate money can call (416) 813-7812 or mail a check to the Hospital for Sick Children, 555 University Ave., Toronto M5G 1XS.

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