It began with an unforgettable face, one that Pauline Gauthier first saw on television—the diseased yet beautiful face of a six-year-old Afghan boy—and fell in love with.
At least, it might as well have been love, so intense was the emotional impact that face had on the 38-year-old veteran of hardscrabble nursing in northern aboriginal communities, where she’d already seen more than her share of sick kids.
The boy, Namatullah, was dying of cancer. He’d been taken under the wing of doctors at Canada’s military base in Kandahar. His story was first told on CTV in February 2006, then later in Reader’s Digest. The Canadian doctors were pleading for funds to send him to a palliative care hospital in Pakistan, to ease his suffering.
“It just ripped the heart out of me. The tumour was so big, so raw and ugly, the bandage couldn’t cover it all. But at the same time, that boy was so gorgeous, with huge brown eyes. I felt sick to my stomach, and I made an immediate decision: I was going to do something.”
Gauthier, watching from home in Saskatoon, knew there was nothing she could do to save this particular child, but his heartbreaking situation was the inspiration she needed to do something for Afghan children in desperate circumstances.
And so she founded Adopt Afghanistan and Namatullah’s Foundation for Pediatric Care in 2006, an organization that focuses on saving Afghan children one at a time. The organization has raised close to $70,000 to date. For her projects, Gauthier teams up with other organizations such as the North Edmonton Christian Fellowship, which spearheaded Canadian fundraising for Namatullah.
So far, she has been instrumental in saving the lives of several children by raising funds to send them to hospitals in Pakistan. She has also shipped inexpensive hygiene kits, including bars of soap, to over 100 new mothers to prevent infection and postpartum deaths for themselves and their newborns. “Hey, soap saves lives,” she says.
She’s also raising money to help build a school in Godah, a remote village southwest of Kabul. And a long-range goal is to build a pediatric hospital in Kandahar.
In conversation, Gauthier tends to refer to “we” a lot, but really she’s a one-woman band, with help from her older sister Marielle, in Saskatoon, and Winnipeg friend Lynelle Hébert, who’s known Gauthier since their student days. Hébert says that when Gauthier started her Afghan work “there was so much she wanted to do and not enough hours to do it all. How could I not help?”
One of her biggest fans is Edmonton high-school teacher Terry Godwaldt, who met Gauthier when he decided to set up a video conference between his students and Canadian troops in Afghanistan.
Godwaldt’s project took an unex-pected turn after the two met and came up with the idea of a videocon-ference linking 25 schools on four continents. About 3,000 kids took part in the daylong Video Conference for Hope in November 2006, which raised some $7,000 for the Godah school project through student and community fundraising and featured speakers from the United Nations and Canadian troops in Afghanistan. Students and speakers helped raise awareness by debating issues, sharing stories and celebrating their freedom of education.
The legacy of Namatullah’s face came back to Gauthier recently when she saw photos of one of the children she has helped: infant Khalid, born with hydrocephalus, smiling after surgery that relieved pressure on his brain. “It only took a few thousand dollars to save that boy’s life,” she says matter-of-factly. “Look what $2,000 buys you—a healthy kid!”