"Habitat for Humanity and the well-wishers from Canada came at a point of need, my life has completely changed. We are no longer living in fear or worried during rainy season. Sometimes when I sleep in this house I feel like I am dreaming. My life will never be the same forever.”

- Atupele Abdul 

In 2013, Toronto lawyer Caroline Gelber was just looking for a way to help women in need. It was an urge, she says, that came from knowing how lucky she was to be born a woman in Canada and to have the freedom to pursue her own future. "We have so many opportunities that women in other parts of the world don’t have,” she says. "And I wanted to share that gratitude with others.”

Later that year, Caroline Gelber met Ofra Nissani, a fashion entrepreneur and boutique owner, through a mutual friend – a colleague and friend with fundraising experience who saw the potential for Gelber’s burgeoning vision:  to help single mothers struggling to provide for their families in one of the poorest countries in the world.

"Whenever I think of a place in huge need, I think of Africa,” says Gelber. "I knew I wanted to build homes for single mother families, because single mothers have it harder than anyone else – they are looking after themselves and their children. So I knew I had to help a place where I knew single-parent families were struggling and we could make a difference in their lives.”

Malawi: A Country in Need

As a country of both great beauty and poverty, 75% of Malawi’s population lives on less than $2 U.S. a day. More than 80% of the population lives in substandard homes – typically, a village hut with a dirty floor and thatched roof, offering little protection from the elements and from disease-carrying insects.

It is perhaps less surprising, then, to learn that Malawi has another peculiar distinction: an unusually high number of single-mother families. With little protection from diseases such as HIV/AIDs and malaria, which are rampant in Malawi, 61% of mothers in Malawi are single mothers by the age of 45 –women who are widowed or orphaned and left to struggle to raise their children alone. It is a challenge

The Birth of Building Dreams

It  costs less than $5,000 to build a decent, simple home in the region -- a gift that transform the trajectory of an entire family, providing both mother and children with hope for the future. If they could help raise funds to build homes for single-mother families, Gelber and Nissani thought, they could alter the lives of an entire community. They connected with Habitat for Humanity Malawi, which has helped more than 7,000 families in the country, and shared their plan. Then in 2013, they set out to raise $18,400 – enough money to build four homes – and the Building Dreams event was born.

Conceived as an art show and auction, the 2013 Building Dreams event included a live and silent auction (presided over by a retired auctioneer), live jazz, free wine tasting and exceptional cuisine from Foodies Anonymous Catering and Chef Patrick Louche. The results were exceptional, raising just under $18,000 – enough to build four homes for families in Malawi. 

"Initially we thought Building Dreams would be a one-time thing. But we were so successful building four homes in our first year that we had the confidence to think we could do it again. We have a formula for success.” She laughs. "Now, we don’t want to build a few houses. We want to build an entire village.”
Caroline and Ofra at Building Dreams 2014

Hosted on September 17, 2014 at The Burroughes Building in Toronto, the 2014 Building Dreams event was packed with supporters who shared Gelber and Nissani’s dream. They exceeded their 2013 goal of $18,000, enabling Habitat Malawi to build another four homes –a total of eight homes in just two years. 

So what makes Building Dreams so successful? "Putting together such a complex event is about building a team that works well together in specific roles, whether that’s finding artists, approaching sponsors or collecting prizes,” says Nissani.  "What happens behind the scenes before the event is critical. We have a great team of friends and volunteers who are very resourceful and supportive. We could not do it without them – they have been amazing!”

Partnering Together with Habitat for Humanity Malawi

All funds raised from Building Dreams are sent directly to Habitat Malawi, which carries out the builds with local volunteers and Global Village teams and reports on the progress made each year. Habitat Malawi ensures the homes are built in the same single village so that the women can be together and build their community together. Gelber hopes to one day travel to Malawi, to see her vision in action for herself. But so far, she has not – because she would rather see the funds she would need to fly be directed toward building a house.

That, she says, is enough.
"Now, we don’t want to build a few houses. We want to build an entire village.”
So what advice does Gelber other to for fellow Habitat supporters? "Fundraising is challenging, so if you’re not passionate about what you’re fundraising for, it is easy to give up,” says Gelber. "I have never planned a fundraiser before in my life – and in my first year it was so overwhelming. But once we saw what was possible, we knew what we could achieve. We can’t wait to do it all again in 2015!”
Donate to Building Dreams at www.thedreambuild.com