Denise Pelley embraces Sudanese family

by Sean Meyer, Our London

When Pelley was approached by Sunfest artistic director Alfredo Caxaj with the idea of performing a Christmas show at Aeolian Hall, it didn’t take her long to give him an answer.

“Of course I said yes. I love Christmas music and I really enjoy performing in Aeolian Hall,” she said. “I do love Christmas music; it’s the feeling and the joy of giving. In my case, I get to enjoy the joy of giving music.”

That gift is what has driven Pelley, not just during the holiday season, but also throughout her award-winning career.

It also is a big part of why next month she will again be making the two-day journey from London to the small village of Gordhim in Aweil East, South Sudan.

Leaving the Forest City on Saturday, Jan. 13, Pelley — along with a group of Londoners including London Food Bank co-directors Jane Roy and Glen Pearson — will be making her 11th visit to South Sudan.

Her first visit came in 2007, but the genesis of her long relationship with the village and its people stems from a fundraising concert for the region she was a part of the year before.

“Going to Africa had always been on my bucket list. I remember saying to (Jane and Glen) I would like to go sometime and see what you see, experience what you experience, meet who you meet,” she explained. “And Jane said, well then come; so I did. I remember getting off the plane in Kenya and thinking, this is surreal. And it still is.”

Pelley said she actually enjoys the exhausting two-day trip to Gordhim, which includes flying from Toronto to Amsterdam to Kenya where the team will stay overnight.

That stopover is followed by a flight to the South Sudanese capital of Juba, followed by a trip to a neighbouring village, and then a drive into Gordhim.

Pelley’s main role with the team is to help run a music and art camp for the kids.

In 2007, the camp wasn’t much more than 30 kids getting together in a small church to sing songs.

This past January when they put on the camp, Pelley stopped counting at 400 participants.

“We do it outside under a big tree, the kids are on the ground, we sing for an hour, they draw and play for an hour, and we end the camp giving them a small drink of water and a cookie,” she said. “A lot of these kids have to take on the role of parents when mom and dad aren’t there all day. But they can come to the camp and be kids for a couple of hours.”

Next month’s trip might be her 11th, but it’s more than just a visit to help support children — really, the entire village — as they struggle with making ends meet on a daily basis.

For Pelley, it’s the opportunity to go back and visit with people she considers family who have literally grow up around her.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to see many of the same people every year. I’ve been able to watch them grow, have babies of their own,” she said. “I’ve never seen people, never met people, who have nothing and can still have a smile on their face. It’s not difficult for me to understand it, but it sure puts things in perspective.”