When Ava Vanderstarren competed in and won the Miss BC pageant in 2013, she was inspired to establish her own charity. Six years later, she continues working on the rehabilitation of former child soldiers in Sierra Leone.
“On that weekend, I decided what are the most important things to me, for my platform, which were women’s rights and rehabilitation of child soldiers,” the Chilliwack native said.
Her partner, Fazineh Keita, is a former child soldier from the Sierra Leone civil war and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. The two decided to found the Innocence Lost Foundation in 2013.
“We thought that, later on in our lives when our careers were established, we would do humanitarian work. Miss BC gave me the push to start it in then instead of waiting,” Vanderstarren said.
The couple is raising funds to build a healing centre that will offer education, skills training, and therapy programs for former child soldiers.
They have so far raised $115,000 of their $200,000 goal for phase one, which includes the land purchase, a well, and a medical clinic. The 3.5-acre site will later include a library, computer lab, classrooms, soccer field, and outdoor teaching areas.
|Photo by M3 Architecture
The art therapy programs were inspired by Keita’s experience in overcoming trauma.
“Usually, people don’t want to talk about things,” Vanderstarren said. “[But] if you’re working through an acting piece, writing, painting, drawing, doing activities – there is natural healing that starts to occur.”
She recommends that Miss BC contestants volunteer with local organizations and only start a charity if they are ready for a lifelong commitment.
“Choose a platform that is personal to you and something you would dedicate yourself to.”
This year’s Miss BC pageant will be held June 29 - July 1 at Chief Sepass Theatre in Fort Langley.