A multiyear Kiwanis project between Iceland and Canada bridges over 2,700 miles.
By Julie Saetre
On the west side of Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada, the unincorporated community of Gimli is home to fewer than 2,400 residents. Its first European settlers came from Iceland and established the New Iceland settlement in 1875. Outside of Iceland itself, Gimli now has the largest number of Icelandic peoples in the world and is known as “the second Iceland.”
In August 2022, the Gimli and District Kiwanis Club accomplished a multiyear project with a fellow Kiwanian in Iceland: bring free bicycle helmets to the community’s children.
In 2019, Gimli club member Sam Sekhon, then a Kiwanis International trustee (2018-21), and his wife, Terry, traveled to Iceland for the Iceland-Faroes District convention and met Kiwanian Ólafur Jonsson.
Jonsson chairs a Kiwanis district project that distributes free bicycle helmets to children to protect them from head trauma if they take a tumble. The successful initiative has been going strong for over 25 years. The bike helmets are donated by Eimskip, an international shipping company with offices in Europe, North America, South America and Asia. In 2022 alone, over 4,400 bike helmets were distributed. Every Icelandic child in first grade received one. In total, the Kiwanis/Eimskip partnership has brought bike helmets to some 65,000 children.
Impressed, the Sekhons thought the children of Gimli could also benefit from such a program. They learned that Petur Jokull Hakonarson, an Eimskip district manager, works with the Iceland- Faroes Kiwanis District on the helmet project.
“Terry is a very persuasive person,” says Sam Sekhon. “She first convinced Ólafur Jonsson to introduce her to the Eimskip representative [Hakonarson]. Then she did what she does.”
Hakonarson readily agreed to help the children of “second Iceland.” Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
But Terry remained in touch with Jonsson. In June 2022, as pandemic restrictions continued to ease, the Sekhons got news that the promised helmets were ready to ship.
Trekking to and through Canada
Jonnson’s help didn’t stop there. He reached out to the CEO and assistant CEO of Icelandair Cargo and asked whether the helmets could be shipped from Iceland to Canada at no cost. The pair agreed, but Icelandair could not deliver directly to Winnipeg. Instead, the shipment would arrive in Toronto.
This brought a new challenge for the Sekhons: How to get the helmets released quickly from Canada customs and shipped to Gimli.
Terry, of course, didn’t let this latest development deter her. She contacted Ken Allan, then governor of the Kiwanis Western Canada District, for help. Allan referred her to Jim Scott, then governor of the Kiwanis Eastern Canada and the Caribbean District. Scott worked with a broker who arranged for the shipment’s release and for Loomis Cargo to transport the helmets from Toronto to Winnipeg.
The timing was flawless, as the 93 new helmets arrived just in time for the annual Icelandic Festival of Manitoba. Known by locals as “Islendingadagurinn” and launched in 1890 — only 15 years after Gimli was established — this celebration of Icelandic culture now attracts as many as 30,000 people.
The 2022 festival program had already been printed, but the event organizers worked with Terry to add helmet distribution to the schedule. Finally, the years-long project came to fruition on August 1, 2022, when 60 children received bicycle helmets on the festival’s main stage. The remaining 33 helmets were donated to Gimli schoolchildren.
The wait was worth it.
“The joyous looks on the faces of the children, their parents and the dignitaries from Iceland (in Gimli for the festival) made it worthwhile,” says Sam Sekhon. “Our stress and tension all faded away, and that, for the two of us, was truly a Kiwanis moment.”