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Donna M. Cordner Headshot

Global Grandmothers

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As the head of an organization that helps older people around the world, I speak with lots of grandmothers. And each time I do, I remember my own.

I had a very special relationship with my grandmother -- Nana, as we called her. Actually, all my siblings had an invaluable relationship with her. She always made you feel like you were the most important person in the world. Going to her house was always a treat! As soon as you walked in the door you would be greeted by some wonderful smell wafting from the kitchen. Nana was an extraordinary cook who commandeered us as her assistants tasked with critical chopping and peeling roles while we shared stories of our day's adventures.

My grandmother smiled a lot, but in truth, she did not have an easy life. Her father died when he was 24 years old. He left three children and a wife without support. After surviving the Depression with my grandfather, Nana herself was left a young widow with two children. Despite the stresses of managing finances, and taking care of her children and five grandchildren, I never heard Nana complain. On the contrary, she filled us with a sense of optimism and belonging; she made us believe we could and should enjoy life.

Living and travelling around the world, I meet many extraordinary grandmothers; women like Nana who represent the selfless heroes of our world. They make extraordinary sacrifices to support their families. Here are the stories of three women who are now raising their grandchildren on their own, as their own, at an advanced age: Lule of Uganda, Dum Ream of Cambodia and Mama Brigita of Kenya are just three out of hundreds of thousands. Their challenges, fortitude and love for their grandchildren unite them all.

Despite giving life and a home to society's most recent castaways, no fanfare or social benefits await Lule, Dum Ream, Mama Brigita, or the thousands of other global grandmothers; just unending household management, tightening financial constraints, and in many instances, dangerously deteriorating health. Yet when asked about their situations and day-to-day lives, these grandmothers, like my Nana, never sought an escape; it would have been unthinkable to bring their orphaned grandchildren anywhere but home.

Nana, Lule, Dum Ream and Mama Brigita each epitomize the tenacity, wisdom, and dedication older people provide their families and communities. They seek neither accolades nor financial paybacks, and sacrifice despite the physical and economic hardships. Even facing obstacles and limited community support, our global grandmothers continue to provide a solid foundation for the youngest generations, and to build a better future.

My grandmother is no longer with us, but her legacy of 'others first' lives on through my work with HelpAgeUSA. My colleagues and I understand the impact sacrifice and giving can make on the lives of the least fortunate and most vulnerable. The important gifts in life aren't the ones that break, or can be eaten or forgotten. Love, determination and dedication to providing following generations with a better future -- these are the gifts that make the biggest difference in any corner of the world.

This holiday season, I am thankful for my grandmother's example, and the quiet, dignified perseverance of grandmothers all around the world. May you serve as a constant reminder of the true meaning of giving, and an example of generosity we can only hope to match.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction in celebration of #GivingTuesday, which will take place this year (2013) on December 3. The idea behind #GivingTuesday is to kickoff the holiday-giving season, in the same way that Black Friday and CyberMonday kickoff the holiday-shopping season. We'll be featuring posts from InterAction partners all month in November. To see all the posts in the series, visit here; follow the conversation via #GivingTuesday and learn more here. For more information about InterAction, visit here. To see what HelpAge USA is doing for #GivingTuesday, click here.