Hanging your hat in a new home for a cause

(Edmonton) If you ever find yourself trekking through the northwest corner of Nepal and you can’t shake the feeling that the fellow working in the field ahead is wearing your favourite little-league hat, he probably is.

How your ball-cap collection miraculously made it halfway around the world to one of Asia’s most remote and poverty-stricken areas started four years ago with an idea by Wanda Vivequin, communications manager in the Faculty of Science, to deliver 10,000 hats to the Himalayan town of Humla, Nepal, to help combat an epidemic of cataracts.

On March 24, the journey of 10,000 baseball hats from Edmonton to Nepal will be featured in a documentary being premiered at the Royal Alberta Museum called The Forgotten Himalaya.

Vivequin, who has led tours in and around Nepal for more than a decade, was guiding a trek through the Himalaya’s in 2007 when talk with her group turned to how locals might protect their eyes from the sun while they spend their days working outside.

“It was determined that sunglasses aren’t really the answer, but a cap would be pretty easy,” said Vivequin. “I kind of stored that in the back of my head, and in early 2008 I decided to try collecting some hats before I went back over in May of that year.”

Once home, Vivequin began sending emails to those closest to her, wondering if she could have their old hats. Her quest passed the point of no return when a friend at the CBC asked if Vivequin was interested in airing her story on CBC radio’s Sounds Like Canada with Shelagh Rogers.

As luck would have it, documentary film maker Toby Molins, who coincidently had just suffered an eye injury while skiing, heard the interview and signed up for the journey of 10,000 hats.

Vivequin was filmed doing everything from going to homes, schools and businesses in her quest for hats, as well as working through the transportation logistics of such an unusual shipment.

“I would be working the phones and there would be a box of hats put on my doorstep. Moms would empty out hat collections that piled up in their basements. One farmer gave me 500 hats. ATCO, who sponsored a yak to help carry the caps, also donated a bunch. It was insane, it really was,” she said. “I had an entire history of Canada in hats in my living room. If there was a commemorative event and they produce a hat, I had it.”

Beyond the hats, Vivequin says the project was ultimately about raising awareness of the damaging effects of the sun. She said cataracts are attributed to exposure to sun, poor diet and genetics, and that protecting your eyes from the sun is a good idea.

“I remember we held a clinic at the [local] hospital where we announced over the radio we were giving away free hats as well as putting on a clinic at the local hospital on eye protection,” said Vivequin of the delivery. “Two thousand people turned up at the hospital to get a hat.

“When we started coming back down into the valley after our trek, we started bumping into people with Ottawa Senators hats or a Kulak Farms Wetaskiwin hat; it was surreal.”

All proceeds from the film, which is narrated by Rogers, will go towards funding a cataract surgery camp in Humla in 2011. U of A alumnus Larry Louie of Louie Eye care in Edmonton is the event’s sponsor.

“When people think of Nepal, they think of Everest, but this is an area of the country that isn’t regularly featured and are desperately poor,” said Vivequin. “The film is a nice way for people to see a different part of Nepal that isn’t regularly featured, and how ordinary people can put a little bit of effort in and help out.”

The show begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 at the door.