Nov 14, 2008

An Interview With Valerie Wood-Gaiger ...W-Icon.

Member Valerie Wood-Gaiger – author, grandmother and teacher – recently won a contest to become one of two W-Icons, or spokespeople, for the British Women's Institute (WI). The Women's Institute is the largest voluntary organisation for women in the United Kingdom. The first British Women's Institute was formed at Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, Anglesey, Wales, in 1915 and today the WI boasts more than 200,000 members.

Valerie lives in Myddfai, in the county of Carmarthenshire, in south Wales. Besides her work with the WI, Valerie is active in her community, enjoys walking with her dogs, is a great-grandmother, an author and one of the founders and operators of Grandma’s Stories, a small publisher, through which she will be publishing a series of books on "on pan European prehistory".

You recently won a competition to become one of two W-Icons, how did you come to be in the competition and what does that mean for you?

I read about the competition in WI Life magazine, just before closing date, and thought I could have a go at that! Got my entry in one hour before Carmarthenshire WI Federation office closed for two weeks! I only applied the day before the competition closed, and before I knew it I found myself in the top ten. We then had two days ask people to vote for me. I live in Myddfai, where there are only about five computers, so I enlisted help from my grandchildren. I was amazed that I received votes from Ukraine to California, Latvia to Australia! I am thrilled that Wales has another winner. The judges actually decided to have two winners. The other one is Emma Cunningham, a 35 year old, from Hampshire. Between the two of us we illustrate the wide age range of women involved with the modern WI.

Many people may not be aware that as well as being fun, the WI is, always was, a campaigning organisation. A current campaign is against slavery in the West. I've just returned from a conference in the Ukraine on language learning where I was the keynote speaker. While there I was able to speak to a lot of students and took the opportunity to warn them to thoroughly check before accepting jobs promised to them in the West. Usually promised jobs are bona-fide offers but there are cases, even here in Wales, where young women, have had their passports, money and mobile phones taken from them and they are forced into prostitution. W.I. is much more than simply "jam and Jerusalem" [jam-making competitions and "Jerusalem," a song many WI chapters sing to open their meetings]. We are encouraging younger women to join and it is an excellent organisation for those women who are recently retired. When retirement comes, work networks can be lost but membership of the WI can provide the opportunity to establish a whole new network of friends.

I am increasingly being asked to give talks to WI, U3A, Rotary (I am a Paul Harris Fellow, which should impress any Rotarian's reading) which I like doing. The next conference I will speak at is on eLearning in Berlin. I will introduce Inter-Generational eLearning. It is absurd that my 10-year-old grandson can produce a PowerPoint presentation and I can't. We older people can learn from the young and we have lots of skills to pass on – we need to do so in a modern technological way.

How did you come to be involved in the WI?

I joined as a young woman in the late 1960s, early 1970s, when I moved to a village in Hampshire. I then lapsed when I lived in London and rejoined when I moved to Myddfai in 1999. WI is a great way to meet new people. WI are keen to attract younger members, incidentally, that is why there are now two SKY W-Icons. There was to have been just one winner but the judges decided to have two: me, sixty-seven years old and a great granny, and Emma, a young mum of thirty-five. I also think that WI is ideal for ladies who have just retired and have lost work-related networks. WI is a great network.

What will you do with the grant that you've won in the competition?

The money will be donated to the 'not for profit' company, Learn with Grandma, which I co-founded after I read that 64% of grandparents look after their grandchildren on a regular basis. In the past that was something they did because they wanted to but these days, with both couples having to work and so many divorces, it is becoming a necessity. I wanted to use this money to help people all over the country have fun without breaking the bank, especially important in these economically difficult times.

One of our publications will be Grandma’s Guide to Great Days Out, which will list FREE places to take your children or grandchildren, and those that offer excellent value for money, less than £25.00 for a family ticket. There will be no charge for inclusion in the guide.

We are looking for places like St Fagan's, wonderful and FREE! In the 100-acre parkland of St Fagans Castle are over forty buildings moved from all over Wales. Roam round the late 16th-century manor house, see workshops where craftsmen demonstrate traditional skills, native breeds of livestock in the fields and galleries with exhibitions of costume, daily life, farming implements and the largest collection of Welsh Love spoons in the World. All FREE. The only charge is £2.50 to park the car and you can eat Welsh food in the café or take a picnic. Places that offer great value for money like Ladyland Farm where, for only £6.00 per person, you get a tractor ride and a badge, you get the opportunity to get right in with the animals, to hold fluffy day old chicks, rabbits and kittens, to see the baby calves, lambs and piglets and to feed & stroke them and bed them down.

How many books have you written and what are your plans, as a writer and publisher?

I am currently working on a series of fourteen books that trace history from the Ice Age chronologically through to Roman times. The first of these, The Ice Journey , is based on America's Smithsonian Institute research that indicates that the original humans to reach the American continent were from what is now Europe. My books are aimed at Key Stage 2 but can also be used in helping adults to read and the dual language Welsh/English version is ideal for adult Welsh learners. This series will end with The Welsh Empress of Rome, the wife of Magnus Maximus, murdered in 388. All books in this series will be bilingual. They're aimed at older children and for adults to read with children and the subject matter is designed to interest a very wide age range. I like weave little known facts into a fictional story. Most adults who read my books find themselves saying, "I didn’t know that." Parents, grandparents, even teachers learn with the children. Books are equally suitable for adults learning a second language. Following a trip to Ukraine recently (I was keynote speaker at a conference for English teachers from eastern Europe) we are working towards publishing in Russian/English, Ukrainian/English, Latvian/English and perhaps Polish/English.

I write from the perspective of a grandmother teaching her grandchildren and at the end include a Learn with Grandma Section with comprehension questions as well as things to do. I remembered all the things I used to do with my grandma, included those and added science and modern technology.

For The Ice Journey , I show how to make a DNA molecule using sweets. Fortunately the old educational idea of learning through doing is now back in fashion. The second book in this series, Beck, an Ice Age Hunter, will be published in the New Year. I am also working on a series based on pan European folk & fairy stories that will be for younger children, These books will also contain our Learn with Grandma actives.

How did you come to write The Ice Journey?

After some research I decided to write a history of the people of the Celtic lands. There is a lot of interest in the Celts but people do not really know much about them. I decided to start, long before the Celts, back to The Ice Age because that was the start of ‘modern’ history. The only people alive were homo sapiens – people exactly like you & me. Also because I hope one day to bring these stories to the American market.

When will this series be available?

Grandma’s Stories is a new, small publisher. We can only afford to publish one book at a time, when we have the money to do so. Book two of the prehistory series will be out in the New Year. After that it is in God’s and our customers hands. We need more customers!

Prior to writing this book, did you have a background or an interest in archaeology, anthropology or related sciences?

No formal background but a great interest in archaeology, anthropology & related sciences. This had been fostered by my grandmother. After my children grew up most of my holidays were spend visiting ancient sites in many countries. I always did the research before going. I went on an archaeological dig in Portugal last summer. I saw it advertised on an online archaeological magazine & decided to go. It was very interesting, great fun and I loved the journey to northern Portugal. The train ride up the Douro Valley was spectacular.

What was your prior career?

Quite a few. Ranging from photographer to shop owner to soft toy agent (I earned enough from that to have a 19 room house. A Rolls Royce, send my three children to boarding school and run a huge overdraft!) to founding a charity to create work for disabled people, for which I was awarded MBE and, in the same week, I was made redundant, age 58. After wasting two years crying, I woke up and realised that I was not redundant, that it was time I pulled myself together and started a new life.

You have a great-grandson, how many children and grandchildren do you have?

My son Neil will be 50 on 2 December. He lives in Glastonbury has two children: Emma, nearly 25, Adam, 22 yesterday. My son, Nicky, 48, is a DJ and a teacher. He lives in Ithaca in the USA and has three children. Maria, 23, is Danish and lives in Copenhagen. She is mother to Magnus, who will be 2 years old in January, Kristian, age 12 and Lula, age 10. My daughter, Alison is married to Erik and lives in Surrey. She has two sons: Oscar, age 10, and Hugo, age 8.

Did you tutor or educate your own children or grandchildren? Have any of them followed in your footsteps?

I was only 17 when Neil was born. We had a lot of fun learning stuff together when they were children. They have all made their own path in life and live all over the world. I am now working on a new ways of maintaining contact with my grandchildren. I started writing books after Kristian said ‘I love you grandma but I need to see you’. I am "Facebook Friends" with the older grandchildren. I have now bought a webcam to tell Magnus stories and am off to Berlin in December to launch a new intergenerational e-learning project.

Can you describe the place you live? How long have you lived there?

Myddfai is a tiny village - about 30 people live in the actual village, plus second homes, Prince Charles has bought a property here. I'm very involved in my community, I go to church and chapel and help organize events to help keep the community together, so important since our pub closed. I have two dogs to walk, great walking round here! And there is the day job. It is a hill village, three miles above Llandovery and in The Brecon Beacons National Park. It is stunningly beautiful and the people have been so kind and welcoming. I thank God for the wind that blew me here. I hope to die here.

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