The American International League of Florence may be based in the Tuscan city, but the charitable organization has members from all over the world. Community wellbeing, social assistance and fundraising are the core goals with the annual Christmas Bazaar at the Tepidarium del Roster in Giardino dell’Orticoltura on December 7 and 8 the perfect opportunity to learn more about their work. AILO president Bergljot Leifsdottir Mensuali tells us about the organization and her path to joining it.
Can you tell us about what brought you to Florence and caused you to join AILO?
I was born in Reykjavik, Iceland and I came to Florence in September 1984, intending to learn Italian for six months. I immediately fell in love with the city. I started knitting as a child and I looked at Italy as the heart of fashion design, someday hoping to study knitting design. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a talent for drawing, so I gave up on the dream, but I remained in Florence and studied tourism science before meeting my husband and having a daughter. I knew about AILO through friends and I joined in 2016. Both my parents had passed away, so I didn’t go to Iceland often and my daughter had started university, which meant that I had more time for myself. I signed up with the Community Service and my first volunteer work was with the food bank for Banco Alimentare. From 2017 to 2019, I was on the board as Community Service chair and I became the president in July.
Can you tell us about the organization?
AILO promotes friendship and understanding among its members and the Italian community through cultural and social activities. English is the official language of the league, which is used at all meetings, with both English and Italian used for publications. The association is proud to have been recognized by the City of Florence in 2011, with the prestigious Leone del Marzocco Award presented to individuals and organizations of merit that have significantly contributed to the welfare of the city. AILO is also a member of the Federation of American Women’s Club Overseas (FAWCO), an international network of independent American volunteer clubs and associations situated in countries all over the world. For me, being a member of AILO means giving back my time and energy to Florence and the province that “adopted” me. I’m very pleased that several new members have joined this autumn, including mothers with young children, so one of our projects is to organize events for them, like picnics, as was the case when AILO was founded.
Before the pandemic, AILO members served food at Caritas in via Baracca. Hopefully, we will start that service again at the beginning of 2023. We also visited retirement homes and what I found very important, both at Caritas and at the retirement homes, is how important it is to smile and be kind. In 2018, we knitted scarves to distribute at Caritas and I always remember when one Italian lady said to me, “I’m so thankful that I can give something new to my son”.
What has been a highlight of your involvement with AILO so far?
The Christmas crochet tree that we worked on with the Il Gignoro retirement home in 2021. A four-metre-high Christmas tree was made out of 10 by 10 centimetre crocheted or knitted squares. It involved many people to get the 3,600 squares made, including women from the Evangelical Church in Florence and Montespertoli, the Rete della Solidarietà del Quartiere 1 Florence, and friends following their Facebook page, La Combriccola delle Sferruzzatrici. In November 2023, AILO will organize Viva Vittoria Firenze, an event against domestic violence. We will cover piazza Santa Croce with blankets made of 50 by 50 centimetre knitted or crocheted squares. I wanted to become a knitting designer, but I have to admit that in some way my dream has come true by organizing and helping to make such big knitting projects happen.
What is the importance of the annual Christmas Bazaar?
AILO held the first Christmas bazaar in Florence in 1975 and since then we have financed more than 400 projects for other associations. This year, our Christmas Bazaar at the Tepidarium del Roster will sell clothes for every season. We will have a new booth called Out of Africa with blankets and items from Africa, as well as wonderful items from Thailand. There will be the toy booth, and our children and grandchildren will be selling items created by them as we want them to learn about the spirit of giving. You can purchase handmade items, Christmas decorations, jewelry, accessories, books and our famous brownies, with Christmas carols and a raffle that has prizes such as a one-week stay for four people in the Chianti Senese donated by To Tuscany Ltd., a tasting dinner for two at the Michelin-starred restaurant, Il Palagio, at Four Seasons Florence, and a 100-euro beauty package by Carlo Bay Hair Diffusion.
How can people get involved?
People seeking a festive atmosphere should come and visit our Christmas Bazaar in this wonderful “crystal palace”. Fun is guaranteed with all the monies raised going to charity. If you want to join AILO, you can visit our website and download the application form, or speak with us directly at the Christmas Bazaar.