Syrup for Syria: The fundraiser turning maple sap into humanitarian aid

Dave Belleville of Syrup for Syria, boiling sap down into maple syrup
5 min read
16 December, 2021

A family-run maple syrup fundraising initiative in the United States has turned tree sap into thousands of dollars of vital assistance for crisis-struck Syria since its 2018 inception.

Syrup for Syria (SfS), based in Gloucester, Massachusetts – a city of about 30,000 people – offers a 1.7 oz (50 ml) bottle of maple syrup to those who make a suggested donation of $10 to aid charity the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

Laura Richane, 47, her husband Dave Belleville, 46, and their five-year-old daughter Ahlena run annual fundraising drives for the New York-based NGO. The family's latest campaign launched on GoFundMe on November 21 and has brought in more than $2,000 so far in under four weeks.


"We were just reading about all these terrible things that were happening in the world and we just felt like we weren't doing anything to help," said Richane, recounting SfS's creation.

Belleville added: "But we had just bought a house, so… we couldn't just throw a tonne of extra income at something. Instead, we thought, how can we take no money and make it into some money right away?"

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Richane explained the family had already been making maple syrup as a hobby since 2016. One day, when discussing their options while out hiking, Belleville, who has a marketing background, asked: "How about, 'Syrup for Syria'?"

"Oh yeah. That sounds great," replied Richane, whose paternal grandparents were from Lebanon.

Since then, the family has raised nearly $9,300 for the IRC, producing 100-percent pure syrup by extracting and boiling down sap during the harvest season.

Maple Syria
Maple Syria
Laura Richane and her husband Dave Belleville run annual fundraising drives for the New York-based IRC [Syrup for Syria]

In 2021, they extracted sap from mid-January to mid-March. But before they can do this each year, SfS runs a fundraiser for around a month. Although this concludes at the end of December, the family still has syrup available for donors who approach them at any point during the year.

Currently, SfS is using GoFundMe for the first time, with Belleville and Richane having previously collected donations themselves and given the money as a lump sum to the IRC.

"It's like, when we look at that number, at the end… this just represents like so many people, you know, like helping out in so many different ways"

Despite their GoFundMe campaign having begun on November 21, the family only started promoting it nine days later on GivingTuesday, when Americans are encouraged to be charitable after the consumption-driven Black Friday weekend.

Belleville said: "We spend a lot of this season just being kind of blown away by people's generosity, or ideas or how awesome they are."

So far this year, SfS has raised about twice as much as it had by the same point in its previous annual fundraising drive and is seeking to reach $5,000 overall. Last time, it brought in approximately $3,500 in total – its highest amount ever, despite the Covid-19 pandemic. Benefitting from a donation-matching scheme, this ended up being doubled to around $7,000.

Syrian refugees - Getty
More than 50% of Syrians are living in displacement [Getty]

"It feels great. I mean, it feels like it's sort of this community effort," said Richane of the money SfS raises. "It's like, when we look at that number, at the end… this just represents like so many people, you know, like helping out in so many different ways."

Belleville, a full-time dad, explained most donations come from friends and family, though his wife, who works for the Massachusetts state education department, noted more and more people hear about the fundraiser from elsewhere every year.

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The local community has helped by offering SfS a table at a school fair and giving it platforms in churches. Some people have also let the fundraiser extract sap from their maples, with about half of the 50 trees now in use not being located on Richane and Belleville's property.

A highlight of the production process for Belleville is the "boiling days" – when the sap is boiled down into syrup. People drop off wood to help fuel the fire and some even stick around to enjoy themselves and play musical instruments.

Belleville said: "When we started doing it… [Ahlena] was a little baby. She and Laura would be inside all day, and I would just freeze outside by myself. I was boiling all day. It was so boring and so miserable… We started calling the boiling parties and now people show up and they think it's a lot of fun and they bring dogs and kids."

Though they've never received an international donation, they did get one from a friend of a friend living hundreds of miles away in Florida.

Richane said: "He just heard about it. He really wanted to support us. And so, he mailed this very generous cheque, and just said like, 'I don't need any syrup. This is for the Syrians.'"

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Despite the thousands of dollars raised, Belleville worries it may not be enough. He said: "Anytime I read about the crisis, I think, 'Oh, man, 3,500 or even 7,000, it's just a drop in the bucket.' Like, what are we really doing?"

Things appear differently when he sees how many blankets this equates to on the IRC website, however. "You think, 'Oh, alright. Well, in terms of blankets, that's however many hundred blankets,'" he explained.

Belleville said the money raised goes directly to the IRC's Syria initiatives, which cover everything from food and medical aid to apprenticeships.

This assistance is necessary given the humanitarian disaster in the country, sparked by a devastating civil war in 2011 which saw the so-called Islamic State terror group rise to prominence.

"You may think there's nothing you can do to make a difference, but if you look around, you might find you already have something to offer"

The catastrophe has forced nearly 12.4 million people to flee – with 6.7 million internally displaced and almost 5.7 million refugees in other nations. The IRC said over 50 percent of Syrians are living in displacement.

The global charity helps both Syrians in need within Syria and those living as refugees in surrounding states like Jordan and Lebanon, something Richane said was important to her family.

Asked if others should create similar fundraisers for Syria or other causes, Belleville replied: "Do it."

He and Richane said: "You may think there's nothing you can do to make a difference, but if you look around, you might find you already have something to offer."

More information about SfS is available on the fundraiser's website and GoFundMe campaign page.

Featured image credit: Syrup for Syria

Nick McAlpin is a staff journalist at The New Arab

Follow him on Twitter: @NickGMcAlpin