#AnythingButAirAsia

According to CNN, Twitter, Facebook, Google News and CBC, it now appears likely that the 162 occupants of Air Asia flight QZ8501 have perished into the Java Sea; I know because I- along with hundreds of millions of others- have checked these news sources periodically over the last couple of days. Our infatuation with such events is not related to the premature death of the individuals who have died, or the suffering of their family and loved ones. If our cause for concern really was so selfless, the following travesties in the last 24 hours would have occupied a greater portion of our very limited attention:

  • 29,000 children under the age of five died from preventable diseases [1]
  • 13,400 people died from diabetes [2]
  • 2,160 people committed suicide [3]

If you tuned into any sort of media coverage in the last two days, none of these travesties would have graced the lips of news broadcasters because they were not deemed adequately sensational. If we really prioritized our limited attention to the troubles in the world that were in the greatest need of our attention, the 1,500 #AirAsia tweets that reached 18.1 million people would not have been tweeted [4]. This should be a cause of concern for all of us. I can roughly allocate my own typical 24 hours to the following:

  • 8 hours to sleep
  • 8 hours to work
  • 2 hours to cook, eat and clean
  • 1 hour to exercise
  • 1 hour to transportation (point ‘A’ to point ‘B’)
  • 1 hour to reading, watching TV or checking the news

This leaves 3 hours of ‘float’, which is unaccounted for, wasted, or pilfered. I find it troubling that I have consumed an inordinate amount of my time to an occurrence- the crashing of the Air Asia flight- whose outcome is unaffected by my attention. I say this not to belittle the deaths of the passengers and crew, or the very real impact that the currently unknown circumstances causing the plane’s crash has on the confidence of the billion times per year that a passenger boards a commercial flight.

Why do I belittle this occurrence? Because it is statistically inconsequential; certainly not because I don’t grieve for the lost lives and their grieving families- I do. Next Tuesday, I will board a plane in Montreal bound for Victoria without the slightest degree of hesitation greater than the opposite route two weeks prior, on a plane model nearly identical to that which now finds itself on the floor of the Java Sea. I know that aviation authorities will learn from the errors that led to the planes demise, and incorporate the necessary changes to pilot training and best practices. These changes do not rely on my attention via media outlets. The airline companies and pilots- via their professional pride and obligations- will react and adapt. The scale of changes they implement will not be proportional to the inordinate amount of attention people pay via the media.

Whenever a sensational occurrence captivates our attention, let us ask if our time expended following the story will have any real impact on the outcome of those affected. Be mindful of the notion that our capacity to have concerns for others- both emotionally and in the amount of time we have to spare- is finite. Let us instead focus our energies on avenues where our attention can make a difference. Those 29,000 children that died today from preventable diseases? Take some time to learn about it. Your friend who has been packing on pounds and neglecting their diet? Get them out for a walk. And that loved one who you know darn well suffers even the slightest twang of mental illness? Just check in. #AnythingButAirAsia.

References:

[1] UNICEF, Millennium Development Goal No. 4: Reduce Child Mortality, http://www.unicef.org/mdg/childmortality.html

[2] International Diabetes Federation, Diabetes Atlas, http://www.idf.org/diabetesatlas

[3] Suicide.org, International Suicide Statistics, http://www.suicide.org/international-suicide-statistics.html

[4] Hashtracking.com, Analytics for #AirAsia hashtag as of December 31 2014, https://www.hashtracking.com/explorer/?hashtag=airasia

Hero Work

I encourage you to donate to the Hero Work Program’s crowdfunding campaign. Please bear with me while I explain; if you’re short on time, just skip down to “The Pitch”.

About Giving

According to Statistics Canada, Canadians donate about $10.6 billion per year to charity. The average annual amount per donor amounts to $446, with British Columbians the most generous at $543. For better of for worse, a large portion of Canadians’ charitable giving occurs in the Christmas period. Whether you chalk it up to guilt from the holiday overconsumption, a last-minute attempt to maximize the year’s taxable write-offs, or simple old goodwill, it happens. Many service-based charities such as food banks struggle with and adapt to this pattern because the demands placed on their organization are distributed throughout the year. In any case, the Christmas season presents an opportunity for non-profit organizations to highlight their causes and power up their bank accounts into the next year.

Whenever I can, I donate to or volunteer with organizations whom I feel are in need, or supporting a good cause. Simply put, it feels good to give. Additionally, it is an opportunity to ask yourselves and those around you some important questions, such as:

   Should charity really start at home?

   If I am really concerned about poverty in my community, should I focus my giving on education initiatives or the food bank?

   Will my donation to causes supporting Syrian refugees really make a difference, or am I merely tossing a dime into the darkness?

There are no simple answers to these questions. Last year, in an attempt to instigate such discussion and make the world feel a little smaller, I tried something with my family scattered at ten spots around the world. In each of their names, I donated to a charity in a location other than their town. Read about it on this blog post. I called it “wrapping the world”:

Each arrow represents a donation from some of my family to a cause somewhere else in the world.

Each arrow represents a donation from some of my family to a cause somewhere else in the world.

The causes I selected represent a broad cross-section of the social inequalities facing the world, ranging from troubled youth in Montreal to Filipinos struggling with the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. I didn’t even delve into the equally vast and (arguably more) needy array of environmental causes. This was an exercise that I enjoyed tremendously, and it did lead to some good conversations with my family.

This year, I am asking my family, friends, colleagues and clients to consider one particular cause for their hard-earned donor dollars.

Exhibit A: All Hands Volunteers

In the fall of 2010 I spent a few months working in Haiti with the inestimably excellent All Hands Volunteers. All Hands was focussing its efforts in the community of Leogane, where the earthquake had killed an estimated 70,000 of its 200,000 residents, and destroyed or rendered unsafe 90% of the buildings. I was struck by the extremely thrifty approach to their work, the genuine relationships with the community, and the commitment to leaving a legacy of increased community capacity rather than mere bricks and mortar. This set of values was embodied in the founder, David Campbell, one of the finest individuals I have had the pleasure of meeting. David was motivated to create All Hands following the 2004 tsunami that killed an estimated 230,000 people- he recognized a need to organize the many people, locally and around the world, who wished to volunteer in the response to the disaster.

Exhibit B: The Canadian Red Cross

Following the Haitian earthquake, a number of my colleagues in Fort McMurray passed the hat around and we donated the sum to the Canadian Red Cross. To my great dismay, in the community of Leogane the Canadian Red Cross held a reputation near opposite to that of All Hands. Rather than using local drivers and trucks to transport workers and materials, Canadian Red Cross workers paraded about in new air conditioned Land Cruisers. Their base and office was renowned for hosting the wildest parties in town- a very stocked patio bar was visible from the streets, poking just above the razor-wire adorned perimeter wall. Their initiatives in the community were ambiguous, and their concrete contributions difficult to account for. And yet, on charity ranking sites such as Charity Intelligence or Money Sense, the Canadian Red Cross ranks very highly for its seemingly low overhead expenses and its governance. I surmise that such a large organization has many initiatives- while some of them may well be better managed than their Haitian efforts, it is not difficult to hide a few bottles of Grey Goose or fleets of Land Cruisers in the program costs. Needless to say, I have ceased my donations to the Canadian Red Cross.

[Note: I found the Swiss Red Cross to be exemplary in their initiatives and their relationship with the community.]

Exhibit C: Hero Work Program

Do I really need to justify the organization’s worth with an awesome name like that? Sure.

New to Victoria this summer, and seeking ways to connect to the community, I heard about Hero Work while they were midway through their most recent project in support of the Threshold Housing Society. I showed up one sunny Saturday morning in September, sporting my best impression of a carpenter’s helper rather than a desk-dwelling engineer. I have difficulty expressing just how impressive of a scene met me at the corner of Oak Bay and Davie, where Hero Work was transforming a dilapidated four unit townhouse into a home in which to cradle, support and inspire at-risk youth. A clean, organized site was crowned by cheery people of all walks of life, buzzing about and preparing for the day. As the work progressed with intense yet amicable folly, I saw a community- contractors, musicians, hardware stores, photographers, restaurants- uniting around a cause and creating something so much greater than the beautiful and high quality building that resulted. Paul Latour is the founder of Hero Work, and as the project came to a close, he captivated me with the following notion:

   Small businesses are the foundation of our community. When residents support small businesses that support our community, great things can happen.

Hero Work identifies the contractors and businesses who support its projects with some cunning marketing. This is merely one aspect of the phenomenally functional model that Paul and the Hero Work team is committed to developing. When Hero Works renovates a piece of charity infrastructure, the benefits extend far beyond the recipients of the charity’s work. The sense of community that develops from hundreds of volunteers dancing around each other in a symphony of concrete, paint and topsoil is invaluable.

The Pitch

Hero Work is competing against countless worthy causes. I urge you to consider donating to them. All Hands is a great organization that, prompted by David Campbell’s phenomenal vision and the hard work of many people over the last decade, is in a strong position to continue to respond to communities recovering from disasters. I’ve described my experience where a “conventional” charity- the Red Cross- may actually amount to a significant amount of bluster and not much blow.

Here are a few reasons why you might hesitate to donate to Hero Work:

  1. “They are only in Victoria. Shouldn’t I focus on my own community?”
  2. “They are not a registered charity, so I’m not going to get a tax credit.”
  3. “They seem to have a large social media presence. Shouldn’t a non-profit organization be focussing its efforts on the nuts and bolts rather than the image?”

All reasonable causes for query. And my answers:

  1. See “Wrapping the World”. The world isn’t that big; to help someone in a community or country other than yours is still to help someone. For my fellow British Columbians and Canadians, Paul has matched his incredible passion with tremendous diligence, developing a plan to scale this model across the province and the country in the decade to come. I am helping Hero Work by further developing the model for its relationship with its contributing contractors. With your help, 2015 will see two more projects in the Victoria area. Hero Work has Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland in its sights for 2016.
  2. In 2014, Paul and the Hero Work board displayed great foresight by employing significant efforts to develop a business plan. They engaged mentors and strategic planners to ensure that their vision could be attained. Hero Work has completed $1 million worth of renovations without a single fundraiser. It was not until a month ago that their application for charity status with the Canadian Revenue Agency was filed. This important status should come into effect some time in the New Year. But as Paul so eloquently stated in a recent appeal, NOW is the time to donate and ensure that this momentum is maintained.
  3. I was initially caught off guard by Hero Work’s nice website, and its incessant photo and video updates via facebook. Paul is a passionate and visionary individual who also happens to be a marketing guru. He is leveraging the vast exposure to be attained through such channels to spread the good word, and inspire others to contribute. Simple as that.

In closing, please consider donating to the Hero Work via their crowdfunding campaign. Just as All Hands has grown over the last decade to become a world leader in the efficient, transparent and innovative delivery of volunteer aid, I see a Hero Work program a decade from now that is renovating charity infrastructures across the country, leaving empowered communities in its wake. All Hands grew with the vision of David Campbell; Paul Latour is an individual I hold in equal esteem and with your help, great things will happen. It is a cause which I wholeheartedly endorse. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

In any case, I hope that you take some time during this holiday period to value the health, safety and wellbeing that you enjoy. So many of us are in a position of abundance in these categories; any effort to assist others that are less endowed is an effort that you will not regret.

Merry Christmas.

This Ruddy Desert

In September, I acted on a long-suppressed whim. Over the last few years in Canmore I had noticed in the newspaper the occasional call for auditions by the local theatre company, Pine Tree Players. As an engineer in construction, the most creative part of my daily routine is deciding which pattern of flannel should adorn my button-up wrinkled shirt. And in high school and university, I opted for mountain biking and extra physics classes over drama and painting. Needless to say, I was shocked- and terrified- to be awarded the lead role (note: I have no illusions- my successful audition was more so due to the lack of male candidates than my natural thespian talents).

The play was written by a playwright named Ralph van Drielen, who happened to hail from Golden. This was the world premier- no director to date had taken the bait as did our fearless leader, Louise Shore.

We rehearsed relentlessly. Three to four times a week, we would trot and stomp and cry and shout around the stage in the Canmore Miner’s Union Hall (built in 1910, and recently beautifully restored). Come the premier on November 13, my boots were still shaking. “George Marshdom”, my alter ego, was to be a pretentious stockbroker, a slight stretch from my low-toned self. Every one of the eight shows we performed over following 11 nights was a unique adventure. I immensely enjoyed myself and am looking out for the next challenge.

Enjoy:

Wrapping the World

Welcome, family.

I’ve donated $100 to ten different charities. Explore this map of the world. Each of arrows represent the path from you to the charity I’ve supported in your name.

Cathy – Canmore, Canada

To United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – Syria

Denise and Johnny – Bedford, Canada

To Golden Women’s Resource Centre – Golden, Canada

James and Jennifer – Cochrane, Canada

To United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund – Syria

Sam, Harry, Jenny and Andrew – Devon, United Kingdom

To Partners in Health – Haiti

Adam – Fort McMurray, Canada

To L’Ancre Des Jeunes – Montreal, Canada

Judy and James – Golden, Canada

To Child Poverty Action Group – United Kingdom

Carl and Patricia – Brazil

To Hearts and Hands Foundation – Uspantan, Guatemala

Emmy, Bev and Jean-Patrick – Montreal, Canada

To Broken Earth – Haiti

Here’s a beautiful story about this charity.

Nell and Becky – Northampton, United Kingdom

To Fresh Start Recovery Centre – Calgary, Canada

Ellie, Ben, Marie and Steve – Ottawa, Canada

To All Hands Volunteers – Phillipines

Imbalance

It is a Friday. I am sitting on a couch, in a house, next to a dog and a TV. I am in Canmore, Alberta, Canada, Earth. And this is home.

If a mighty storm were to come through the Bow Valley, I would be protected by a force field composed of my 4×4 truck, house of double paned windows, and Claire Martin proselytizing a soothing forecast on CBC. On big screen. In HD.

Two years ago, I wrote about the Uses of Haiti. Today- right now- parasite-endearing lakes still pop up in communities such as Leogane, made oh so vulnerable to storms by centuries of deforestation, and to disease by the impotence of the international community to unite around the most basic of human rights- health, sanitation, dignity. Maybe it’s not all doom and gloom- after all, Haiti’s GDP growth rate outpaced Canada’s in 2011. With that being said, my living room is not inundated in six feet of shit infested sludge.

 

Rich

A shockingly quick 12 months ago, I returned from three months in Haiti to a shockingly contrasting country. It’s difficult to reflect upon and draw conclusions from such an experience when I am once again cozily living and working in Canada. Haitians continue to face many of the plights that threaten their basic dignity and rights- such as food security and sanitation- while we ponder issues that seem relatively inconsequential- fighter jets, or carbon footprint. But one thing I did conclude from my time in Haiti is that we are not defined by our creature comforts, our standard of living. Rather, it is how we go about loving those around us, and enduring and overcoming the personal challenges that we face. I’m fortunate to continue to enjoy such riches. I take great pleasure in the great outdoors with my spectacular girlfriend Cathy and our rascal of a dog. I am helping build a bridge with people who are passionate about their work. And I cherish every bit of time I get with family and friends far and near, from Revelstoke to Ottawa and many places in between and beyond. Here’s wishing you a rich 2012.

A pi ta, Haiti

A few days in lockdown: standing on the roof of the base watching plumes of smoke from burning tires, hearing accounts of unsettled rock throwing groups in normally sedate Leogane; the tales from Port-au-Prince much more severe. And all of a sudden, today, the markets reopen, traffic is again flowing, and optimism is in the air. It seems that Haitians are accustomed to these difficult times, and know that a few days’ unrest, the vast majority of which is non-violent, makes their point loud and clear, then normal routines can resume. Two of the staff drove today from Leogane to Carrefour, the city immediately west of the capital of Port-au-Prince, and saw traces of 90 roadblocks in the mere 25 kilometer drive. Rows of rubble, steel strands from burnt tires, ashes of timbers- all being swept away by happily waving citizens.

A day ago I considered it a good possibility that I would not be boarding a flight back home to Canada on Tuesday, instead thinking about a good place for a Christmas tree on base. And now, I am joining twenty other volunteers in a convoy of SUVs to Port-au-Prince early tomorrow morning. We’ll be staying at the base of another NGO called Grass Roots United, their base conveniently located a 30 minute walk from the airport. In the case that Monday brings renewed unrest, I will at least be in a position to get on that flight. I’ve now hurriedly and happily packed my bags; this evening equally hurriedly and happily saying goodbye to the many newfound friends. I’ll have a few “debrief” blog posts once I’m back in the Great White North.

A pi ta, Haiti! (See you later!)

Haitian Indignation

Today, newspapers around the world present yet another set of sad headlines about the state of affairs in Haiti. The riots are indeed sad but I can understand the indignation that so many Haitians are expressing. Of the nineteen presidential candidates from the November 28th election, the two with the most votes were announced yesterday for a runoff election in January. The third placing candidate, Michel Martelly, a very popular choice amongst the country’s poor, was edged out of the runoff election by a mere 6800 votes- this in a country of 9 million people where 4.6 million registered to vote and of which only 1 million votes were counted for president. The extent of the allegations of fraud perpetrated by the #2 placing candidate, government-backed Celestin, if true, is more than enough to produce this result. The #1 placing candidate, a woman by the name of Mirlande Manigat, is a highly educated former first lady who is very much a part of the wealthy Haitian oligarchy- understandably not entirely embraced by the poor majority. A possible remedy to the violence would be to allow Martelly to participate in the January runoff elections. Both Martelly and the hugely unpopular President Preval are expected to make press releases today; Preval will likely call for peace and understanding, while Martelly may well condone the citizenry’s revulsion with the results.

A group of volunteers who were scheduled to fly home today quickly had their plans quashed when the shuttle drivers could not even drive through Port-au-Prince to come pick them up in the pre-dawn hours. The city is completely gridlocked, the airport shut down, the streets filling with rioters, government buildings being burnt down; some other cities in the country are experiencing the same. Here in Leogane, roadblocks and protesters have cut off central thoroughfares. We are in lock down at our base, keeping a low profile and not even using noisy power tools because the community may perceive us going about work as a sign of support for the election results. We are expecting that this may continue for some days. As such, we are being very conservative with all our resource consumption. The diesel to run our pumps and generators, the veggies and meat to balance our diets, and even the toilet paper to, you know, is of limited supply. That being said, there are tonnes of rice and beans to keep our bellies full, and we have the means to filter well water for drinking with the fantabulous bio-sand filters that we produce for the community. We are all in good spirits; as I write, in the spirit of this “snow day”, a floor hockey game is getting started in the courtyard.

I’m due to be back in home sweet Canada in a week. Granted, this developing unrest makes me all the more antsy to get on that plane, but I was fully aware of the country’s precarious situation prior to coming down. I will patiently sit tight, read books, and give the Americans some hockey lessons until that day comes.

La Sous

Today I went to work on a really neat project in central Leogane. “La Sous” is Creole for “the source”, and Haitians have been coming to this very spot for 200 years to bath, wash clothes and socialize in and around the natural spring water bubbling out of the ground. Always a community-organized space, it has evolved into an oasis of concrete pools and troughs, steps and shady spots. Amongst a congested, polluted and impoverished city, the provided utility and escape is invaluable.

As with 90% of the structures in Leogane, La Sous did not escape the earthquake unharmed. One of the long, high walls that defines this space was badly damaged, the masonry blocks cracked, shattered and leaning every which way. This dealt a considerable blow to a place that sees up to 200 users a day, stealing them not only of privacy and dignity but also of peace of mind for it is difficult to scrub your whitest whites when the slightest aftershock- a semi-regular occurrence- could further topple the wall.

The facility has suffered from secondary effects of the earthquake and subsequent disasters. The system of drainage canals that sweeps the spring’s used washing water out towards the sea is no longer as effective, a tremendous accumulation of litter and rubble causing water to back into the space and make it much less useable. In last month’s widespread flooding served up by Hurricane Tomas, the toxic effluent lining the streets and canals filled all of La Sous right up. After helping the community clean up the muck, All Hands performed water tests in following weeks and found that the water that continued to wash back up from down stream contaminated the bathing space with significant quantities of fecal coliform, increasing the risk of waterborne pathogenic diseases to users whose health is already vulnerable.

All Hands has sat down with the community and come up with a plan to revitalize this essential space. Over the coming month, broken walls are being rebuilt, plaster artfully applied, paint tastefully splashed, stairways repaired, benches built, drainage canals cleaned, and proud entrance doors hung. It was a genuine thrill today to be a part of the start of this process. Amongst children giggling and women cheering, we brought in truckloads of supplies and, alongside mightily strong and proud Haitians, tore down the broken parts of the wall, heaved blocks and cement bags, and just had a grand old time.

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More Bits

I’ve had a rockin’ busy week. It felt great to get back to work after my break- in Haiti, with all the work to be done, there’s only so much time you can spend sitting around. Rather than type away, I’ll share this video with you. Enjoy!