random acts of kindness

One of my favourite books about Italy is not what you would expect. Far from the glossy coffee table publications that show us the shiny veneer of cobbled streets winding through Medieval towns, towering Renaissance Cathedrals or pink and yellow seaside villages tumbling down a hillside into the Mediterranean, The dark heart of Italy by Tobias Jones digs beneath the surface to reveal a far more disturbing picture of political polarization, endemic corruption and the cosy stranglehold of the Casa Nostra and the Catholic Church. It is a must read for anyone who wants to truly understand what they are seeing when they visit this complex land.

Most people travel with their ‘eyes wide shut’ so I admire people who dig behind the scenes when they travel – the only drawback is that you may not always like what you see. My tale today is about three such pilgrims who not only travel off the beaten path, didn’t like what they saw, but returned to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!  

For Dr. John and Nina Cassils, the journey began over 10 years ago while visiting some of their favorite destinations in Asia, mainly Cambodia, Myanmar and rural Thailand, not as tourists but as explorers and adventurers penetrating so deep into the heartland that they encountered villages that had not seen Westerners since WW11. They fell in love with the land, they fell in love with the people. It began with a random act of kindness.

dr-john.jpgOn one of their travels they came across 2 young children who were sick. Trained as a doctor, John recognized that they were dying. He took them to hospital immediately, paid for their medical treatment for a month and they survived.

From then on they have always travelled
with bags of medicine, gifts of books (bi-lingual dictionaries) and donations of vitamins. Their philanthropy expanded in an adhoc way. They saw a need, they filled it.

img_51091.JPGOccasionally they supported local charities with cash donations designated for specific purposes but generally their contributions were direct and tangible, like building a thatch house for a homeless family, stocking a library with books in local languages, directly paying the annual salaries of teachers, paying to train 20 young women as nurses, providing wells of clean water, painting hospitals and hauling donations like computers in their luggage. Over the years they have purchased everything from mattresses and canoes to ultra-sound and X-ray machines.

Nina seen here in thatch house.

While the Cassils’ have never kept track of their spending, they estimate a figure in the range of $500,000 over a ten year period. Why have they done it? “It’s FUN” bubbles Nina, a force of nature, “the gratification is SO immediate, it’s addictive.”

It’s not only addictive it’s contagious. Their enthusiasm and commitment has infected many of their friends and associates so that 3 years ago, with friends Sue and Wieland Wettstein, they formalized their work under the Cassils Wettstein Asia Fund (visit www.cwasiafund.org) in oder to be able to provide tax receipts for the increasing number of donations they were receiving. Since then over $4.5 million has been raised and used to help build childrens shelters, orphanages, hospital,schools and libraries and to fund community development, health and education initiatives as well as provide refeif for the victims of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar. 

john.jpg Here is Dr.John with children from a village in the east delta at the mouth of the Bogolay river. In this village 185 of the 187 houses were destroyed by the cyclone and a horrifying number of children died. Nina tells that the villagers had cut down all the mangrove forests along the rivers edge to make room for rice farming and village expansion. Now they realize the removal of the mangrove forest left them exposed to the natural disasters of the region as the mangrove forest acts as a break and reduces the impact and severity of the water surges.  Now they are replanting the mangrove trees.

map_sm1.jpg This map from their webpage gives an indication of the extent of their projects and involvement in the region. While their scope has expanded with increased funds their methods have remained the same. “Grass roots” says Nina, “thats how we like to be.” Having built a network of trusted friends and partners throughout the region, as well as donors back home, their fund is able to circumvent the cumbersome bureaucracies and occasional corruption that plagues the “Charity business”. Every dollar reaches its destination. That “destination” has been the impoverished children of rural south east Asia. For donations to the Cassils Wettstein Fund go to http://www.cwasiafund.org/contribute.php

For Marshall Farris the journey was somewhat different. As a partner in Ascenta Capital, Marshall occasionally travels to remote communities looking at mining deals. A walk off the beaten path in 2005 in a remote area of the Southern Philippines revealed an impoverished community with little or no medical support. Marshall had a particular connection with the country as his wife Angelica, a trained nurse and now the executive director of the foundation, is of Philippine origins.

It affected him deeply and when he returned home he rallied the entire family to do something about it. 

glasses_640_x_480.jpgAngelica’s father is an Optometrist in California and together as a family they raised funds, collected up prescription glasses and medical supplies and with a team of medical professional volunteers, returned to the community to dispense urgently needed optometrical, dental, medical and surgical services. Word got around and people came in from villages near and far, often walking for miles. Working through local authorities they treated some 1700 people over a 5 day period, dispensing hundreds of pairs of glasses to people who had never been able to see properly before, performing 65 surgeries and providing financial aid for ongoing medical care to more serious cases. Villagers were counseled in health hygiene and disease prevention in an effort to leave a more lasting legacy. Buoyed by the success of this mission Marshall formed the Ascenta foundation in 2008 (www.ascentafoundation.com) and a second and greatly expanded mission followed soon after in Tacloban, Philippines.

jelly_640_x_480.jpgAngelica Farris amid a crowd of adoring fans. For donations to the Ascenta foundation go to www.ascentafoundation.com

In a world where the average tourist or businessman leaves behind little more that shopping receipts or bar bills here are travelers who are leaving a lasting legacy and improving the lives of global communities one village at a time.

Tell me what YOU think……

6 Responses

  1. Virginia Leeming Says:

    Very inspirational. thank you

  2. To The Max Says:

    Beautiful recognition and story on John and Nina – wonderful!! As well as all your other stories…….we all can make a difference..

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Peg: Great tribute to people doing good work. Thanks for sharing this.

  4. Lois Says:

    Always a treat to hear the good things happening in the world –esp when you know the people involved.
    keep it coming Peg

  5. Anonymous Says:

    Stories like this gives one pause to think, what are we doing to help the world? Great peice Peg.

  6. Sam Says:

    The Spirit of Place Project is organizing projects in Southeast Asia. We hope that we will be able to bring art supplies and mentors to encourage art workshops and connections to the Internet for young artists and their mentors.
    I hope we will be able to establish such a workshop in the orphanages like we did in the Spirit of Place project in Ethiopia.

    The idea is to organize Interns from Emily Carr University with projects such as John and Nina’s project and Save the Children projects. John and Nina’s work is so inspiring. I am sure that colour, form and expression in the form of all will be “just what the doctor ordered”. Thanks for the concise summary and images from John and Nina’s work.

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