W5: A Journey into the World of Child Haven
Published Saturday, April 2, 2011 6:56PM EDT
When W5 Editor, Michael Morningstar, and I were choosing clips from interviews with the founders of Child Haven International, Bonnie and Fred Cappuccino, he commented, "These people are so optimistic, but so gentle and calm."
At a time of seemingly endless calamity, where whole communities have been destroyed by earthquakes and dictators turn guns on their own people, it was refreshing, almost therapeutic, to meet people who had so much hope for the world and faith in the goodness of human nature.
As we watched the Cappuccinos describe their work, we also realized that underneath their relaxed demeanor was a dogged determination to make the world a better place, a determination forged in the love Bonnie and Fred have shared for over 50 years.
Child Haven International is a Canadian charity that provides shelter, food and an education to poor and orphaned children in South Asia. Many other charities operate in developing countries, but what sets Child Haven apart is the remarkable couple who started the organization.
Their life's journey together began in 1953, when Fred Cappuccino, a Methodist minister who later became a Unitarian, fell in love with Bonnie McClung, a student nurse.
They married and started a family.
So far, so very ordinary -- nothing to set them apart from thousands of other couples in the 1950s.
But the Cappuccinos were different.
They were conscious of population pressures around the world, so decided to have just two children born to them and adopt one or two more. But, as Fred affectionately described Bonnie, "She gets carried away and there was one more and one more and two more and one more."
They ended up adopting 19 boys and girls from Korea, India, Hong Kong, Bangladesh, Barbados and the United States – a total of 21 children, all crammed into a farmhouse in Maxville, Ontario.
And they didn't stop there.
In 1985, they established Child Haven International and now look after more than 1,100 children in eight separate homes in Nepal, Tibet, India and Bangladesh.
From Maxville farmhouse to Southern India
No frills, or big bureaucracy for this organization, just a few staff in the Maxville farmhouse to keep track of a million and a half dollars it takes to run the organization every year. Every penny comes from private donations. While 84 year-old Fred runs the operation in Canada, 76 year-old Bonnie travels four times a year to check on the homes in Asia.
One of the largest is in Kaliyampoondi, Southern India, where W5 visited in February, 2011.
CTV's Asia Bureau Chief, Janis Mackey-Frayer, Cameraman Al Stephens and Soundman Fredie George met me in India to document the day-to-day lives for the 270 children who live there.
Arriving after the long journey from Toronto to Chennai, a city of eight million people, India seemed so hectic, so crowded, so hot, so dusty and full of colour after the bleak serenity of winter in Canada.
The two hour drive from Chennai to Kaliyampoondi was a kaleidoscope of sights and sounds -- cars and trucks, hooting madly at the slightest provocation, speeding along the coastal highway, darting in and out of lanes with no apparent thought for other drivers.
As we turned away from the ocean and approached Kaliyampoondi, the landscape changed from the seething froth of Chennai and its sprawling outskirts to green swathes of rice paddies and bumpy roads strewn with axle-breaking potholes. We passed through towns and villages where curious locals stopped what they were doing to stare at the strangers who stared back with equal awe.
After this bone-jarring, chaotic journey, arriving at Child Haven was like taking a deep breath and stepping into an oasis of calm.
The orderly way of life – the way the children sat on the floor of the dining hall in neat rows to eat their food from tin trays, the lines they formed to walk to school, the silence as they studied their homework – looked rather Spartan, almost monastic. But Child Haven is non-denominational and takes its spiritual inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of India's independence from Britain.
He believed in non-violence, equality of men and women, respect for every religion and a vegetarian diet. In short, a simple life.
"Simple living is something that the world needs today when there's so much violence," said Bonnie. "So I think that's why we're very committed to his ideals."
But a simple life doesn't have to be institutional. The children also get individual attention and affection from the 35 staff at the home.
"It's a real family environment," observed Adrian Baker, a volunteer from Appleton, Ontario who came to Kaliyampoondi for four months with her husband, Robert Cretien.
"I haven't noticed an institutional feel to the place at all."
With this sense of family and Gandhian ideals, Child Haven aims to lift children out of poverty by focusing on one essential tool for success in today's world – an education.
Curiously, the home in Kaliyampoondi has no school on site. Instead, the children attend the local state-run schools. They follow exactly the same curriculum as the children from the area, but the Child Haven kids always score top marks.
According to John Scanlan, a volunteer from Owen Sound, Ontario, who has been coming to Kaliyampoondi for 15 years, the secret of their success is the discipline the children learn from compulsory study periods.
"They have to study at certain times throughout the day and they're encouraged to study," he said. "Here they're told -- and I tell them often -- your education is going to be the making of you."
'I thank God for giving me this chance'
Education was undoubtedly the making of Bhatu, the chief administrator at Kaliyampoondi, who came to Child Haven when he was eight. The son of poor, illiterate parents, he's the first in his family, the first in his village, to attend a university and he graduated with a degree in commerce.
"Daily, I thank God for giving me this chance," he said, smiling his infectious smile. "So I am happy about it."
He's just one of thousands of children Fred and Bonnie Cappuccino have given a chance for a better life. But you'll never hear them brag about this achievement.
"I don't think it's so much anything that Bonnie and I did," said Fred. "I think it's a mixture maybe of very imperfect Gandhian ideas and just the basic culture that is over there."
Child Haven is rooted in the very real need to provide food, shelter and an education in the developing world – practical, tangible things to make lives better.
But in the end, it's much more than that.
It's an organization founded on the love of two individuals and an enduring tribute to the power of family.