Making a Difference

Local entrepreneur wears many hats in his quest to make change in the world.

Just who is Zac Whyte?  Or perhaps the question is, what is Zac Whyte?  Most of us, even if we wear a number of hats, can be described with just a few words, or a simple sentence.  But not Zac Whyte.

Before going to interview him, I call up a special friend who I rely on as my source on what’s what and who’s who in the Comox Valley.

“He’s a totally awesome, amazingly inspiring guy,” she says.

“But what does he do, exactly?” I ask.

“All kinds of stuff; it’s all super cool.”  Mmm, hmm.

An internet search leaves me with such a long list of describing words I’m wondering if I’ll be able to cover it all in one interview.  My notes read like this: social entrepreneur, videographer, communications expert, digital artist, public speaker, businessman, global studies educator, wedding photographer, fundraiser, business consultant, “Zactivist,” founder of The HEAL Project which supports the International Non-Governmental Organizations Child Soldiers Initiative and War Child Canada, waste management employee, initiator of a hugging project, university student, father and “domestic god.”

Okey dokey.

Sometimes where lists and other forms of linear thought fail to communicate clearly, a story will do the trick.  Whyte recently told his story to a packed auditorium at Isfeld High School as one of a series of local TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talks.  Watching the video of this event told me plenty about just who, and what, Zac Whyte is.

Taking long strides back and forth across an empty stage, Whyte starts at the beginning: he is four years old, lying in bed and frozen with fear, haunted by nightmare creatures that torment him in his sleep.  Every night he wakes, and huddles under the blanket, terrified, for an hour or more.  He calls his tormentors the shadow creatures.

At six years old, he strikes a bargain with the shadow people: they’ll leave him alone till the age of 33, and then they will come for him.

It works.  The shadow people back off—into his subconscious, where they remain, keeping their promise, holding their threat.

“That number, 33, sat in the back of my brain my entire life and has influenced hundreds and thousands of decisions,” he explains.

As he approached his 30th birthday, his subconscious begins to stir—the deadline is coming.  And his life (coincidentally? serendipitously?) offers a wake-up call.

“At the age of 29, I was working as a videographer and was sent out to the house of a couple who had adopted a 12-year old girl from Liberia named Kortu.  She had survived two civil wars and lost both her parents.  The couple was having trouble because Canada wouldn’t issue a visa.  They needed my help to tell her story,” says Whyte.

The couple described Kortu’s situation: “During the war rebel soldiers would circulate in her village shooting people at random, abducting children, forcing them to become child soldiers, slaves and bush wives.  To this day rape is prevalent, and preventable diseases just flare up and kill people.

“If we don’t get Kortu out, our daughter, the risk of her dying every single day goes up and up.”

Whyte continues:  “They went on for 15 minutes and after that I didn’t even hear a word.  Tears were rolling down my face.  I was devastated.  I told the story as best I could and then tried to forget the whole thing.

“Six months later I received a phone call: ‘Zac, your story was a big help.  We got Kortu out, and she arrived last night and she wants to meet you’”

His meeting with Kortu, sitting on her brand new bed sucking ice-cubes with her (she’d never seen them before and was fascinated), was profound.  “I was thinking, ‘Did my story really just save this girl’s life?’  What if I told more stories like this?  I need more of this.  In fact, I don’t need much more than this.  So what am I scared of?  I can do better.  So I did.  The following week I quit my job to become a full time social entrepreneur… or as my wife put it, ‘We’re poorer this week than last week.’”

A year later he had created an educational program that he took into local schools to raise awareness and engage the kids in raising money for schools in Africa.  He called the project Connecting With Kenya and it worked extremely well—he and the students raised $47,000 in six months, almost twice his goal.

But his 33rd birthday, and the shadow people, still waited.  His new-found activism was in fact leading him toward them.  A contact he’d made through Connecting to Kenya invited him to Ecuador to learn about conditions there.  It was a new setting, he says, but poverty looks the same everywhere, and it brings the same degradation.

Whyte was walking the streets of Quito, Ecuador’s capital, one hot afternoon.

“There, between the shadows of the tall buildings and the narrow streets of Quito was a 12 year old boy glowing in the sun.  I was two months away from my 33rd birthday.  He was a child soldier.  He had been sent out onto the streets by a team of men because he was available, he was cheap and he was disposable.  He pointed a handgun at my chest and waved at an open door,” says Whyte.

Whyte made a decision.  He figured that if his life were to end, he’d rather it happen with a quick gunshot than whatever was beyond that door.  Instead of giving in to fear he looked at the boy with deep forgiveness, turned his back and walked away, expecting to hear, and feel, a shot.  Nothing happened.

“I was okay.  And as I rounded the corner of that block I made a promise right then and there to the shadow people living under my bed, in my closet, behind my door, the unseen men, women and children who weren’t far away—I would be their voice.  I would help them be heard; I would help them be seen… people like the 300,000 child soldiers active around the globe,” he says.

The shadow people of his childhood dreams were, in fact, very real.  Now, as an adult, Whyte has new dreams, and he is fully engaged in making them real.  He ends the talk by saying, “There is nothing between a dream and reality except fear.  Anything is possible.”

After watching the video, I end up with a wad of damp Kleenex in my hand and a much better sense of who Whyte is, what he does, and why.  A few days later I head off to interview him, curious to know more of his story.

Whyte may have a global focus, but his roots are as local as you can get.  He was born in Comox, grew up in Courtenay, and traces his family back six generations here in the Valley.

“My daughter is the seventh generation,” he says with satisfaction.  With a sprawling network of extended family here, and a great childhood memory attached to just about any locale in the area, he feels deeply, and happily, rooted in the Valley.

He didn’t originally set out to be all those things he is now.  He signed up to study civil engineering at BCIT, but it didn’t take him to long to learn that “face-melting solos, calculus, ramen noodles and beer in combination do not produce sustainably good results.”  He also realized that his interests lay elsewhere—he was drawn to ideas, language and communication.  He did an about-face and switched to English, where he thrived.  From there he followed his passion into a career in media.

“After I started getting artsy-fartsy,” he begins with a laugh—deep voiced, stocky, his dark hair shorn close to his head, standing six-foot something and wearing jeans and a T-shirt, he hardly looks ‘artsy’—”I volunteered at the Eagle radio station.”

At first he did whatever needed to be done, learning the ropes by helping out and finding mentors.  Eventually he got his own show.  From there more opportunities appeared.  He was invited to go to Tofino to build a radio station, which turned out to be a year-long adventure setting up the station and training people, including First Nations youth, to run it.

He went on to work at a radio station in Victoria, and then signed up to study Television Broadcast and Media Communications at BCIT.  He then worked as a technician for CBC on shows such as The Hour and Zed.  The stimulated his interest in current affairs and he began to read about global issues.

“Romeo Dallaire became a really big focus for me, and James Orbinski, former president of the Canadian branch of Doctors Without Borders, and Stephen Lewis,” he says.

His life seemed to be well on track—and then came the assignment with Kortu, and the encounter in Ecuador, and everything changed.  He’d already started his own media consulting company, but quitting his job meant he had to make it work—and find the time for the passion that drove him.

He soon realized he had to change his attitude toward money and work.

“I changed my whole perspective on business.  It’s not about making me rich, it’s about giving me more time.  Why spend your life making money to be secure, then retire and worry and about how to spend it, and then die?  I want to spend my time doing things that fulfill me, which is mainly learning and teaching.”

That first year he was mostly learning.  “I was reading and reading, mostly about children’s issues around the world and also things like basic geography.  For instance, where the hell is Liberia?  And while I was reading, I also was thinking I need to go back to university.

“I thought, ‘That’s crazy… just crazy enough to do,’” he quips.  He signed up for a Liberal Arts degree at Vancouver Island University.

About this time he found himself at a talk given by Craig Kielburger, who founded Free The Children when he was 12 years old.  This International organization engages youth in North America and the UK, educating them and involving them in finding solutions to global child poverty.

Not only did this talk spark Whyte’s first major project as a social entrepreneur and activist, it gave him an unforgettable lesson in the power of leadership and community.

“He got me all jazzed up.  Then, at a pivotal moment he asked who in the audience had an idea they were ready to move forward on.  Me and two others put up our hands.  Then, he asked who in the audience was ready to help these three people.  Everyone put up their hands.

“At that moment I realized—the support is always out there.”

That support helped Whyte channel his excitement into Connecting With Kenya.  He used the contacts he already had—in particular, his wife, who is a teacher—to get a fast-track into the school system.

“I worked out a program that was tied to the curriculum, so it didn’t waste anyone’s time.  I was going in and doing up to 10 presentations a week, reaching 300-400 people a week.”

He taught the local kids about conditions in Kenya and got them involved in fundraising, mostly by creating art, printing it on cards, and selling them.

“A spin-off was that kids got excited about art.  They had no idea it could do that,” he says.  By the project’s completion, he figured he’d reached about 5,000 people, opening their eyes to global realities and showing them they could be powerful agents of change.  As a result, 600 children in Kenya got a new school, health care, water system, library and entrepreneurial skills to solidify their ideas for the future.

Then, after his eye-opening trip to Ecuador, he returned to Canada to found The HEAL Project (Health, Education and Love for children affected by conflict), a six-month campaign to raise awareness and funds to eradicate the use of children in conflict.

Whyte definitely sees himself as a leader, and happily admits that he likes being in charge, but he firmly resists any attempt by anyone to put him on a pedestal.  He’s not applying for sainthood anytime soon.

“What I do isn’t selfless, not at all.  In fact, it’s pretty selfish,” he says.  “Everything we do is rewarding if we do it with a deep passion.  Everything I do, I do because I love it.”

That’s a lot of love—Whyte still runs his media consulting company, gets more and more work as a public speaker, has a part-time job doing education for the Regional District waste management program, does the odd gig as a wedding photographer, etc., etc., etc.  He just finished a Liberal Studies degree, is planning to return to school to get a Masters and PhD, and is continually making new plans and connecting with new partners.

He has no plans to slow down or narrow his focus.  He feels everything he does is connected, and connection—between projects, ideas, people, countries, cultures, and generations, between heart and mind, between information and action—is one of the big themes in Whyte’s life.

“I’m a big picture kind of guy.  I love making connections,” he says.

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