Safe Haven

AIDS Vancouver Island in Downtown Courtenay provides a much needed service.

Let me light my lamp, page says the star, and never debate if it will light the dark.”

It’s a beautiful sentiment, but not always easy to put into practice. The world seems full of problems—hunger, poverty, injustice, war, environmental degradation—and often, taking action to “light our lamps” feels too difficult, stymied by bureaucracy, funding shortages, human burnout, and the sheer magnitude of the problems.

But take heart. Around the world there are many lamps that burn bright, lighting the dark. This is the story of one of those, a project called Child Haven International, and the line of poetry above, written by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, is its motto.

Child Haven can be described simply as a Canadian registered charity dedicated to the welfare of children and women in the Indian sub-continent since 1985.

But there are many other ways to describe Child Haven, depending on your point of view.

For its founders, Bonnie and Fred Cappuccino, Child Haven is a labor of love, a lifetime humanitarian project that has let them put the ideals and principles of Mahatma Gandhi into practice.

For 900-plus children in Nepal, India, Tibet and Bangladesh, Child Haven is, quite simply, home. These children, most of them either orphaned or homeless, or both, are the residents of Child Haven’s eight children’s homes throughout Southeast Asia, where they get not just a roof over their heads, but wholesome, nutritious food, health care, education and emotional support. These are not orphanages, but rather stable long-term homes that support the children until they become self-sufficient adults.

For hundreds of women, Child Haven is an invaluable opportunity for economic independence. Child Haven homes employ women as managers, teachers, ayahs, dhobis, cooks, office assistants, matrons and health care professionals. As well, it provides training in tailoring, weaving and computer science for women.

Also, Child Haven has a project called SoyaCow which helps women economically (while furthering environmental sustainability). In 1992 Child Haven purchased six machines that turn soybeans into soymilk for use at their children’s homes. In an eight-hour day, one machine can produce the equivalent of a herd of 16 cows in India. This is a low cost, high-protein, environmentally-friendly way to nourish the children—from an acre of land, 10 times as much soy milk can be produced at one third to one half the price of cow’s milk.

Child Haven employs women to run the machines, and also is now in the process of initiating cottage industries for economically disadvantaged women, who are trained to operate the SoyaCow machines and sell the soya milk products commercially. For these women, Child Haven means escape from poverty.

And for many volunteer interns from around the world, who travel to Child Haven’s homes to offer whatever help is needed, the organization offers a way to light their own lights, dispelling a bit of the darkness while also having a wonderful adventure in a foreign country.

A number of these volunteer interns hail from here in the Comox Valley, and right now they, and other local supporters of this organization, are gearing up for the annual Child Haven fundraising dinner, to be held October 21 at 5:00 pm at the Florence Filberg Centre. This event will include a delicious Indian dinner, a presentation on Child Haven’s work, a sale of goods from the countries Child Haven works in, and an Indian dance performance by local dancer Cathy Stoyko. Presiding over the evening will be Child Haven founders Bonnie and Fred Cappuccino.

Everyone who has met the Cappuccinos describes them as exceptional people. As a couple, they received the Order in Canada in 1995 for their work, UNESCO’s prestigious Honorable Mention for the teaching of human rights, and more recently were nominated for another prestigious international award (they have asked that it not be named, preferring media coverage to focus on their project not them as individuals).

Before founding Child Haven, the Cappucccinos adopted and raised 19 children from 11 countries, while also raising their two biological sons.

“They started adopting kids back when Bonnie was working to place kids in adoptive homes,” says Courtenay resident Bob Jenkinson, who, along with his wife Marsha, has volunteered three times as a Child Haven intern. “Sometimes there’d be a kid who didn’t get placed, so Marsha would adopt it.

“Then, later, when Bonnie was in India, she started trying to get placements for Indian kids back in Canada. But the Indian authorities didn’t like that; they said, ‘Hey, you’re taking our future away from us. We want those children to stay here.’ Well, she figured she’d have to create homes for them in India. So that’s what led to the founding of Child Haven.”

Bonnie is clearly the driving force behind Child Haven, with Fred’s full and enthusiastic support. Now in her mid-70s, she is still very much involved with the project. She and Fred provide orientation for every volunteer intern at their Ontario farmhouse. Four times a year, Bonnie goes to visit each home, taking sacks of clothing, medicine, and vitamins from Canada for the children, and bringing home locally-made goods to sell at fundraisers. She also travels extensively to attend fundraising dinners, such as the Comox Valley event.

Child Haven has a number of characteristics that make it stand out from other seemingly similar projects.

One of these is its very streamlined financial operations.

“We looked at other agencies that work abroad,” says Bob Jenkinson. “One of the attractions of Child Haven was that most of the money goes to help the kids.” The operating budget is about $336 per child per year, with over 90 per cent of Child Haven’s total resources going directly to children’s and women’s welfare.

“Also,” says Jenkinson, “We really valued that Child Haven is non-denominational. The kids are raised in their own traditions.” Child Haven celebrates all festivals and holidays, religious and secular, and does not allow any proselytizing.

Respect for all faiths and traditions is one of Child Haven’s key principles and reflects the organization’s dedication to the philosophy articulated and demonstrated by the great Indian thinker and leader, Mahatma Ghandi.

Child Haven identifies five other main Ghandian ideals it tries to uphold: No recognition of caste means all children are given the same opportunity. Although caste walls are breaking down in larger cities, they are still a factor in some areas.

Equality of the sexes means girls and boys are provided with equal opportunities. Gender-based inequities continue to exist in the four Child Haven countries and throughout the world.

As well, Child Haven practices non-violence not only in raising the children, but also dealing with the outside world and with animals. This naturally entails practicing vegetarianism; meals are mainly rice, lentils and vegetables, with some soy yogurt and soymilk made through the Child Haven SoyaCow program.

Finally, Child Haven practices simple living. Each child has a little metal suitcase. All their worldly goods have to fit inside, and according to Bob Jenkinson, they actually do.

Volunteers need to pay and/or fundraise independently for their travel costs, and while at Child Haven they too live simply. They are required to spend a minimum of three months at the home; this gives them time to truly experience this Ghandian way of life, as well as to get to know the children and the culture.

There’s no doubt that such commitment requires a generosity of spirit and willingness to give. But at the same time, each of the local volunteers I spoke to stressed that they got at least as much as they gave.

“It was fantastic,” says Lauren Stephenson, who went, on her own, to Savarsai in India, when she was 18. “I had a fantastic time with the kids. I had such an incredible bond. You spend all day with these kids. You share our culture; they share their culture. There is such an incredibly strong mutual interest in each others’ lifestyles. And they are so darned cute!

“Also, it’s a great way to get to know the culture; to learn it from people, not a guidebook. There’s such a difference in just doing a touristy blitz versus being engrossed in the culture and also giving back in a way that gives you so much. It opened my eyes to how much I want to give and how much I can offer.” Stephenson is currently back in the Comox Valley studying nursing, and is planning to go back to the home in Savarsai after she graduates. “I want to see the kids again,” she says.

A valuable part of the volunteer experience is the weekend orientation spent with Fred and Bonnie Cappuccino at their Ontario home.

“It’s incredible to see the lifestyle that Bonnie and Fred model,” says Stephenson. “They live in accordance with Ghandian principles and Indian culture for the most part, while living here in North America. As the children do, they do. She is such a loving generous woman. The immense respect everyone in the homes has for her is incredible. When she’s over there she talks to each and every person who needs her.”

Once they are at the home, the volunteers are not assigned specific jobs but rather are given time to find their roles on their own.

Marsha Jenkinson, who has been three times, says she did something different on each visit. One year the home’s nurse had just quit so she took over nursing for three months (she had recently retired from nursing in BC); other years she taught ukulele, crochet, knitting and English. Her husband Bob has assisted with building projects such as a water tower, an extra house for volunteer accommodation, and volleyball and basketball courts; he has taught English, and also helped write regular reports for Bonnie Cappuccino.

Heather Holm, another local volunteer who is one of the main organizers of the upcoming fundraising dinner, spent much of her time helping the cooking crew in the kitchen.

Aside from the concrete services the volunteers provide, simply their presence in the children’s lives is incredibly important. “The home provides them with all the basics—shelter, food, accommodation, clothing, healthcare—and the volunteers are for the TLC, “says Bob Jenkinson. “It really works; the children really feel it.”

Volunteers say their experience is both heart-wrenching and heart-warming. “There was a girl of about six whose mother also lived at the home, and the mother was blind,” Bob says. “The father had died; the girl and the mother had been street people, basically beggars. I remember watching the little girl take her mother by the hand and lead her to the mess hall for dinner, taking care of her.”

Heather Holm remembers one little girl who had been found at two years old, beaten and unconscious. “Her mother was an alcoholic who’d send her out to beg for money to buy alcohol. If she didn’t bring back enough she’d beat her. She was full of life, that girl—a real scallywag, and cute as a bug’s ear!”

About 40 per cent of India’s population lives below the poverty line, and Child Haven takes the poorest of the poor, the truly destitute. Bonnie approves the acceptance of each and every child; only those who get less than one meal a day are considered.
If not for Child Haven, these kids would be on the street picking rotten food scraps out of garbage cans, says Holm. “This way, they’ll get a post-secondary education [mainly vocational training] and will be able to support families of their own.

“They know they are fortunate. Even though they have so little, they’d give you the shirt off their backs.”
Child Haven has been around long enough to see some wonderful success stories. “There were two women who had come to Child Haven as infants; now they had their Masters degrees in nursing. They’d come back to work at Child Haven for awhile and are now having careers as nurses,” says Bob.

Holm and the other volunteers say their experience has made them very aware of both the material abundance we have here in Canada, as well as the level of social security and human rights.

“You know, their expectations are so different there,” says Bob. “I remember once one of the teens, a 16-year-old girl, asked Marsha, ‘Does Bob beat you?’ She was surprised she had never seen me hit her.”

He says that when he returned to North America, he felt uneasy about the excess we have here. “You feel guilty. You’re driving your car around, and you wonder, how many bicycles will that buy?”

From guilt, Jenkinson’s thoughts move quickly to action. Thanks to our abundance, it is easy for most of us to make a difference in the lives of these children.

“People don’t realize how far a small donation will go. Two dollars a day will pay for a laborer. We spent just $600 to build a building that sleeps three people,” he says.

All of Child Haven’s funding comes from direct donations and fund-raising events organized by supporters, such as the upcoming dinner in Courtenay.

This is the sixth local fundraising dinner for Child Haven. Organizer Holm says that, at the time of this article’s publication, the group is expecting at least 200 people.

Tickets for the October 21event are available at Blue Heron Books in Comox and Laughing Oyster Bookstore in Courtenay, as well as at the door. Adults are $20; children are $10.

FMI visit:

“I go home each night knowing I’ve done something good for the world, <a href=

” says Sarah Sullivan of working for AIDS Vancouver Island.” width=”602″ height=”400″ />

Photo by Bommer Jerritt

Sarah Sullivan’s bright, cheery and upbeat manner and bearing render it difficult to comprehend that she spends her working days dealing compassionately with some of the most physically distressed people in the Comox Valley community.

On top of that seemingly grim reality, Sullivan, counselor/advocate for the Courtenay office of AIDS Vancouver Island (AVI), loves what she does as much as she cares for her client base. Those factors alone make her a natural for what she does. One thing that any service provider learns, if he or she is to survive without burnout, is to assume a certain objectivity and to not see the world solely through the eyes of the client.

Sullivan, who has been at the helm of the AVI office on Sixth Street in Courtenay for a little over a year, took to her role with enthusiasm. It’s an enthusiasm based on her familiarity with both the philosophy and the protocols of a facility that is virtually unknown to many residents in the community. That it is largely unknown is somewhat by design—this has kept the place, especially with its emotionally-charged (for some) ‘needle exchange’ away from community controversy.

In that, the Comox Valley AVI needle exchange has not been fraught with all the controversies that have faced the Victoria needle exchange. This is by design, Sullivan is quick to observe.

“We’ve been in this location for nine years,” Sullivan says. “Fortunately for us we have a great landlord. But, the essential point is we’re not visible. Access to needle exchange services is via the back door, not the street. Furthermore, what we find here is that the community accepts us as being a part of the public health strategy. Our goal is to promote a healthy community and it’s vital to us to maintain a good relationship with our neighbors.”

So, what’s a nice girl like Sarah doing in a job like this? Well, primarily she does it because she loves it.

“Generally, I like being in the background,” she says. “People who need to know about me, know about me. I’ve been a permanent employee for over a year. (In fact, she is the only full-time employee of the Courtenay facility; there is one part-timer, Jeanette, as well, and all others who work there are strictly volunteers). I came here first in April 2007 as a practicum student for 10 weeks with (her predecessor in the position) Phyllis Wood. After that I worked as a casual here.”

When Wood left last year, Sullivan competed for the position and got it. Prior to coming on board she worked as a suicide prevention trainer at Crossroads Crisis Centre. She still volunteers at Crossroads as a skills trainer.

Her involvement with human services comes to her later in life, she says. Her background is highly eclectic and she has served for extensive periods in other realms. This background, she believes, has enhanced her role today because it has given her ability to look at a number of issues that impact those seeking assistance from AVI.

“I worked for the federal government, for Transport Canada for a number of years,” she says. “Later my husband (her high school sweetheart, she notes) and I ran a home-based publishing business. In that area it really opened my eyes to the challenges faced by people with disabilities.”

In all of this, raising a family intervened, which made the home-based business ideal at that time. But, after her third daughter was born, she decided to go back to school and complete her truncated education. She began in the Women’s Studies program at North Island College and completed her associate degree through Thompson River University. Next year she gets her social work degree from the University of Victoria.

“Some background in finance has really helped me in this role,” she says. “I know what it’s like to live on a low income and can relate to people who are disenfranchised through health problems and challenges. And it’s in overcoming these obstacles that some of the people I work with amaze me. I am astonished at the inner resourcefulness of some people. Believe me, in this job I always take home more than I give.”

Sullivan is a Comox Valley girl to the core. Her mother is vegan author and longtime Comox District Free Press food columnist, Bryanna Clark-Grogan. Furthermore, she met her husband when they were both students at Vanier and the rest, for them, is history. Having spent virtually all her life here, it’s a delight for her to have a meaningful position in her home community.

The work of the AVI facility is multi-faceted, Sullivan says. Primarily it is a combination of three broad elements: education, prevention and support. The needle exchange operates five days a week and is primarily designed to abate the spread of HIV and Hepatitis-C in the community. Of the two afflictions, she notes that Hep-C is a source of greater concern than HIV—despite myths to the contrary—and is much more easily transmitted, especially among IV needle-using addicts.

“Here we need to look at many options,” she says. “Our role is not simply to hand out needles. We have to look realistically not just at the client, but anyone else concerned, like partners and family members. They all need support. With HIV it has changed immeasurably from the horrific early days when HIV almost always led to AIDS, with its often-inevitable lethal consequences. With new medications it is quite possible to live a normal lifespan and be HIV-positive. Fortunately, some of the best doctors in the HIV field are in BC.”

Hep-C, however, is a truly dangerous affliction. Spread by blood-to-blood contact (hence the ‘dirty needle’ connection), it can be asymptomatic for as long as 20 years. In that, she says people truly need to be aware of the risks and to also know there are treatment options. In that realm, AVI Courtenay calls on the expertise of Jeanette Reinhardt, who offers her services in both Courtenay and Campbell River. She is the educator who helps clients deal with the realities of HIV and safer sex, among other things.

AVI Courtenay (there are also offices in Campbell River, Victoria, Nanaimo, and Port Hardy) is a holistic operation wherever possible, Sullivan says, and works in tandem with other service providers in the community.
“We’ve been involved in working with the homeless and those at risk of homelessness,” she says. “We’re especially concerned when the cold weather comes. We’re involved with cold weather outreach in a joint project with Wachiay in which we bring sandwiches, tents, tarps, coats and so forth to the people that need them. The project has been running for five years and has been very successful. We plan to get it going again this year and will run it from November through March.”

Sullivan says that they keep a supply of heavy coats and tents at the facility, but that they always welcome donations of those items should anybody be interested in offering them up.

Other areas of service to the community in need include their hot lunch program, provided (entirely by donated food) every Tuesday.

“If you’d like to join our ‘shopping angels’, please call me,” says Sullivan. “We always welcome all the help we can get. We go on faith that we will get the help we need, and people have never failed us. For example, a local accounting firm donated a number of backpacks for the homeless. We didn’t request them; they just took it upon themselves to do it. Then, every year there is ‘Dining Out for Life’, with the proceeds going to AVI. It’s just amazing and heartwarming how many restaurants take part. This is a very giving community.”

In that context, Sullivan says, her resolute goal is to promote the feeling of community within the facility.

While the presence of individuals with HIV and Hep-C in the greater community is disquieting for some, especially the less well informed, Sullivan is determined to reach out for the sake of AVI and the clientele, as well as for the Comox Valley community. She keeps in close touch with the wants and needs of the greater community by various interactions, including being a member of the City of Courtenay-sponsored Comox Valley Community Drug Strategy Committee.

AVI works actively with other community agencies in the Comox Valley, and that only serves to the advantage of their clients. In terms of health care, AVI gains client access that brings them into contact with the best the community can offer. In the same context, those agencies offer invaluable aid to the AVI clients, including the public health nurse from the Nursing Centre who regularly tests for STDs with clients and gives inoculations as needed.

“The walk-in clinics in the Comox Valley also do amazing work,” Sullivan says. “And in that case, Maggie from the Nursing Centre acts as intermediary to help clients access the services they need. Fortunately, we in the Comox Valley are blessed with fantastic doctors.”

For those seeking alternate therapies, AVI also has an acupuncturist that comes in on a regular basis to help clients wanting that service.

“There’s a lot of stigma attached to HIV or Hep-C, but I want our clients to know that this is a safe place for them,” she says. “If they need assistance they can find it here. We’re here for them. That’s why I really enjoy coming to work every day. I go home each night knowing I’ve done something good for the world. I love to listen to people’s stories and get to share in their lives.”

For more information about AIDS Vancouver Island call Sarah at 250-338-7400 or visit