Kitsilano Couple Reaches Out to Asia

Cassils focus on fledgling, grassroots charitable organizations
Friday, August 14, 2009
Cheryl Rossi
Published in the Vancouver Courier

John Cassils had just pulled out his video camera in a village in northern Laos in 1999 when he was invited into a hut to see a shaman dancing.

John, his wife Nina and four friends had been enjoying a 10 day trip by riverboat and four wheeled drive in the mountainous area near the Chinese border. They’d asked their driver to drop them off outside the village and walked in separately with no translator, although one friend who was in the Vietnam War spoke Lao.

A couple of heaps under a blanket in the corner of the hut soon drew John’s attention. They were the still figures of two young boys. John, a former family doctor, examined the three and four year old boys and found they were nearly dead from malnutrition. One child had lost 70 per cent of his vision and the other couldn’t stand because he had lost muscle strength.

The group of six friends arranged for the boys to go to the hospital in Laos’ old capital, Luang Prabang, that evening. They paid for a month’s care for the children. “The one fellow got all his vision back and the other child was fine, too,” John says.

The gesture was one of many the Kitsilano couple has made to help children in Southeast Asia since they got involved with an orphanage in Thailand in 1998.

In 2008, Nina filled a 40foot container sponsored by a Richmond Rotary club with three four year old ultrasound machines from a private clinic in Calgary; the latest video laryngoscope, worth $10,000, donated by a local doctor; tools; bicycles and more for the Angkor Hospital for Children in Siem Reap, Cambodia. They also raised $2.5 million for a nearby satellite hospital and $100,000 for a vocational centre. Now they’re focused on supporting Medical Action Myanmar, which spun off from Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).

The Cassils don’t donate to large international organizations with significant overheads. Instead, they help fledgling grassroots organizations develop into strong, sustainable, accountable agencies. They combine philanthropy with pleasure trips and encourage others interested to do the same.

When large international agencies flailed trying to get aid into Myanmar (formerly Burma) immediately after Cyclone Nargis assaulted the country May 2, 2008, the Cassils nimbly got more than 8,000 pounds of pharmaceuticals, medical supplies, food bars and vitamins in through their contacts, with no interference from the country’s government.

While many governments give little aid money to Myanmar because they worry it would only benefit the military government, the Cassils say with the right connections it isn’t hard to ensure aid gets to people. Myanmar and other poverty stricken Southeast Asian countries are ideal places to give, they say, because Canadian dollars stretch far.

You can only visit so many temples and pagodas in Southeast Asia before you want to do something meaningful, says a warm and open faced Nina, sitting at the long wooden dining room table in the couple’s spacious Point Grey Road duplex that overlooks English Bay.

The Cassils travelled throughout Southeast Asia in the late 1970s and early 1980s when John was building and renovating commercial properties in Hong Kong and Thailand for Strand Development Corp., which he founded. They pitched tents and slept on people’s porches in small villages and fell in love with the countries’ poor but generous citizens.

In 1997, the couple decided to invest in the children of Southeast Asia. A friend who worked for the United Nations connected them with Thailand’s representative to the UN, who put them in touch with a struggling orphanage.

The Cassils visited the orphanage, met the couple that ran it, saw how happy the children were and provided money for food. “It was easy after that,” says John, a slim, balding man with friendly blue eyes.

They’ve continued helping the orphanage and have since taken on projects in Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia and India.

Their goal is to make sure people have access to clean water, and to support healthcare, nutrition and agriculture. Once children are healthier and families are earning a little money, you can think about school, Nina says.

“You have to build it, you have to stock it and then you have to think of hiring the people,” she adds. “In Laos, we’ve seen so many schools and hospitals sitting empty.”

The Cassils find bright locals who are interested in healthcare and education, arrange for their training and return to their villages. They’ve built up a web of contacts with people who do similar work, and they only support non-proselytizing organizations.

From late November to mid March, the Cassils returned to Southeast Asia. In December, they were invited to attend the Clinton Global Initiative 2008 Asia meeting in Hong Kong along with the president of Mongolia, exprime minister of Maldives and Chinese actor Jet Li. They visited the west and east deltas in Myanmar to see firsthand how their aid had helped, and before they flew home, they travelled to New York where they received the Best of Friends award from the American non-governmental organization Friends Without A Border for their support of Friends’ Angkor Hospital for Children and their role in mobilizing donations for its satellite hospital.

The childless couple of 33 years has always been adventurous. The no nonsense man who grew up in a middle class family in Montreal and the younger, animated woman who grew up in a “modest business family” in Victoria hiked Abbot Pass in Yoho and Banff National Park on their honeymoon.

John started out as a family doctor, then launched a medical educational film-making company. Business connections led him into real estate. “I took six months off because we got a couple of very good projects,” he says. “I ended up being in that business for 25 years.”

Nina worked as a real estate agent until John asked her if she would take two years off to focus on Southeast Asia. That was 10 years ago. Now 67, John, who’s meant to be retired but visits his office every day he’s in town, is keen to enjoy the good life. During the Courier’s visit to their Kits home, John tried to convince Nina, who looks much younger than her 55 years, they should take a vacation down south. She told him they needed to be in Asia.

But John admires his wife’s dedication.

“She’s involved in selling eye shades that have been made by hill tribe people to people that have expensive private jets, making bags for people to carry groceries [in] for hill tribe people that are trying to develop a little business to make more money. Nina’s involved in so many of these types of projects,” he says. “She literally is on the Internet three hours a day minimum and usually goes to bed between 12 and 2 in the morning.”

Before the Cassils started their work in Southeast Asia, they donated locally and still do, but it’s their overseas philanthropic work that they’re most passionate about.

In 2005, after years of quietly donating money, Sue and Wieland Wettstein, friends in Calgary, convinced them to register the CW Asia Fund (CW is for Cassils and Wettstein) under the umbrella of Tides Canada, so they and Canadian friends and family who contributed could get tax receipts.

Tides Canada deducts an administrative fee of about 9.5 per cent from contributions going abroad, but CW Asia takes no fees and strives to ensure none are charged when they give money to another organization. “It’s not meant to criticize,” Nina says. “The international NGOs are doing very, very good work. But a few of them are very top heavy.”

Nina serves as the full time, unpaid managing director of CW Asia Fund. Wieland and John typically commit matched funds.

To raise $2.5 million for the satellite hospital, John prepared and circulated an information booklet. He and Wieland committed 15 per cent over five years to build, furnish, equip and staff the satellite hospital for five years. An Australian family that had just started a foundation and was looking for a place to contribute received their brochure, visited the Angkor Hospital for Children and contributed $1.85 million or 75 per
cent of the cost.

When friends take trips to Southeast Asia, the Cassils encourage them to pack medical supplies and deliver them to a hospital or orphanage. Wieland committed 15 per cent over five years to build, furnish, equip and staff the satellite hospital for five years. An Australian family that had just started a foundation and was looking for a place to contribute received their brochure, visited the Angkor Hospital for Children and contributed $1.85 million or 75 per cent of the cost.

When friends take trips to Southeast Asia, the Cassils encourage them to pack medical supplies and deliver them to a hospital or orphanage.

It wasn’t until Cyclone Nargis hit that they asked friends to donate money.

They received clearance from the Canadian government to provide assistance in Myanmar and secured $444,000 in CIDA matching funds, raising a total of $1.2 million between Canada, the United States and United Kingdom. That doesn’t include the more than $300,000 they collected in medical aid.

Top people they know at Jamieson Laboratories and Nature’s Path provided them with vitamins, and they made successful cold calls to Rexall Drugs, Air Canada and Cathay Pacific, which air freighted the goods free of charge. “Everything that we sent was exactly what they needed,” Nina says. “A Canadian organization sent hundreds of tents over, [but] they couldn’t even use them because most of the delta was a foot deep in water.”

Dr. Frank Smithuis, a former director for Medecins Sans Frontieres who has served Myanmar’s poor for more than 15 years, helped them get supplies to the people.

Now the Cassils are providing food security to the Myanmarese who had their children, homes and livelihoods swept away by the largest tropical storm to ever strike the country.

Last December, the Cassils started a $5 for 5 campaign for Myanmar on the Give Meaning website$ 5 feeds five families for five days. The $10,500 they raised helped set up community kitchens in four villages. Instead of talking to counsellors, villagers who’ve lost family members cook, eat and clean up together, to foster a sense of community and heal.

They’re starting a new Give Meaning campaign for Myanmar called Give Five to provide boats, fish traps, garden and carpentry tools and eyeglasses. They’re also helping Medical Action Myanmar, which Smithuis and Medecins Sans Frontieres started June 1. The Australian ambassador to Myanmar and another couple recommended Smithuis’ work to the Cassils. His clinics feed malnourished children, treat people with tuberculosis and HIV and provide women with contraceptives and prenatal care. The Cassils made a video of one of his clinics, which they use to inspire others to support it.

“Donors want to know who they pay and what is done with their money. John and Nina bring the donors and the patients closer together,” the Dutchborn Smithuis said in an email from Yangon (Rangoon). “They see the activities and talk about it with potential donors. That is very powerful.”

He says more support is needed for Myanmar’s people from donors big and small. Myanmar receives less than $3 per person per year in overseas development assistance, less than any of the 50 poorest countries. By comparison, Laos receives $63 per person.

“The low level of aid results in unnecessary suffering and the deaths of tens of thousands of people each year,” Smithuis says. “I have worked for more than 15 years in Myanmar and I can guarantee you that it is very possible to implement aid programs that directly benefit the people of Myanmar and save thousands of innocent lives.”

Nina believes celebrities have focused attention on African countries in need of aid while impoverished countries in Southeast Asia have been overlooked.

Leanne Chan, who helped with CW Asia’s $5 for 5 campaign, doesn’t think that’s necessarily true. Chan, who founded the Lending for Africa Foundation in 1995 and left it when it moved in a different direction, believes it’s difficult to compare countries and continents.

On the phone from Germany, Chan says the government of Myanmar makes it difficult for others to help the Myanmarese because of the way it runs the country. “If you can’t get clear information and stats back, then it’s very hard to do development work, and I found the same thing within Africa,” she says.

Chan calls the Cassils’ work honest and altruistic. “They want to help people, and they can do it on a small level. You give $5 and the $5 goes to the people you see in those pictures,” she says. “But when you get into that larger realm and you’re trying to do social development for an entire country, it gets very blurry.”

Even with George Clooney speaking from internationally displaced peoples’ camps in Sudan, that region doesn’t get adequate attention from western countries, she says.

Chan says John and Nina, who she met socially eight years ago, are unique because of how involved they get in each project and how much they achieve. “If you were to look at all the milestones and successful projects that they’re managing, it’s more than you can see on most large charitable websites,” she says.

You can see for yourself at “More people should do what they do,” she adds.

But couldn’t the Cassils sell their well situated home and give the poor even more? They could, John agrees, but he believes how much one gives shouldn’t be the focus.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s not a matter of how much people give of what they’ve got,” he says. “It’s if they give.”