June 16, 2013 Features & Images » Feature Story

Thinking outside the Bubble 

Whistler locals reaching out beyond the valley to help change the world

click to flip through (6) A centre was built in Karmoja, Uganda to manage the program. Pat Montani with the local team in Uganda.
  • A centre was built in Karmoja, Uganda to manage the program. Pat Montani with the local team in Uganda.

Hardly a day goes by without someone making a casual reference to Whistler's status as a "bubble." Being around awe-inspiring beauty with a full palette of distracting activities means that sometimes we forget that much of the world is not so lucky, it's easy to just sit back and relax and leave the worrying to someone else.

Yet for all the criticism of Whistler's sheltered lifestyle, there are just as many examples of residents looking out from Whistler to the rest of the world, making a difference and putting the stereotype to shame.

Many would argue there is something unique about people in this valley. For a town of just over 10,000 residents, there are an unusual number of locals who are doing big things that stretch well beyond the municipal boundaries.

Although it may sound cliché, these people are truly doing their part to make the world a better place.

The stories that follow are four such examples of local Whistlerites that have gone beyond anyone's expectations of what it means to give back. Their efforts to enhance our global community are succeeding, inspiring others to follow in their footsteps and spearheading movements that are literally changing the world.

Cycles for life

If you met Pat Montani walking on the street, it's unlikely the first thing to cross your mind would be a bicycle.

The large-framed 60-something looks more like a rugby player than a lean cyclist. But his stature should not overshadow his love of cycling. Both he and his wife, Brenda, have found a passion that keeps their aging bodies feeling young and which has taken them on adventures around the world.

Ten years ago on a trip to Mexico they had the idea to bring some extra bikes with them to help out the community they were visiting. The local newspaper in Kelowna, where the Montanis had a home at the time, heard about what they had done, and asked Montani if he had any plans to do the same thing the following year. Montani began thinking about it, did some research, and eventually found out about healthcare workers in rural Namibia who also needed support. They could not travel around the villages fast enough on foot — there was simply not enough time in the day to satisfy the needs of these poverty-stricken communities. That gave Montani the idea to send a shipping container full of bikes to increase their efficiency.

"We had no idea how many bikes would come in that first time, but we got around 2,000 in the first collection," Montani says, as he tells the story of his new calling. "There are now 50 worldwide chapters of Bicycles For Humanity (B4H)."

Montani's passion has not gone unnoticed. In 2011 actor Ben Stiller used his foundation to assist B4H to transport containers overland from African ports to their destinations — Montani even joined Stiller at a fundraiser in New York that year.

The principle is simple, as described in the organization's info flyer: "Bicycles for Humanity is about empowerment, it is about teams in the developing world and the developed world coming together to make a difference."

The strategy is to get as many old bikes as possible — the ones sitting in the garage or garden shed, collecting dust and taking up space. Every community independently organizes a drive to collect as many bikes as possible to fill a shipping container, and that container is sent to a poor community in need. Since 2005, over 60,000 bikes have been sent to Angola, Namibia, Uganda and South Africa. Each year the movement grows. Last year 15,000 bikes were shipped. This year the target is 30,000. With more and more people signing up for the cause, there is no end in sight.

According to Montani, what makes Bicycles for Humanity so successful is its bottom-up nature. "We are a grassroots movement. Everyone is a leader, and each chapter is free to manage the program how they feel best. Most NGO's or nonprofits are very structured, they have a board, management, and everyone reports to one leader. It is very difficult for others to do much when volunteering other than to follow orders."

In speaking, Montani continually refers to the project as a "movement," as opposed to a group or an organization. And his definition hits the nail on the head. There are chapters in North America, Europe, Australia, and Asia. Each chapter receives support from the Montanis, but is individually responsible for collecting the bikes and funding the approximately $10,000 cost of shipping them to Africa.

The $10,000 is certainly a hefty price tag. But given how many containers have been shipped, many are up to the challenge. Each chapter has its own unique fundraising efforts as well.

Here in Whistler, Greg Newton has taken up the helm from the Montanis to organize a fundraising ride to make Whistler's shipment this year a reality (go to www.b4h-whistler.org/ for full details. Register through the DONATE button).

Newton has a number of sponsors for the June 22 event that have helped out by donating prizes, food, advertising, and logistical support to attract a larger pool of riders.

This year the ride will start at Brandywine Falls at 9 a.m. With this no-pressure format, riders will head as far as Pemberton Meadows before turning around and finishing back at the starting point for a celebratory barbecue and wrap around 3 p.m.

The ride will focus on fun for everyone involved, says Newton, emphasizing that the ride is not a race.

"We wanted to keep it under $50, and we wanted to give people a couple options. By starting at Brandywine, people can ride to Whistler and back, which is about 50km. Or they can ride all the way to the meadows and back, which is close to that 'Century Ride' mark of 160km."

Given Whistlerite's propensity for outdoor activities (as well as any excuse to party) this ride provides a social way to ride without the fanfare (and cost) of a big event such as the GranFondo.

The planning is going smoothly, says Newton, adding that he was just the organizer, and it takes the support of the community for any of these events to happen.

"It really amazes me how generous people really are," he says. "The sponsors must get asked every day to sponsor this, or help out with that, but it's very rarely that I get turned down when I'm asking for something. And you know, business isn't the best right now, but people are generally willing to donate to the cause."

Indeed, events like these take the support of the entire community, not just a handful of organizers.

Dealing with depression – you are not alone

The motivation for the Dennehys to ride across Canada started 12 years ago with their son Kelty. As a 17-year-old Whistler local he had so much going for him. He was good in sports, had a great group of friends, and, on the surface, seemed just like any other kid. But eventually depression took hold of him.

"He didn't want to feel that way," says father Kerry, passion and sadness tingeing his voice.

"But we (his parents) didn't have the skills to help. We found out that the professionals also didn't have the skills to help." Despite his parents' best efforts to find a solution, Kelty eventually took his own life.

Both the Dennehys felt the need to turn their terrible loss into something positive. "We thought the same thing: Warn everybody about the dangers of depression — that you could lose someone like we did. So we decided to start a foundation."  

And soon after that first spark of inspiration and furious devotion, the Kelty Patrick Dennehy Foundation was formed. The new organization had three main objectives: care, research, and education to deflate the negative stigma associated with mental illnesses, a disability that cripples millions of people every year.

Slowly it gained traction and began to make a real difference. And as the family was coming to terms, as much as any family can to the loss of Kelty tragedy struck again — the Dennehy's daughter, Riley, died in Thailand where she was on a yoga training retreat. She'd been prescribed too strong a sedative to ease the pain of a separated shoulder and had consequently suffered a heart attack.

Fast forward to present time when the Dennehys, after much soul searching about how to go on, decided to stay focused on the Foundation. That resulted in the recent donation by the Foundation of $500,000 to Lions' Gate hospital toward creating the Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre — a "one-stop shop" for people to gain both an understanding of, and support for those working toward, healing mental health issues. People can talk to a professional, whether in person, on the phone, or online. Over the years, the Dennehys and their foundation have become leaders in addressing the mental health issue in Canada.

"We became experts by default", Dennehy humbly states, "A GP on average has only four hours of training on depression in medical school. The timeline for a new patient to see a psychiatrist can be up to eight weeks. Our goal is to have a centre in every province. This is the first national effort to reduce the stigma associated with depression."

But with a $500,000 price tag, creating a centre in every province is no easy task. So they knew that they had to do something to not only raise money, but also to bring attention to the real-life horrors of depression. Knowing that the Dennehys were burgeoning cyclists, the foundation's administrative director, Carol Baker, suggested the goal of riding a cross Canada. While some might immediately dismiss such a daunting task, the Dennehy's interest had been sparked.  

"Ginny and I happened to get into road biking a few years ago," says Kerry.

"We entered the GranFondo races, and went on a biking holiday in Europe. We looked at each other and said, 'Boy, sounds like an adventure.'" And so the seeds of the "Enough is Enough" ride were born.

"We didn't know how to do it," Kerry casually states. "But everything just sort of came together." Before their tires had even hit the pavement, the Dennehys had raised over $600,000 for the ride, including an RV donated from their friends to trail them on the journey. "Originally we were shooting to raise $1 million but by the way things are going I think we can get two million...or more."

The Dennehy's have employed a media team and a PR person to help get the word out. They run an active blog and are hosting events across the nation to help them on their fundraising journey (to give, go to www.eie.thekeltyfoundation.org). Their itinerary calls for roughly 100 kilometres per day, with downtime spent in major cities to speak with media and various organizations. Ginny will also be visiting bookstores, signing and promoting her new book, Choosing Hope: A Mother's Story of Love, Loss and Survival.

They hope to finish their ride right here in Whistler, celebrating their continental journey with a "Mock-Ending" ride between Vancouver and Whistler. No matter what the final tally on the fundraising numbers are, their ride is already proving successful in helping to deflate the stigma associated with mental illness.

(For more on their journey go to www.piquenewsmagazine.com and follow the Enough is Enough blog.)

Change the world — one victim at a time

It is February and I'm midway through a Yin asana at Neoalpine Yoga.

Our instructor, Zoey, takes the opportunity while we are contorted down on our mats to give us some news. "This will actually be my last class for a couple months," she says while everyone's face is buried in their knees. "I am leaving for India as part of an organization my friend and I created. We are working to find shelter and long-term care for survivors of India's sex-trade industry."

Her casual mention of such a serious subject causes me to raise my head in curiosity. She looks over at me and we make eye contact, but she quietly continues her teaching: "Just about five breaths left to hold the pose," she says, her voice peaceful and warm.

I take that as a hint to put my head back down toward my knees.

Zoey Stimpson is a petite young woman with a large smile. Growing up in North Vancouver, she eventually made the move to Whistler to live the outdoor lifestyle that attracts most of us here. She has a blossoming career as a yoga and wellness teacher, travelling between Vancouver and Pemberton to help others connect their body, mind and spirit.

But she wanted more. Not for herself, but for her impact on the world. "I had a childhood dream to be immersed in a world of equality," Stimpson remarks. "For me, freedom means a level playing field for all. Ever since I was young I had wanted to be a positive force for change within the world, so last year I asked a dear big-hearted friend to help get the ball rolling."

So they did just that. The pair had been introduced to the horrors of the sex-trade industry from another friend, and the need that the survivors had resonated deeply with them.

Once tuned in to the issue, Stimpson and her friend Meagan Corbett had a vehicle to drive their motivation to make a positive change. As women this was a cause that hit an emotional nerve — they felt the urge to help females who were less fortunate, even victimized, so they formed an organization called Change Her World.

The pair enlisted help from an organization called Off the Mat Into the World. This group uses the principles of yoga to help fellow yogis reach out and incite change — exactly the calling that the two young women felt. Through OTM's guidance, Stimpson and Corbett were initiated to the world of becoming benefactors to a cause. Last year their efforts resulted in raising over $40,000 for Change Her World. The money went directly to organizations supporting the survivors of the sex-trade industry, offering guidance, shelter, and education for these rescued former sex slaves.

But simply raising money was not enough for the duo. Back in February they travelled to India to see the fruits of their fundraising efforts, and the reality of what the women they are helping must live through. When Stimpson returned from this two-month odyssey I asked her what she had learned from this life-changing journey.

Her response was full of wisdom, bringing forth the realization that charity is not only about giving, but also receiving: "Not getting lost in the traumas, the stories, and the injustice was a difficult task for me. Balancing my emotions, level of compassion and sensitivity with determination, purpose and action was a goal of mine — without this consciousness, it's safe to say, that I would have been a pile of mush. Luckily I had strong women... to hold hands with, share, process and get back on track with.

"Amidst all the horror and shadow we've been immersed in is this journey invited more laughter than tears, more joy than anger, more love than hatred, more happiness than sadness, and more hopefulness than hopelessness."

The 53 women who received the assistance that Corbett and Stimpson organized now live a life of hope and freedom instead of fear and slavery. Not only that, they now have a positive connection to two big-hearted Canadian women who wanted nothing more than to help out however they could.

For now, Stimpson continues to carve out her career as a yoga instructor, helping people up and down route 99 stay connected on the mat. Her organization is more of a side project to give back to the world that has, "...blessed me in so many ways."

Stimpson and Corbett will be sharing their experiences from India and sharing more about Change Her world at a showcase event July 31 at Millennium Place.

For the love of play

Since the Soviet Union invaded Kabul, Afghanistan in 1979 the country has been in a state of constant war. For the past 12 years, this country has lived a day-to-day life of violence, fear and uncertainty. On most days drones patrol the skies while foreign military forces roam the streets seeking out insurgent forces. Throughout this an entire generation of children has grown up knowing nothing else — the reality of loss are all too real. Two million Afghani widows mourn the loss of their husbands, and just as many children are growing up, their fathers a fading memory.

But amongst the rubble and chaos, there is a glimmer of hope for these children, a chance for them to have a slice of normalcy in an otherwise unimaginable childhood.

Whistler local Keith Reynolds saw the potential to help stop the deadly pattern of fear and violence through nothing more than a common-sense presumption about what war survivors were lacking. He visited Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Palestinian Territories and gave the kids a gift — a gift that should be a fundamental right for all children — the gift of play.

A playground is something that both children and their parents in the first-world often take for granted. The simple acts of swinging, sliding, climbing, and running around should be standard for any childhood.

But sadly in some parts of the world, building a playground is far, far down the list of priorities.

"Play is an integral part of learning," says Reynolds. "Enrolment increases at schools where playgrounds are placed. Play relieves Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We know that play is communication — learning to take turns — there is interaction. Children are very present on the playground. And I witness parents that come and watch their children play. And I realized that the best gift that a child can give their parent is a happy childhood."

In Kabul Afghanistan Dr. Inayat told Reynolds this year, "In all the history of Afghanistan, no one has given this happiness to our children."

And so with hard work, determination and a great deal of passion, Reynolds registered the charity "Playground Builders."

The simple idea of giving children the right to play, something often overlooked by governments, military personnel, and aid organizations, has the power to change the world, believes Reynolds.

Not only is he allowing kids to be kids and therefore removing some motivation for perpetuating a war, but also the organization contracts out work to those who might otherwise work for the Taliban simply to put food on their table.  The work also stems the flow of economic migrants and refugees leaving the country to find work elsewhere.

Each playground costs roughly $7,500 to build. The money that Playground Builders raises goes directly to supporting this cause.

All overhead is paid for by the board members in Canada, ensuring that 100 per cent of donations goes straight to building the playgrounds. Playground Builders has one person on the ground in Afghanistan handling the day-to-day operations — their $600 per month salary paid for by the board to ensure that donor dollars go directly towards building a playground.

So far this year, Playground Builders has built 13 playgrounds in war-ravaged communities. The goal for the rest of the year is set at 30, but that number can easily increase if more money pours in. To help go to www.playgroundbuilders.org.

Each of these stories is a testament to what everyday people can do when their passion ignites their creativity. But does anything explain the disproportionate number of so many do-gooders in such a small town? Looking for an answer I sought counsel from Whistler's elected leader, Nancy Wilhelm-Morden. With regards to giving back, she leads in the best possible way — by example. Wilhelm-Morden is one of the original founders of the Community Foundation of Whistler, an organization that facilitates matching those with the desire to give to people and organizations that could use the help, and vice-versa.

"I think part of it is because we live in such a small town, and it's part of the connectedness of each other to do good," says Wilhem-Morden.

"But it's also a beautiful town. Not everybody is affluent, but we are all relatively well off, and I think everybody appreciates just how fortunate we all are, which engenders the idea of why we all give back."

The mayor's insight leads me to an interesting hypothesis  — perhaps there is a limit on how much fortune one can receive. When our cup is full, and that may look different for each person, we feel a need to share the wealth‚ both material and immaterial.

None of these four organizations would be able to do what they do if not for the generosity of their community, which is what ties each of these stories together. It is the day-to-day contributions of time and money from the people living in Whistler that was the consistent raison d' etre for each organization. After all, these people are only the organizers, and had it been 100 per cent self-funded, you may or may not have known about their impact. Perhaps it doesn't just take a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to start a movement. All Whistlerites should pat themselves on the back for such generosity in these and many other countless pursuits spearheaded by passionate locals, for this short list is by no means a reflection of all that is going on when it comes to global giving and awareness.

When people unite to support a cause, there is no limit to how much good they can accomplish. Here in Whistler, the ability to unite has manifested real change, thanks to the inspired motivation of some passionate locals. So while many can be quick to criticize Whistler's abundant beauty, prosperity and easy-going lifestyle, the good news is there are many people turning that good fortune into a vehicle for positive change.

Maybe it's in the water.

How you can help

• Bicycles for Humanity:  Participate in the ride on June 23.  Register for the event or donate online at www.b4h-whistler.org

• Change Her World: visit changeherworldtogether.org, and subscribe to the newsletter for updates. Attend their showcase event on July 31 at Millennium Place where Stimpson and Corbett will discuss their journey to India and share their insights.

• The Kelty Patrick Dennehy Foundation: Visit www.thekeltyfoundation.org to donate and to receive updates on the Enough is Enough ride across Canada.

• Playground Builders: Donate online at www.playground-builders.org.

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