Disney Interactive is a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, and the Corporate Citizenship program exists to "[…] make a positive impact on the environment, our workplaces and the communities we serve" as states their website. Nicole Rustad is at the head of it, and the responsibilities of her job include overseeing partnerships with NGOs, managing the granting budget and vetting NGOs for their granting program. The bulk of Nicole's work stems from Club Penguin (www.clubpenguin.com), the flagship product at Disney Interactive. Since 2008, the last time the web page was updated, they have given over $10 million to charities around the world!
My ears pop as our car climbs the windy road to the top of Silver Star mountain in Vernon, BC. The sun is setting and the air is getting crisper. Having spent the afternoon with John Baigent, founder of Partners In The Horn of Africa, and his wife Woinshet, has left my friend and I feeling both inspired and exhausted; we are looking forward to getting to the summit, hoping to find a restaurant or a pub and grab some dinner before we head over to the house of Nicole Rustad, director of Corporate Citizenship program at Disney Interactive.
The Silver Star mountain resort turns out to be quite alive even in the middle of the summer, bustling with mountain-bikers and hikers of all ages, and after a great burger at the Saloon, I give Nicole a call to let her know we have arrived. "We are just watching a movie, so whenever you're ready come and knock on the door," she says. A couple of days earlier, when I spoke to her over the telephone about my trip to Okanagan to meet her and John, she had generously offered to let us stay the night at the downstairs suite of their house on the mountain.
We finally find the house hidden from the road by a line of pine trees and knock on the door. We hear a dog bark behind the door. "Snobie!" we hear a woman's voice and the barking stops. The door opens and Nicole Rustad, a beautiful woman with a contagious warm smile, greets us and invites us in. We say a quick hello to Nicole's husband Brad and ten-year old son Alex, and since it's already late, head downstairs for the night. "I would love to make you breakfast tomorrow if that's okay," says Nicole, radiating warmth.
After a restful night, we head back upstairs shivering in the morning mountain air. This time I feel more prepared for a proper hello with my cameras charged and ready, and with my head clear. Nicole greets us, wearing a beautiful blue dress and invites us in. I can smell something really good cooking, and figure it must be the breakfast. I say hello to Alex who is playing a video game in the living room, and we follow Nicole to the kitchen. Nicole offers us some local fruit while we wait for the breakfast to get ready, which we hear is a vegetable frittata. The Okanagan valley grown fruit tastes sweet and delicious.
Our conversation begins with Nicole's journey to her current position: from volunteering for the Terry Fox Foundation, then working for 10 years as a financial planner to becoming a fundraiser for Partners In The Horn of Africa and running their public relations. During the years with Partners, Nicole co-chaired and co-developed of their signature fundraising program, "A Great Big Run for Africa", raising over $125,000 for micro financing in Ethiopia. She also was a keynote speaker for Partners presenting the organization to colleges, community groups, organizations and community events.
The frittata is ready and we move to the dining table. Everybody gets a piece; the frittata tastes fresh and healthy, baked eggs fluffy with just a hint of cheese, vegetables falling apart in my mouth. Brad and Alex finish up quickly and head out to the mountain downhill biking, while we continue with our conversation. Snobie, the family dog, lies quietly under the table not taking his eyes off Nicole.
We finish up the delicious breakfast and Nicole invites us to follow her to the living room. We all take seats: Nicole on the couch, my friend and I across from her. As I keep taking pictures, we talk about NGOs and their work in developing world countries. "My job is to give the people an opportunity to do good!" says Nicole. "We have won the lottery in life, we really have everything we need," she continues, telling us that helping others who haven't been so lucky seems to her the natural and right thing to do.
All throughout the conversation I keep on photographing Nicole and the multitude of interesting items in the house, and each of the items seems to have an interesting story associated with it which Nicole is happy to share. Time flies as we keep talking, and at some point I realize with great surprise that we've been at it for hours, and that Brad and Alex should be home soon. Not wanting to be any more of inconvenience to Nicole and her family than we already have been, I quietly signal to my friend that it's time to leave. We thank Nicole for the hospitality, for generously letting us have the suite downstairs for the night, and for the delicious breakfast. Nicole gives us each a hug and wishes us a safe trip home…
It's time to head back to Vancouver. As we drive down the windy road to Vernon, I think of the great people we got to meet on our trip. Once again I note to my friend how the people in the "giving business" seem to have a certain air about them, how genuinely happy they seem, and I realize how much I would love to achieve some of that genuine happiness for myself.