okanagan

Disney's Top Corporate Citizen by Art Zaratsyan

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.

The Founding Partner by Art Zaratsyan

The day we are to meet John Baigent, the founder of Partners In The Horn of Africa (partnersinthehorn.org), is no different from any other Saturday in the Okanagan: sunny, warm, a pleasant change from the often wet weather in Vancouver. The drive was long but we managed to arrive early and grab a bite at a nice cafe run by an older Korean couple in downtown Enderby, B.C.

I snap a few pictures as we wait for John to arrive, and as the clock hits two o'clock he drives up in a grey Honda CR-V, right on time. "You must be Art!" he says extending his hand. Firm handshake, we exchange pleasantries. "Let me show you our old office," he says and leads the way. We walk for about a block and he points to an old one-level semi-attached structure. "We ran Partners from here for a decade, we just moved out this February. We threw many of our local fundraisers right here on this parking lot." He points to a patch of unpaved land beside the building.

We walk back to the new office of Partners In The Horn of Africa, which is located in a two-level municipality-owned building. Definitely a nicer location, although still quite modest as far as offices go. As soon as we enter John offers to make some coffee. "Ethiopian beans, best coffee in the world," he smiles. The coffee tastes good indeed. We get a brief tour of the office and sit down for a chat.

Although I have made some notes and done some research in preparation for the meeting, I end up not needing them at all. John tells us about how his humanitarian journey began in Ghana, volunteering with CUSO back in the early 1960s. After coming back, he went on to practice law and became a partner in a Vancouver law firm, but in 1988 he decided to take a sabbatical in Ethiopia and work for the World University Service of Canada. That was when he fell in love with Ethiopia and the Ethiopian people. Eventually, John made Ethiopia his second home, going on to start Partners In The Horn of Africa in 2001, an aid organization with an innovative model:

"Partners only undertake projects with local volunteer groups who are prepared to contribute 15-20% of the cost of any particular project. If funds are not available, our partners contribute their percentage of costs in labour or material. Whether they contribute cash or labour, they share in the selection, implementation and supervision of each project. The foundation for each project is a contract between our organization and our overseas partner. We avoid any suggestion of donor and recipient; we see our relationship with our African partners as one of shared responsibilities. Another premise of Partners relates to administrative costs. Partners’ approach is unique: it incurs no administrative costs… period. Partners has no paid staff and relies on the voluntary work of directors in Canada and a parallel group of African nationals abroad. Canadian directors donate their time to fundraising, planning and administration. Out-of-pocket expenses are picked up personally, an effective method of keeping them to a minimum."

When I tell John how Nicole Rustad, director of the Corporate Citizenship program at The Walt Disney Company, referred him to me as "the world's biggest feminist", he laughs. "Improve a life of a woman and you will improve the whole community," he says, explaining how women in the world are often neglected in matters of education, employment. He goes on to tell us stories about orphaned girls in Ethiopia: having provided them with a safe and nurturing environment when they were little, the organization had to establish more ways to support and guide them in life as they grew older, doing everything to encourage them to study and move up in life. He tells of Ayelnesh, to whom he promised a "pretty new dress if she graduated at the top of her class", without even realizing how it would encourage the little girl to study and earn that dress. Now Ayelnesh has grown up into a beautiful young woman and has been accepted to medical school, having received 4 points out of maximum 4 in state-run exams that determine which schools a potential student is eligible for. The medical school is the hardest to get into.

He tells us more about Partner projects, completed and under way: bridges built across rivers that flood in rain season cutting off entire communities and killing many who dare to cross, pit latrines in an Ethiopian prison that reuse bio-gas from human waste to light up kitchen stoves, school houses, flour mills, micro-financing projects for local farmers. All things that remote Ethiopian communities desperately need to survive. The list goes on: the organization has spent over $1 million on such projects last year.

"Would you like to come to our house? Woinshet will throw a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony," he asks and we head to our cars. After a 15 minute drive through Okanagan back-country, we turn onto an unpaved driveway leading to his house on the riverbank. Woinshet, his beautiful wife from Ethiopia, greets us at the door, dressed in a traditional Ethiopian dress. A black Labrador retriever jumps out from behind her, wagging its tail. "And this is Thai!" We're introduced and ushered to the living room.

As I snap some pictures of the interior of John and Woinshet's beautiful house, she begins to set up for the ceremony. John uncorks a bottle of local wine and we carry on discussing aid organizations, NGOs, Ethiopia, and the contrast of life in Canada and the developing world. Woinshet brings in some flowers and greens, lays them on the floor around a small stove and lights up some incense which fills up the room with aromatic smoke. She starts to roast the green coffee beans and we watch her stir as the beans gradually turn dark brown. Once the coffee is roasted, she puts a few spoonfuls into a tall and narrow clay kettle and fills it with hot water, gently moving it around and stirring the coffee brew inside. I watch mesmerized, as she pours the coffee into a cup and hands it to me. The coffee tastes strong and rich.

The evening goes on as we sip the coffee and talk: about how John and Woinshet met, about Agarfa Improvement Association, an organization started by Woinshet to help develop her home town, Agarfa. I pause taking pictures to change the memory card, realizing that I must have snapped more than a thousand photographs by now.

The evening winds down. We thank John and Woinshet for the amazing day, for their hospitality, and hit the road. I feel full of positive energy and smile as I watch the sunset cover the hilltops of Okanagan with gold. As we drive away I turn back to see the television set light up in the window: the football game is on.