“Oh, we won’t even see it.”
“No, a small town of probably 1,500. We just pass by.”
I sat mute, wondering what I had gotten myself into. Trish, a volunteer with Child Haven offered to pick me up and deposit me at the front door.
Giving time overseas is one of my goals, but to be led to a possibly creepy farmhouse in butthole, Ontario?
My mind swimmed with exhaustion. I hauled my pack through buttery heat at 5:30 am to board yet another Greyhound.
These buses are all beginning to look the same. Semi-stiff airplane seating and the familiar sounds of snoring from a passenger lulled by the motions of the bus. Budget travel is never boring, that much I can attest to.
5 hours later I stood outside the Ottawa Greyhound Station, noticing the heat had followed me. I wasn’t given a picture of Trish, so wandered aimlessly lingering on someone’s face a bit too long. They returned a quizzical expression. Shove off, you are weird.
From behind I heard a woman say to a passenger, “Are you Jeannie?”
She, too, was doing the blind date ritual, which was grossly out of place for a volunteer pick-up/drop-off scenario. I turned and began following her like a lost puppy. Finally our eyes met.
“Are you Trish?”
“Yes, you must be Jeannie.” Jackpot.
Trish looked about sixty, but exuded a youthful energy in ivory shorts and flip-flops. She greeted me warmly, admitting she was slightly flustered due to car problems. A sleek, white vehicle had easily replaced any car issues and off we went.
Maxville is about 1 hour from Ottawa. I felt slightly chipped on what Ottawa had to offer as the main landscape zipping by were freeways and other cars.
I had done some paltry research on Child Haven.
Trish filled me in.
“So, is Child Haven Bonnie and Fred?”
“Oh yes, Bonnie and Fred were the ones that started it.”
By “started it” she hinted at Fred and Bonnie Cappucino, married for 37 years. On the surface a typical, Canadian family with 2 kids, but Bonnie and Fred went the extra mile and adopted 19 boys and girls from 11 countries.
“My god, really?”
The Ontario landscape was dotted with towering trees and farming fields, I had stepped back into a Norman Rockwell painting. Or the English countryside 20 years ago.
The road to the farmhouse wasn’t really a road, but a narrow gravel path. We pulled up behind a smattering of parked vehicles. A burly man in an eggplant shirt emerged from a door, his pale skin piercing the blue canvas of sky.
“Oh Trish, you made it!”
I exited the air-conditioned car, realizing who he was.
“Hi Steve, Jeannie – so nice to finally meet you!”
We shook, sealing the beginning of the weekend.
Steve was the sole office administrator, unofficially adopted by Fred and Bonnie. Two part-time ladies usually help out, but one just accepted a posting with the government, this leaves Steve as THE source, everything.
The heat seemed to swell around the farmhouse, a building reminiscent of a lego city – a hodgepodge of shapes, sizes and colors squashed together.
When I entered, a quake hit me. The multi-coloured lego theme continued, the interior overloading my senses. India, Nepal and Tibet had vomited all over the place. Rugs, tapestries, drums, and paintings were littered in copious amounts. Rows and rows of books bursted every seam of the shelving units. The kitchen fared no better as several sets of dishes or utensils fought for counter space.
I was led to the top floor, an attic of oppressive heat. Rooms that defied structural logic appeared from nowhere. A railing meant to prevent a soul from tumbling to the lower floor was piled high with a rainbow of saris, shades and fabrics ripe to the eye and fingers. My bag was deposited in a large room with several beds. Some bunk style, some not. And damn if it wasn’t a concentration of heat with only two fans as cross-draft.
A change of scenery is expected during traveling, I told myself. Deal, woman. My future roommates would be a retired journalist from British Columbia and a former Child Haven intern, a sweet woman named Shelley.
I scrambled downstairs noticing the temperature drop significantly. What secret elixir of breeze did they have down here that had escaped my sleep space?
Is this the panic button? Had I walked into a cuckoo’s nest? That’s when Fred appeared. A man of economy, but oozing with vitality.
We made introductions, and sat across from each other.
“You know, my first girlfriend was named Jeannie.”
I laughed. ”Oh really? There aren’t many of us.”
“She was very religious, and the only way she would even look at me was if I became a minister, so I did. Then she dumped me. But, being a minister stuck.”
He had me in stitches.
“I promise we’re not all like that.”
The other participants gathered in the living room, a couple from Cape Breton, the retired journalist, and three former interns, one of them was Trish, my ride. A projector was at the ready for presentations. Alright, this is shaping up.
Fred began regaling us with tales of the inception of Child Haven. He had my rapt attention telling a story about being present during the civil rights movement in Alabama. And how passive resistance ties to Gandhian principles. It was a window into strength of will. A will that can topple governments or feed a child.
Steve announced the entrance of Bonnie. A small woman, slightly stooped over, wrapped in a fuchsia sari, sparkling with segmented rows of gold bracelets on each arm walked in.
She covered the first few pages of our orientation package, on what to expect as an intern. She had a tiny voice, but vibrant eyes lined with kohl peeked out over spectacles.
It took me a few moments to process.
I had walked into an eccentrics parlour, but doesn’t it take a unique person to charge into a foreign country and open an orphanage? Let alone 8? With only the tip of the iceberg, I had come to learn about something special. Something larger than my petty concerns.
I braved the chilly living room (geo-thermal piping) and domestic chaos for one goal: make a kid smile.
Steve unrolled the projector and my education began.