willie in ukraine with the orphans

The Magic Dog

In 1998 I travelled to India for the first time in my adult life. On each of the four prior occasions, I remember constantly travelling by car to and from the capital city to both my mother’s and father’s hometowns to visit family. Unfortunately it never really felt like a vacation. My relatives all had a perspective that we were rich, since we lived in Canada, and so it was more of a handout to people I didn’t know rather than a meaningful connection with my relatives. This trip was to be more of the same, but since I had not visited since I was a young child this time would be much different. I was free from school and not yet working a full-time job. With this freedom, my mind was clear, alert and able to focus on what was happening at the moment. I was still quite naive to the world, living in the bubble of Canada for most of my life, and this formed my belief that I knew and had seen everything. This stubborn ignorance was the last ingredient needed to allow the following small event to turn the way I looked at things upside down and eventually change my life.

I was on a bus travelling to my mother’s hometown. The bus stopped on many occasions in traffic, and at any point, you could take a photo of what was happening on the side of the street and tell 50 different stories. In one instance there were about 100 people in my view all doing different things. Some were working, cleaning, eating, walking, talking, there were also cows, dogs and cats moving around the portrait. It was a view similar to many that I had seen so far, but in the center of all this chaos, my focus was drawn toward a naked boy that was maybe 2-3 years old. Everything in the frame froze as he navigated desperately between people’s legs to find the only small available space on the sidewalk to defecate. As I watched the child, many thoughts began to form:

  1. We have evolved to a point where everyone can have their basic human needs provided for them. So why is something like this still happening?
  2. No one around him noticed enough to do anything about it. It was as though he were a stray dog or cat.
  3. Where was his home? Where were his parents?
  4. Was there anything that I could do to help?

Of these thoughts, it was the last that bothered me the most. How could I ever help this child? And if there is one living like this here then there must be more around the world. I started to feel a sense of overwhelming helplessness. While growing up, I had seen many documentaries and infomercials trying to communicate these realities. My world was far removed from this one and never experiencing it myself made it easy to forget once the tv was turned off. Even when I had thoughts to donate, concerns that most of my donation would be mishandled while flowing through the administrative functions of the charity stopped me from following through. But now I was in it, watching it first hand. As my trip continued, I started to see countless others that were living in the same kind of poverty.

busy street in India

An overcrowded street in India

The image of the young boy burned into my memory. I remember now as if it happened yesterday. It affected me so much that I have not had a desire to return to India since then. I just don’t think I could ever become accustomed to such widespread poverty, but I now view my last visit there as a gift that opened my eyes and changed my life.

“Once we are born as human beings life got complicated – if we had come here like any other creature on the planet – stomach full, life settled. Once we come as human beings, stomach empty – only one problem, stomach full – one hundred problems; because what we refer to as human begins only after survival is taken care of. Only when survival is fulfilled, the traits of being human will find expression. Till as long as we are struggling for survival, we are also just another biological entity like any other creature.” – Sadhguru

In the years after my last trip to India, I began to experiment ways to help people. I wanted to have a sense of purpose and a feeling that I was doing something good. I did not think much further as to whether my help was needed or was really “helping”. I volunteered for hospitals, government social programs and donated money to various charities. Along the way, I discovered gross mismanagement of volunteer hours and charitable funds by many organizations which led me to start my own that would help rebuild family homes in New Orleans flooded by Katrina. I ran it like a business and wasted very little. We helped eight families get back into their homes over a period of 3 years, and I felt that I was doing what was needed.

A few years after closing the program I returned to New Orleans to find that the families we helped were worse off than before. They had gone from the financial freedom of owning their new homes mortgage free to being back in debt with home equity loans, leased cars and maxed out credit cards. It appeared that my attempts to help had only made some people happy for a moment, but did nothing to change lives. It was a disappointing revelation, but a necessary life lesson. The time had come again to redefine the who, what, where and how we would help people moving forward.
Changing lives, if possible, and transforming the world can take a long time, sometimes a lifetime. It would be a long haul that would take much more planning and patience, but we would have a better chance starting from the root with those that have the best potential to transform the world. After much thought, the decision was made to focus all efforts on doing what is necessary for children. We would start by providing them with food, clothing, shelter and love.

And so this latest evolution provided a new purpose for Willie’s travels. It no longer would be a fluffy, directionless blog that posts photos of a cute dog as he travels the world, it would be more. Willie would help bring needed awareness to this cause. To help orphan children around the world have better lives and inspire those around us to do the same.

So we started in a place we had never been before. Ukraine. We heard about the war and their depressed economy. Upon doing a little more research, I found that there were over 100,000 orphans in Ukraine currently living in 500 government-run orphanages. All were short supplied and only survived from private donations. So many children in need of essential items and love. A good place to start.

Not knowing the culture or language we searched online for a local that could volunteer their time to help us locate an orphanage that we could help and also assist in buying the needed supplies. In our search, we found an amazing tour guide in Kiev named Kseniia. She had started her business UkraineToGo.com just a year prior and it already had become one of the top tour services in Kiev. She was eager to help us and quickly found a list of local orphanages that we could help. On our second day in Ukraine, she took us to one that needed desks and chairs for their classroom. The room was very small, so we needed to source a local custom furniture maker that could fulfil the order within our donation budget and timeline. With her excellent business skills, Kseniia managed to locate the right business and also negotiate the price down almost 50%, so that was within budget! Three weeks later the new furniture was delivered and set up.

After our stay in Kiev, we travelled east to Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine. There we quickly connected with locals that had little or no money, but an eagerness to help with their time. We located an orphanage just outside the city that had about 20 children. As the cold winter was about to set in, they requested boots, pillows and warm bedding for the kids. Luckily Kharkiv had one of the biggest open markets in Europe where we could find everything we needed. It was so big that we needed a local that worked there and knew the maze of stores, but even he had to stop multiple time to ask vendors if we were in the right section of the market.

Our first trip to help orphans in Ukraine truly was an amazing experience. It was safe, the food was top quality, and the locals were very friendly. We were able to provide aid to over 100 orphans and inspired locals to continue helping after we left. A lot more than we had expected to accomplish.

Shortly after leaving one of our new Ukrainian friends sent us as a message that the children from one of the orphanages were now drawing pictures and telling stories of a magic dog that brought them what they needed. I would agree, Willie truly is a magic dog.

orphans in Ukraine draw pictures of willie the magic dog

Orphans in Ukraine draw pictures of Willie the Magic Dog

Thanks again to all our new friends in Ukraine:
Kseniia from UkraineToGo.com
Sasha, Anya, Mariya & Maria in Kiev
Zakhar, Kristina, Anastasiia, Sasha, & Nikita in Kharkiv
Oleksandra and Helen in Odessa

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