Leading Significant Lives

These four Canadians exemplify a life well lived, but all are just regular folks like you.

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Library Literacy

One Winnipegger is helping thousands of African children read.

Like a lot of people, Winnipeg’s Kathy Knowles begins her day at sunrise and finishes it well after sunset. Unlike most, though, she does this for two months of the year in Ghana.

Knowles is the founder of the Osu Children’s Library Fund (OCLF), an organization that has opened eight libraries in Accra, Ghana, and has helped 200 smaller ones in the country. She’s also supported projects in a number of other countries and has provided more than 100,000 children’s books to libraries around the world.

It’s a tough job and the long hours can be difficult, but she’s not about to complain. “I never feel burdened,” she says. “I adore what I do.” For her, philanthropy is about following her passion, and there’s nothing that excites her more than literacy and helping others get access to books.

Knowles started the OCLF in 1990, after her husband’s work in the mining industry brought them to Accra, Ghana’s capital city. Noticing that children around her didn’t have access to storybooks, she started reading to six of them under a tree in her garden. Besides opening libraries, the organization has also awarded high school scholarships.

Despite the hard work, Knowles, who runs OCLF from Winnipeg for most of the year, knows that the experience of becoming literate can transform a child’s life. “Children who read considerably tend to have inquisitive minds, with a curiosity extending beyond their immediate environment,” she says. “Being able to further one’s education goes a long way to provide the stepping stones out of poverty.” – S.B.

Cycling for Cancer

Jeff Rushton bikes across the country while raising millions for cancer research.

Jeff Rushton’s title lists him as the founder, chair and “very passionate volunteer” of the Coast to Coast Against Cancer Foundation, an organization that has raised about $35 million over the last 12 years for kids’ cancer charities across Canada. Its Tour for Kids, a multi-day series of cycling events, accounts for about $11.5 million of the total.

Rushton’s foundation is impressive – it gives 100 percent of its donations to kids’ cancer charities in Canada, paying for its event costs, staff and other expenses through volunteers and sponsorship. Investors Group has provided funding and support for over 10 years.

It all began with a cycle tour across the United States in 2002. He biked around the country with a friend to honour his own father, who had fought cancer and survived. A year later, a friend’s daughter was diagnosed with cancer so he decided to bike across Canada with five friends to raise money for children’s cancer research.

“Life is about the choices you make. It also helps to be surrounded by like-minded, equally passionate people.”

It takes tremendous effort to raise the kind of money that Coast to Coast has collected, especially considering that Rushton runs a business, too – he’s the president and CEO of Toronto-based signage company Media Resources – but it’s not as hard as it may look.

The key, he says, is to spend time and energy on the things that truly matter, like his family, his business, sports and his foundation. Things that don’t matter don’t get his attention. “Life is about the choices you make,” he says. “It also helps to be surrounded by like-minded, equally passionate people.” – S.B.

Musical Message

Rapper D.O. is a world record holder, but teaching kids about the dangers of bullying is his real prize.

You might think that holding a Guinness World Record would leave you with nothing else to accomplish. Not so for Duane Gibson, who holds the record for longest freestyle rap. While Gibson, who performs under the name Defy the Odds, or D.O., is proud of the feat he set in 2003, he’s now more interested in using his wordplay to “edutain” kids about bullying than wowing large crowds with his rhymes.

Since 2001, Gibson has visited hundreds of high schools and has given more than 1,000 presentations on the dangers of bullying. His program, which he calls H.O.L.L.A., is an acronym for Help, Outlet, Lead, Leave and Assert. “Those are five things you can do to stand up to bullies,” he says.

Although Gibson never set out to be a role model and an anti-bullying advocate, he was the only visible minority in his neighbourhood while growing up, so he knows what it’s like to be singled out for being different. About 13 years ago, he was asked by a teacher to talk to a class about how he was able to maintain a rapping career and graduate from university with honours. That soon evolved into his anti-bullying Stay Driven program.

While he still raps – he released the 10-song album Down Home last year – he admits that he gets more out of helping kids than anything else. “When I started performing, I loved it when someone said I had a great rap or punchline,” he says. “But there is nothing better than when someone says the words you spoke made a difference in their lives. It becomes something you want to continue doing.” – D.M.

Adoption Advocates

The Shepherds wanted to adopt one child, but ended up with four. Now the couple wants to help others adopt older kids.

Christen and Trevor Shepherd already had two teen sons when they decided to adopt a girl. The plan was to adopt just one child, but they ended up getting four. Just after they began the process in 2010, four siblings – aged 3, 5, 7 and 9 – were returned into care by their adoptive parents. “It happens more than you think,” says Christen.

The Shepherds regularly had Crown wards help take care of the rescue animals on their St. Mary’s, Ontario farm, so the couple felt they had the experience and love required – and room in their farmhouse – for a multiple adoption. They took all four kids.

It took almost two years for these children to trust the Shepherds’ commitment. They threw tantrums, destroyed furniture and ran away – again and again. But with plenty of patience and love, things got better.

Christen describes a domestic scene unimaginable a few years ago. The kids were sitting around, relaxing and quietly playing with each other. Everyone was content. “I felt so grateful,” he says.

The Shepherds are now advocates of older-child adoptions. In 2013, Christen wrote The Promise: Truth from the Trenches of Adoption. The book details the family’s setbacks and successes, explaining the psychology behind challenging behaviours and sharing parenting strategies.

Children’s Aid Societies have bought the book to distribute to adoptive parents. “I’ve been told that reading The Promise changed their mind about whether they can go on,” she says. – V.H.

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