By Mike Foster
When Bob Carver picks up his Fender Stratocaster to play Stevie Ray Vaughan tunes with his band Texas Flood at Rockin4Tabitha later this month, the notes will be felt 13,000 km away, in a small village in Cambodia.
Over the past 10 years, Carver and many other uOttawa alumni have been involved in raising $238,000 for the Tabitha Foundation of Canada, a non-profit organization that helps the poorest of the poor in Cambodia to become self-sufficient. They have also travelled to that country to help villagers build 130 houses. In January 2016, members of the group will return for a 10th anniversary house-build, in Preah Vihear.
But first, Rockin4Tabitha will host Raising the Roof! a fundraising concert at Greenfields Pub in Barrhaven on September 24. In addition to being an expert in Muay Thai kickboxing and Southeast Asian martial arts, Carver is a keen rhythm and blues guitarist. Since he graduated from uOttawa with a bachelor in physical education in 1984, he has put both passions to good use.
Carver used to run the N1 Thai Boxing Academy and is a former RCMP Tactical Training Section instructor. He has been on many trips to Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to learn and to teach martial arts, but also as a regular tourist. It was during a trip to Angkor Wat with his wife, Wendy, in 2003 that he was struck by the poverty he saw just metres away from popular tourist attractions. Flying over the country, he was also struck by how dry many areas of Cambodia seemed compared to Thailand.
He later read an article about the work of Janne Ritskes, who had cashed in her pension and savings to set up the Tabitha Foundation. Tabitha runs a savings program to help people contribute towards the cost of the things they need, from small items such as pots and pans and mosquito netting to water wells, schools, hospitals and houses. Cambodia is a complex country, still living with the aftermath of war, genocide and famine that killed millions of people, nearly an entire generation, during the mid to late 1970s.
Inspired, Carver began to organize fundraising events. First a kick-a-thon, then concerts. In 2006, he went to Cambodia to help build houses.
“The people that we are going in to help are those who, even by Cambodian standards, couldn’t afford to build the houses themselves,” says Carver. Under the program, an entire village registers with the Tabitha Foundation and decides which families are most in need of new houses. Land is donated and families are expected to contribute the equivalent of around $30.
“The most striking thing about the villagers that we serve is the juxtaposition of their day-to-day reality with our own. They are every bit as smart as us. They are extremely creative. And when they tell us that they will remember us forever, they mean it,” says Carver. “It takes so little to give a family a real chance at meaningful change.”
Dr. Terry Brennan (MD ʼ85), an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine, went to Cambodia to build houses in 2009 with his then 75-year-old dad, Terry Brennan Sr. (MEd ʼ57), his wife, Brenda, and his daughters, Lauren and Rebecca.
Dr. Brennan, who had previously worked for non-governmental organizations in Africa, says he wanted his daughters to experience what it was like to help others, and see what life was like in a developing country. He says the Tabitha house-build programme was a safe option.
The frames of the organization’s houses on stilts are built by local contractors and the floors and walls are nailed down by volunteers. Dr Brennan says villagers were amazed to see his dad at age 75 swinging a hammer and helping out, especially as it is very rare to see someone of that age in Cambodia.
“You could see their appreciation, that people had come from halfway across the world to help them,” he says. “The houses could get built without us, but that social message, and the deeper value for my daughters of returning to North America having experienced first-hand that people aren’t poor because they are lazy but because of politics and devastation, would not otherwise be there. It’s an investment in the long term.”
According to the Tabitha Foundation, more than 12,000 volunteers from all over the world have helped build more than 9,200 houses, and nearly 350,000 families have built their own houses.
Other uOttawa alumni who are known to have taken part in house-builds over the years include Paula Piilonen (PhD [Earth Sciences] ’01) who will go on her eighth house-build next year, as well as Nicole Flaxman (BA [Classical Studies] ’10) and Meghan Butler (BASc [Chemical Engineering] ’08).
Raising the Roof will be co-hosted by radio personalities Sarah Freemark and Dylan Black and will also feature the Johnny Vegas All-Star Band. Tickets are available by calling 613-796-2448.
Bob Carver (in the black shirt to the right) with a team of seven volunteers and villagers at his first house build in Cambodia in 2007.