Al Wigood has been vol­un­teer­ing for 30 years

Al Wigood has been vol­un­teer­ing 30 years with World Ac­cord and doesn’t plan to stop un­til he ‘falls off the perch’

Grand Magazine - - ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT - BY AN­DREW VOWLES

The turn­ing point for Al Wigood came about 1995. Dur­ing a vol­un­teer visit to a vil­lage in north­ern Hon­duras, he was sur­vey­ing a plot of land with the town coun­cil leader. The man ex­plained that the vil­lage kids at­tended a school in a nearby town, where they were os­tra­cized as out­siders.

Ges­tur­ing to the plot, he turned to Wigood and said, “One day, there will be a school on this prop­erty.” He just wasn’t sure when or how it would hap­pen.

Says Wigood, “I got a bright idea.”

By then, he had vol­un­teered in the Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­try for about five years through World Ac­cord, a Water­loo-based in­ter­na­tional de­vel­op­ment or­ga­ni­za­tion. Each year, he spent about a month help­ing to lay ce­ment floors and re­place roofs on the ubiq­ui­tous ce­ment block and plas­ter houses. Now he had a po­ten­tial so­lu­tion for the vil­lage leader.

Re­fer­ring to his nu­mer­ous con­tacts back home in Canada, he says, “If I could talk 10 peo­ple into pro­vid­ing $800 each, we could build the school.”

Leav­ing the coun­cil leader in charge of con­struct­ing the foun­da­tion, Wigood flew home to Kitch­ener and got busy. Not only did he raise the needed money, but he also or­ga­nized a vol­un­teer team of ac­quain­tances to travel to Hon­duras to help erect the school.

Nearly 25 years later, Wigood now spends half of ev­ery year in his se­cond home in Hor­conci­tos in Hon­duras, where he con­tin­ues to lead groups of vol­un­teers from

“The trips wouldn’t ex­ist with­out Al. He be­lieves in sup­port­ing peo­ple strug­gling to im­prove them­selves.” WORLD AC­CORD VOL­UN­TEER RICHARD KIRSH

across Canada on an­nual build­ing trips spon­sored by World Ac­cord. Ear­lier this year, they com­pleted their 44th school and added their 160th class­room to ex­ist­ing build­ings. Last year, he watched about 100 stu­dents grad­u­ate from the high school he helped build, now at­tended by more than 600 teens.

This win­ter, Wigood plans to lead new crews in build­ing a science lab in the high school and in erect­ing three new schools. While in Hor­conci­tos in late Jan­uary, “Don Al” will mark his 89th birth­day with nu­mer­ous friends and ac­quain­tances, in­clud­ing his adopted Hon­duran fam­ily. And he’ll toast his 30th year as a vol­un­teer in Cen­tral Amer­ica with World Ac­cord.

All of this prompts the in­evitable ques­tion dur­ing a con­ver­sa­tion one even­ing at his sum­mer home, a 32-foot house trailer in a park oc­cu­py­ing a loop of the Grand River in south Kitch­ener: Just how long does he plan to keep go­ing? Wigood is ready with his stan­dard one-liner: “Un­til I fall off the perch.”

Seated in an up­hol­stered rocker on the wooden porch out­side his Prowler Fleet­wood, Wigood grins from un­der his cream-coloured Tilley hat. “Wel­come to the Rio Grande” reads a wooden sign hang­ing from a moss-cov­ered pad­dle at the en­trance to his lot. At the back of the site, the river slides brown­ish-grey and si­lent be­neath the wil­lows.

Ear­lier, he had led the way down from the elec­tronic gate in his Corolla with its van­ity li­cence plate de­claim­ing his Cana­dian nick­name: “Old Buck.” About 100 trail­ers clus­ter near the river in Kitch­ener’s Pioneer Sports­men Club, a pri­vate 47-hectare camp­ground lo­cated on the site of a for­mer gun club dat­ing back to 1929.

Wigood, a one-time com­pet­i­tive shooter, joined the club in 1950; when the trailer park opened in 1980, he and his wife, Hazel, picked their spot by the river. By 1989, they were look­ing for­ward to spend­ing re­tire­ment there and in their cabin cruiser on Lake Sim­coe.

Then came Cen­tral Amer­ica.

Af­ter sell­ing his Ac­tive Tow­ing busi­ness lo­cally, Wigood had spent about 12 years driv­ing a truck back and forth across Canada for Home Hard­ware. One night he got talk­ing to Terry Fielder, a for­mer hard­ware store owner in New Liskeard who had sold his busi­ness to be­come ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of World Ac­cord in Water­loo.

Rooted in a Cana­dian church con­gre­ga­tion, the non-profit formed in 1980 to work with part­ner groups in Hon­duras, Gu­atemala, El Sal­vador and Nepal. That night in 1989, Fielder had given a pre­sen­ta­tion about the pro­gram to his con­gre­ga­tion, where Wigood was also a mem­ber.

Wigood be­gan do­nat­ing money to the pro­gram and even­tu­ally ac­cepted Fielder’s in­vi­ta­tion to visit Cen­tral Amer­ica.

There, he says, he en­coun­tered “con­di­tions I couldn’t turn my back on.” In both Hon­duras and Gu­atemala, he saw chil­dren dy­ing of mal­nu­tri­tion, dis­eases af­flict­ing com­mu­ni­ties, and vil­lages lack­ing schools and health fa­cil­i­ties.

A civil war was still be­ing fought in Gu­atemala, where they met a so­cial worker whose clients were what he calls “the poor­est of the poor.” Many vil­lages were home to tal­ented weavers who were un­able to af­ford raw ma­te­ri­als; the so­cial worker dreamed of be­ing able to sup­ply what they needed for their craft.

Re­calls Wigood: “Terry and I scraped to­gether all the cash we could spare and filled a closet in her home with weav­ing ma­te­rial.”

That led to to­day’s pro­gram called Women in Ac­tion – Mu­jeres en Ac­cion – a part­ner agency with World Ac­cord. Now based in al­most 30 Gu­atemalan com­mu­ni­ties, the pro­ject of­fers train­ing, runs a mi­cro­cre­dit loan pro­gram, helps im­prove farm­ing prac­tices and en­sures ed­u­ca­tion

for chil­dren. Wigood helped build pro­gram of­fices and sev­eral houses; he still vis­its the coun­try once a year just to ob­serve the pro­ject.

Most of his time in Cen­tral Amer­ica is spent in Hon­duras, where World Ac­cord is part­nered with the Pro­gram for Ru­ral Re­con­struc­tion in about 40 vil­lages com­pris­ing a to­tal of about 20,000 peo­ple. Es­tab­lished in 1983, the Hon­duran non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion aims to foster ru­ral com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment through var­i­ous ini­tia­tives. These in­clude train­ing farm­ers, pro­vid­ing seeds and fer­til­izer, and of­fer­ing ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion, in­clud­ing sub­si­dies and schol­ar­ships for school kids. There’s also ru­ral school con­struc­tion pro­jects in­volv­ing Cana­dian vol­un­teers like Wigood.

“The thing that at­tracted me to World Ac­cord was that they work with a part­ner that has a plan and knows how to ex­e­cute it but just doesn’t have the fi­nances to do it,” Wigood says. He con­tin­ues to raise money through an an­nual Christ­mas let­ter sent across Canada. “I have a 300-name mail­ing list. I’ve never raised less than $16,000. We raised enough (last) year to sup­port 163 kids to con­tinue to high school.”

In­di­vid­ual fundrais­ing by Wigood and oth­ers has be­come more crit­i­cal to the pro­gram. World Ac­cord was for­merly funded by the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment as well as money raised from church con­gre­ga­tions and other donors across the coun­try, in­clud­ing the Ro­tary Club of Kitch­en­erCon­estoga. World Ac­cord’s last full fed­eral grant was in 2008; as of last year, the found­ing church will no longer pro­vide core sup­port. From about $700,000 a year for all four coun­tries, World Ac­cord’s bud­get will fall to about $520,000 this year. That makes do­na­tions from groups and in­di­vid­u­als more im­por­tant than ever, says David Barth, who suc­ceeded Fielder as ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor in 2009.

“We’re scram­bling now,” Barth says. Barth and two other staffers run the pro­gram from an of­fice in a light in­dus­trial mall in north Water­loo. Con­trast­ing World Ac­cord’s low over­head with that of many in­ter­na­tional de­vel­op­ment pro­grams, Wigood says, “10 per cent of all the money I raise for Hon­duras stays in the of­fice. Ninety per cent goes to the pro­ject, and I get to see how it’s spent.”

Wigood’s ini­tial month-long vis­its stretched into sev­eral months at a time. To­day he spends half the year – roughly from Oc­to­ber to April – liv­ing in his “se­cond home” in Hor­conci­tos, lo­cated about two hours’ drive in ei­ther di­rec­tion from the cap­i­tal, Tegu­ci­galpa, and San Pe­dro Sula, the near­est in­dus­trial cen­tre.

There, home is a ce­ment block and plas­ter house on a quar­ter-acre lot on the edge of town, near a med­i­cal clinic and the lo­cal soc­cer field. The house is owned by the pro­gram, along with the Toy­ota Land Cruiser he drives there. A few years ago, he talked neigh­bours into mov­ing into the house. They still live there, look­ing af­ter the house while Wigood is in Canada.

“We are now a fam­ily,” he says, adding, “I’ve got the best cook in Hon­duras.”

Wigood has vol­un­teered most of his life, in­clud­ing min­is­ter­ing decades ago to prison in­mates in Cam­bridge and Guelph. Born in 1930 in Puslinch, he grew up on a farm and at­tended school in Guelph. “My par­ents were al­ways help­ing some­one.”

Re­call­ing his fa­ther’s funeral, he says, “I don’t know how many peo­ple came up and said he was a good man. If they say that about me when I fall off the perch. . . .” What makes a good man? “A good man is one that cares for his fel­low man.”

He started run­ning a gas sta­tion at age 20, and even­tu­ally owned three out­lets in Kitch­ener and Water­loo be­fore launch­ing the tow­ing com­pany. Ac­tive Tow­ing turned 50 in 2017 and is now owned by one of his six chil­dren.

Al and Hazel were ele­men­tary school­mates; Wigood was 19 when they were mar­ried in 1948.

Hazel died six years ago, two days short of their 64th an­niver­sary. Heart prob­lems pre­vented her from fly­ing; she never vis­ited Cen­tral Amer­ica but, says Wigood, “she was one of the great­est things I had go­ing for me, she en­cour­aged me.”

Be­fore vol­un­teer­ing in Cen­tral Amer­ica, Wigood had never laid ce­ment blocks or done plumb­ing or elec­tri­cal work. Fielder de­scribes him as a re­luc­tant leader.

“He didn’t think he could pos­si­bly lead groups,” says Fielder. “He’s that un­will­ing par­tic­i­pant who in his quiet way is a leader.”

To­day Wigood or­ga­nizes vol­un­teer work crews in build­ing schools and homes from the ground up. Each year, the pro­gram runs three con­struc­tion trips, each last­ing two weeks and in­volv­ing up to a dozen peo­ple from across Canada. Vol­un­teers cover their own air­fare and are ac­com­mo­dated in dorms in Hor­conci­tos.

On a trip last win­ter, Barth and Wigood were in a work crew lay­ing hun­dreds of ce­ment blocks on a build­ing site. “He re­ally puts a lot of folks to shame,” says Barth. “He was part of the chain gang build­ing a school and he kept up with ev­ery­body.”

For his part, Wigood con­cedes he’s slowed down a bit, quip­ping: “When I was 80, I quit roof­ing.”

Jeanne Amos, for­mer di­rec­tor of ad­ver­tis­ing and gen­eral man­ager of Grand mag­a­zine, was look­ing for a re­tire­ment pro­ject last year when she heard CHYM ra­dio host Adele New­ton talk­ing about her own World Ac­cord trip. This past Jan­uary, Amos spent two weeks help­ing to mix con­crete and sling blocks for a school ad­di­tion.

Be­fore ar­riv­ing, she had viewed Hon­duras with some trep­i­da­tion. The coun­try of nine mil­lion peo­ple is plagued by vi­o­lent crime and has one of the high­est homi­cide rates in the world.

In­deed, Wigood was hi­jacked and robbed

once while trav­el­ling with Barth and two oth­ers in Gu­atemala, but he says he has never had a prob­lem in Hon­duras. “The vi­o­lence is mostly crim­i­nals shoot­ing crim­i­nals. There’s gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion to no end. Pol­i­tics is so cor­rupt it’s un­real.”

De­scrib­ing Wigood as an or­ga­nized, calm­ing force, Amos says he shows com­pas­sion for team mem­bers and Hon­durans alike.

“His eyes would well up talk­ing about the kids – why we’re here, what dif­fer­ence we can make,” Amos says. She was in­spired to or­ga­nize a fundrais­ing event this fall to pay for build­ing ma­te­ri­als for next year’s pro­jects.

This year will mark the 13th build trip in Hor­conci­tos for Megan Gilbert­son, a plum­ber in Guelph. Now 26, she first signed up for the pro­gram at age 14. “I go back be­cause it grounds me in some way. I’ve learned so much more from peo­ple there than at home,” she says.

Gilbert­son says Wigood is a master at con­nect­ing with peo­ple, in­clud­ing strangers in com­mu­ni­ties that might ini­tially look askance at for­eign­ers. “It’s amaz­ing how small a bridge is needed to make com­mu­nity,” she says. “Al has al­ways been very good at mak­ing those bridges. He doesn’t see a hole or river be­tween us and them. He just says: ‘These are my peo­ple.’ ”

Toronto’s Richard Kirsh worked for decades for the On­tario gov­ern­ment be­fore re­tir­ing; to­day he vol­un­teers to or­ga­nize lo­gis­tics for the an­nual con­struc­tion trips to Hon­duras. When he met Wigood in 2000, he was con­cerned about his age. Nearly 20 years on, Kirsh says he doesn’t know what he was wor­ried about.

“The trips wouldn’t ex­ist with­out Al. He be­lieves in sup­port­ing peo­ple strug­gling to im­prove them­selves.”

He re­calls a Hon­duran man who asked Wigood for a loan to buy a bus. Af­ter Wigood fi­nally handed over some money, the man bought one ve­hi­cle, then an­other; now he owns a suc­cess­ful bus line. Kirsh says Wigood “iden­ti­fies with peo­ple who work hard. He has a lot of re­gard for the com­mon work­ing per­son.”

How does Wigood ex­plain what drives his work in Cen­tral Amer­ica? “It’s a pas­sion, I guess,” he says. “I have a de­sire to help give peo­ple a hand up and to be in­volved with a pro­gram that has been suc­cess­ful.”

Be­sides lead­ing of­fi­cial pro­jects with World Ac­cord, Wigood has helped nu­mer­ous fam­i­lies around Hor­conci­tos: build­ing and re­build­ing homes, col­lect­ing school sup­plies in Canada to de­liver to kids, pro­vid­ing gifts and loans. “I’ve been kind of busy spend­ing my kids’ in­her­i­tance.”

He at­tends town hall meet­ings, has been named god­fa­ther to sev­eral chil­dren, and is rou­tinely in­vited to wed­dings and grad­u­a­tions. “Through De­cem­ber there’s a grad­u­a­tion al­most ev­ery night. I think they have their grad­u­a­tions when they find out I’m avail­able.”

He flashes a sil­ver-coloured ring on his right hand, a gift from a wo­man whose house he re­built over her protes­ta­tions that she had no money to pay for it. “On the last day, she knelt be­fore me and yanked off her wed­ding ring and put it on my lit­tle fin­ger. That’s the kind of pay­day I get.” Jok­ingly re­fer­ring to the ring as his anillo de com­pro­miso, he adds, “I sent a mes­sage to my fam­ily here telling them I was ‘en­gaged.’ ” Hon­duras is one of the poor­est coun­tries in the world; more than half of its pop­u­la­tion lives in poverty. What dif­fer­ence is Wigood mak­ing for those nine mil­lion souls? Ask Fielder. He says part of the fund­ing that Wigood raises in Canada has paid for school­ing for girls from ru­ral Hon­duras who might never have com­pleted their ed­u­ca­tion.

“That will be trans­for­ma­tive not only in the lives of those girls but in the whole com­mu­nity,” says Fielder. In 2015, a cer­e­mony in Hon­duras marked the open­ing of a school built by World Ac­cord and named in mem­ory of Fielder’s late wife, San­dra, a for­mer teacher in Water­loo. “My wife was an ed­u­ca­tor. It’s a door-opener. When noth­ing else can work, some­times ed­u­ca­tion is enough.”

One boy who at­tended a school built by Wigood grad­u­ated and even­tu­ally landed a job with a mi­cro­cre­dit loan or­ga­ni­za­tion. Now mar­ried with a young daugh­ter, the man built a house for his fam­ily and is now a church pas­tor.

“If I hadn’t done that he’d be plant­ing corn,” Wigood says. “I can only do what I see in front of me. All I can do is en­cour­age other peo­ple.”

Barth of­fers a dif­fer­ent take. Wigood has “pro­vided pos­si­bil­ity and a sense of hope for thou­sands of chil­dren and fam­i­lies over the years.”

Wigood doesn’t fore­see re­tir­ing to the Rio Grande any­time soon. “I don’t feel any dif­fer­ent to­day,” he says. “I know it’s got to end, I just hope that I’m able to work up to the end. I en­joy the work, en­joy the peo­ple. That’s where my friends are.”

Adds Fielder: “I think he hopes he dies in Hon­duras. The en­tire re­gion will be at his funeral.”

PHOTO BY NICK IWANYSHYN

In late Jan­uary, Al Wigood will mark his 89th birth­day with nu­mer­ous friends and ac­quain­tances, in­clud­ing his adopted Hon­duran fam­ily.

PHO­TOG­RA­PHY IN HON­DURAS BY JEANNE AMOS

Al Wigood is an ac­tive par­tic­i­pant at build­ing sites. “He re­ally puts a lot of folks to shame,” World Ac­cord ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor David Barth says.

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