Times Colonist (Victoria, British Columbia)

LIFELINE TO MALAWI

Billy Willbond: Lifeline to Malawi
Billy Willbond packs a suitcase full of medical supplies that he will take to Africa on behalf of International Community for the Relief of Starvation and Suffering. Another $500,000 in hospital equipment has already been shipped. Photograph by: Ray Smith, Times Colonist
A self-professed ‘do-gooder’ with a knack for making a big difference with little money is taking emergency aid to a Canadian clinic that serves 50,000 in this impoverished African nation

During his career as a police dispatcher, Billy Willbond saw enough charity scams and dishonest fundraisers to develop a deep distrust of “do-gooders.”

But that was before he met children dying of AIDS in Africa and became so shaken he couldn’t sleep for days. Now, the retired Central Saanich 911 operator admits he has become a “do-gooder” himself – – one who has achieved an extraordinary amount of success.

Willbond has sent millions of dollars worth of medical equipment and antibiotics from Greater Victoria to Africa through the International Community for the Relief of Starvation and Suffering (ICROSS). He started the Canadian arm of the non-profit organization in 1998.

Today, the 65-year-old leaves his Saanichton home for Malawi, one of the world’s poorest countries, with $50,000 in antibiotics for a Canadian-run clinic called Lifeline Malawi.

Already en route is 19 tonnes of surplus medical equipment collected in the past year, including two X-ray machines, a lab fridge, hospital beds, IV poles, wheelchairs, walkers and microscopes, valued at roughly $500,000, he said.

“I get great joy out of it,” said Willbond. “The feeling I get when I consider I’ve given a small child a good night’s sleep, it’s worth all the work we do.”

Victoria is a “gold mine” of excess walkers, wheelchairs and medical equipment from elderly residents, he said.

The capital region’s leftovers go a long way in Malawi. The country’s agricultural economy was crippled by a harsh drought and famine last year. Farms flooded when rain finally came.

As many as five million of Malawi’s 12 million people require food aid, according to news reports: about 14 per cent of the adult population has HIV/AIDS.

“Every time I come back, it takes me three weeks to unwind because of how rich we are,” said Willbond, who won $120,000 in the lottery years ago, retired, and devoted himself to ICROSS full-time.

“The worst house [in Victoria] is a palace compared to a cardboard box in an [African] slum. The mother there that has three little children, her husband died of AIDS, she’s got AIDS and she can’t sell her body anymore because she’s covered with HIV ulcersÖ She’s starving, her kids are starving, and she dies. What happens to the kids? They are children of the street.”

The Victoria supplies are “like a second Christmas” to the 50,000 people served by the Lifeline Malawi Clinic, president Andrew Boettcher wrote in an e-mail from Ngodzi, Malawi.

ICROSS has packaged one relief container a year since 1998. Last year’s container to Kenya was worth $480,000, said Willbond. He partnered with the Compassionate Resource Warehouse in Esquimalt and has turned his attention to Malawi.

In the process, he has developed an array of high-level contacts. Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien once gave him access to a military aircraft to transport supplies to Kenya. Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean has sent a donation. Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca MP Dr. Keith Martin helps pack boxes.

Retired Maj.-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie is ICROSS’s patron and a powerful behind-the-scenes fundraiser. “[Willbond] does outstanding work, it’s good to see him getting some credit for it because it’s an example to others on how to make a difference,” MacKenzie said in a telephone interview. “I’m so impressed with what he does with so little money.”

Willbond, whose four daughters and wife are nurses and doctors, said he has no plans to slow down.

“Half an aspirin will give a sick child a good night’s sleep. As long as I can do that, I’m doing something.”

Times Colonist reporter Rob Shaw will travel to Malawi and Tanzania on a Jack Webster Foundation fellowship Feb. 24 – March 11. He will visit the Lifeline Malawi clinic and report on the impact of Willbond’s Canadian medical supplies.