Ever since a trip to Africa in 1998, Billy Willbond has devoted his retirement to easing the suffering of children in third world countries.
Willbond, a retired Central Saanich police officer who served in the armed forces for 20 years, was in Africa to lay wreathes for fallen Canadian soldiers. But what he witnessed changed his life, and started a movement to change the life of others.
“I saw the AIDS orphans suffering, [and] four to five kids to a crib,” he says, adding that they were covered in ulcers and moaning because of the pain.
“I was told that half an Aspirin would give a suffering child a good night’s sleep.”
Fifteen years later, 70-year-old Willbond is still gathering equipment and supplies for people in need in third world countries.
Willbond and his wife Lynne founded the International Community for the Relief of Starvation and Suffering, or ICROSS, in October 1998, shortly after that visit to Africa.
Their goal is to help ease suffering and therefore extend the life of the children in need, he says.
“We’re not going to save the world, but you ease suffering when you give kids a painkiller.”
Willbond, who was fresh out of retirement at the time, sold all of his guns and started purchasing medical supplies for children in Africa. ICROSS’s first shipment included 400 boxes of supplies such as antibiotics and clothing.
The organization’s latest project, Feed the Hungry, took place in Eastern Africa. Twelve women and their children were taken from the slums and brought to a farming area, where they were taught to become self-sufficient.
“The only way they could [afford to] feed their kids is to sell their bodies,” Willbond says. “We’ve taught them how to grow their own food.”
After three years, the families were given a small parcel of land so they could become their own providers, he adds.
While the project has been passed down to a local East African woman, Veronica Kamau, Willbond hopes it continues with the same success.
“I did what I started out to do,” he says. “I made an example for other NGOs to follow if they want to do it, and hopefully by example it will continue on.”
Of the many projects ICROSS aids in, some include sending medical equipment to Libya and containers of supplies to Malawi and Kenya. The organization is currently aiming to send more supplies to Libya, as well as medical equipment for blind children in Tanzania.
Despite having to deal with the lawlessness and corruption that goes on in these places, Willbond stays dedicated because of the children.
“[It’s] the suffering of children in the Third World, especially after an earthquake or natural disaster, fires and floods,” he says. “But earthquakes are the bad ones because the children are all homeless … and they need everything.”
One of the biggest challenges the organization has faced is having officials from Kenya confiscate and sometimes even steal supplies, Willbond added.
With that challenge comes the task of trying to ensure that every donor dollar goes to those in need.
“[It’s a challenge] trying to keep on even keel so that the donors know that every dollar they give does go to the poor.”
The volunteer-based group, largely made up of retired soldiers, is stationed out of Willbond’s Saanichton home.
ICROSS often partners with other NGOs to provide aid to people around the world. Organizations often let him know what’s needed where, and he gets it for them, he says.
Among ICROSS’s achievements, Willbond was recently honoured with a Diamond Jubilee Medal. The medal acknowledges Canadians making significant contributions and achievements. Willbond was presented his medal by Lt. Gov. Steven Point on July 18 at Government House in a ceremony honouring several Canadian veterans.
While Willbond doesn’t seek recognition, he hopes it will open doors for the charity.
“I don’t expect any rewards or anything,” he says. “But when you do get something, it does open doors for the children of a war, for instance.”
For more information about ICROSS, see icross-canada.com.