THE LITTLE FAMILY THAT GREW AND GREW
Last winter, an ailing Ottawa-area farmer turned his television dial to CBC's Man Alive, and became engrossed in a story about an extraordinary Canadian couple.
Fred Cappuccino and his wife, Bonnie, married 37 years and with two biological sons, had adopted and brought up 19 boys and girls from 11 countries, most of them in the Far East. Five and a half years ago, when many of their kids were grown up and on their own, they had turned their thoughts to the destitute children of India and together with a Cornwall, Ont., physician, Dr. Natubhai Shah and his wife, Kala, and others, had founded a nonsectarian nonprofit organization, Child Haven International. Man Alive's camera had followed Bonnie Cappuccino on a recent trip to India, where 170 small children are now growing up, loved, wanted and cared for by paid local staff and unpaid Canadian volunteers in three Child Haven homes in different parts of the country.
"Try to find that couple I saw on television," the farmer begged a neighbor. "Ask them to come and see me. I want to give them a gift."
A few days later, they appeared at the farmer's door: bearded Fred, 64, in a conservative gray suit, blonde Bonnie, 56, in a floating rose-colored sari. The sick man handed them a cheque for $15,000.
Bonnie recalls, "We were stunned! We tried to thank him but he said he just wanted to help kids. He said he also intended to leave us two properties in his will worth about $40,000. Our thoughts flew to Hyderabad, where we have 107 children, including babies, living in a decrepit house whose walls melt when it rains. We hope to use our benefactor's money to build them a new house in a better location."
For the Cappuccinos, who live with their six youngest children in a pioneer log cabin near Maxville, a small rural community in eastern Ontario, it was the second happy surprise in a year. Some months earlier, an international jury had awarded them UNESCO's prestigious Honorable Mention "for the teaching of human rights," the first time that this honor has been bestowed on a Canadian.
When Bonnie McClung, a young student nurse from the farmland of Illinois, Married Fred Cappuccino, son of a Welsh Protestant mother and an Italian-American atheist father who was an ornamental plasterer, neither of them wanted to bring a lot of children into the world, which was overpopulated already. Fred, a newly ordained Methodist minister, had just returned from Japan, where he had worked in orphanages for three years.
Before leaving Japan, he had learned about an orphanage for mixed-race children (fathered by black American soldiers), who he felt would never be fully accepted in Japan. He and Bonnie decided they would have two children and adopt two. Their first son, Robin Hood, was born in 1954. Then, when adoption agencies turned them down because they could have children of their own, Fred wrote to Japan and asked for a mixed-race orphan.
Soon, a bright 5-year-old girl, Machiko, joined the family. Fred's middleclass Methodist congregation held together when Machiko arrived, but when it learned that Fred and Bonnie intended to adopt another dark-skinned child, William Tell, sparks flew. The congregation was divided: some praised the minister and his wife for being true Christians, others objected that black kids would lower the tone of the neighborhood, and wanted the Cappuccinos out. Church attendance fell off, and Fred was dismissed. He was given another church, in a poor area of Chicago, but here too his liberal sermons fell on deaf ears. He resigned from the Methodist ministry and became a Unitarian minister.
The Cappuccino family was growing. In 1957, their second biological son, Pierre Ceresole, named after a Swiss pacifist, was born - the Cappuccinos liked to give their children meaningful names. Their second daughter, Annie Laurie, was a timid Korean toddler who required foot surgery. Then came two baby boys - both born in the U.S., one to mixed-race parents, the other to Sri Lankans. In the next decade, eight boys and five girls from distant lands, and Tibiki a native Canadian daughter, joined the house hold.
In 1967, Fred was invited to head a liberal Unitarian congregation in Pointe-Claire, Que., and brought his multicultural family to Canada. He and Bonnie became Canadian citizens in 1976.
Like Mahatma Gandhi, the Cappuccinos are pacifists, vegetarians, lovers of the truth. They accept every human being, regardless of race, religion, sex, or caste, as equally valuable in the world.
Such convictions have led them to help found an organization, Families for Children, which has placed children of many nationalities in loving North American homes, and - in 1972 - to lead a Canadian group to war-torn Bangladesh to rescue starving orphans, They returned with 15 babies, including a girl, Shikha Deepa Margaret, who became their daughter.
In the early '70s, the Cappuccinos paid $8000 for a pioneer log cabin on a 40-hectare farm east of Maxville. They intended to live off the land, but they were novices and failed. In 1976, they sold most of their possessions and, accompanied by their seven youngest children, went to Sri Lanka, and then India, where they opened a home for destitute children.
Back in Maxville after 18 months, Fred found work as a remotivation therapist in an extended-care hospital in Cornwall, while Bonnie, on the farm, cooked enormous meals and pestered the government for permission to bring Vietnamese Children, stranded in a camp in Thailand, to Canada. Permission for 100 was finally given, on her promise that if placements didn't work out, the farm would serve as an emergency shelter. With the help of their community, the Cappuccinos built a big one-room addition to the cabin, and about a dozen boat children, at one time or another, lived there. One enterprising girl, KimChi, who had smuggled herself aboard a ship leaving Vietnam, joined the household. In 1985, when Child Haven was born, the couple were parents of 21 kids.
Back home in Canada, Bonnie cooks dinner in her own primitive farm kitchen. The six kids still at home remember the good old days when they had two full teams for an exciting baseball game. Now, the older ones are scattered across the U.S. and Canada. Bonnie and Fred have eight grandchildren. But the family still keeps in touch. Last year, when Vietnamese son Tran, 22, married his high school sweetheart, 18 brothers and sisters danced at his wedding.
The Cappuccinos want their children to grow up healthy, happy and independent, and hope they will find their own way to serve mankind. They are pleased that Robin is now in Nicaragua to study and help the farm cooperative movement there, and two other sons, Mohan and Ashok, have worked as Child Haven volunteers in India.
The Cappuccinos' "other children" live in three homes in Hyderabad, Joshi Farm and Kaliyampoondi. They are babies abandoned at birth, older orphans (many crippled by polio) and children whose parents are sick, or blind, or too poor to provide them with even one good meal a day. About 40 percent of India's population lives below the poverty line, and Child Haven takes the poorest of the poor. When they grow up, they will join the mainstream of Indian life.
Meantime, they are cared for by a small, salaried Indian staff, assisted by volunteers (mainly Canadian university students) who pay their way to India (about $1,400 for the round trip) and receive no wages. For some, the heat, poverty, disease and culture shock of rural India have been too much. But several "regulars" have returned, including Trudy Vural, 68, an effervescent Toronto widow who specializes in the care of sickly infants.
Child Haven International is a registered charity in Canada, the United States and India, and operates on a shoestring - about $1,000,000 annually. It receives no government subsidy and is supported by charitable donations.
Four times a year, toting sacks of vitamins, medicines and used clothing, Bonnie Cappuccino flies to India for an extended stay. She visits each home, discusses its needs and problems, talks with influential people.
Frank Daller, 39, Toronto producer of television musical themes, recently accompanied her. He reports, "In India, Bonnies goes around second-class, living in the homes, or with friends, and eating cheap vegetarian meals. The kids regard her as a loving aunt. I was surprised they were so happy, but other things shook me. In poor villages, people who couldn't feed their children begged Bonnie to take them. Of course, there isn't enough room.
Bonnie drives herself. Once, I said something about the sacrifice she and Fred are making, and she told me, "Sacrifice is a word we never use."
Has Bonnie ever missed things that other women consider important: a well-furnished home, an expensive car, a modern kitchen, fashionable clothes? Apparently not. She explains, "We try to live by what Gandhi said - if you possess more than is required for your basic existence, you are stealing from those who don't have enough."
The Cappuccinos, who have also won The Canada Volunteer Award Certificate of Honor for contributions to children and the Ontario Medal for Good Citizenship, believe that their life has been directed by their own needs, personalities and motives, and their answer isn't everybody's answer.
Have they done enough? Has it been worthwhile?
Fred quotes poet Rabindranath Tagore: "'Let me light my lamp', says the star, 'and never debate if it will remove the darkness.
Bonnie and Fred Cappuccino didn't want a large family, the world was already overcrowded. But then, they found that the world was also full of needy kids. So, they adopted 19 of them - and that was just the beginning.