Sunday, December 26, 2004

Etobicoke-based charity faces its first Christmas in 34 years without founder Murray Dryden

From the Toronto Star, December 26, 2004
Kevin Donovan, Staff Reporter

One of Canada's top charities is facing its first Christmas without founder and leader Murray Dryden. But his death last February has not slowed the pace of the 34-year-old charity that devotes every nickel of public donations to bedding and clothing for children in the developing world.

"All the money goes to the children. That's the amazing thing," says Eileen Rademacher, 87, one of a host of volunteers powering Sleeping Children Around the World. "If one charity can do it, why can't others?"

The charity spends an average of $1.5 million per year on innovative "bedkits" that volunteers assemble and deliver overseas at their own expense. All administration costs are covered by an investment fund created by the late businessman.

The charity has achieved all of this without fundraising, making it virtually unique in the philanthropy world.

Sleeping Children was born of an elegant concept: "The comfort of a bed is a basic right of every child," Dryden, father of former Leafs goalie Ken Dryden, often said. To detractors who asked why he did not donate food, Dryden countered that if children could get eight hours of decent sleep they would have a better chance of getting an education, growing up and thriving.

The Manitoba native struggled along dusty roads as a salesman in the Great Depression before finding success in the construction materials trade. Later, he travelled the world and saw great poverty among children.

A flash of inspiration came in 1970 as Dryden, who had moved to Etobicoke with his wife Margaret in 1948, was about to retire. In what would become a second, albeit unpaid, career he devised a charity that would deliver to children an environment-appropriate "bedkit." The kit changes from country to country but is always made by local labour and consists of the best items $30 can buy in that area.

Each kit begins with a mattress. Added to that are items such as a pillow, sheet, raincoat, towel, shirt and pants (school uniforms are often included because in some countries children cannot attend school without a uniform). Kits also include shoes or flip-flops, possibly a school bag or water flask and, in malaria zones, a specially treated mosquito net.

Dryden died on Feb. 1, aged 92. The charity's office is actually the Dryden home in Etobicoke, bequeathed to the charity by the philanthropist.

It's the home where Dryden paved over the backyard so that sons Ken and Dave could hone the goalie skills they would later use in the National Hockey League. Both sons and daughter Judy are supporters of Sleeping Children and Dave is secretary-treasurer of the board of directors. (Margaret Dryden was a co-founder of the charity and Dryden's second wife was also involved. Both women died before him.)

The home is filled with volunteers on any given day.

On a recent visit, retired school principal Grant Clark dropped by. He's a "travel volunteer." Clark and his wife Leslie have taken numerous trips to distribute the bedkits. It's not cheap; each volunteer pays about $4,000 or $5,000 for their airfare and accommodations. While bedkit donors get an income tax receipt, travel volunteers do not get a tax credit for their costs. Dryden felt volunteers should benefit from the experience alone.

Trips are usually three weeks long. They're done on a shoestring budget and accommodations are spartan. In 2004, Sleeping Children distributed kits in India, the Philippines, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Bangladesh and Honduras.

Before the Canadian volunteers arrive, local service clubs (Rotary, Kiwanis and Lions groups are active overseas) have organized the production of the bedkits and identified where they are needed.

Once the kits are ready, volunteers like Clark arrive and travel with the supplies to remote villages. It is not unusual for 7,000 kits to be distributed on a trip.

The volunteers, many of whom are in their 60s and 70s, travel by jeep, bus and often on foot over rugged terrain.

Dryden insisted on documenting each donation. So, as the kits are distributed, the volunteers photograph the children. Later, the donors receive a letter with the photograph showing what their $30 (or more) purchased. They also receive a tax receipt from the federally licensed charity.

"It's the most amazing experience you could imagine," says Clark, who travelled to Uganda this year. "I've been to villages of 2,500 with only 500 bedkits. What you see is not only the 500 recipients celebrating but also a celebration by the other 2,000 in the village."

Travel volunteers are encouraged to file field reports which are published on the charity's website.

One recent report describes the joy and astonishment of two boys (the target age is 6-12) as they unrolled the brightly coloured mattress and examined the clothes and supplies inside.

Sleeping Children has distributed approximately 750,000 bedkits so far in 31 countries. The charity does its best to ensure the bedkits are not sold or taken by an adult.

Upstairs in the Dryden home is a large room filled with volunteers, many of them old friends of the family. They have lists upon lists of donors, stacks of envelopes and a mound of pictures to go through. The photo finishing and other items are donated.

Volunteers, all women, jokingly call themselves the "upstairs maids." They range in age from 56 to 87. Among them on this visit are Sally Gibb, Lynda Huff, Pat Cater, Margaret Helliker and Jean Cullen.

Murray Dryden, who went on many of the distribution trips, also worked with these volunteers. Today, they are mailing out photos from the Uganda trip. Many people "buy" a bedkit donation as a Christmas present. One 6-year-old girl recently decided to ask for donations instead of presents at her birthday party. She raised $320.

It's chilly in the Dryden home, especially upstairs. The old furnace is on its last legs. But a charity that saves elastic bands, stamps and makes its volunteers pay travel costs won't be buying a new furnace any time soon.

"We're just incredibly frugal," says Linda Webb, the office manager and only paid employee (interest from the investment fund covers her salary). Even Webb pays her own way on overseas trips.

So how does the charity get donations? First, it doesn't fundraise because Dryden did not like the idea of bothering people at their homes. But volunteers are encouraged to give talks to schools and service clubs upon returning to Canada, which spreads news of the charity.

An ongoing investigation by the Toronto Star into Canada's 80,000 charities has devised a "good works" ratio to rate charities.

It states that good charities devote 60 per cent or more of their annual expenditure to charitable activity, with the rest going to fundraising and administration. The Star has found that four out of five charities meet or exceed this target.

However, only a handful do what Sleeping Children does by devoting 100 per cent of donations to good works. (The Star's Fresh Air Fund and Santa Fund charities are other examples). The actual number is estimated to be in the low hundreds. An exact number is not available.

On the other end of the spectrum, one in five charities — a whopping 15,000 agencies — fall below the 60 per cent mark. Some of these are poorly managed; a minority are outright scams.

Sleeping Children's Webb said Murray Dryden was offended by charities that wasted money on fundraising. "Murray believed that people would give if they understood the integrity of the organization," Webb said.