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Elderly Canadian couple unrelenting in mission to help poor children

Fred Cappuccino, right, and his wife Bonnie founded Child Haven International in Toronto in 1985, and have established nine homes for poor children across Asia.

Ajit Jain/The Globe and Mail

Fred Cappuccino is 87. His wife Bonnie is 78. Despite their frail health, this Canadian couple are unrelenting in their mission to take care of poor children in four countries – India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Tibet.

The pair, who founded Child Haven International in Toronto in 1985, have established nine homes (six in India and one in each of the other three countries) and one training centre for women in Ghaziabad, near Delhi.

They are currently taking care of close to 1,300 children and 300 women, for whom they provide care and vocational training. Children in the CH homes receive up to a Grade 10 education, but if they are interested in pursuing college or university education, the Cappuccinos find them sponsors. Dozens have finished their science and engineering degrees, Mr. Cappuccino said in an interview.

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The couple, who themselves adopted and raised 19 children of diverse backgrounds as well as two of their own at their home in Maxville, Ont., are worried about their organization. This year, which happens to be their Diamond Jubilee wedding anniversary, their goal is to raise $6-million for an endowment, so that the income could take care of the CH homes, and children, in perpetuity.

Bonnie travels to all 10 homes (including the women's centre in India) four times a year: "I travel for 6 ½ weeks, I am back in Canada for 6 ½ weeks as we organize 21 fundraising events all over the country," she says.

"We are struggling all the time to pay our bills, to keep those homes running. Our annual budget is $1.5-million and we don't receive any government grants," Mr. Cappuccino says.

They have had some generous helpers. A supporter from Calgary recently mailed them a check for $100,000.

And there are dozens of people, former volunteers and recipients of their help, who testify to the good they are doing.

In her personal blog "Five For India," Montreal-based Adrienne Mavalwala, who with her husband, Darius, went to CH's Kaliyampoondi's home in March, writes how its 307 kids, under one roof, live in harmony. "All children at CH are treated equally, regardless of gender, and neither caste nor color is recognized. All religions and customs are recognized and celebrated."

Waterloo-based Heidi Nanda, an educator, agrees. She went for three months as an intern, also to Kaliyampoondi – CH's largest home – in November, 2011. Her husband, Atul, and two children (Dylan, 13 and Dysan, 10) joined her later and she calls the experience "unforgettable."

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"Child Haven is an amazing organization. Fred and Bonnie's vision to create a home for underprivileged children is just that – a true home, with a sense of family and caring for each other," she says in a phone interview. "We were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves become part of that family."

During her internship, she helped kids with English and math studies. "I was impressed by how much the children value education, as they realize that this is the way for them to build a new future for themselves, their family and their community," says Ms. Nanda.

Like her, 1,000 interns have travelled to four countries to volunteer their time and intellect to help the CH children.

Ms. Cappuccino relates the story of how back in 1997, a father of four children, who were all living at the CH home in Hyderabad (India), came one day and took his 13-year old daughter, Sunita, away with him. He said they needed her "to help with some chores at home."

Ms. Cappuccino later discovered the father was planning to marry her off. Sunita was too young. She was a bright student. In her wisdom, Bonnie decided the best tactic was to send the other three siblings back to the father as well. "The man obviously realized what he was doing was wrong and he brought back all four children and he signed an agreement that all four of his children would complete their education," she says.

The Cappuccinos smile as they tell the end of the story. Sunita has finished her master's degree and "she's happily married to a fine young man of her choice," says Bonnie.

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The couple are in Mississauga this weekend for a fundraiser at the Sangham Banquet Hall, which is sold out.

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