VANCOUVER â€” By the time Vancouver entrepreneur John Volken sold his United Furniture business, it was an empire of 150 locations with annual revenue of more than $200 million.
The sale, in 2004, allowed him to pour his heart and some $150 million into supporting two areas where he saw need: young people in Vancouver, Phoenix and Seattle who struggle with drug and alcohol addiction, and also young orphans in Africa who need food, housing and schools.
This week, the 72-year-old social entrepreneur was honoured with a 2014 Dalai Lama Humanitarian Award, along with other prominent philanthropists Frank Giustra and Djavad Mowafaghian.
The awards are inspired by the Dalai Lama’s teachings and seek to highlight innovative approaches to making lasting change.
"He is a promoter of peace with courage and intelligence," said Volken. "He has a commanding voice that speaks little, but with great authority."
This is the inaugural year the awards have been given out by the Vancouver-based Dalai Lama Centre, which is funded by private citizens and foundations, but has no financial connection to the Dalai Lama or his office.
Standing in the lobby of a fancy, downtown hotel with many well-dressed business folks attending a private luncheon to hear the Dalai Lama speak, Volken was gracious as people offered congratulations: "I don’t feel like, ‘Look how good I am.’
"In business, it’s usually a game," said Volken, describing the constant one-upmanship that exists in the world of getting ahead of your competitor, of deals and market share. "Can I do this? Can I get more?" But he hoped that after hearing the stories behind the awards, others might be inspired to, in their own way, also find ways to help others.
The way is to "try and see where the need is," said Volken.
Years ago, on a trip to Africa, he "couldn’t help but say, "What can I do, when I saw starving children.’ There was a young mother, maybe 13 or 14 years old, with a baby dying in her arms."
Volken’s Lift The Children nonprofit society says it supports more than 10,000 children in more than 80 orphanages in East Africa, and runs long-term agricultural and farming programs that promote selfsustainability.
Here at home, "when I wanted to do good, I thought of feeding the poor, but was told that what’s needed most is a detox centre. I saw that when you have short-term systems, there is a revolving door: Detox. Relapse. Detox."
Taking from successful models in Europe and the U.S., he instead built a program where "students" must commit to a two-year course.
The students, who are between the ages of 19 and 30, pay a registration fee of about $400 and then live in shared housing, take meals together and are trained to take jobs at PricePro, a 60,000-square-foot grocery store in Surrey.
There is no cure for addictions, but there can be successful treatment, said
Volken, adding that it can take "up to five years to retrain the brain, and readjust, and learn the skills needed for long-term sobriety. So programs that set out to solve things in 30 to 60 days don’t work."
There have been some 200 graduates since this "Welcome Home" program started 12 years ago, and Volken has plans to expand its reach by adding facilities.
"Some people (dismissively) think, ‘Ah, it’s a bunch of addicts,’ but that is so wrong. Addiction doesn’t know the difference between backgrounds, education and socio-economic classes. We have students whose parents are lawyers and senators."
Joint recipients of the 2014 Dalai Lama Humanitarian Award:
Businessman and philanthropist Frank Giustra, who has led several successful natural resource and film companies, is now at the helm of Fiore Financial, a private equity firm. He supports a range of international and local charities focused on disaster relief, economic development and homelessness. His Radcliffe Foundation has contributed $30 million toward the Clinton HIV/AIDS Initiative. In 2007, he pledged to give $100 million to help poor communities in countries including Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Haiti and India. Locally, he founded Street to Home, which aims to provide safe, clean and affordable housing.
Born and raised in Tehran, Iran, Djavad Mowafaghian built one of the largest general contracting companies there in the 1970s. In 2003, he transferred more than $120 million in assets from his commercial enterprises to his foundation, which has given more than $50 million to more than 20 local charities, including the UBC Centre for Brain Health, the Oncology Wing and New Childcare Centre at the B.C. Children’s Hospital, Lions Gate Hospital and Vancouver General Hospital.