Article in the Grand Rapids Newspaper

Profile: Earle Canfield

Sunday, January 3, 2010 by Terri Hamilton

Earle Canfield wears a 3-inch parrot on his shoulder and his heart on his sleeve.

The bird, a miniature parrot called a parrolet and named Birdie, rides on Canfield’s shoulder most everywhere he goes, nibbling on the top edge of his turtleneck.

“If he thinks I’m about to fall asleep, he bites my ear,” he says.

His heart becomes apparent whenever he talks about the children of Nepal. Canfield has made it his mission to save them.

When he speaks of them, he cries.

Canfield, 62, is the founder and executive director of ANSWER, a nonprofit that stands for American-Nepali Students’ and Women’s Educational Relief.

It all started 10 years ago on a trip to Nepal, when he met a little girl named Uma. She was on a corner under a street lamp selling cigarettes to support her family. In one arm she held her baby brother, while she wrote her lessons in her copy book with the other hand.

“Every night, she was faithfully multitasking under the street lamp,” Canfield recalls.

He decided to help Uma, paying to put her into private school and pledging to support her education through college.

Three years later, she was speaking English and was first in her class. Uma graduated from nursing school in May, works and has an apartment.

If he could make that big of a difference, Canfield figured other folks might want to help other Nepalese kids, too.

Now, more than 500 children are in 100 schools all over Nepal through the efforts of ANSWER sponsors, most from Michigan and many from around here. It costs $5 a week to sponsor a child’s education, he says, including tuition, uniforms and books. The program also offers job training for women, supports a clinic and a soup kitchen, and helps villagers and migrants start businesses. Canfield focuses on educating girls, who are undervalued in Nepal, tracks youngsters through college, then offers them career counseling — something previously unheard of in Nepal.

“I never had the desire to make money,” he muses, padding around his kitchen in slippers, carrying a plate of chocolate chip cookies he just took from the oven. “But I always wanted to help. I thought, ‘Where can I help the most with the least amount of money?’”

Because he takes no salary for his work as ANSWER’s director and runs it from an office in his basement, all of a sponsor’s money goes toward his or her child in Nepal, Canfield says.

He lives on the rent he gets from a big Victorian house he owns in Seattle. The house is paid for. Two families pay rent. That’s his income.

Canfield shares a home near Grand Rapids Christian High School with his longtime partner, Mary Jane Schmidt.

“I can’t say I understand this deep commitment he has to Nepal children,” says Schmidt, a retired special education teacher. “He’s a very private person. He doesn’t tell me a lot. He doesn’t tell anybody a lot. But this is his passion. It consumes him.”

She has accompanied Canfield to Nepal on eight of the dozens of trip he’s made there over the years. He typically spends two or three months at a time there, checking on students and conferring with the Nepalese director he hired to run ANSWER on that end.

“He pores over their report cards,” Schmidt says. “If they’re not doing well, he scolds the principals. When one girl hadn’t been to school in 17 days, he called the mother in and scolded her. He’s very stern with them. He doesn’t want these kids to fail. He just loves all these kids.”

‘A Renaissance guy’

Canfield is big-word brainy, tossing around words like theocratic and hegemony. He needed 180 college credits to graduate, but had 240. He oozes world politics, often meandering off into intricate political discussions that leave you a little dizzy.

“He’s a Renaissance guy,” says Roger Durham, a longtime friend and Aquinas College political science professor who invites Canfield to speak to his classes every semester. “He knows a little about a lot of things. Every time I’m around him, I learn something new.

“He’s already had a life’s worth of experience — more than most of us,” he notes.

Get talking with Canfield and plan to think deep thoughts, Durham says. He’s not a “Did you see ‘Dancing With the Stars’ last night?” kind of guy.

“He sees bigger pictures,” Durham says. “Why do people get sick? What is help? Some help creates dependent structures.”

Stuff moves him.

“He can’t talk about ANSWER without crying, and it’s genuine,” Durham says. “He wears it on his doggone sleeve.”

A former physician’s assistant, Canfield does medical work in Nepal, too. He shows up with suitcases full of antibiotics.

He traces that interest back to his father, a Navy doctor passionate about his calling.

Canfield — whose first name is James and middle name is Earle — grew up with his dad, Earle, his mom, Florence, and younger siblings, Sally, Smitty (Robert) and Mark.

His family moved every two or three years because of his dad’s job, and young Earle lived all over the world.

“I’ve maintained wings at the cost of roots and friends left behind,” he observes.

“One night, my dad got a late-night phone call. It was a sick patient. I said, ‘Can’t you tell them to take two aspirin and call you in the morning?’”

Canfield pauses, remembering the scene.

“He got angry,” he recalls. Tears fill his eyes. “He told me, ‘I’m a doctor. They’re in pain. I have to help.’”

An emotional man

Canfield is an emotional man, often choking up as he talks about his life. “I’ll probably need some tissues,” he says. “Nothing to be concerned about. It’s just me.”

He recalls defining moments in his young life that shaped him. One was that day his father scolded him for thinking he came before a person in need.

Another came when the family was living in Taiwan and his physician father was summoned to perform surgery on an aging Gen. Chiang Kai-shek, president of the Republic of China. Because his father was a senior officer, his family was invited to come along as honored guests, escorted by Madame Chiang Kai-shek.

She took them to see her social projects, Canfield recalls — orphanages, schools and then to an aboriginal Taiwanese village in the hills above Taipei.

“We were driven up in black limousines, boarded small rail cars and were pushed up the mountainside by coolies until we reached the village,” he recalls. “I was 14 and dressed to the nines, and felt very out of place — everyone was dirt poor. No one had shoes, and people were cooking outdoors over wood fires.

“Suddenly, out of one of the huts emerged a young girl my age — dirty, shoeless, clad in a grass skirt and torn blouse. Instantly, our eyes met and dropped together. My sense of privilege was supplanted with her sense of shame.

“That was when I began to ask: Who am I to deserve all this? I felt as if she and I had played ovarian roulette in a previous life. She rolled snake-eyes and was seeded into a womb and a world of impoverishment; I rolled a seven and was born privileged.

“I still feel the anguish.”

Medical studies

After spending his high school years in Japan, Canfield studied pre-med at the University of Washington in Seattle, planning to do some sort of international medical work.

“I admired my father and I wanted to help people,” he says, “so medicine seemed like a good job.”

He went to graduate school and pursued a master’s degree in Tibetan language, then started his career as a physician’s assistant, working at a community clinic in Kalamazoo and at a homeless shelter.

He traveled to Honduras with doctors from the University of Cincinnati, distributing antibiotics and anti-worm medicine. It left an indelible impression about the best way to help.

“What did the people have to show for it? Six months later, the worms came back,” he recalls, shaking his head. “It was a very good experience on how not to do it.

“If the help is not sustainable, it won’t help them — it’ll hurt them,” he says. He offers more examples.

“You give them enough for a turkey dinner, or you pack up a shoe box full of gifts — just enough to spoil them — so they know how much we have and what they don’t,” he says. “What good is giving a woman six months of literacy? So she can sign a document — but she can’t understand what the document says? You give a poor person an education, but don’t give him a career? You need to take him up to the point where he can help himself. That’s not a turkey dinner. That’s not a shoe box.”

Stepping back in time

He went to Tulane University and earned a master’s degree in tropical medicine. He did polio eradication in Ghana for the World Health Organization.

He worked in a hospital for disabled children in Katmandu, Nepal.

“Those three months opened my eyes,” he says. It was like stepping back in time a century or two, he says, dealing with diseases that no longer exist in the West.

He traveled with a team into remote areas to help set up temporary clinics. The people had never seen TV or movies.

When Canfield decided to do a slide show on health education, one of his slides was a close-up of an anopheles mosquito — a carrier of malaria — that filled the screen. Immediately, he recalls, the room went quiet. The villagers’ reaction was so eerie, he asked a young Nepalese intern what the problem was.

“They’re afraid,” the intern told him. “They want to know if this mosquito can be found around here.”

Yes, Canfield told her, that’s the point of this talk — they need to use bed nets to avoid getting malaria.

“They’re not afraid of malaria,” she told him. “It’s this mosquito — it has a 4-foot wing span!”

“I came to appreciate that health education was predicated upon education, period,” he says. “Education is a prerequisite to health — and to effective helping of any kind.”

Family, then tragedy

While at the University of Washington, he met and later married a woman from Japan named Yuri. They had a daughter, Maya, now a 30-year-old management consultant in Seattle.

When Maya was 8, Yuri died of stomach cancer and Earle lost his wife of 17 years.

Grieving and floundering, dad and daughter took off for Spain to get away, touring museums and soaking up history while they began to heal.

They still bond over travel. Last month, they spent six days together in Ecuador.

When life stresses him out, Canfield retreats to a quiet room downstairs and turns to his biwa, a Japanese lute.

Ask him to play a tune, and he kneels down — it’s how you play a biwa — and strums the stringed instrument, tweaking it into tune.

“No one plays this anymore,” he observes as he strums. “It’s a dead instrument.”

Then, suddenly, he starts to sing along as he plays, a mournful, haunting melody in Japanese. It’s one of several languages he speaks.

Thrives on learning

Canfield thrives on learning and thinks everybody else should, too.

He tells of a recent conversation he had with some of the Nepalese youngsters ANSWER sponsors about why strangers help them.

“I said, ‘Americans are 10,000 miles away. Why is it they want to help you go to school?’ They said, ‘Because we’re poor.’ I said, ‘You don’t think there are poor people in America? There are people there who live in their cars.’ One child said, ‘Because America is like heaven and they have everything.’ Eventually, a little boy stood up and said …”

Canfield pauses, overcome with emotion.

“He said, ‘Because they know we’re just like them. And we need to help other people.’”

He pauses, thinking about his doctor dad.

“These are peoples’ lives,” he says, echoing his dad’s words from decades ago.

“That’s where it all comes from,” Canfield says. “Back to my dad. If someone’s in pain, you don’t give them an aspirin.

“You help them.”