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From soldier to saint: the spirit of Santa Claus lives on in the embodiment of a Canadian veteran.

WHEN YOU SIT down to talk with Billy Willbond, expect to be taken on a journey. He is a man of many stories and many titles: retired soldier, husband, father, grandfather, humanitarian, and poet.


With each title comes many tales, each one somehow more fascinating than the last. You are instantly captivated not wanting to miss a word. Not only will you learn so much from a man who has seen and done it all, but you will see this man for the hero that he is.

Donald Ethell, the current Lieutenant Governor of Alberta, called Willbond "A grand gentleman and great humanitarian and a hero to so many." They served together in the military and later on, Ethell helped Willbond with his charity - ICROSS Canada (or the International Community for the Relief of Starvation and Suffering). Ethell was incredibly quick to sing Willbond's praises. "He is the greatest humanitarian in Canada. That is Billy Willbond," Ethell said.

Willbond was born in Ottawa on September 28, 1941, while his father was fighting in the Second World War. He was raised on a farm in the Gatineau Hills. He grew up in a Catholic family with nine children and a deep history of military service.

His great-grandfather served in the 60th Rifles, his grandfather was in the Royal Irish Rifles, and his father was in the Governor General's Foot Guards. On November 14,1958, Willbond became the fourth-generation rifleman of his family when he joined the Queen's Own Rifles.

One thing to know about Willbond, according to fellow-poet, veteran, and friend Les Peate, he is very proud to have served Canada in the military. "He's got a sense of pride in the fact that he was in the airborne. He's very proud of his regiment," said Peate.

The history of his military service is long, illustrating a dedicated soldier eager to learn and try new things. Along with the Queen's Own Rifles, Willbond was operations sergeant for the Airborne Regiment. He served with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, or PPCLI, and was operations sergeant for the special service force. He served in Calgary, Germany, Victoria, and Cyprus.

"I am very proud to be a soldier. I always wanted to be a soldier ever since I was a kid. I swore on the Bible and the flag to defend Canada and Queen Elizabeth II, and lived up to that," said Willbond.


Major Murray Campbell Edwards, a Korean War veteran, served as Willbond's commanding officer. Edwards described Willbond as a, "first-class soldier. He was one of the very best. You can tell from the various appointments he had that he was highly regarded and always given very responsible positions," said Edwards. "There is no field that he has been in, that he hasn't been at the top. Whether it's military, or charity, or in anything else." After retiring from the military in 1978, Willbond worked for another 23 years as a jail guard and emergency communication specialist at the Central Saanich Police Service.

But his accomplished military service is merely a notch under Willbond's belt. His work with ICROSS Canada has changed many lives across the world.

Willbond looked forward to his retirement from the police service. He originally planned to spend his days hunting with a friend. "I said that it's always hunting season somewhere. My friend and I were going to hunt buffalo in Montana and go hunting elsewhere. He was very excited about that."

But a visit to the Congo quickly changed Willbond's plans. He and his wife, Lynne, went to lay wreaths on the graves of Canadian peacekeepers and unexpectedly saw the terrible state in which so many African children live. All around them, orphans were sick with HIV/AIDS, starving just to later die in makeshift hospitals.


"After I saw the AIDS orphans, all kids, four to a crib, covered in end-stage HIV ulcers, I sold all my guns and bought medical supplies," he said.

It is hard to describe the work ICROSS has done without praising the charity. It is a not-for-profit registered charity that sends medical supplies and various other necessities to the neediest parts of the world. It has also been a strong supporter of the Izzy Dolls movement.

Member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands Elizabeth May said she is proud to have Willbond in her riding. The work that ICROSS does, she said, is an inspiration. "ICROSS is so practical and it's all volunteers. They're putting together container loads of things that are desperately needed in developing countries," she said. "They are also bringing joy to the little children who are also getting Izzy Dolls."

The Izzy Dolls were created by Carol Isfeld, whose son, Master Corporal Mark Isfeld, was a peacekeeper in Croatia in the early 1990s. She began to knit the dolls after he ask her to send something for him to hand out to the children. Unfortunately, Mark was killed in 1994 by a land mine, but his mother continued to knit the dolls. It soon became a nation-wide movement with hundreds of women across Canada knitting dolls for suffering children worldwide.

The Izzy dolls are used as packing padding for the medical supplies. They are sent out in large shipping containers to countries that need it most.

"So each container probably costs me $10,000 by the time I am finished doing what I am doing. I collect dolls from all across the country. I usually buy the container and sometimes I buy some of the bigger stuff to put into the container," Willbond said. "For instance I bought incubators. I bought a lab-fridge, because that's what the Canadian doctor on the scene asked for." The money comes from generous donations across Canada.

Willbond supplies items like dressings to put over open wounds, antibiotic ointments to heal up the wounds, and Aspirin because, he said, a half an Aspirin gives a child a good night's sleep.

The work Willbond does with ICROSS Canada is the perfect example of "a soldier with a heart," said Peate. "People see soldiers as rough and tough and I think he is an example of one of the soldiers with a heart. It's a habit for soldiers to feel empathy for the kids in the countries they are serving, whether it is Korea, or any other country, and I think Billy is a great example of that."

Major-General Lewis MacKenzie is the Patron of ICROSS Canada. He said while the organization is modest in size, it is unique in some of its techniques. The Feed the Hungry Project from ICROSS is a perfect example of the organization's unique method.

MGen MacKenzie served with Willbond in Cyprus. Willbond called MGen MacKenzie shortly after he began ICROSS and asked him--more like told him, said MGen MacKenzie, that he was going to be involved. "That's what it's like with old army buddies," said MGen MacKenzie.

The Feed the Hungry program took single mothers and their children out of the Kiberia Slum in Kenya to the countryside. With charitable donations, ICROSS was able to give them land, teach them how to grow their own food, raise cattle, and build them a place to live. The single mothers would be forced to sell themselves to afford food in the slum, but with ICROSS, they were taught to be self-sufficient.

ICROSS also built their children a school and according to Willbond, over 40 children attended the school at one point.

"I had an agricultural course to teach them how to grow beans and corn, how to raise animals. They had milk for their kids. When they passed the agricultural course, we gave them five acres, and so they became self-sufficient. It worked," said Willbond. Willbond had trouble passing the program on to another organization, he said, because it was expensive.

"No one else wanted to take it over to continue it on because its expensive and a lot of charities are in the business of making money," he said "I couldn't get anyone to do it because I am not in the business of making money."

Like a true soldier, Willbond does not see himself as a hero. As soon as the word is brought up to him, he hastily denies it, immediately recalling the criticism he's received throughout the years. Mostly individuals claiming he is wasting his time and money. But Willbond said he needs to help anyway he can.

"If you've ever walked into a house full of dying kids, you would know what I am talking about," he said. "Three or four kids to a crib with their grandmothers looking after them. Some of them get end-stage HIV ulcers, and they all light up like a Christmas tree when you give them a little doll. They light right up with the biggest smiles."

Along with being a soldier and a humanitarian, Willbond is also famously known as a poet. His prose springs out from whatever inspires him at the moment. His poems are readily available on the ICROSS website. One particular poem stands out, "The Haunting Eyes of Hunger," compellingly calling for a need to help those who suffer. "The shadow of hunger and the wee eyes of want: Count ribs on the bodies-bone thin and face gaunt," it begins, painting the images Willbond saw over and over in Africa. His dabble with poetry has coined him with the nickname the soldier poet.

According to Major Edwards, Willbond's family is another trust testament to his character. All three of Willbond's-daughters are registered nurses; one carries a doctorate. "It's an outstanding family," said Edwards, "It's the kind of family that he and his wife raised, just as responsible in the public service as he himself." "No soldier likes to take the title of hero, soldiering is a team effort," MGen MacKenzie said. "In Billy's case, it wasn't a concept, it was a demonstrated ability to carry on despite all his challenges he has throughout the years - funding, health care; it's really amazing."

Willbond deals with many health issues and despite numerous hospital visits, he carries on, apologizing for the time he has to spend away in the hospital, said MacKenzie. Ethel also spoke to Willbond's perseverance: "Billy is the kind of guy that soldiers on. He doesn't let that slow him down," he said.

Elizabeth May spoke to his determination, saying Willbond's commitment exceeded any hardships he faced. "Billy is so committed to his larger humanitarian goals. He's a great Canadian. He's served his country, but he doesn't stop serving," she said. "He's really an inspiration to all of us. He is such a strong and dedicated caring person."

The reaction from the children he helps is more than enough to keep Willbond going. The star of one of his many stories is a young boy, whose excitement takes over when Willbond is handing out toys. The young boy ran up to Willbond, reached a hand into the sack of toys and pulled out a toy giraffe. He put the giraffe under his arm and shot his hand back into the bag. This time he pulled out a gorilla. He shot his hand into the bag a third time and pulled out an elephant. "And finally he was just ready to grab another and a nun said 'you put those back' and I said, you let him keep these, those are his. He lit up and he ran, and he was hugging these things. He had never had a toy in his life," recalled Willbond, "That smile makes it worth it."

For Elizabeth May, Willbond has set a high standard for the way Canada could be. "I am just honoured to know him and as a member of parliament, my bosses are the people of my community," she said. "In that sense, Billy is my boss and he is a wonderful boss and it's an honour to work for him."


Caption: Billy Willbond (centre), a retired operations sergeant who served with the QOR, PPCLI, Airborne Regiment and SSF, celebrated Canada Day with fellow veterans and Elizabeth May. /4s CEO and national president of ICROSS Canada, Billy has made a difference in the lives of countless children afflicted by HIV and AIDS in Africa.

Caption: ABOVE RIGHT: Billy and Lynne Willbond first travelled to the Congo in 1998 and witnessed first-hand the terrible plight of African children, many of them orphans suffering from starvation and the epidemic of HIV/ AIDS. They pledged to make a difference, launching ICROSS Canada shortly after their return to Saanichton, BC. Since then, the charitable organization has collected and shipped over $1 million worth of medical supplies all over the world.

Caption: ABOVE: Ed Widenmaier--a retired PPCU Ranger and former Queen's Own Regiment Rifleman--receives his 10-year CAVUNP service pin from ICROSS's Billy Willbond. Ed is a founder of the Canadian Peacekeeping Veterans Association and a member of the Victoria-based Mark Isfeld Memorial Chapter of CAVUNP (Canadian Association of Veterans in United Nations Peacekeeping), (S. LAIRD)

Caption: BELOW: The Women's Missionary Society of Knox Crieff Presbyterian Church in Waterloo, Ontario, have been making Izzy Dolls since they first read of ICROSS Canada's need in the local paper.
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Title Annotation:PERSPECTIVES
Author:Brush, Megan
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:May 1, 2014
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