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Bargaining with God while life fades from your body is the stuff of movies. In Jack Wall’s case, his pledge as he lay in bed with pneumonia as a young man would be the beginning of a lifetime caring for the poor and the forgotten.
Jack’s vision, supported by his wife Anne Wall, would take several years to realize but the results had impact.
Jack founded of a Canadian charity, the Foundation for International Development Assistance (FIDA), in 1984. It’s an organization that has helped farmers transform parts of Haiti into productive farmland through agricultural co-operatives.
Now run by the couple’s daughter, Betsy Wall, FIDA employs 30 Haitian agronomists, technicians and educators who work with 17 co-operatives in the Caribbean country. The foundation’s goal has always been to give Haitians the gift of self-sufficiency, not dependence.
The creation of the charity was a remarkable achievement for a humble Mennonite boy who didn’t go past Grade 8 in school.
Jack was born Oct. 6, 1924, the middle child of three, in the Mennonite settlement of Klippenfeld in Ukraine. His parents, Franz and Katrina Wall, escaped religious persecution by bringing their family to Saskatchewan in 1925, later moving to Virgil, in the Niagara area. He met his future wife, Manitoba-born Anne Enns, at church in Virgil. Anne had also been the daughter of Russian Mennonite parents from Ukraine, whose family moved to Virgil. The couple married in 1950.
Anne understood that marrying Jack meant she had to be committed to his vision of helping others. As well, the spectre of Jack’s poor health hung over their marriage. Jack’s earlier bout with pneumonia was expected to shorten his life — doctors said he might live to age 30.
He’d often joke that he had one foot in the grave and the other on the banana peel.
He was 97 when he died May 16, 2022. His marriage to Anne lasted 60 years.
Jack and Anne had six children — Betsy, Frank, Ruth, Linda, Alice, and David, who died in infancy. After David’s death, the couple fostered two abused babies, channelling their grief into something positive.
They would go on to foster many kids, always considering them no different than their birth children. This was not easy for the Wall siblings, said daughter Betsy in the eulogy she gave for her father. Some wanted to be recognized as the birth kids.
The Walls trained at a Mennonite college, then volunteered at a boys’ home in Ohio. Then in 1954, back in Ontario, they served as house parents for 20 boys at what is now Craigwood Youth Services in London, Ont.
Jack went on to found a teen girls’ home, as well as Ausable Springs Ranch, a large private group home, in the 1970s. He also founded a coffee house in Grand Bend, as a creative place to keep kids off the streets. Jack owned several nursing homes, established an innovative continuing-care home for seniors in London, renovated homes into apartments for Laotian refuges and created residential homes for post-psychiatric patients.
When the couple were both in their 60s, Jack and Anne sold off most of their belongings in 1984 and moved to Haiti to run the FIDA charity. While Jack ran FIDA, Anne ran a guest house, using the profits to support the charity.
Jack was introduced to Haiti in 1960 when a business colleague invited him to visit a Haitian children’s hospital he was involved in. “He was hooked,” said daughter Ruth Olbrych. Jack not only returned several times as a volunteer, but also often brought his children.
“I was born to be useful, productive, and as the daughter of Jack Wall, to live life as he believed he must — with purpose,” said Betsy in her eulogy.
“There was no letting up on this front.”
Betsy would only grow to appreciate the lessons taught by her father years later. He had high expectations for his children and for those who worked with him.
Jack was always a humble man, who rejected recognition for his contributions to Haiti. Nonetheless, local farmers recognized Jack for helping them access good seed, literacy classes and a water system. Jack changed the lives of thousands in a country where hope and opportunity is in short supply.
Ruth first visited Haiti at age 12, then worked there for five years after college, all because of her father’s influence. She now directs the U.S. branch of FIDA and said her father taught her the value of being committed to goals, to be humbled by failure but get up and try again. She also learned that a vision can be a powerful, unyielding motivator.
Jack and Anne retired and returned to Canada in 2001, living in Waterloo. They last visited Haiti in 2014. Anne died in 2020.
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