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Canadian to become president of World Vision International

By Lloyd Mackey,
April 23, 2009

WHEN Calgarians Kevin and Helen Jenkins first committed their lives to Christ, he was a 20-something lawyer with a Harvard MBA and she was a savvy communications specialist.

They like to recall that an early post-commitment fear, on Helen's part, was that the couple might end up in Africa as missionaries, "serving porridge."

On October 1, Kevin Jenkins will take over as president and chief executive officer of World Vision International (WVI), arguably the largest evangelically-based relief, development and humanitarian agency in the world. That might not mean serving porridge, he suggests, but it will involve meeting human needs in many and diverse places on the globe.

Since those days early days of their Christian experience, Kevin has served in several high-energy executive positions, including a stint during a particularly difficult period in the airline industry, as president of Canadian Airlines International. He gained a fair amount of ink, at the time, for his seeming ability to work with a 16,000-strong labour force led by people who were prepared to provide management some -- but not too much -- wiggle room at employee expense.

And his success at employee relations may be due to the fact that he "served porridge", at least figuratively speaking, along with the company's other employees.

Tom Fennell, writing in the February 12, 1996 issue of Maclean's magazine, noted that, when Jenkins became CAI president in 1992, he "decided to learn the ropes the hard way. The fuzzy-cheeked (Harvard) graduate served drinks on a flight from Calgary to Toronto, nearly froze to death sorting baggage and even cleaned the toilets on a Boeing 747."

Jenkins -- along with his employees -- was given credit in many quarters with having helped get CAI through those tough years, until Air Canada took it over in 2001.

In 1996, Jenkins took on a lower profile post as president and CEO of the Westaim Corporation, a technology research company doing some landmark work in early flat screen development. Since 2003, he has been a managing director at TriWest Capital Partners, a Calgary-based independent private equity firm.

In his new role, he will head WVI's operations in 96 countries, with a staff of 40,000 and an annual budget of $2.6 billion.

By natural standards, Jenkins' first contact with World Vision might have been considered accidental.

"I was watching television in a hotel room, during a business trip, when a World Vision special came on," he says. "I responded by phoning in, from that hotel room, and sponsoring a child."

Later, at a 1996 World Shapers conference in Toronto, sponsored by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, Jenkins met Canadian WV president David Toycen, who encouraged him to get more involved. He joined the Canadian WV board in 2000.

The next initiative came from Helen.

It was 2002, Kevin recalls, "and World Vision had just started putting the spotlight on the HIV/AIDS issue. The disease was known simply as a form of tuberculosis, at the time. There was little education around the issue."

Helen and a friend visited Zambia to meet some families and view WV efforts to serve HIV/AIDS orphans. With her 'behind the camera' instincts, she ended up as part of a production team for a video about the village, the children and the grandmothers they got to know on the trip. They showed the video in New York, at a major HIV/AIDS meeting, and then at home in Calgary, where it captured the imagination of a number of Jenkins' friends and associates.

Notes Jenkins: "They raised $250,000 at lunch, for one community, Sefula, Zambia. Then, in 2006, we took a group of Canadians back to Zambia. They saw the incredible impact that awareness, prevention, openness, and attention to food supply and health could make. There were 20 people with us. We were able to raise $1 million at that point."

Jenkins' own business background and MBA education helped them focus on another project, microfinance in Ethiopia.

Working with a "creative guy", Calgary real estate developer Chris Dobbin, and their respective spouses, "we looked into a village microfinance project in Jeju, Ethiopia."

Microfinance, or microcredit as it is sometimes known, involves people in developed nations contributing to a finance pool that can be used, mainly in less developed rural economies.

"There is a prospectus. The idea is that as loans are put out for small village projects, they are recycled as they are repaid," Jenkins explains.

"We put the challenge to 20 couples to each contribute $10,000 a year for five years, to raise $1 million. We started in December and have raised $850,000 already.

"Our couples like the concept: A hand up, not a hand out, to put it simply."

The Jenkins also had involvement in a WV education project in Mali.

Asked about the Jenkins appointment and the role of World Vision in global issues, one Christian-rooted Africa specialist wishes the new president well and has some suggestions for him and the organization he will head.

David Kilgour, long time former member of Parliament and minister of state in foreign affairs for Africa and Latin America in the Chretien government, says "Kevin will be judged on how well he listens to a wide variety of persons in each of the countries where World Vision operates."

Kilgour notes that "WV already does excellent work in many countries, but there is no doubt that it can do better in some of them."

He suggests that "personally, I'm delighted that Kevin shares the enthusiasm of so many in microcredit."

Others in the field, he adds "hold that education, especially for girls and women, is the best use of scarce donated dollars. The key to success is listening really carefully . . . rather than imposing notions from outside."

Kevin and Helen have three adult children who are in university. They are members of Westside King's Church in Calgary.

They plan to stay in Alberta for the foreseeable future, at least, rather than moving close to WVI headquarters in Monrovia, California, near Los Angeles. But, being 'empty-nesters,' they will have some flexibility for a challenging travel schedule.

"The WVI presidency, in fact, involves spending substantial time in New York City and Geneva, Switzerland," says Jenkins. Both are cities where major United Nations agencies are located, as well as many other institutions significantly involved in humanitarian and development issues.

"There are at least 20 major agencies with whom World Vision needs to maintain close communication," he adds. Co-ordination with other agencies "helps us to ensure that we are in the field where the poorest children are, and to assist us in looking ahead, to where we will need (to be working) ten years from now."

Asked about the agency's well-known and sometimes-questioned willingness to co-ordinate with non-Christian agencies, Jenkins acknowledges the need to "navigate through (those relationships) without losing our Christ-centredness."

As products of 'adult evangelism' who came to faith in their mid-20s through Campus Crusade outreach dinners, "we were introduced to a process that was early and ongoing, about what it meant to be a follower of Christ. There was the need for ongoing surrender and staying open to see what we were called to do.

"Our hearts needed to be open to Jesus, who proclaimed the gospel and ministered to the poor. The book of James speaks of faith in action. Belief without action is belief which is hard to discern.

"God calls us to love the poor, and to work with them in all circumstances, even where a different, even hostile, faith is predominant," Jenkins suggests.

But always, along with that, is the sense that "apart from him, we can do nothing." And that, he says, brings an important balance between the personal decision side of ministry and the meeting of the many needs of people.

As for Jenkins' Canadian connection, WV Canada president Toycen notes that "as a Canadian, I am especially proud that Kevin is the first president of our international organization to come from Canada -- and that he brings so much leadership experience to this important role."

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