A Kolbe Times Conversation with Bernie Potvin and Ross Weaver
Co-founders of Old Guys in Action
Dr. Bernie Potvin recently retired form his position as Associate Professor of Education at Ambrose University in Calgary. He served in various capacities at Ambrose, including Director of the Bachelor of Education (After Degree) Program, which he helped design and develop. In the past five years he has also led a team of international educators in building a teaching and learning infrastructure in Afghanistan, and over the years has worked in the education field in many other countries as well. Bernie was born in Edmonton and is married with three children.
Ross Weaver was born in Montreal, and is the President of PrimeQuest Resources Inc., a Calgary firm that consults to organizations in the areas of corporate strategy and business development. He has over 35 years of broad experience in the oil and gas and chemical sectors. He is also Industry Manager at Petrinex, a government-industry collaboration, where he represents the interests of over 1,500 oil and gas industry stakeholders. Ross is married with four children.
Both Bernie and Ross are committed Christians, and in 2008 they formed “Old Guys in Action”, a group that organizes awareness and fundraising events to support leaders and initiatives that tackle poverty and justice issues. In the past nine years they have raised $750,000 from donations and matching government grants. Bernie and Ross cover 100% of their own costs, so that all funds raised go to the organization that each event is supporting.
Known for their extraordinary record of taking on physical challenges, such as distance running and cycling events around the world, Bernie and Ross are also are active in their community. They recently held their eighth annual Calgary Icebreaker Polar Dip on January 1, 2017, with almost 100 brave souls joining them for a leap into icy waters near Calgary. The annual event raises funds for the Servants Anonymous Foundation, which supports survivors of human trafficking in Canada and eight countries around the world.
We recently had a delightful time of coffee and conversation with Bernie and Ross.
Kolbe Times: So many of your fundraising events are physically challenging, which you seem to thrive on. Have you always been physically active?
Bernie Potvin: Yes, I’ve always been a runner. And I played a bit of football.
Ross Weaver: He’s being modest. I’ll tell his football story. In his last year playing for the Edmonton Wildcats Junior Football team, he personally caught more yardage than all the yardage in the next team combined. He was invited to an Edmonton Eskimo Advancement Camp, a chance for the Eskimos to consider a further invitation to their main camp.
Bernie Potvin: So when I showed up at the Eskimos camp, all 155 lbs. of me, they looked at me and said, “Huh?” And that’s the end of my football story.
Ross Weaver: I’ve always run too – marathons and cross country – and I have a long history of mountain climbing, cycling, swimming and skiing.
Kolbe Times: What was the spark that got Old Guys in Action started?
Bernie Potvin: Ross and I have both had quite a bit of international work experience – me as a teacher, Ross working in Ethiopia initially with his sister Bev.
Ross Weaver: In the mid 1970s, Bev had finished her nursing training and I had just completed my Science degree. We went to a church service at Westmount Baptist Church in Montreal. There was a missionary from Ethiopia who talked about the famine there, and the help that was desperately needed. Independently we went to our parents and told them we felt called to go – and we ended up working in Ethiopia together. Later we went to Haiti and worked with an organization called Food for the Hungry. Bev and her husband Paul Carrick subsequently formed CAUSE Canada, which has worked for over 30 years in developing countries in Africa and Central America. I went into business, but have continued to be involved in development activities through strategic planning, fundraising and as board member of different organizations.
Bernie Potvin: When Ross was in Ethiopia, I was teaching in Zambia in a bush school on the border of Mozambique and then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. I think for me and for Ross, our motive for staying involved in overseas development was part adventure and part missional, but it is also fueled by the idea of injustice; watching things go on that cause you to think, “How can that be?” For instance, when I was teaching in Zambia, I saw people in a village near the boarding school who were literally starving to death. Those kind of situations make you think that there’s got to be a way, from a scriptural point of view, to create a more just and ethical way of being. And that continued awareness of injustice in the world was certainly one of our motivations to start Old Guys in Action. Our motto is “You Just Can’t Sit There.”
Ross Weaver: In 2008, Bernie introduced me to Charles Mulli, when he was speaking at Ambrose University. Charles was a street kid in Kenya, who became a millionaire and then gave all his money away and started bringing homeless kids into his home. Over the last 25 years he has adopted over 10,000 orphaned children who were living on the streets. Charles has been nominated as CNN’s “Man of the Year” on two occasions. He is a very impressive man. Arguably if he was a woman and Catholic, he’d be Mother Teresa. So when Bernie and I were in the car on the way home from hearing Charles speak, I turned to Bernie and said, “That’s such an amazing story. We need to do something to support his work…let’s do a fundraiser by running across Kenya!” That was the initial dream, and that’s how Old Guys in Action started.
This was all happening when I was at that point in my life when I could see that I had about another ten years to go in my career. I did a lot of soul searching, asking myself, “Ten years from now do I want to look back and see that I’ve just contributed more to my RRSP, or do I want to look back and feel I have contributed to something more significant?” My idea had always been to get my MBA, get some experience in the business world, and then go back into not-for-profit work. With kids and career, that never happened. So I made a decision and put my hat in the ring at a number of not-for-profits….but nothing seemed to fit. That’s when Bernie and I started thinking, “Why don’t we start something on our own?”
Bernie Potvin: Our dream of running across Kenya for Charles Mulli’s foundation (called Mully Children’s Family) has been something that we’ve been thinking about and planning for years. But for a variety of reasons it never got off the ground. Every year there have been situations in Kenya that made it difficult to organize: post–election violence, drought, flood, famine. But in the meantime we have gone to Kenya twice and did 30 plus kilometer runs with kids from Charles Mulli’s school in preparation. Now it actually looks like this thing is going to happen. We’re planning to do an initial run in Kenya on May 14, 2017 – a half-marathon to start. The Kenyan Olympic Committee insists you do a half-marathon first. Then our goal, providing Ross doesn’t get any older, is to do our first full marathon in 2018, and hopefully make it an annual event. And somehow we’ll sneak in a run across Kenya.
Kolbe Times: This seems to be striking a chord with people, as more and more folks come forward who want to participate and support your projects.
Ross Weaver: We’re noticing that there’s a whole lot of people our age who are very fit – much fitter than our parents were at our age. And a lot of these people are looking for something significant to do, rather than just golfing and skiing. They have the wherewithal and the interest to do something physical, and the desire to do something meaningful. I believe there’s a substantial group – both men and women, and not just our age but definitely younger people, too – who want a way to channel their energy and abilities into doing good for others.
Bernie Potvin: While waiting for the Kenya run to get off the ground, Bev and Paul Carrick asked if we would be interested in doing a fundraiser for CAUSE Canada. We have now done two major cycle expeditions for CAUSE Canada: a 500KM ride through the jungles of Sierra Leone and a 300KM ride through the mountainous regions of Guatemala. They were both terrific experiences and very successful fundraisers – supporting CAUSE Canada’s wonderful maternal-child health programs in those countries.
Ross Weaver: Almost 30 years ago I saw a presentation from the founder of Servants Anonymous, and I remember being so impressed by the work they were doing, helping women and girls who were survivors of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. It’s an issue that is under-reported and under-supported. For years I’ve attended their fundraising events, and then when we started Old Guys in Action we decided to add them to the list of organizations we support, along with CAUSE Canada and the Mully Children’s Family Foundation in Kenya.
Kolbe Times: It’s been almost ten years since you got this idea in 2008. What keeps you going?
Bernie Potvin: I don’t know if it’s a personality defect or a character flaw, but one of the problems with Ross and I is that we don’t seem to be able to say no to a challenge.
Ross Weaver: It’s like what happened after I met Charles Mulli, when I suggested running across Kenya. Bernie immediately said, “Great idea. I’m in.” And then the next words out of his mouth were, “How far is it across Kenya, anyways?” So we looked it up and it’s around 1000 kilometers, which of course is something we’ve never done before.
Bernie Potvin: And I think the other thing that keeps us going is that we’re having so much fun. Just the other night we were talking about how cool many of our experiences have been. Just imagine running on back roads of villages in Kenya with about a hundred young Kenyan kids, who were mostly running in bare feet or socks. I remember at one point we just looked at each other and said, “Can you believe we’re actually doing this – running in Kenya with Kenyans?”
Ross Weaver: A lot of the kids would carry their shoes when they ran, because they didn’t want to get their shoes dirty. One of the Mully kids that joined us was one of the top 16-year-old runners in the country. He could run faster hopping backwards than we could run flat out forwards. Amazing.
And our cycle trip in 2011 through the jungles of Sierra Leone in Western Africa was amazing, too – especially knowing the tragic history of Sierra Leone and its civil war. We’d be cycling through these villages, many which were still being rebuilt, and there would be all these streams of kids running behind us. The money we raised was used by CAUSE Canada to create twelve birthing huts. The maternal mortality rate in Sierra Leone was one in eight in 2011, and CAUSE Canada’s birthing hut program is really helping to improve that statistic. In the program, women are monitored throughout their pregnancy and any problems are identified early – that’s the key. Some of these huts are used for over 1000 births a year. That cycle trip was a great experience for us, in so many ways.
Bernie Potvin: Then there was our cycling trip through Guatemala in 2015. There were four of us, and we cycled 300 km from just below the Mexican border to the Pacific Ocean, through Guatemala’s mountains. I think we can claim that the total rise and fall of elevation through the mountains was more than 30,000 feet, which is equivalent to scaling Mt. Everest. On that trip we were raising money for CAUSE Canada and their Indigenous Mothers and Babies health program. Guatemala is such a stunning, beautiful place. We ended up exceeding our fundraising goal, and then the Canadian government matched every dollar we raised by 6.2 times.
Kolbe Times: Have there been any moments when you felt like you were at the end of your rope, or really frightened?
Bernie Potvin: Well, we’ve certainly had some surprising things happen. One that comes to mind was almost like a Road Runner cartoon moment – you know, when he’s chopping off the limb of the tree that he’s actually standing on. It was at one of our annual Calgary Icebreaker Polar Dips, where we raise money for the Servants Anonymous Foundation. I was standing on the ice with a Global TV cameraman, who was setting up his camera. I started chopping a hole, so we could jump in. The next thing I know I’m looking up at the ice. The shock – you can’t imagine the shock of falling in that cold water. But I somehow managed to crawl out, and the cameraman was looking at me with eyes like saucers. He wondered where I’d gone. I had just suddenly disappeared.
Ross Weaver: Or there was the time in Kenya in 2013, on one of our 30 km runs with all the kids. Bernie was way ahead of me, and about 20 km out he tripped and went smack down on his face – didn’t even have time to put his hands out. He was knocked right out.
Bernie Potvin: They tell me I was put on a motorcycle, sandwiched between two people to keep me upright because I was still unconscious, and taken to a medical facility in the backwoods of Kenya. I clearly remember regaining consciousness, lying on a bed at this place. I was literally holding the arm of a doctor who was about to sew up my lip with this really thick needle, and shouting at him to stop. They ended up doing eight stitches on the outside of my lip, and four on the inside. They just about got it right – they didn’t do the greatest stitching job, but I’m never going to be on the cover of GQ magazine, so who cares.
Ross Weaver: And the part that he’s too modest to mention is that when they finished sewing him up, he decided he wanted to finish the race. So they took him back and he found me, and we ended up running the last 5 km of the race together. He was covered in blood as we ran across the finish line – overly dramatic, I thought. Bernie’s always a little over the top.
Bernie Potvin: But as far as challenges go, I don’t think I’ve ever felt afraid or in danger during any of our trips, even though we’ve been in some pretty remote locations.
Ross Weaver: No, me neither. I guess I’d have to say that one challenge for me has been trying to squeeze family time and work and all these fundraising events into my schedule. Like so many people, we’re always trying to find a good balance. One thing we’re very grateful for is that our families have been remarkably supportive.
Kolbe Times: How has being involved in all these adventures affected your lives, personally and spiritually?
Bernie Potvin: I really have to say that all these experiences have been a gift to me. Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” And to me, this is a way to live fully.
Ross Weaver: Our friendship has been a real blessing, too. We knew there’d be ups and downs, but early on we made a commitment to each other. And every time you do something like jumping into a lake of cold water together, it’s a leap of faith.
Bernie Potvin: I think we complement each other really well. I don’t like to praise Ross too much in public because he becomes insufferable, but he is a high detail and very strategic guy. I trust him and we have a strong relationship. I’m a great proponent of building community and that starts with relationships. I believe the kingdom of God that Jesus talked about is a particular way of being in the world centered on right relationships between God, ourselves, others, and the world around us.
Ross Weaver: It’s also a step of faith to talk to people about topics like human trafficking, that are deeper and more complex than the things you usually talk about. But I’ve found that it’s really exciting to see people become more aware about important issues and move together into another level of discussion. Even though I sometimes feel that fundraising is a bit like going to the dentist, I’ve come to recognize that it’s a good thing to give people an opportunity to grow in awareness and compassion and generosity. I think it’s helpful for all of us to be challenged in different areas of our lives – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It’s sure been good for us. As Bernie says, it’s been sheer gift to come alongside these great organizations and support the work they are doing…and have fun while we’re doing it. We love it, and we love having others join us.
All photos courtesy of Ross Weaver and Bernie Potvin
To participate in or support the May 2017 Mully Children’s Family 5K, 10K or Half-Marathon Run in Kenya, go to www.mullymarathon.com
And check out the websites of Ross and Bernie’s favourite charities:
The Servants Anonymous Foundation
Mully Children’s Family