From the start, it was clear that this wasn’t going to be a typical funeral. It was obvious by the look of the pallbearers: six strapping young men clad only in shorts and bow ties. The location wasn’t quite right either, outside a restaurant near the corner of Nelson and Hornby streets. Then there was the vintage hearse, which looked like it came out of an Edward G. Robinson movie. For passersby, another cue that something was awry could be seen in the mood of many of the mourners gathered outside the front door. Some were boozing it up; others put on fake weepy faces as the pallbearers sombrely walked by, rolling the silver casket on a stand; still others had donned wedding or bridesmaid dresses, adding a strange twist to the proceedings.
They had gathered to hold a wake for Chip Wilson, the 53-year-old effervescent founder and chairman of the yoga-wear giant lululemon athletica. But this was no ordinary memorial. That became clear to everyone long before the coffin entered the restaurant and was placed on the floor. A few minutes later, the burly Wilson jumped out of the coffin, looking like he was ready to go jogging in his dark shirt, shorts, and running shoes.
“You know, there is nothing like being hijacked in your own coffin,” Wilson said to laughter and applause.
Wilson, a father of five, acknowledged to the crowd that holding a fake funeral was a bit schlocky. But he was there to make a serious point: Chip wasn’t dead yet. And he didn’t want to wait until he was dead to have something named after him.
So while Wilson is still alive, he has decided to sink hundreds of thousands of dollars into one of the wackiest charity events this city will ever have seen. He is putting on the first annual Chip’s Not Dead Yet Memorial Mile, a one-mile run up West 10th Avenue between Alma and Blanca streets. It will be held at 6 p.m. on June 20, with the winner taking home a $20,000 first prize. He will match the $25 entry fees and any other donations that roll in up to $100,000, with the proceeds going to B.C. Children’s Hospital. There will be a bridesmaid-dress and wedding-dress contest, a dressed-like-a-superhero race, and even a competition for those wearing only their underwear. Anyone who participates will get a free lululemon shirt.
“The biggest one-mile race in the world is 5,000 people,” Wilson said. “There is no reason in three years why we can’t do that.”
A few moments later, a woman named Julie Kennedy-Smith emerged from the crowd to take the microphone. She said she is hoping to create the biggest noncorporate team in the name of her daughter, Journey, who has spent a great deal of time in Children’s Hospital. She thanked Wilson for putting on the run, adding that if B.C. Children’s Hospital didn’t exist, her child would not be alive today. “Don’t get one friend,” Kennedy-Smith declared. “One friend is not enough. Five friends, 10 friends. I’m going to challenge you”¦5,000 in three years? We’ll be way bigger than 5,000 in three years. I challenge us to get at least 2,000 this year, if not more. Let’s make it bigger than you think it’s going to be.”
A week after the “funeral”, Wilson and his wife, Shannon, sat down with the Straight in a sparsely furnished den in their new Shaughnessy home. The home is elegant. But it’s not the opulent mansion that you would expect of a couple listed as controlling shares in lululemon worth about $750 million, based on a company document released on May 7. The only obvious signs of wealth were two big SUVs parked out front. Wilson was dressed in a T-shirt, shorts, and running shoes. His wife, a former fine-arts student at the University of Victoria, was also dressed casually in the type of clothing one might find in a lululemon store. In this environment, it’s hard to believe that this rather unpretentious couple have dined with Bill Clinton, but they have. “We went to dinner with him in New York,” Wilson said.
Wilson, a former petroleum economist, likes to joke that he invests in children’s education and children’s health because they offer the greatest return on investment. “I learned a lot from the Grizzlies [a former Vancouver basketball team]-how they combined sports and entertainment,” he said. “No one needs another run, but what kind of run could you have that would be really, really different? I think having it uphill, and having it with the 10th Avenue days, sort of like the big carnival.”¦I don’t think people realize what an incredible night it is for the whole family, being the longest night of the year.”
Shannon Wilson then recalled the first time that her family really needed the services of B.C. Children’s Hospital. It was in late 2005, when her two-week-old twin sons, Tor and Tag, both contracted meningitis. “The care they received was phenomenal,” Shannon recalled. “I never for a second doubted that they were doing exactly what needed to happen.”
Two weeks after the boys had recovered, Tag was back in B.C. Children’s Hospital with a kidney infection. She said that the family once again received fantastic medical treatment. “He just wasn’t breathing, and he was turning blue,” Shannon said. “I was out in the waiting room. An emergency nurse just happened to be walking through the emergency room. I don’t know what made her look over at us. She looked over, just grabbed him out of my hands, ran in, called some other nurses, and they had him with oxygen and IV in probably about a minute.”
Shannon Wilson (left) enjoys creating opportunities for others to contribute to the community; at Chip Wilson’s mock funeral on Nelson Street, the pallbearers looked like they had just emerged from a Chippendales rehearsal.
The Wilsons have also raised money for InspireHealth, which integrates a healthy lifestyle into the lives of people with cancer. Shannon said they also set aside $10 million for a charity called imagine1day, which builds schools in Africa. Contributors to the charity can use credit cards to buy such things as desks, science kits, and teacher training, and then see the results. For Shannon, it’s not just about giving away her own money. She said that she wants to create opportunities for other people to learn about needs and to give.
“We’re hollering, ”˜This is what’s going on out there. This is an opportunity to get involved,’ ” she said. “It’s not necessarily about hoarding that wealth and passing it down to your children and all that kind of stuff. The gift is showing your children how you can give and how you can benefit others.”
It’s a message that young Journey Smith has seized with gusto. In a Downtown Eastside photo studio, Journey told the Straight that she learned about Chip Wilson’s charity run from her mother. When asked about her first visit to Children’s Hospital, Journey replied, “It was so long ago that I can’t really remember.”
It turns out that Journey has had a medical history of horrors-and it’s hard to fathom, seeing this vibrant eight-year-old bouncing around the room with her six-year-old sister, Irie. Journey’s mother, Julie, explained that her daughter suffered a stroke on the left side of her brain as an infant, which affected the right side of her body. She was diagnosed at five months when there was a buildup of water on the brain. That’s when she had a shunt inserted into her brain at McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton.
“Her initial prognosis was most likely a vegetable and in a wheelchair for the rest of her life,” Kennedy-Smith said. “Obviously, she is a miracle and has blown those odds out of the water.” At five, Journey was in B.C. Children’s Hospital for leg surgery. Then, last September, she was back getting a valve replacement on her shunt.
Journey turned around so a reporter could feel the lump on the back of her head. Then she resumed playing with her sister.
In May, Journey was back in the intensive-care unit to have a probe inserted into her brain. However, she was bumped because there were too many patients at the hospital.
“There is this myth that [B.C.] Children’s Hospital has enough money,” Kennedy-Smith said. She said that Team Journey will include her daughters’ friends from school, and they all plan to dress up as rock stars for the run.
The event is occurring shortly after the B.C. Children’s Hospital Foundation announced the largest fundraising campaign ever in Western Canada. Last April, Premier Gordon Campbell joined the foundation’s directors to announce plans to raise $200 million toward the cost of rebuilding B.C. Children’s Hospital. There has already been significant corporate support. Teck Cominco has contributed $25 million, and Overwaitea has put forward another $20 million. Sue Carruthers, president and CEO of the foundation, told the Straight in a phone interview that the new acute-care centre will cost approximately $500 million and could be completed by 2013 or 2014.
“Now there is a further study going in to the Treasury Board in July that will have more finite numbers in it,” Carruthers said.
In the fall of 2006, Campbell announced at the Union of British Columbia Municipalities annual general meeting that a public-private partnership will be considered for any capital project that costs $20 million or more. Ministry of Health spokesperson Sarah Plank told the Straight that the redevelopment of B.C. Children’s Hospital will be considered as a public-private partnership, but no decision has been made yet.
The premier’s zeal for public-private partnerships has raised concerns over at the B.C. Health Coalition, which has waged a long-running campaign against this type of financing of hospitals. The coalition’s coordinator, Maryann Abbs, told the Straight in a phone interview that the premier adopted this policy without any debate in the legislature. She thinks that the B.C. government could rebuild B.C. Children’s Hospital without bringing on a private partner.
“In our view, the government currently has a budget surplus and we should be publicly funding that,” Abbs said.
The B.C. Health Coalition brought University of Edinburgh researcher Allyson Pollock to Vancouver in April to discuss her research in peer-reviewed journals. Pollock has demonstrated that public-
private partnerships in health care have led to higher costs, with profits siphoned off to the corporate sector. “P3s are placing assets that belong to your children and grandchildren into the hands of corporations and big banks,” Pollock said, according to an April 9 news release issued by the coalition.
Carruthers said that those making donations to B.C. Children’s Hospital can decide where they want their contributions to go. People can direct contributions to the hospital redevelopment or to the Excellence in Child Health Fund. According to Carruthers, the fund allocates 70 percent of the money to research, another 15 percent to equipment, and the final 15 percent to professional development and education of people who work at the hospital.
“The foundation board is a board of volunteer citizens in the community,” Carruthers said. “They work very hard to ensure that the money that comes from people in the community is not subsidizing the activities that the Ministry of Health is responsible for paying for.”
When the Straight asked to speak with a doctor on-site, B.C. Children’s Hospital media-relations staff arranged an interview with pediatrician Shubhayan Sanatani. Ironically, his sister Suromitra played a pivotal role as a senior civil servant in advancing the Campbell government’s public-private partnerships in health care.
In a restaurant on Cambie Street, Sanatani said that his area of specialization is pediatric electrophysiography, which addresses the rhythm of the heart. “Health care is moving faster than you and I can grasp,” Sanatani said. “So without extra funding, a lot of the cutting edge, the refined techniques, the research, just doesn’t happen.”
He also explained why it’s important to have a world-class children’s hospital in this region. It’s not only helpful for conducting high-level medical research, he said, it’s also necessary to serve the population. Sanatani noted that no one gets sick as quickly as a child. He also said that the conditions that sick children experience are often not common, making diagnoses more difficult. Then there are issues arising in connection with medication.
Sanatani said that he’s probably most passionate about the research. He also acknowledged that some cases are “very challenging emotionally”, whereas on other occasions there are “amazing victories and successes that are unbelievable”.
“I’m extremely emotional about this stuff,” Sanatani added. “I cry about this stuff a lot of the time. It really gets you.”
Carruthers said the foundation hopes to raise enough money to build a modern facility at the site of the old Shaughnessy Hospital. The existing B.C. Children’s Hospital main building could then be converted to research space, outpatient clinics, or teaching space. “They haven’t decided for sure, but the building will be used for something,” she said.
She added that one of the benefits of a new hospital will be to provide private rooms for parents in the rooms of their infants in the neonatal care unit. Now there are 48 units in one room. “There are families that drag a mattress in on the floor,” Carruthers said. “We do have a few rollaway beds, but they don’t fit in all of the rooms.”
In the past year, she said, the foundation had more than 100,000 donors, which indicates the level of public support for B.C. Children’s Hospital. The foundation forwarded $40 million to the hospital. She described Wilson as a creative and talented individual who came up with the idea for the run. “He’s just one of those outside-the-box people, period,” Carruthers said.
Sitting in his Shaughnessy home, Wilson described his run as a celebration of life. The “Chip’s Not Dead Yet” sobriquet was a way to drive home this point. “Everybody there that day is not dead yet,” Shannon quipped. “They’re there to celebrate the run, to be there with their family and friends.”
Wilson, a marketing whiz, immediately came up with another idea. “That’s probably a better name for the race: I’m not dead yet. That should be the T-shirt. I like that a lot better because then it involves more people than just”¦me.”
The Georgia Straight, Jack FM, and Citytv are all media sponsors of the Chip’s Not Dead Yet Memorial Mile. For more details on the June 20 event, see www.chipsnotdeadyet.com