David 'Biff' Begbie '94 and Joshua Begbie '96 are the Recipients of the Bob Christian Alumnus/ Alumna of the Year Award 2009
Established almost by chance in 1995, the Crossroads Foundation has grown and diversified into an educational and service organization working in more than a hundred countries. DragonTales caught up with two of its founders, HKIS alumni brothers David and Josh Begbie...
The journey from Causeway Bay to the Crossroads Foundation headquarters in Tuen Mun is a journey of discovery. First, you realize just how big Hong Kong actually is; second, you get to discover a myriad of new tunnels, bridges and roads connecting Hong Kong with its northern New Territories.
After an hour and 20 minutes of nonstop progress on the 962 from Causeway Bay, my bus passes the Gold Coast Shopping Mall on the left, which means it is time to get off. The mall is the landmark David “Biff” Begbie ’94 suggested I look for in order to find him.
Following his instructions, I walk for 50 meters past the mall to a non-descript driveway on the right-hand-side of the road, distinguished only by a large Crossroads banner outside.
Peering through the trees that line the drive, one can make out post-war, military-style barrack-like buildings. They look abandoned and rundown. Nevertheless, these buildings are home to the Begbie family and the headquarters of the Crossroads Foundation.
I walk up the driveway and follow signs to the reception, where I am welcomed by a Crossroads volunteer. She ushers me up a dimly lit corridor to a door marked ‘coffee shop.’
Inside I find all the delights of any self-respecting Starbucks – lattes, cappuccinos, brownies... There is a comforting, laidback feel to the place. Cossroads volunteers of all ages, ethnicities, shapes and sizes sip on cappuccinos, in between sorting, cleaning and packing goods to be distributed to the needy.
I order a coffee and a voice says, “It’s on me.” Before I know it, money has been exchanged and I am sitting with David Begbie, who proceeds to tell me about the virtues of the Fairtrade coffee I am about to enjoy.
The coffee shop is part of Crossroads’ Global Handicrafts program, which offers a market for fair trade goods produced by people living in poverty. "Everything here is sold under fair trade principles,” he says.
This program started five years ago on the suggestion of a Government representative.
"Crossroads had just moved into Gold Coast Headquarters," remembers Josh Begbie ’96. “The representative suggested we be a showcase charity welcoming tourists and foreign dignitaries to show how Hong Kong cares for itself, and for the world.”
The Begbies asked the Hong Kong Tourist Association how they could attract tourists. They said that tourists require refreshments, washrooms and shops.
“Refreshments and toilets we could do, but we don’t sell any of our stock,” says David. “We give it away. Then we had this wonderful eureka moment. Crossroads could be an outlet where handicrafts made by the poor in the areas of the world we serve could be sold, here in Hong Kong.
This is how the Global Handicrafts wing of Crossroads started. “Soon we had the largest fair trade shop in Hong Kong.”
As with the other three areas under Crossroads’ umbrella – Global Distribution, Global Hand and Global X-perience – Global Handicrafts took root through a combination of luck and circumstance.
So how did Crossroads begin?
Genesis of Crossroads
According to David, the Crossroads story starts when he and his brother were young. “We were privileged to travel with our parents to many countries. We spent time in the Philippines where we had the opportunity to work with people in need. We alsospent time in eastern Europe, where we saw much need.”
"We started to ask ourselves, what as a family could we do to help? The poverty was too near and too deep not to respond,” says David.
The Begbies initially thought of starting a charity. However, when they spoke to NGOs, they said they needed help in areas where their parents have skills.
“Our father is an accountant, our mother is in Public Relations. So we thought that’s convenient, using my parents’ skills and training, we could serve many,” says David.
On returning to Hong Kong, the plan was to serve other NGOs through words and numbers in their free time, and also start a business from which to earn money to live and eat.
However, the business did not earn money. In fact, it lost money. As a family, they ended up with just US$10 dollars to their name.
"These were hard times,” says David. “We ate congee and carrot sticks every night for dinner.”
However, the Begbie family had their needs taken care of in different ways that, apart from faith, they could not explain. For example, one day Mrs. Begbie was walking in the fields behind their house in Lantau looking for vegetables for supper. She returned home empty handed and discouraged. In an act of desperation, she prayed to God to help her feed her children
A little time later, there came a knock at the door and a most unconventional angel appeared. “This man had tattoos all over his body. He smoked and spluttered like a chimney,” says David.
“But he happened to have done business with my father and owed him some money. He handed over cash that was exactly the money we needed at that time.”
Another instance was when the Begbie house electricity bill could not be paid and they were about to be cut off. Miraculously, just in time, the family received an envelope, left outside the door, with the exact money to pay the bill.
It was around this challenging, but faith building time that the idea for Crossroads came about.
"I remember the evening in 1995 well,” says David. “We got a call from a woman in China who our family had helped earlier. She said, ‘we’ve just had the worst flood in 100 years and two million people have lost everything, what can you do?’”
"We looked at each other; we had nothing,” laughs David.
"We offered our words and numbers, but she explained that it was freezing in China and the people there urgently needed clothing or they would die. Words and numbers can’t help this time."
The family did not know how they could help, but promised to try and started to look for a solution.
“The answer came during a hospital visit Mom made,” says Josh. “Thirsty, she went to the canteen where she overheard two staff members talking about surplus items they did not know what to do with. She said, ‘Excuse me, but I know one or two million needy people.”’
This encounter resulted in 19 cartons of clothing being sent to the relief effort in China.
A few days later, the phone rang again. It was the woman from China, saying the quality of consignment was good, but the quantity was low. Could we send more supplies?
"My Dad, being an accountant, agreed that 19 cartons of clothing between two million people were a bit thin on the ground,” laughs Josh.
The second time the Begbies approached HKIS, which collected 72 boxes of supplies.
The family thought they had made a good effort and were done. Then a businessperson gave them 136 boxes for China.
Later the family got a call from the Head of Eddie Bauer clothing who said, “I hear you collect clothing.”
"My Dad said, ‘Really, is that what we now do?’”
The family secured many more boxes from Eddie Bauer. The supplies continued to arrive and soon the Begbie house was floorto-ceiling full of supplies destined for China. A lasting memory, says David, is of his parents sliding along their bedroom wall between boxes to get to their bed.
Considering that all these supplies had been secured on an ad-hoc basis, the Begbies rightly felt that they were doing pretty well. “Well enough,” says Josh, “to register a charity: Crossroads International, in 1996.”
They named it Crossroads because the charity connected two roads – a road of resource with a road of need.
With the family home cram-packed with donated goods, and having registered as a charity, Crossroads approached the Hong Kong Government to see if they could offer more space.
The Government agreed to lease to Crossroads six rooms at the back of a former British Military Hospital in Jordan.
At the time, the family thought they could never fill six rooms. However, within three months, Hong Kong had given ten tons of goods and they were bursting at the seams.
"We took more and more space in the hospital, eventually filling almost three entire floors. Try as we might to contain the flow, we couldn’t. Hong Kong kept on giving,” says David.
It was now no longer just clothing people gave, it was everything. Banks gave their old computers, a wealthy family offered two apartments worth of nearly new furniture...and so the giving went on.
This is how Crossroads expanded, by meeting resource with need. In its first four years, it grew 150,000 percent! This equaled 130 rooms full of stuff.
David says they realized that Hong Kong is the ideal place for this type of charity. “Because Hong Kong people don’t do second hand.”
When their lease on the hospital expired, the Government offered Crossroads a new lease at Kai Tak, Hong Kong’s old airport.
"Incredibly, our neighbors at Kai Tak were paying HK$250,000 per month for rent, we paid just one Hong Kong dollar per year," says Josh.
Crossroads spent four fruitful years at Kai Tak, filling up the former baggage handling area and tarmac with shipments to send around the world. As their work grew, they noticed two trends: businesses from all over the world were contacting Crossroads with a vast range of goods, and charities from every corner of the globe were contacting them for aid.
Nevertheless, an irony was that much of this aid could not be accessed or distributed. “It was simply not possible for us to travel the world to collect and transport these offers of aid to areas in need,” says David.
“It then occurred to us that this is the Internet age, so there must be a humanitarian eBay or something out there that connects those with goods to donate to those in need,” says Josh.
The family searched and searched, but drew a blank. All they found was other people looking for such a network.
In their search, Crossroads met with the United Nations (UN) who confirmed that no such global matching network existed. The UN said they had known for ten years that this had been a hole in the humanitarian aid spectrum. They could not build such a site, but asked if Crossroads could. “If so, they would support us in anyway they could,” says David.
With the UN’s encouragement, Crossroads started work on the website. The terms of reference for the site were to link businesses with goods, freight or finances to donate to the humanitarian aid world looking for help. They named the website Global Hand.
Crossroads spent two and a half years holding consultations and introducing humanitarian agencies to Global Hand. The website also gathered and helped develop standards for global aid.
David says they now have a website that allows an automated matching process to take place, streamlining thousands of man-hours worth of phone calls. “Most important, it is saving lives.”
The UN then asked if Global Hand could build a customized version of the Global Hand platform for the UN website, to manage the private sector partnerships with the UN. As this article went to press in December
2009, the English language version of the site was ready to go live on the UN’s website. This will be followed by six foreign language versions by mid-2010.
"Visitors to ‘UN.org’ who enter the business partnership section will be using software powered by Global Hand, even though it will look and feel like the UN,” says Josh.
Another area of Crossroads’ work started as a one-off initiative to celebrate the Foundation’s 10th Anniversary in November 2005. The family had wanted to do an activity that thanked the local community for their support.
“We knew gala dinners in five star hotels were not our thing,” says David. “So we spent some time pondering what to do.” They decided to invite leaders from across the Hong Kong community to Crossroads to get a taste of what life is like for people in need.
When the business leaders arrived at Crossroads, they were stripped of their belongings - watches, wallets, bags etc. – and given hammers, nails and basic materials to build a shelter. They then built and lived in their slums for 24 hours, doing simulation activities that helped them to ‘live a day the way a billion live a lifetime.’
"We had absolutely no idea how this exercise would be received,” says Josh. “However, one-by-one, as our VIP guests left the next day, they expressed enthusiasm for the exercise. Many said they had obtained a profound sense of understanding and empathy for the plight of the poor because of the simulation.”
Quite a few wanted their staff to go through this experience. One hotel manager asked if he could invite all his staff to experience the exercise, and later he did. Not being the type to miss an opportunity, the Begbie family made experiential learning—now called Global X-perience—a new educational wing of Crossroads. Soon the
brothers were devising new simulations around topics such as HIV, refugees, blindness, hunger, water etc.
"Today we run more than 30 different experiential activities and have had more than 33,000 people come through the program, including many HKIS students,” says David.
These simulations are the closest thing to actually going to the place to see the actual need. “When you go through the refugee simulation, your identity is taken from you and your choices are removed. You have to
work out how you can make this situation work, how you live here,” he says.
“At the end of it people say to us that they now have a deep understanding about poverty. The experiences take them from an intellectual knowledge to an emotional knowledge, and that also changes how
they think and act,” says Josh.
"We have even seen NGOs start because of what people experience going through different simulations.”
The icing on the cake for the brothers came at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2009 , when Crossroads invited world leaders to experience the refugee simulation, including UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon and the English entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson. “The privilege of offering this experience to people in a position to effect change is such an honor,” says David.
The Crossroads Foundation has come far since 1995. This journey has been one of opportunity and coincidence. But members of the Begbie family have been the visionaries and driving force steering the Foundation’s success. Nevertheless, Josh and David are reticent about reflecting on their family’s achievement, saying that with their Mom and Dad they are just four people on this journey.
“On any typical day, you will find 80 full time volunteers from about 20 countries serving here, together with a hundred or so part time volunteers from the community. These volunteers share in the work and Crossroads is a product of our collective success,” says David.
Josh says it is important to note that he and his brother are each on their own individual journeys. “We are not here because Mom and Dad asked us to be. We are here because we want to be.”
“We love the work we do here. It gives us a deep sense of joy.”
In recognition of their exemplary contribution to society and living out the ideals of the HKIS Mission Statement, The Bob Christian Alumnus/Alumna of the Year Award 2009 was presented to David Begbie ’94 and Josh Begbie ’96 at the HKIS Graduation in June 2009.
Source: DragonTales Volume 12 Winter Edition 2009