Working at his office in the quiet Kitsilano area of Vancouver, Mel Zajac Sr. is a fit, handsome man with striking blue eyes that rarely betray the sadness of a father who lost two sons, when they were still in the prime of their youth. Over the last 30 years, he has devoted his life to improving the lives of society's most vulnerable people.
Mel is the driving force behind the Zajac Foundation, a local charity that raises funds for children and seniors. They are perhaps best known for the unique Zajac Ranch, a Western-themed camp in rural Mission that provides the complete outdoor experience for children with serious and chronic disabilities. Thanks to the work of volunteer doctors and nurses, as well as a 24-hour medical centre, the ranch allows children to participate in activities like canoeing, kayaking, archery and horseback riding; activities that often leave a life-changing impact.
"One of the kids at our camp never spoke a word until he was nine years old," recalls Mel. The boy, who rode a horse for the first time in his life at Zajac Ranch, uttered the words "cowboy hat," after riding with a hat placed over his helmet. "Their parents came to pick him up from our camp, and when they heard him, they cried. I cried too - it was so emotional."
Raised in a family with limited - often dire - financial means, Mel believes in sharing his time and resources with those less fortunate. Born in Winnipeg as the second youngest of eight children, Mel went into the workforce early, as his father had died when he was just six years old.
"In those days, there was no such thing as pensions," he says. "The older kids went to work, and I started selling papers when I was 11. At 13, I got a job in a bowling alley and worked there until I was 16. Because of the fact that I was born in a very poor neighbourhood, I was always anxious to get up the ladder."
As a teenager, Mel harboured a passion for music and dreamed of performing onstage for a living. "I played trumpet," he says. "I bought my first trumpet from my savings. It cost $100 and I paid it all off, making only $2 a day."
After finishing school, Mel came to Vancouver to visit his sister. He ended up spending four years on the West Coast, and got a job working at a lumber supply house. There, he learned the basics about home-building and spent his weekends building houses for people in the Vancouver area. This part-time project soon became his living. In the late sixties, he constructed many distinct buildings that are a part of Vancouver's cityscape, including the magnificent Pacific Palisades Apartments and the recently closed Pacific Palisades Hotel, covered in sea-green glass.
Even as he was meeting celebrities at his expensive hotel and building a comfortable life for his family, Mel never forgot about helping people in need. Since 1968, Mel and his wife, Irene, have raised funds through the Mel Zajac Classic Golf Tournament, along with private donations from family and friends.
The couple's efforts became more concentrated, however, after their two sons, Mel Jr. and Marty, passed away in two separate sporting accidents that took place just eight months apart. Mel Jr., their eldest, was an Olympic swimmer and three-time gold medalist in the Canada Games, while Marty, an avid golfer and skier, frequently volunteered to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
"My sons were the chip off the old block," Mel says. "I wanted to teach them to give back to the community."
Setting up the Mel Jr. and Marty Zajac Foundation in 1987, the surviving family poured their time and energy into their non-profit organization, with daughters Corrine, Carmen and Karen becoming strong supporters of their parents' work (Carmen is currently the Foundation's president).
Although Mel had always wanted to set up a camp for underprivileged children, he got his inspiration through actor and philanthropist Paul Newman, whose brother was Mel's neighbour in Palm Springs, Florida, where he owned a second house. "Paul came up to Vancouver and showed me the idea of a medical camp, and said maybe he could endorse something like this."
Within three years, however, Mel realized he wouldn't need a celebrity endorsement to make his camp work. The only camp of its kind in Canada, children from across the country and even parts of the U.S. sign up for the activities.
Mel says that some parents are so nervous when they drop off their kids at camp that they actually drive back to check if everything is okay. "We have some kids who cry because they don't want to be left at the camp, at first, but when it's time to go, they're crying because they've had too much fun and they don't want to leave," he laughs.
Now, Mel wants to make more efforts to connect seniors from his foundation's seniors home with children.
"I always wanted to do an intergenerational thing, children with seniors," he says. "A lot of kids here don't have grandparents, and vice versa. A lot of people have grandchildren, but they're on the other side of the world, on the East Coast, or maybe in the U.K. So, it benefits both ways."
Even though Mel speaks with an air of genuine humility, as though he has not done enough, his foundation's work has been noted. In 2007, Mel Zajac was appointed to the Order of Canada for his years of philanthropist work. “A lot of people who get these awards are doctors, and I'm just a layman, so it was a real honour,” he says.
A legacy that would make his two sons proud.
NOVEMBER 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER & LOWER MAINLAND
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