Their work could be one of New Zealand's best-kept secrets.
David Cowie and his American wife, Linda, have spent 50 years changing the lives of thousands around the world but few have heard of their endeavours.
They're co-founders of Marine Reach which has operated a medical ship in and around the Pacific and Caribbean, and a million-dollar Family Care Centre in Vanuatu. The couple also founded the international charity, Ruel Foundation, which has helped hundreds of needy Filipino children. They don't have paid jobs and are instead financed by interested friends, family and churches.
In his own words, Cowie's an introvert and has lived by a creed: "It's best to stay below the radar." He doesn't do many interviews and he claims there's nothing really remarkable about him, aside from the concession he's a good facilitator.
"I always tell people 'if you want nice, talk to Linda. If you want something done, talk to me'," he explains.
Once a tank gunner in the army, the 72-year-old still has a commanding presence. On the day we meet, his outfit is accentuated by a rifle-green jacket with pocket square and purple suspenders. His sidekick is his elderly and portly rescue dog, Tess.
Equal parts humble and inspirational, Cowie's home on Warner Rd sits alongside a purpose-built discipleship training school.
Completed in 2010, the Marine Reach training centre features a modern school building with accommodation, manicured lawn, chapel and children's playground set on 3.7ha, which Cowie navigates via a golf cart.
The centre attracts 150 students every year (mostly from overseas) for a three-month, biblical-based, life-skills course and then a two-month field assignment.
Cowie used to run the programme himself but now it's done by a team of young couples, with international speakers flown in.
"It's a life-changing experience," he reckons. "Suddenly these kids from Iowa, New York and Florida realise how lucky they are in the culture and the wealth that they've been raised in. You shove 'em in a village in Vanuatu and they eat kumara and rice every day and they have to serve … it just has a profound impact on them."
When it came to his own youth in Balclutha, he was a "rebel" and struggled academically. At 16, he left home and joined the army, spending five years in Waiouru as a tank gunner and lance corporal.
He left the army a disciplined man and sought out missionary work, inspired by his dad - a Presbyterian minister who'd spent 10 years in the Solomon Islands in the 1930s and also operated a medical launch.
Cowie joined the missionary movement Youth with a Mission and went to Indonesia, working in hospitals and churches, before continuing on to various youth camps. He then went to Europe for discipleship training and, later while working in Africa, met Linda from California. They dated via aerograms and have been married almost 50 years. They have one daughter, Lisa.
As newlyweds, they went to Thailand and worked in prisons and universities, also spending time in Cambodia during the civil war. Cowie remembers sitting on the roof of a building and ducking in under the stairs when the rockets hurtled in.
"It was really exciting for a 25-year-old," he says, before recounting the worst part - walking through a hospital in Phnom Penh and seeing the hallway packed with young men with no limbs.
"They were just lying there in complete utter hopelessness and I couldn't do anything for them," he laments. "It was incredibly frustrating and, of course, a lot of those young men died as soon as the Khmer Rouge took over the city ... they shot them all. That had an effect on my life."
A plucky Cowie decided he would do something tangible with his life, something practical and he would use his faith to be "the good samaritan who crosses the road".
IN 1991 Cowie and Linda had the urge to do something in the Pacific.
They'd served on Youth with a Mission's first ship, the Anastasis, for four years in the early-1980s, alongside Tauranga couple, marine engineer John Brignall and wife Marion.
Aware of the effectiveness of ships used for humanitarian purposes, the foursome sought and secured a small vessel at the Port of Tauranga called the Pacific Ruby. The Cowies were living in Hawaii at the time and moved to Tauranga, selling their worldly possessions to get the ship moving.
Marine Reach has gone through five vessels (all out of Tauranga) and their current vessel, Pacific Hope, is presently working in the Dominican Republic. Over the years, the organisation - which also has a branch in Fiji and is manned by skilled volunteers - has helped more than a million patients in 20 nations with everything from cataract operations to dentistry.
While working in the Philippines for just over two years, they saw just under 67,000 patients alone. The cost per patient was $33, with $19 coming from the staff and crew's own pockets. As well as helping with medical ailments, volunteers help with building and maintenance.
"God wants us to do, so we go do it," Brignall says. "It's as simple as that really and we get a great deal of satisfaction out of it."
Craig Vernall, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church where the Cowies attend, says they are of huge inspiration to their 1500-plus congregation.
"David is a real visionary but obviously he has the strength and the will to make things happen, not just hope," Vernall says.
"To have a dream is cool but what [Cowie] does is sell that dream to other people. With his connections down south, for example, he pulled together a group of farmers who donated one or two cattle or so many sheep a year and the equivalent of the price went back to David. He's a humble guy but he's not shy and he'll approach people and say: 'You can make a whole lot of money, or you could change the world. What do you want to do?' "
It was during one of Marine Reach's missions in Eastern Samar, Philippines, in the mid-1990s that Cowie had the idea to establish another charity, the Ruel Foundation. The governor had invited him to do a tour of the local hospital where they came across preschooler, Ruel. With a history of abandonment, the malnourished Ruel had a cleft lip and cleft palate.
Cowie and the governor immediately decided they had to help him. They got Ruel out of the hospital and into the care of Catholic Sisters.
"In the process of helping this kid, we found a lot more," Cowie explains.
Soon after, he and Linda formed the Ruel Foundation in New Zealand, supported by Philippines-based director Pauline Curtis-Smith. The foundation, also known as "Give a Smile", has helped 1000 children get much-needed operations and has also facilitated adoptions.
One of the Ruel Foundation's biggest supporters is Papamoa Pak'nSave owner Rob McGregor, who raised funds and gave personally to build a crisis centre for the charity in Mindoro.
McGregor first heard about the cause through Bethlehem Baptist Church and has travelled to the Philippines several times as a supporter.
"These kids could easily be permanently destroyed and damaged, institutionalised kids but they weren't," he recounts. "They were getting loving care, which meant they were unbelievably well-adjusted when they were adopted by their forever parents. You can't go over and witness that sort of stuff without having it impact you," he adds, describing Cowie as someone who doesn't shy away from a challenge.
Sure enough, setting up the Ruel Foundation was only the beginning of Cowie's giving.
Into the Pacific
FOUR years ago, Marine Reach set up a medical clinic in Vanuatu and, seeing the need to expand, last year opened a US$1.47 million Family Care Centre in Teouma Valley, about 30 minutes drive from Port Vila.
Next to it is an accommodation block, a sports field and a nakamal (meeting house).
"We needed a long-term investment in the nation if we're going to create any kind of change," Cowie concedes.
In Vanuatu, there's still reports of infanticide (infant homicide) in the villages, including stories of babies being dropped down toilets, as well as paedophilia. His team rushed to a village last year after hearing a newborn was in danger, only to arrive too late and discover the child was dead.
When it comes to healthcare, like the rest of the country, it's underdeveloped. For example, there's no testing for cervical cancer. To empower women and make change, Marine Reach has helped support the implementation of a diagnostic lab at The Family Care Centre, which offers a three-month course run by research scientist April Harper, teaching local women how to diagnose basic ailments using blood and urine samples.
Initially, there was professional "pushback" but Cowie says much like the Fred Hollows Foundation, unskilled workers can be trained and it's working. The Family Care Centre is manned by revolving medical volunteers from New Zealand and overseas and Cowie himself is a frequent visitor.
"If you're going to move forward, you've got to think outside the box," he says, adding that they are about to start a primary education course, are looking at building a birthing centre, and are currently seeking donations for a medical, rubbish incinerator.
Working in challenging nations can be discouraging at times, with volunteer work not always appreciated but often expected.
He tells the story of working in a hospital with optical teams and it was so busy that they ran out of reading glasses.
"Our staff got jostled and knocked about in the hallway. Patients were so angry that we'd run out of glasses. We immediately pulled the team out," he says.
And with no financial reward and gratitude limited, it's a testament to Cowie that his giving heart is also a robust one.
"Once I've started something I can't stop until it's done," he explains with a wry smile. "I'm the kind of guy who mows the lawn, gets halfway through it and it starts to rain and I'll come inside and stew. We want to invest in this nation, we enjoy doing that but once we start down that road we've got to keep going."
Cowie doesn't see his efforts as extraordinary, although many would beg to differ.
He heaps praise on his number one supporter, Linda, and the volunteers who are his "heroes and heroines".
"There is absolutely nothing remarkable about me," he says, without a trace of irony. Thousands of needy people around the world would vehemently disagree.
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