OTTAWA – A man who once sat on the advisory board of WE Charity’s American subsidiary told a parliamentary committee that he believed two different groups of donors had been told they had raised the money for the same school building in Kenya.
Reed Cowan testified Friday that he started raising money for Free The Children, as WE Charity was known at the time, after his son Wesley was killed in an accident at the age of four.
He said he wanted to leave Wesley a legacy and “turn his pain into purpose,” but now he feels like his son’s grave has been robbed.
He said he found out that a plaque on a school building that once bore Wesley’s name is now the name of another WE donor.
“I saw that the school we opened that had our plaque on Wesley’s name and motto was no longer on his school,” Cowan said.
One of the names now on the board is the Howie Stillman Foundation, he said.
On the foundation’s website, he found a video of an “opening ceremony” where they opened the same building less than two weeks before we arrived. We went to Kenya and thought we were going to open this building for Wesley, “he said.” The ceremony was repeated for us, the same people, the same songs, the same everything, different plaques. “
It was important for Cowan to know that he was going to build a certain school. He said Roxanne Joyal, the wife of WE founder Marc Kielburger and the current CEO of for-profit subsidiary ME to WE, told him the school was “Wesley’s School”.
“When you give money to an organization outside of a continent, you ask yourself if it’s real and then I put my hands on the brick and that’s it,” he told the committee.
He said that when he think of children in Kenya studying at the school, he can deal with the loss of his son. It “gets me through many nights,” Cowan told the committee.
The money raised by Cowan’s group, the Wesley Smiles Coalition, went directly to WE Charity.
He said he believes it raised hundreds of thousands of dollars directly and that his efforts for the organizations, including speaking in the US, could have helped raise millions of dollars.
Now he wants to know where it went.
“I have repeatedly requested a statement of all monies raised in connection with Wesley Cowan’s legacy, and as of that date I have not been provided with that statement,” he told the committee. “I would like it.”
In an email, WE Charity said it was working to give Cowan the information he requested.
We said Cowan misunderstood what happened in the video he saw and that it was a “welcome ceremony” at the unfinished school for volunteers who came to help with the construction.
“There was only one opening ceremony for the schoolhouse and it was for Mr. Cowan,” the organization said in the unsigned email.
It was said that two of the four Cowan-funded schoolhouses had plaques with Wesley’s name on them. “One was removed in 2009 and WE regret an inadvertent failure to notify Mr. Cowan,” said the company, adding that the badge has now been returned.
We said the Howie Stillman Foundation had funded other programs in the community, including a clean water program.
We said that his projects in Kenya were reviewed by forensic accountant Al Rosen, “who confirmed that projects like schoolhouses were not double-coordinated”.
We said earlier that the review was commissioned by the Stillman Foundation.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on February 26, 2021.
This story was produced with financial support from Facebook and the Canadian Press News Fellowship.
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