My VIP for this week is Cole Capener, an ordinary man who is accomplishing great things. One part of his preparation was learning to speak Mandarin while serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Taiwan. Another part was becoming a partner in one of the largest law firms in the world, Baker & McKenzie. He lived in Beijing and Hong Kong where he could use his Mandarin and help to bring American high-tech companies to China. A third part of his preparation was adopting a quote from Sir Edmund Burke: “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.”
With Burke’s words ringing in his ears, Capener walked into the managing partner’s office at Baker & McKenzie and requested permission to take leave for a year. That was 21 years ago. He started with a desire to do something to help other people with his attorney skills. He became aware of “the catastrophe HIV/AIDS was causing in Africa” and two virology professors at the Stanford School of Medicine who were trying to combat the disease.
Capener visited Dennis Zerelski, one of the professors, and learned that his colleague, David Katzenstein, was in Zimbabwe leading the Zimbabwe AIDS Prevention Project. Katzenstein needed all the help that he could get, so Capener flew directly to Zimbabwe for a firsthand experience. He learned that fathers were contracting the virus and bringing it home to their wives, who became pregnant. Often, the fathers were dead before the babies were born, and the mothers were dying soon after giving birth. Capener had found his quest.
Putting his lawyer skills to work, Capener started to make deals. He first returned to the United States where he set up a nonprofit and called on colleagues, family members, and friends to provide financial assistance. He named his nonprofit Saving African Families Enterprise (SAFE). He next lobbied the government in Zimbabwe “to declare HIV/AIDS a public health emergency.” The declaration paved “the way for much cheaper generic medicines to come into the country.”
Capener was just getting started. He found “a company in India to supply the medication (antiretrovirals) and “a much bigger charity, Doctors Without Borders” to do the heavy work. Thanks to the antiretrovirals, the Doctors Without Borders, and “many other heroic efforts, more mothers stayed alive to raise their children. More dads, too.”
Currently living in Park City, Utah, Capener makes an annual trip to Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, to see how SAFE “is faring and to make plans for the coming year.”
To this day, he marvels at how fast the pieces fell into place.
“I think if you have a desire to try to serve, doors will be opened, I believe that,” is all he can ascribe it to.
SAFE continues to operate much like it did when it was started. One paid employee runs the office in Harare and does the day-to-day work. The nonprofit has no website and no fundraisers besides Capener. The organization runs on volunteers and 98 cents of every dollar goes to the projects. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His closing words are:
My religious worldview motivates me to do all the good that I can, even if it’s a small amount. I guess that’s my Buddhist Mormon speaking. That’s why I think we’re all here – to try and relieve suffering.
He concludes, “Service isn’t the icing on the cake. It’s the whole cake.”