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An immigrant built a fortune after fleeing violence. Her charitable fund will pay it forward for decades to come

The Compassion in Action Fund gives local charities $5,000 a year to support women, children, and animals

By Emily Fagan
March 25, 2022
Good news
Features

An immigrant built a fortune after fleeing violence. Her charitable fund will pay it forward for decades to come

The Compassion in Action Fund gives local charities $5,000 a year to support women, children, and animals

By Emily Fagan
Mar 25, 2022
Clasina van Bemmel. Photo: Emily Fagan / Capital Daily
Clasina van Bemmel. Photo: Emily Fagan / Capital Daily
Good news
Features

An immigrant built a fortune after fleeing violence. Her charitable fund will pay it forward for decades to come

The Compassion in Action Fund gives local charities $5,000 a year to support women, children, and animals

By Emily Fagan
March 25, 2022
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An immigrant built a fortune after fleeing violence. Her charitable fund will pay it forward for decades to come
Clasina van Bemmel. Photo: Emily Fagan / Capital Daily

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Clasina van Bemmel has been a fighter throughout her 77 years. She left behind her abusive family in the Netherlands at age 16 to become a nanny in England. By the time she moved to Canada, she had taught herself three languages on top of Dutch, her native tongue. 

She founded the Vancouver Trolley Company shortly after being laid off by selling her car to afford a down payment on an 11-seater tour van. With no formal business training and only a grade 7education, van Bemmel built a thriving company—and was named Canadian Woman entrepreneur of the year in 1994.

After starting with nothing, van Bemmel found herself with everything—a new home, three companies, and a community of coworkers and friends who felt like a second family. She sold her businesses, retired, wrote a memoir, and now is in the midst of a second career as an artist from her home in Victoria.

But she found herself thinking of the chance she had to pass on her good fortune to those who, like her, need help fighting for a new start.

Van Bemmel sold a plot of land she owned in Squamish, and put the funds towards providing opportunities for others to succeed through a charitable foundation.

“I always felt that [the land] didn't belong to me,” she said. “So that's when I decided to start the Compassion in Action Fund, to give it away.”

Through the Vancouver Foundation, the Compassion in Action Fund has given thousands of dollars since 2016 to groups including the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre, the Victoria Women's Transition House Society, and the Paws for Hope Animal Foundation. 

Christine Gross, development manager for the Victoria Women's Transition House Society, says the $20,000 her organization has received from this fund since 2018 has allowed for the shelter to make vital upgrades including a new washer, dryer, stove, and furniture for living rooms and bedrooms.

“The significance these donations hold for the women we support is really about dignity, comfort, and knowing that they are cared for by their community,” Gross said.

“Thanks to Clasina and the Compassion in Action Fund, women can read to their children on a clean and comfortable couch or cook a hot meal together in our cozy shelter kitchen. It has helped to ensure our shelter is a safe and comfortable temporary home for women and their children fleeing domestic violence.”

Every March, van Bemmel and a small group of women access the pool of grant applications to determine which will receive $5,000. Van Bemmel maintains the same voting power as the other grant committee members, with the sole caveat that the charities must support a better future for women, children, or animals fleeing violence.

Due to the nature of the fund, van Bemmel says this annual cycle of giving will outlive her. The Vancouver Foundation invested her initial donation, and of the profits, half goes back to invest in keeping the fund going in perpetuity and half goes to that year’s beneficiaries. Due to the nature of the agreement, she says she can’t disclose the amount of her initial donation. 

“Both of [the accounts] keep growing,” she said. “So when I'm gone, it just will keep going.”

The Paws for Hope Animal Foundation, has received $10,000, which has gone towards their No Pet Left Behind program. It provides temporary crisis foster care for animals of people who are experiencing a crisis in their lives, including fleeing domestic abuse.

“At the risk of sounding dramatic, [the program] saves lives because we know that women who are in violent situations often will not leave if there's not a safe place for their pet,” said Kathy Powelson, executive director of Paws for Hope Animal Foundation. “And so by having the opportunity to place their pet with us for a time while they seek safety, it's saving their lives and also their pets.”

The No Pet Left Behind program pays for food, pet supplies, and any veterinary work a pet needs while in their temporary home. The program relies solely on funding from grants and donations, Powelson said.

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When not managing the Compassion in Action Fund—and occasionally visiting the groups she has supported—van Bemmel spends time in her home in Victoria. Retirement has allowed her to discover a new love of art; first in carving, then welding and other sculpture mediums, and recently she has tried her hand at painting. 

For each piece she sells, van Bemmel said, she donates the proceeds in the buyer’s name to the Compassion in Action Fund. Her work is currently on display across North America.

But in her home, she holds onto a piece that sits close to her heart. Van Bemmel doesn’t have much left of her childhood in the Netherlands. But hanging two stories high at the centre of her home is a sculpture made from the last piece of home she has left: a wooden carrying pole her grandfather once used to bring water from a well.

“He gave me the buckets too, but I was not able to carry them with me on my travels,” she said.

From it hangs more than a dozen sticks of colourfully painted bamboo, which stand nearly as tall as her.

Knowing she had already gone through the worst challenges she could face as a child gave her the strength to overcome the obstacles she went on to face throughout her life. Now, she hopes her legacy will help others lift themselves up from their own darkest moments.

“In a way, it's me giving back to Canada the success that I had in my businesses,” she said. “If your heart is full, you automatically start giving away.” 

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