Whether taking a stand against the state Education Department or devoting time to helping impoverished children in Kenya, William Cala is driven by a simple idea.
“I cannot stomach knowing there is an injustice,” says Cala, 68, retired superintendent of the Fairport Central School District. “Injustice troubles me deeply. I have no tolerance for it.”
Growing up on Hempel Street – near Rochester’s Bay-Goodman neighborhood – Cala enjoyed a modest childhood in an increasingly rough-and-tumble area.
“Those of us who got out of the neighborhood and really did well, I think we all have an appreciation for those who maybe can’t get out and aren’t as fortunate,” he says.
While serving as Fairport superintendent for a decade before his retirement in 2005, Cala developed a reputation as a maverick. As the leader of the school district, he was unafraid to stir the pot and willing to face political pressure that arose from doing so.
“Bill is a doer,” says Bryan Hetherington, chief counsel for Empire Justice Center in Rochester. “When he sees something he thinks is wrong, he doesn’t just get upset, he tries to fix it. Bill isn’t simply reflexive or impulsive. He studies what works, and then throws himself wholeheartedly into trying to work with others to fix the problem.”
In 2003, Cala stood up against the state government, intent on addressing an institutional injustice he believed could go on no longer. Shirking responsibility to approve an annual state budget on time for nearly 20 years, lawmakers were making life especially difficult for districts depending on a state spending plan to develop their own budgets.
“This was a huge problem,” Cala says. “When the state wouldn’t pass a budget on time, it created havoc for us. We would build our budget based on nothing, based on vapor.”
Having experienced too many of Albany’s persistently late budgets, Cala and the Fairport Board of Education took the unprecedented step of announcing the district would not hold its legally required budget vote in May.
“We took a lot of heat from a lot of people,” he says. “I got a threatening letter from the (state Education Department) commissioner saying if you go through with this, you and the board will be fired. I think they had the power to do it, but knew they would lose in the court of public opinion. Of course, the legislature knew this, as well.”
The effort began to gain steam. A story titled, “A Small School District Rises Up Against Albany” was published in The New York Times
“The legislators knew that if we didn’t put up our budget for a vote because of their constant failure to act, they would look bad,” Cala says. “They were calling me daily, asking, ‘How can we make this better?’ They decided to delay the school budget vote statewide, which meant we didn’t get in trouble and they were able to get their budget passed. It was astonishing.”
Since then, state budgets have been approved on a much more timely basis, Cala notes.
Joining Hearts and Hands
Twelve years ago, as he was preparing to retire as Fairport superintendent, Cala had an unexpected epiphany about what he wanted to do during the next stage of his life.
“When my wife, Joanne, and I were married in 1970, she would say, ‘When we retire, we have to do mission work,’” Cala recalls. “I would look at her like she had two heads, but during my last years as superintendent, I spent a lot of time working with disadvantaged kids and immigrant children.
“One day, I came home and told my wife, ‘I want to see what we can do to help kids.’ And, this time, she looked at me like I had two heads, and she said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
In 2005, the couple started Joining Hearts and Hands Ltd., a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping children and families in Kenya. This followed a visit to an African school with 400 children, nearly half of whom were orphans.
“Two girls read a poem to us that they wrote called, ‘AIDS: Why Me?’ We were just devastated. That night, we started sketching out what an organization would look like. Our minds were made up,” he says.
The Calas spend at least one month a year in the Lake Victoria area of Kisumu, Kenya, and work well as a team.
“A lot of times, I might be a scout and see things, and Bill runs with it,” Joanne Cala says. “We are blessed. We’re both doing what we feel we are being called to do.”
She also gives credit to those who support their cause.
“Here in Rochester, the encouragement has been tremendous,” she says. “We come back from Africa, and people all around us lift us up, ask how they can help and want to know more.”
Together, the couple fundraises some $120,000 each year. Their organization is funding construction of a two-story, eight-classroom school in Kenya. The project will cost $91,000, far less than the average cost of $750,000 to build a single classroom in a public school in the Rochester area.
“We are able to accomplish so much with so little in Africa,” Cala says. “The cost benefit analysis is just so overwhelming.”
The organization also provides scholarships to help 125 students attend high school. In Kenya, free education is available only through eighth grade. It costs more than $500 annually afterward.
“The poverty our kids experience is mind-numbing,” Cala says. “The kids have to write application letters, and we have someone on the ground check the veracity of the letters. You wouldn’t believe what they tell us. It is nightmarish.”
Many people ask Cala why poor children helped in Kenya seem to thrive more than poor children helped here at home.
“I think kids here are … damaged by the stress caused by poverty, the stress caused by their environment,” he says. “And, whether we want to admit it or not, there is some serious institutional racism that does not exist in Kenya.”
Cala served as interim superintendent of the Rochester City School District in 2007.
Joining Hearts and Hands also provides an annual eye clinic in Kenya. The one-day event has grown so popular that as many as 1,000 people are screened, and those in need receive glasses, medication and sometimes surgery.
“We provide 100 cataract surgeries as a result of this one-day clinic every year,” Cala says, noting cataracts are common even among younger people in Africa. “We are able to do a cataract surgery for $56. We can do 100 surgeries for $5,600. You can’t even get one done for that here.”
The most rewarding aspect of their mission is seeing what becomes of the impoverished children their organization assists.
“That is the absolute joy of what we do,” Cala says. “We have kids who are engineers and in the medical field, and we have one running for office. It’s really heartwarming to see kids who had no shoes, and who came to school in a tattered, ripped-up uniform, and didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, and today they are dressed like a million bucks and enjoying so much success.”
Maintaining a balance
Leading such an active nonprofit is a full-time proposition. However, despite devoting so much time to helping others, Cala maintains time for personal hobbies. For example, the Hamlin resident has restored four antique cars and is an avid woodworker.
“I have made most of the furniture in my house,” he says.
As a high school principal many years ago, he enrolled in a college course and received some valuable advice he took to heart.
“The instructor said, ‘You better have something you are passionate about other than work, or you are not going to be a healthy person,’” Cala recalls. “It is something I have always remembered.
“No matter what job I’ve had, I’ve been able to come home and head to the basement or to my workshop and start working with wood, or go out to the garage and pull an engine apart. Even if it’s only for an hour or two, it’s healthy to do that.”
And he and Joanne look forward to returning to Kenya next winter.
Travis Anderson is a Rochester-area freelance writer.
Title: Retired school superintendent; president and founder, Joining Hearts and Hands Ltd.
Education: B.A., Spanish, St. John Fisher College, 1970; master’s degree, teaching of foreign language, 1974, SUNY at Buffalo; doctoral degree, curriculum planning and instructional design, 1981, SUNY at Buffalo
Family: Wife, Joanne; Children, Lisa and Christopher; four grandchildren
Hobbies: Restoring antique cars; woodworking; kayaking
Quote: “A human life is a human life. How many lives can we save?”
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