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David Foster

Getting by with a little help from his friends.

NUVO Magazine: David Foster

Most Canadians, thankfully, will not have to experience the dialysis facilities at a major urban hospital any time in their life. That should not diminish the fact, though, that these exist, and are populated with energetic staff and doctors, and a pretty determined bunch of patients, all of whom are awaiting kidney transplants and going through the arduous process of thrice-weekly dialysis treatments, in and of itself a full time job. And there is the major rub, since medical services plans can cover many direct expenses, but cannot (or at this point at least, will not) cover the purgatorial situation induced by such things as mortgages, travel, out of town accommodation, and wage loss. Then, when you consider what all of this might be like for a young child and their family, you get an even better view of how much funding is actually needed to make this all work in the real world.

There is a famous Canadian who has decided to try and make something of a difference in all of this. David Foster is forever in blue jeans. It somehow speaks to his Canadian heritage, and perhaps to his musical tastes. His abilities as a producer, what Butch Vig (of Garbage and Nirvana) would describe as the mind behind the glass, are pretty much unassailable, but what most folks might not realize is how he recognizes emerging talent and brings it forward. In a big kind of way. A Celine Dion big kind of way. But this is not actually about David, or Celine, or Dustin, or Barbra, or Sarah. It is about a certain group of people, children, who don’t, simply put, have the financial resources to help themselves, and the social support system, including the medical services plan in Canada, don’t provide them either.

For Foster, it was a pretty straightforward moment, not exactly like Joyce and his idealized female standing in the Liffey with her skirts raised, but you get the idea. “Nineteen years ago, I was in a hospital in Los Angeles,” Foster says. “I was asked by my mother, in Victoria, to visit a child in hospital here, who was from Victoria. I stopped at her bedside, and we talked for awhile. I asked her what she wanted most in the world. She said ‘I want my mommy here.’ I thought to myself ‘This is crazy. For the price of an airplane ticket, $400, I could make this happen.’” It does, admittedly, take a great amount of extrapolation to go from this defining moment to the remarkable investment Foster has made in helping children and their families. But should you ever meet Foster, it likely would not surprise you.

“I stopped at a young girl’s bedside, and we talked for awhile. She was from Victoria, and I asked her what she wanted most in the world. She said ‘I want my mommy here’. I thought to myself ‘This is crazy … I could make this happen.’”

He put it together in a unique way. This is about young people who require organ transplants, hearts, kidneys, and more, in order to survive. In most cases, the transplant itself is covered by medical insurance. But there is a rider to this, a practical consideration that no government considers. What are the costs to the family, and how do they bear these costs? We’re talking loss of income for parents who need to accompany their child to the site where the surgical specialist resides, often out of Canada, accommodation for a parent, the myriad unforeseen costs pertaining to such highly specialized surgery. Not to mention the fact that we are talking here about organ transplants. So, the David Foster Foundation was born.

There is a stern logic to this. David Foster is a Canadian, yes, and he to this day follows Canadian talents as they make their way across the Milky Way of the music industry. But he is the person who brought Celine Dion to the world, in terms of her voice, her sound, her fundamental appeal. He wrote the theme for the film St. Elmo’s Fire, and produced a prodigious amount of music for artists of all stripes and persuasions. Listen to the breezy track “Nothin’ You Can Do About It”, by Manhattan Transfer, and you’ll be able to almost instantly earmark Foster’s style. When we chat about his work with Chicago, it makes him smile, and says “That was a band that needed to re-establish how truly great they were. I guess most people would agree that they were not doing themselves justice there for awhile. But I was asked to do Chicago XVIII, and, you know, I loved Chicago. “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is”, “Color My World”, “25 or 6 to 4”, you know, all that classic stuff. But, when we started to work together, it was funny; some of the band didn’t even remember their early stuff. I looked at a couple of the horn charts, and I just knew it wasn’t their best stuff. I had to remind them, kind of say ‘this was so great, why don’t you give me something like this. Give me your best.’”

Foster sits on a couch, discussing this with a clear passion for the musicians he’s dealt with, and there is a symbiotic relationship between what he takes into the recording studio and what he takes into matters pertaining to his Foundation, which is coming into its twentieth year. The idea was run through its paces in Victoria, B. C. Norm Kilarski, who runs the Foundation, says “In the early years, we had amazing stars, Wayne Gretzky, Dustin Hoffman, Andre Agassi, just a bunch of amazing people. They loved coming to Canada, but they all did it for David and the kids.” Foster would agree, but wince. “They loved coming up here. I would call people, and explain what we were doing, and it was pretty easy, in some ways. I probably don’t have to tell you this, but, the fact is the entertainment industry, in my opinion, is the most giving, open industry on the planet. If they know it’s going straight into a good cause, they’ll be there. It’s not so much about me, though, but about what they are helping to do.”

“I probably don’t have to tell you this, but, the fact is the entertainment industry, in my opinion, is the most giving, open industry on the planet.”

Thus it is that Celine Dion was happy to lend her virtuoso talent to Foster’s cause, to sing at concerts, to appear at events (for that matter, to sit for an exclusive photo shoot with Foster). Thus it is that Sarah McLachlan was happy to sing for an audience recently, on a bill with Josh Groban and Renee Olstead. Not to mention Barbra Streisand singing at a private gathering at Foster’s Malibu home recently. They like and trust him, and are willing to put their talents to the cause. “And, you know, these days, big celebrities are bombarded by requests. So I feel pretty privileged about this. And then, of course, with the young ones, I always say ‘Listen, when you get to be a big star, don’t forget about me, and about the Foundation. ’Cause I’ll be calling on you.’ And they all say sure, and then they all follow through, people like Celine, but now, Michael Bublé, and Josh Groban.”

The point is that Foster’s abilities as producer, as musician, as the person who brought Celine Dion to the world, as well as Michael Bublé among many others, are helping so many children. These are kids who may not otherwise have made it, or, to extrapolate somewhat, their families wouldn’t have made it. Foster has created a network of support and caring that previously did not exist. To date, the Foundation has never had to turn a family away, largely due to the hospital’s screening process for applicants. Foster kind of soft plays his role in the Rick Hanson Man in Motion Tour, although he wrote the theme song for that, as he did for other anthemic-driven phenomena. The Olympics come to mind as an example. But, Foster doesn’t seem all that interested in accruing credits, or building a resume. “What I want, really, is to bring out the best in people.” The rest will, has proven to, follow from there.

We have a remarkable exchange, because Foster is a few minutes late for our appointment. “I am so sorry,” he says. And he means it. “I got a call, from Michael Jackson. He wanted to talk about a charity concert, a fundraiser. I told him he was on the right track, and he should really go ahead with it. But I’m on my way to London, to work with Andrea Bocelli, so, I couldn’t really do much for him.” I ask if he thinks that … and he cuts me off: “I don’t know anything about the charges, didn’t hear a whisper.” And I say, no, not that, but could Michael regain his musical pre-eminence, like he showed a trace of with the Free Willie theme? Foster paused a moment, and said, “It’s the same thing I say to the people how run the show for the Foundation. Only accept the best. And I believe that. Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Chicago. Sure. But when I get out my Rolodex and call people about what we are doing here, they are almost always right on to it. I think even at the top levels, people appreciate the idea that you can be the best you can be.”

“In some ways, I think a good part of the reasons I’ve survived up to now is to help the David Foster Foundation.” — Kelly Johnston

Foster sits back on the couch. Time is short, and Josh Groban, Rene Olstead and Sarah McLachlan are downstairs, preparing for rehearsals. Still, Foster does not appear to be in a hurry. “Will you talk to some of the people involved?” he asks. Sure, of course. He smiles, moves into the next room, where a TV crew awaits. “Okay, make sure you do. Those are amazing people, the reason why I do this. I just really get off on the fact that we can put together a couple of concerts, and my friends, like Josh, or Barbra, and of course Celine, will just jump in and donate their time and talent, and we can raise money for a great cause. And all the money goes straight in. Otherwise these people wouldn’t do it, right?”

The event is a huge success, lots of glamour, and millions of dollars raised. There is the David Foster Foundation, which collects and disperses the funds, and David Foster and Friends, which is the promotional arm, that arranges the events and gets celebrities, volunteers, and locations all arranged. Norm Kilarski is the President of the “Friends” component. Norm is a real hands-on, grind out the details kind of person. He is also quite passionate about his work, which one supposes would be a great asset, but with Norm it is in no way a polished act; it is more of a natural ability he has, to relate to people and unite them in a common purpose. “David can only come in at the last minute, and bring it all together. So my job is to make sure all the pieces are in place. It takes a lot of dedicated volunteers to get this thing done.”

Norm suggests that Kelly Johnston, a recent volunteer to the Foundation, and living now on her third kidney transplant, will be as eloquent a voice as possible when it comes to the work this foundation does. He is right about that. Johnston has lived with nephrotic syndrome, a congenital kidney defect, all her life, and finally, at age 21, underwent her first transplant. Many dialysis sessions later, she is a battle-scarred veteran (and there are many scars, from needles, shunts, incisions), although she is still (very) gracefully beautiful. And articulate, and blunt. “I first met Norm when I was volunteering, and then I met David. At first David was, like, ‘I’m not the right man for this, Kelly’. But I was able to explain some of this to him, how adults, too, are completely without help a lot of the time.” Johnston advocates not a re-allocation of funds, of course, but an even more invigorated effort, so that public education and government agency awareness are increased. Then, perhaps, more adequate funding can be implemented. For Foster, this is all important information, because as Dr. Gary Nussbaumer, who is Johnston’s physician at the St. Paul’s Hospital Dialysis department, makes clear, time is not on the patient’s side. “We are talking in clinical terms of half-lives here. And the half-life of a transplanted kidney is 12 years.” So, we can do the math on that. “Certainly, we prolong the use of the original organ as long as possible, not only because the wait list can be up to ten years, but because of that half-life, and because the body develops antibodies to a new organ, meaning that each subsequent transplant is more difficult.” He calmly sits by his computer, but then he turns discernibly less calm when he adds, “We basically have a ‘three strikes you’re out’ rule.” It can’t get any clearer than that.

And so the work Foster and his celebrity friends, and the organizations he has founded, is vital not only to the children in need today and for the foreseeable tomorrow, but also for the even more complex world of adult life facing the inevitable challenges. There are a lot of stories; the foundation has helped nearly 250 families thus far, including little children who have needed not one but two heart transplants, before reaching the age of seven. But Foster, with the help of Norm, the stars, and of course people like Johnston, has big ambitions, to raise both funds and awareness. And to help children across Canada in a meaningful way.

We can leave it to Johnston to put a kind of heartfelt spin on it. Her day job is to bring various stage acts into Canada, “I’ve been able to fulfill a lot of my dreams, and I’ve stayed positive through all the medical stuff. I know a positive attitude is probably the most important thing in staying alive, basically.” She stops, ponders for a second. “I really believe in what David is doing. When they do the transplants, they do them two at a time, and sometimes, one of the two just doesn’t make it. That happened to me once. I came out alive but the other person didn’t. That gets you thinking, not ‘Why me’ in terms of why am I sick, but “Why me” in terms of how I’ve survived when so many others haven’t.” She again pauses, and then continues, “In some ways, I think a good part of the reason I’ve survived up to now is to help the David Foster Foundation.” And you just know she will, with a little help from David and his friends.