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Dalai Lama Presents Humanitarian Award to John Volken

The Dalai Lama has presented a humanitarian award to John Volken, social entrepreneur and member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Held at the Vancouver-based Dalai Lama Centre, the 2014 Dalai Lama Humanitarian Awards ceremony marked the first event of its kind, honouring individuals whose efforts and innovations embody the teachings of the Dalai Lama by facilitating positive and lasting change.

John Volken was one of three inaugural recipients, along with noted philanthropists Frank Giustra and Djavad Mowafaghian.

Volken’s story is a rags-to-riches tale. In 1960, at the age of 18 and with only a little pocket money, he left Soviet-occupied East Germany for Canada. After working a few odd jobs, he found his niche in sales and in 1981 opened a small furniture store. Over the next 20 years, Volken’s operation expanded to more than 150 outlets, with annual sales in excess of $200 million.

Having achieved his business goals, Volken shifted his efforts to his original dream of helping others. “I knew that when it came time for me to account for my time on earth, I did not want to hear, ‘John Volken, you could have done more.’”

Volken sold his furniture business and transferred all of his assets to the John Volken Foundation. He determined there was a need for long-term residential treatment and life-skills training for those struggling with addiction; this led to the creation of the Welcome Home Addiction Recovery Academy. Recently the foundation’s board of directors, in honour of its founder, changed the name to the John Volken Academy.

When he started this new phase of his life, Volken wondered if he would have the same energy and work ethic he maintained when operating his for-profit business, but he says that has not been a problem. “I’m busier now than ever,” he affirms. And as for physical stamina, he still takes the stairs two at a time.

There are currently three John Volken Academy campuses, one each in Vancouver, Phoenix and Seattle. The program is modelled after the therapeutic community approach to addiction treatment and helps students move out of the detox–relapse–detox cycle — often common with short-term 60- or 90-day programs — and move on to successful, sober lives. Other than a small one-time intake fee, the entire cost of the program and the students’ basic living costs while in the program are covered by the John Volken Foundation.

Seeing Volken around the students at his Vancouver academy, the mutual love and admiration is apparent. “We love them; we don’t judge them,” he says. “I never want our students to feel they had a ‘song to sing’ but didn’t have the ‘chance to sing.’ We want to make sure they have the chance.”

In addition to his work with the academy, Volken wanted to find a way to help in other parts of the world. After travelling to Africa and seeing the plight of its many orphans, he formed and funded Lift the Children, a registered charitable organization with the mandate to provide the necessities, training and inspiration children need to grow and develop into self-sufficient adults.

Local Mormon leaders — area seventy Elder Paul D. M. Christensen and Surrey British Columbia stake president Travis Wolsey — attended the Dalai Lama Humanitarian Award presentation. Wolsey is pleased to witness good things happening in the community. “We need to work together, not in isolation,” Wolsey commented. “John’s example of working with others reminds us what good we can do if we unite our efforts.”

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