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David Downham: A quiet leader and passionate humanitarian

Orillia man who founded Project Umbrella Burma died Jan. 29; Gathering to be held Feb. 10

There are many words that come to Cathy Downham’s mind when she tries to describe her husband, David, but three stand out: “Healer, humanitarian, husband.”

David Downham, who founded Project Umbrella Burma (PUB) with his wife in 2002, died Jan. 29. He was 87.

The Downhams were about to head home from Bangkok when friend and journalist Heather Kelly introduced them to Dr. Cynthia Maung, who ran the Mae Tao Clinic on the Thailand/Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) border. Maung is one of the ethnic Karen people who fled Myanmar in 1988 during a military uprising.

The experience inspired the Orillia couple to create PUB. For 10 years, David spent six months a year teaching surgery to Karen medics at the clinic.

“He enjoyed that part of his life,” Cathy said. “He got to get away from the pressures of Western society.”

It was important to David, who was a urologist and general surgeon, to focus his efforts on some of the world’s more vulnerable and less fortunate citizens.

“We have public education here. We have health care. If we don’t, we can change that through elections. They don’t have any of that,” Cathy said.

His contributions did not go unnoticed by those he helped.

When students at the Kaw Tha Blay Learning Centre, a school the Downhams founded with Saw Kshakalu, learned of his death, “the first thing they did when they got back was put David’s picture up in the school and hold a service,” Cathy said.

“They loved him,” she said. “I didn’t know, in my life, anybody who didn’t love him. I was so lucky.”

David was a leader, but he was a quiet leader, preferring to stay out of the spotlight.

“There wasn’t a vain bone in his body,” Cathy said.

His ability to lead was evident when he spoke with Western doctors and nurses who wanted to go to the Mae Tao Clinic to help.

“He would tell them, ‘You have to know you’re going there to learn. You have to learn before you can help,’” Cathy recalled. “He wanted doctors and nurses to go there to teach, but to do it the way he did it. He didn’t impose.”

Orillia’s Eric Sayle was well aware of the leadership style David employed. Sayle and his wife, Cathy, taught English at Kaw Tha Blay and they also got to see the work David was doing at the clinic.

“His patience and quiet manner were really well received by the Karen medics,” he said. “He was very intellectual, very bright. The main mandate was if you can educate people, they can improve their lot.”

When David returned home from his first trip to the border, “he couldn’t get it out of his mind,” Sayle said.

“He saw that there was a place where he could continue to provide his expertise.”

Dedicating so much time to the cause was no easy feat for the Downhams, Sayle noted.

“They had a big life here. They had a big house. They had family and friends here,” he said.

They sold that house and rented for the six months of the year they were in Thailand.

“And, while they were home for six months, they worked to build the charity and also to make people aware.”

Teviah Moro also got to see, first-hand, the Downhams in action. Moro was a reporter at The Orillia Packet & Times when he accompanied the couple to the Thailand/Myanmar border for two weeks in 2010. His coverage earned him an Ontario Newspaper Award.

“David was a brilliant, thoughtful, kind man. His quiet, modest and persistent way of helping vulnerable yet courageous young people at the Thai-Burma border was inspiring,” Moro said.

Moro asked David why he did what he did, and David said “he became ‘infected’ with the desire to help after witnessing the injustices the Karen faced.”

“David was reluctant to take credit for the work he and Cathy were doing. However, during my two-week trip with them to the Thai-Burma border, it was clear David was deeply respected and appreciated for all the important humanitarian work he did,” Moro said. “This, of course, is how David is regarded at home, as well. I'm sure he will be remembered fondly as a pillar of Orillia's community."

A gathering in memory of David will take place at the Orillia Museum of Art and History on Feb. 10 from 1 to 4 p.m.

The family invites people to make donations to PUB at


Nathan Taylor

About the Author: Nathan Taylor

Nathan Taylor is an experienced multimedia journalist and editor who covers Orillia and other parts of Simcoe County.
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