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Image: Andy Batt

Swearing he’d never be a banker like his father (and grandfather and great-grandfather), John Haines fled his office in the Wells Fargo Tower to kayak the world’s wild rivers and pioneer new paths in finance. Ten years after an accident confined him to a wheelchair, the city’s most daring banker has embarked on his greatest adventure yet: steering Mercy Corps’ efforts to prove loans work better than handouts to lift the destitute out of poverty.

Go ahead. Ask John Haines about his wheelchair.

He’s happy to satisfy the curiosity of strangers. But once he’s told you his story, don’t try to rationalize his quadriplegia by suggesting there’s some larger purpose to the freak accident that nearly killed this accomplished explorer/financier a decade ago in the Czech Republic. (Claim to fame: he and a friend were among the first Westerners to paddle the length of Africa’s Niger River in 1991.)

“People talk about serendipity, that there’s a reason for why things happen,” grouses the typically circumspect Haines, executive director of Mercy Corps Northwest, the overshadowed regional arm of the renowned international relief agency. “Yeah, I’ll tell you why this happened. I just had to get a cup of coffee, and I had to get off a damned moving train. I made a stupid decision.”

That routine explanation is deeply ingrained. But so, too, is the movement, the risky calculations, the need for coffee.

Follow Haines out the door of his longtime office in the Kerns neighborhood, and you’d witness the instincts of a practiced kayaker take over. He dashes across NE 21st Avenue, where midmorning traffic on nearby Sandy Boulevard roars by (when Haines is rolling, he telegraphs right-of-way), then shortcuts across a nearby parking lot to the Urban Grind, where the barista, seeing him coming, pulls his card from the regulars file. Yes, he’ll tell you about a fateful morning in the Czech Republic, an impulsive decision, but that is just one moment in a tangled narrative that stretches two generations back. It begins in the banks his family founded in his beloved Wyoming. It encompasses youthful escapades surreptitiously cycling across Tibet and dodging hippos in Timbuktu. It leaps to funding Portland’s first green buildings. And it lands, for this moment, at his latest passion—microenterprise—and the opportunity he sees to lift the poorest of the poor out of the Great Recession.

This may be the first you’ve heard of John Haines or the organization he runs. Its parent, Mercy Corps, grabs the headlines, understandably, thanks to its successful delivery of aid to the globe’s major war zones and disaster areas. Even Neal Keny-Guyer, Mercy Corps’ charismatic CEO, admits that he rarely sees much of Haines, whose Kerns fiefdom he has always regarded as just one of 120 Mercy Corps outposts around the globe. But all that will change this month, with the christening of the organization’s sparkling new $37 million world headquarters at the west end of the Burnside Bridge. Along with the LEED Platinum certified building comes a new, closer-to-home motto: “Change begins here.” Haines and his scrappy staff will literally become the organization’s cornerstone, occupying a prime street-level space next door to the Mercy Corps Action Center—an OMSI-like, interactive exhibit designed to help the masses become aware of crises worldwide.

Keny-Guyer is betting that Mercy Corps Northwest’s by-the-bootstraps microenterprise initiatives, beyond any trickle-down windfall from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, can seed an important new grassroots American economy.

“Whenever I travel overseas, I remind people that we don’t have all the answers, that here in the United States we struggle with issues of poverty and injustice just like the rest of the world,” says Keny-Guyer, speaking by crackly cell phone from the nonprofit’s African outpost in Zimbabwe. “There are things we can learn from other countries; there are things we can learn from each other. That’s why we brought John Haines in to lead Mercy Corps Northwest. You cannot not be moved by what happened to John. Yet that hasn’t slowed him down in his desire to make a difference.”