1968 was a difficult time for America. The Vietnam War was raging and massive protest against it was building. When Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, riots broke out in cities across the country, including Baltimore, where six people were killed in nine days of violent upheaval. This was the country and the city to which Roberto Canizares, a young Filipino physician, had just made his new home.
As he earned the necessary credentials to practice medicine here, Roberto acclimated to his new environment, but it was not always easy. Racial/ethnic prejudices were common, and he was too often the target of threatening and malicious slurs. With his physician’s license in hand, Roberto Canizares, MD relocated in 1974 to the bucolic region of Fredericksburg, where there was a small Filipino community of medical professionals, including a close-knit group of surgeons practicing at Mary Washington Hospital.
Unfortunately, the xenophobia did not stop at the Maryland border, and our newest citizens were subjected to the indignities and threats experienced by countless immigrants before them. It did not feel safe responding to middle-of-the-night emergencies, which goes with the territory of being a surgeon. It got so bad that a hospital administrator had them take firearms training and apply for concealed handgun permits.
Despite these ugly exceptions, the Fredericksburg community, especially over time, welcomed him as one of their own. And like many Fredericksburg residents, he began to receive a slew of requests by nonprofits for financial donations. When he contributed to several, the solicitations multiplied several-fold. Puzzled by this aspect of American culture, Dr. Canizares asked a fellow surgeon, Dr. Hollister, about it. “Pick one or two organizations you support and concentrate on them,” Hollister advised. “It’s useless giving a dollar here and a dollar there.”
In the late 1980s, Dr. Canizares and late wife (also a physician), began caring for homeless persons who St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church sheltered for two-week stretches in the winter months as part of a coalition of faith communities. In the beginning, they cleaned, washed dishes, and the like. But when the nascent Thurman Brisben Center opened year-round in its Essex Street location, Roberto volunteered as a family doctor—assessing children and adults alike, making referrals, and prescribing treatments for simple maladies. His “clinic” shared space with administrators, who he would politely but firmly turn out as necessary.
Dr. Canizares was also one the Brisben Center’s first board members, a distinction he still holds today as Director Emeritus. He has seen the organization’s evolution from a volunteer-run church ministry to a dynamic service provider staffed by professionals and steeped in the knowledge of systemic homelessness and effective, data-driven interventions. The Center is fortunate and grateful to be one of the main organizations he supports.
If his 34-year assistance to the area’s homeless was the extent of his service to the community, it would be singularly impressive. But it is not. In fact, his whole life can be seen as a manifestation of giving. To his family. To his patients. To St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. To the Lloyd Moss Free Clinic, the Guadalupe Clinic, to 40 organizations each year who receive a meaningful financial contribution during the Christmas season, to every Brisben Center resident who receives a gift card at Christmas. To Duke University. And, of course to the Thurman Brisben Center with generous time, appreciable treasure, and inordinate talent.
Nor does it end there. Dr. Canizares took it upon himself to organize an annual day of sports physicals for public school athletes throughout Spotsylvania and King George Counties. 1,500 exams were completed in Spotsylvania alone by the 10 physicians Dr. Canizares recruited. His late wife gave generously of herself, as well, providing pro bono OBGYN services to the women of King George before coming on staff of the tiny nonprofit.
He has received multiple cash awards for his service, which he has donated back to the Brisben Center in its ongoing efforts to provide solace and a path forward to people who have fallen into homelessness. In 1996, he was asked to help represent Fredericksburg by running a leg the Olympic Torch relay from Los Angeles to Atlanta. What a long way his new-found community had come—from shades of hostility toward a new immigrant to plying him with honors.
In an interview, Dr. Canizares pondered the question of his motivation to give, and seemed genuinely puzzled. A light of recognition went on, though, as he recalled his mother’s similar predilection. When his father was away for six months on business, she loaned money interest-free to anybody and everybody who needed it—even teenagers. Canizares laughed at the memory of how “Everybody in town owed her money!” apparently without any strong compunction about being paid back. “Maybe I get it from her,” he reflected. In a way, Dr. Canizares has made the Fredericksburg region his hometown where, channeling his mother, he gives to those who need it…just because it’s the right thing to do.
“As a surgeon, I used to think my salary would decrease, but surprisingly it has increased. It’s because I give. When you give, you receive.” The community’s welcome to him and his family is clearly one of those precious gifts. “Fredericksburg is a very, very nice community. We were foreigners and they accepted us.”
“When you give, you receive. If you have money, just give. You don’t have to give a lot. I know that. That’s the reason I am not rich. Give something you think will help. I chose the Brisben Center by accident, got hooked on it. I know my money helps people who truly need it. The awards I’ve received I’ve given to the homeless. The more you give, the more you receive.”