Humanity Unified

Meet Maria Russo of Humanity Unified

A few years ago, I met Maria Russo, founder of the award-wining online media platform for travel and social good, The Culture-ist  and Executive Director of Humanity Unified, a nonprofit organization that invests in education, food security projects and economic development programs to empower people to rise above poverty. I was instantly inspired by her incredible work to improve the lives of women and communities in Rwanda and have followed her work ever since. I had the opportunity to catch up with Maria and learn more about her life and what it is like to lead Humanity Unified. Here is what she has to say.

Tell me about your childhood. Where did you grow up? What were your hobbies and passions? Do you have any siblings?

I grew up with my parents, younger sister and maternal grandmother in a quaint little town in NJ called Berkeley Heights. Our house was always full and family time was everything – most weekends were spent visiting cousins, aunts and uncles and home cooked meals were always at the center of the celebration. As a child I was drawn to history, dance and nature. I could spend hours exploring rocks, worms, flowers and trees. I think my passion for humanitarian work was sparked by my involvement with the Girl Scouts of America. The service projects helped me to see beyond my own needs and focus on the needs of others at a very young age.

Did you travel as a child? Where was the first place you went that inspired you? When was the first time you left the country?

Most of my travels as a child were within the U.S, with a few trips to the Caribbean peppered in between. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I traveled across continents to Italy and shortly after to South Africa. These trips, particularly my time in South Africa, sparked an unquenchable desire to see the world that lead me to over 35 countries over the following 10 years.

Where did you go to college and what did you study? Why did you choose this area?

I went to American University in Washington DC. where I studied journalism and international studies. Throughout high school I became increasingly interested in politics and international affairs. I think it was the realization that a vast, complex, dynamic world existed far beyond the world I had known growing up. I became avidly involved in the Junior Statesman of America and traveled to D.C. three times a year for student conferences. It was through my involvement with the organization that I became infatuated with the history and culture of D.C., so the decision to attend college there seemed intuitive. My time at AU deepened my interest in journalism and helped me realize how I could marry it with my love of global affairs.

What inspired you to launch The Culture-ist and when did you start it? Tell me more about the mission behind it and how it is run. What did you learn from this line of work?

My husband and I launched The Culture-ist in 2011 as a passion project that allowed us to engage in and develop our passions – for me that was writing about things I cared most about such as travel, global affairs, sustainable development, women’s issues, entrepreneurship and humanitarian work. The Culture-ist was also a really powerful channel of connection for us. I was constantly interviewing people, working with other writers and collaborating with media organizations and brands…it was truly a gift to meet so many interesting individuals who were contributing to the world in unique and inspiring ways. So far I’ve learned that no matter the line of work you’re in, kindness and openness is key to building a business that is grounded in integrity. I’ve also learned that while it’s important to be flexible, sacrificing your vision to ‘keep up’ with fads and trends will have you chasing something that will steer you far off track only to force you to back pedal to your original intention.

Humanity Unified

Maria and Anthony Russo. Photo credit: Humanity Unified

What inspired you to launch Humanity Unified? 

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be involved in humanitarian work. To me, a life spent trying to make the world more equitable for all just seemed to make sense. It also creates a deep sense of purpose and gratitude for the life I have now. For years I waited for the right time to launch a nonprofit and an opening finally came in 2014. Right around that time Anthony and I traveled to Rwanda where we explored program possibilities. We knew that we were interested in investing in education, food security and economic development and serendipitously found a local Rwandan NGO that aligned with our vision and mission for Humanity Unified. After almost two years of developing our programming and completing the 501(c)(3) application process we launched our first project.

Food Security Global Issues SOCIAL GOOD Women and Girls

How Elisabetta Colabianchi of Kurandza is Helping Girls in Mozambique Go to School

While the world often seems like a rather daunting place, there are some truly amazing, inspiring people out there doing tremendous good and making an enormous impact on such critical issues as fighting poverty, climate change, educational opportunity, and improving the lives of women and girls. Over the years of running my blog, I’ve met some of these changemakers and have been impressed to learn that many of them are women (like Elisabetta Colabianchi, Founder of Kurandza) helping other women and girls around the world.

To be a woman or girl in the some parts of the world is a lot more challenging than a man or a boy: Most girls give birth well before 18, are married young, are not able to attend school, live in poverty and have less financial opportunities than men. However, when you invest in a woman or girl, the opportunity to make a difference and impact change is immense and creates a ripple impact throughout the entire community. That is why investing in girls and women is not only the right thing to do but also very smart.

This new series, Inspiring Women, is all about the courageous women who are taking a leap of faith and making a huge impact in the world. These women are not getting enough attention in the mainstream press so my goal is to honor them and shed light on their inspiring work.

Photo of Elisabetta and Percina, our co-founders of Kurandza

Photo of Elisabetta and Percina, our co-founders. Best friends and a strong team. All photos in this post are credited to Elisabetta Colabianchi.

Global Issues Global Non-Profit Organizations and Social Good Enterprises SOCIAL GOOD Women and Girls

How Kiva is Providing Microloans to Help Refugees Rebuild their Lives

The older I get and the further I travel, the more I realize how fortunate I am to have been born to a family who believes strongly in education and has afforded me with many opportunities to follow my dreams. Growing up, I never had to worry about what to eat each day, whether or not my water was safe to drink, or if my family would be forced to run from war, strife or conflict. I have been blessed and am fully aware of it which is why I have dedicated a big part of my life to giving back by either volunteering, donating money or my time as a writer for social justice causes.

With the tremendous need and upheaval in the world today, it is easy to become overwhelmed and complacent. Trust me, I have had to put the newspaper aside many times and I relish the moments when I can escape from all the bad news. Yet, it doesn’t mean that there is nothing good in the world or nothing you can do to help. There is indeed a lot of good happening every single moment of the day. The news just doesn’t cover it always as unfortunately the bad news is the news that sells. Therefore, I will continue to share some of the amazingly good and beautiful things happening out there in the world today on my blog and how you can personally make a difference.

“Dreams are universal, opportunity is not” – Kiva

Over the past several years, we have all heard many harrowing stories about the refugee crisis. If you are like me, I read the stories with a heavy heart, often feeling completely helpless on what on earth I can do to help change such a massive problem. Despite the fact that more people have been forced to flee their homes by conflict and crisis than any time since World War II, there is hope that refugees can rebuild and change their lives and there are organizations out there that are making a difference.

Kiva, the world’s largest crowdfunding organization, is doing just that by offering micro loans to refugees, something often perceived too risky due to their undocumented credit history and unstable livelihood. The good news is that Kiva’s newly released World Refugee Fund Impact Report has shown excellent results.  Kiva found that loans to refugees have a repayment rate of 96.6%, right on par with 96.8% for all non-refugee loans during that same period. Through the help of Kiva, refugees who are financially excluded now have the opportunity to get a small loan, and these loans can make an enormous difference on their lives.

As a strong supporter and lender to Kiva, I was immediately intrigued by this exciting news and had the opportunity to interview Jessica Hansen, Global Engagement Manager at Kiva to share more about Kiva’s mission and how they are making a difference in the lives of people around the world. Here is what she has to say.

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Photos above: Samira came to Lebanon in 2010. Her Lebanese neighbor Soaud encouraged her to take out a small loan from Kiva so that they could start a business reselling wedding dresses, and in turn, Samira could supplement her hairdressing business. Samira doubled her income with this money, and now calls Soaud – her business partner – “more than a sister.” Photo credit: Brandon Smith for Kiva

Global Issues Global Non-Profit Organizations and Social Good Enterprises Humanitarian SOCIAL GOOD

Backpacking with a Purpose with Operation Groundswell

For the past two years, I’ve been a proud member of Impact Travel Alliance, a global community of change makers, passionate about transforming the travel industry into a force for good. Through this amazing network of sustainable travel organizations, writers and travel enthusiasts around the globe, I’ve learned a lot about how we can use travel to make the world a better place.

For the next several months, I am working on putting together a searchable database of the best ethical impact-focused and sustainable travel organizations on the planet. While I’m researching these different organizations, I will be sharing guest posts to uncover each organization’s unique mission and how you can travel for good. This guest post is written by fellow Impact Travel Alliance Media Network member Marissa Sutera (creator of Little Things Travel Blog) who introduces us to Operation Groundswell a Toronto-based organization whose mission is to create a more equitable, just, and sustainable world through travel and backpacking with a purpose.

Operation Groundswell

Operation Groundswell Ecuador trip

Backpacking with a Purpose

When seeking out more purposeful work to do while traveling, it can be challenging to dig deep enough to find the best route to take and the organizations that are truly carrying out positive work. In this interview you’ll hear from Justine Abigail Yu, Communications and Marketing Director at Operation Groundswell, who will be sharing her insight into what questions to ask when volunteering abroad, where to begin, and how to know what sort of impact you will make.

Operation Groundswell is a non-profit organization that facilitates experiential education programs on a host of social justice issues around the world. With ethical travel at the crux of their philosophy, they always work in partnership with local non-profits and charities on community-requested projects to ensure true sustainability. Their aim is to build a community of “backpacktivists” that are socially, environmentally, and politically aware of their impact in the communities they travel to and live in. Their programs are intentionally designed to uncover the intricacies and on-the-ground realities of each region they go to. With ethical travel at the crux of their philosophy, they always work in partnership with local non-profits and charities on community-requested projects to ensure true sustainability.

Their aim is to build a community of “backpacktivists” that are socially, environmentally, and politically aware of their impact in the communities they travel to and live in.

Operation Groundswell

Meeting with our partners at De La Gente, a coffee cooperative in San Miguel Escobar in Guatemala

How can someone seeking a volunteer program abroad determine if they will actually be making a difference?

First and foremost, whatever volunteer project you work on abroad should be done in partnership with the local community. If you want to make even the slightest difference, be sure to find an organization that puts the needs of the local community first. Contributing to a project that your host community actually wants and needs is the first step towards responsible international volunteering.

But it’s also important to set realistic expectations of what exactly “making a difference” means. For many people, this requires a bit of a rethink. You’d be surprised (or maybe not) how many volunteers going abroad expect to “save Africa”, or Asia, or Latin America. And that’s just not the reality.

The majority of volunteer programs are often short-term projects that range from one week to a few months. So when you’re seeking a volunteer program abroad, consider the time you’ll be spending abroad and align that with your expectations. Because real talk – if you’re only going to be spending one or two-weeks in any given country or community, you may not actually make that much of a difference.

You’ll accomplish some things, of course: you’ll likely gain a deeper understanding of the complexity of development and what it takes to actually achieve social change, you’ll make a strong connection with a handful of people who you will hopefully stay in touch with, and you’ll contribute in some small way to a project.

But honestly, you’ll likely leave with more questions than answers. And that’s ok. This is a process.

“Change doesn’t happen overnight or even in a couple of weeks or months. Often, the work that you do when you return home, as a result of what you learned abroad, will be where you make the most difference.”

Just remember to have humility when taking part in work like this!

Global Non-Profit Organizations and Social Good Enterprises Study Abroad Sustainable Travel Organizations TRAVEL TRAVEL RESOURCES Volunteering Abroad

Where it is Best and Worst in the World to be a Child

Save the Children, the world’s leading independent organization for children, has released the second annual End of Childhood Index in honor of International Children’s Day, a day to celebrate and raise awareness on children’s rights and wellbeing around the world. Save the Children’s annual End of Childhood Index ranks 175 countries based on eight childhood “ender” events that jeopardize children’s chance of a happy, healthy and safe childhood. While the report shows that the majority of countries have made progress for children since last year (95 out of 175 countries), conditions in about 40 countries appear significantly worse and are not improving fast enough.

No country is on track to meet the 2030 SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) for children.  Over 1 billion children around the world live in countries plagued by poverty and it is not just a developing world problem. In the 2018 report, the United States didn’t rank in the top 10 or top 25. Instead, the U.S. shockingly ranked 36th place smack between Belarus and Russia. The growing urban and rural child poverty rate within the United States continues to widen.  The results of the report may surprise you.

This year’s report has two components: “The Many Faces of Exclusion” and “Growing Up in Rural America”, a new U.S. complement that offers first-of-its kind analysis of rural child poverty rates across America as well as state by state ranking of where childhood is most and least threatened. In advance of the report’s release, I listened in on a telebriefing by Carolyn Miles, President and CEO of Save the Children to get some of the key highlights of the report and a call to action by governments around the world.

Here are some of the key findings worldwide and in America.

Child Labor, Marriage, Education and Survival Food Security Global Health Global Issues Global Non-Profit Organizations and Social Good Enterprises Humanitarian Poverty SOCIAL GOOD Women and Girls

Gifts for Good Tackles the Corporate Gifting Industry to Give Back

Today, U.S. corporations spend over $60 billion every year on corporate gifts but donate less than a third of that to charitable causes. For Jerry Eisenberg and Laura Hertz, this offered an amazing opportunity to tap into this market with the launch of their unique business, Gifts for Good. Gifts for Good curates premium corporate gifts that give back. Each product supports one of 40 non-profit and social enterprise partners tackling the world’s most pressing social, economic, and environmental challenges.

Since their launch last fall, Gifts for Good has generated impact in over 19 states and 65 countries around the globe supporting such causes as children in need, women at risk, environment, economic development, homelessness, health and wildlife conservation. Gifts for Good believes that if every corporation purchased gifts that gave back―without spending any more money―they could redirect billions of dollars every year a year to create sustainable change. I had the opportunity to chat with Gifts for Good’s Chief Impact Officer Jenise Sterverding to learn more about this exciting new organization. Here is what she had to say.

You have an interesting educational and business background mixing sociology, business, and philanthropy and went back to school in 2005 to receive a Masters in Public Management. Why did you want to combine all of these disciplines and what benefit has it been for your career?

It’s funny, I never really felt like I fit in when I graduated college because it seemed that if I cared about making the world better I had to go into non-profit and if I wanted to go the business route, it was mostly about creating high profits for the business owner.  At the time there was nothing in-between and not a lot of people using business for good. 

As someone whose personality is more of a hybrid, when I looked at roles in non-profit, they were mostly about running programs and doing service delivery and that didn’t feel like the right fit.  I started my career in small businesses, but was not fulfilled because the sole focus was on profit.  After about 5 years, I quit and moved to San Francisco and ended up going to work in higher education at Stanford University School of Medicine.  Again, after a few years, I was frustrated by the bureaucracy of higher education as I have an entrepreneurial mind.  I decided to go back to school but didn’t want to be pigeon-holed into one field.  At the time, in the United States, my choices were a Master’s in Business Administration, Master’s in Nonprofit Management, or a Master’s in Public Administration. Each one of those felt too specific for me.  I did some research and found SDA Bocconi University in Milan, Italy that had a Master’s in Public Management which was combining business, government, and nonprofit.  So I quit my job and moved again, this time out of the country. 

After you received your Master’s degree, you worked for a non-profit organization called Giving Children Hope and then at TOMS in the giving department. Tell me a little bit about your role and what you learned. How has that experience helped you in your job today?

I first went to work for a non-profit called Giving Children Hope, a faith-based non-profit organization that works to alleviate poverty, both domestically and internationally, through disaster relief, health and community development, vocational training and advocacy. Shortly after being deployed to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, I was put in touch with TOMS’ newly hired Director of Giving.  I had been watching TOMS grow and was interested in their model but I wasn’t certain they were really interested in making an impact.  At first I declined talking to them, but later changed my mind.  What I discovered is that TOMS wasn’t a marketing ploy but was truly working to drive impact.  Additionally, my background in gifts-in-kind from Giving Children Hope uniquely positioned me to help them grow since that was such a specific niche; I had been moving product around the world for 4 years into impoverished communities.  By the Spring of 2010 I jumped in as the second hire in the new Giving department.

Like any fast-growing company, you learn a lot.  I was hired to manage the relationships between TOMS and it’s non-profit Giving Partners, but we were growing so quickly that I could not do it alone.  By the end of the year I had hired someone in Ethiopia (where TOMS was doing quite a bit of work), inherited a team member in Argentina, and hired two direct reports in the office.  Within 6 months I had a few more direct reports in HQ.  I remained solely focused on building and scaling shoe-giving as the Director was building out new programs like TOMS sight-giving. 

On the shoe-giving side, we had numerous challenges we had to decide how to handle: at what point would we put a cap on giving in any particular country; how did we ensure kids weren’t being given shoes by more than one organization; how did we ensure we weren’t hurting local economies; how did we know what sizes to send since we were doing custom orders; could we give additional funds to cover the expenses of shoe-distribution; and so many more lessons and challenges.  It was like getting a second MBA only you weren’t reading a case study and when you are living it out, emotions and people are involved.

Gifts that Give Back SOCIAL GOOD
All Across Africa

2018 Top Gifts that Give Back for Mother’s Day

I love giving gifts and even better, giving gifts that also give back to someone in need. I have curated an ever-growing list of Gifts that Give Back over the years and am excited to share some of the latest gifts that give back for this Mother’s Day. Each organization below works to create a beautiful, meaningful gift that also gives back to the women who make the products or helps to support a cause.

Here are some of my favorite picks for the mom in your life. I hope you enjoy the list, and please share this giving guide with friends and family. (Note: To read product description, however over the image or else click on the image to enlarge to full size). 

Happy Shopping!

All Across Africa

All Across Africa currently works with over 3,000 artisans in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, paying artisans up front for the goods at many times what they could sell them for in a local market. This sustainable income allows them to send their children to school, feed their families and even create savings accounts. In addition, money goes back into the communities in the form of education and training programs. All Across Africa believes that job creation is the solution for the rural poor in these countries.

This Mother’s Day, how about giving the mom in your life a Rwandan handcrafted basket or vase. Each product tells a story of the Rwandan women who have intricately handcrafted these baskets from sweet grass and the leaves of the agave sisal plant. The intricate designs and flawless work of an experienced weaver is never the result of luck. Rather, Rwandan women owe their skills to the women before them who passed on the knowledge from generation to generation—mother to daughter, grandmother to child. Each piece is unique, culturally and traditionally inspired, and hand-woven in intimate Rwandan communities. With differing patterns and colors, one or more of these baskets will make a globally conscious and stylistic addition to your home. They can be hung from the wall or used as decor or to hold fresh fruit or a bottle of wine or even flowers.

Prices vary. To purchase one of these items or see more, visit www.kazigoods.com

Gifts that Give Back
LifeStraw1million Campaign Kenya

How LifeStraw is Saving the Planet and Lives

For many of us, clean water is so plentiful and readily available that we rarely, if ever, pause to consider what life would be like without it. – Marcus Samuelsson

Today, March 22 is World Water Day, a day designated by the United Nations to bring attention of the importance of water. Today, 2.1 billion people live without safe drinking water affecting their health, wellbeing, education and livelihoods. Water is life and in my opinion access to safe water is a basic human right. Water is so critical to life and wellbeing that it was added by the UN as a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 6) which commits the world to ensuring that everyone has access to safe water by 2030, and includes measures to protect the natural environment and reduce pollution.

In my work, I’ve had several opportunities to write about water and have recently witnessed firsthand the impact of brining safe water to communities during a trip to Western Kenya last month with LifeStraw.

In light of this important day, I wanted to share with you a few shocking facts about the lack of safe water around the world, ways that single use plastic water bottles are threatening our planet and ideas on how you can help. Please feel free to share this post and help spread awareness of this critical issue.

LifeStraw1million Campaign Kenya

Demonstrating washing hands with safe water

LifeStraw1million Campaign Kenya

Trying out the LifeStraw Community Filter

LifeStraw1million Campaign Kenya

The youngest child at the school, age 3, takes her first sip of safe water

Did you know….

World population impacted by unsafe water: 

  • Globally, 2.1 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water services. By 2050, the world’s population will have grown by an estimated 2 billion people and global water demand could be up to 30% higher than today. (UNESCO-United Nations World Water Development Report 2018)
  • Today, around 1.9 billion people live in potentially severely water-scarce areas. By 2050, this could increase to around 3 billion people.
  • 2.5 million children miss school every day around the world due to waterborne illness
  • 29 percent of the global population (2.1 billion people), and 42 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa, lack access to safe drinking water services. (UN)
Conservation/Environment Global Health Global Issues Humanitarian Kenya SOCIAL GOOD TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION

How to Help Syrian Children From Losing Their Childhood

Seven years later, civil war continues to loom in Syria destroying the world they once knew and tearing families apart. Millions of Syrians are living amidst unimaginable violence and uncertainty. 12 million people, over half of the pre-war Syrian population, are either internally displaced or have had to flee the country in search of safety. Furthermore, over half of all Syrian refuges are children and 2.8 million of these children are out of school. For children under age 8, war is the only life they know and their childhood has been taken away from them forever.

As a mother of two children, my heart is torn apart knowing about the dire situation for the children and families in Syria. SOS Children’s Villages has been on the ground providing a safe home, care for children and support for vulnerable families for more than 30 years. SOS began emergency relief programs in 2012 and currently operates in Aleppo, Damascus and Tartous. I have personally seen SOS Children’s program in Ethiopia and have been a huge supporter of their work ever since.

In light of the ongoing crisis in Syria, I am sharing a guest post written by Abeer Pamuk, a former SOS Children’s Village team member in Syria as well as more information on what SOS Children’s Villages is doing on the ground right now to help. 

Global Issues Global Non-Profit Organizations and Social Good Enterprises Humanitarian SOCIAL GOOD
LifeStraw1million Campaign Kenya

What a Week in Western Kenya with LifeStraw Taught Me: Water is Life

I rose with excitement and anticipation to the pre-dawn sound of the birds outside my hotel room in Kakamega, Western Kenya. Although the sky was still an inky black, the world outside my window was alive with noise and commotion as drivers rolled into the parking lot thumping African rap music and fellow LifeStraw staff for the LifeStraw Follow the Liters Campaign began to start their day. The smell of breakfast being served two floors below crept through the cracks in my door. Despite not having a huge appetite in the early hours of the morning, I knew that the omelette and perfectly ripe mango I had that morning at 6 would have to fill me up until dinner time.

I jumped out of bed, untangling myself from my mosquito net and quickly dressed in my uniform for the day. A blue LifeStraw t-shirt, a long pair of gray cargo pants, closed-toe hiking shoes, sunscreen, hat and ponytail. Today was to be my first day out in the field and I didn’t want to be late. Despite utter exhaustion, jet lag and concern that I had only slept a little over an hour the night before, I could hardly wait. It was the start of our campaign to reach the one millionth child to receive safe drinking water. Little did I know what a massive operation this would be and how incredibly inspired I’d feel by the end of the week.

Given the size and scale of the campaign, our international team of 130 LifeStraw staff and volunteers were divided up into 15 teams with the goal of reaching 3-4 primary schools per day all in different parts of Western Kenya. My team was called “Team Crocodile” and was lead by Rebecca Masoni, the local Area Coordinator for LifeStraw. We also had local Sub-Country Coordinators Vincent, Patrick and Dorice (known as Mama LifeStraw) and Dehli-based Raju, myself, and mother and daughter pair Detria and Sophia, from California. Over the course of the next five days, our team alone would reach 15 primary schools and 11,923 school children throughout Vihiga, Hamisi, Khwisero, Butere, and Lurambi counties in Western Kenya. 

By 6:30 am, the parking lot was jammed pack with a motorcade of SUVs, drivers and enthusiastic LifeStaw staff and volunteers all setting out to start the day. Some of the teams had already departed as early as four in the morning to reach some of the most remote schools. We were lucky to have the region surrounding Kakamega meaning our daily drive to reach the first school would only take about two hours.

As we left our base, we set off into the rising sun leaving behind the chaos of early morning in Kakamega. Markets of fruits and vegetables stands were being set into place. Clumps of shoes, clothing and homewares were laid out on colorful blankets across the dirt ground. Motorcycles of entire families and buses packed to the rim were scurrying around. Children in their school uniforms of baby blue and white, pink and green, maroon and navy blue, were walking alongside the road heading to school.

After a half of hour, the paved roads ended and we began our trek along the bumpy, pot-holed dirt roads of rural Kenya. The roads that always remind me of what it is like to get around in the developing world. The urban landscape began to fade and the beauty of rural, Western Kenya greeted my hungry soul. The lushness and greenery such a delight to see after so many months of colorless winter back at home.

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We passed several single-plot farms growing maize and tea surrounded by traditional mud huts interspersed by small rural towns of nothing more than a few shacks and rundown buildings. Women walked side by side gracefully balancing 20 liter jerrycans of water on top of their head while farmers worked the fields. Children frantically waved and yelled “Mzungu!” (foreigner) as our car passed them by along the way. As the morning dew began to lift off the horizon, the beauty of the landscape took my breath away. It was spellbinding.

The arrival

An hour and a half later we reached the entrance of our first school, the Khanirir G. Jeptorol Primary School in Hamisi. A faded hand painted wooden sign stood proudly at the gate beckoning us to enter. Our caravan of three SUVs slowly drove up the dirt path to the school, to the sound of laughter, cries of joy and song. As we got out of the car, a large cow bell was rung and out came 500 excited school children dressed in green and pink uniforms, running out the open doors of the school rooms thrilled to meet us.

As much as we ached to say hello and greet the children, I quickly learned that proper protocol is of utter importance in Kenya. The first thing our team had to do was go inside to meet the Head Teacher and cover a few formalities. We briefly introduced ourselves and went over the plans for the next two hours. At the first school, we would be installing five LifeStraw Communities. Each LifeStraw Community can serve 100 children and five would serve the entire population of the school.

While our drivers began installing the LifeStraws, our team assembled inside a large circle with the children surrounding us, for introductions which of course involved song and dance. This was my absolute favorite part of the presentation!  It is hard to put into words the feeling of being surrounded by hundreds of joyous children singing, dancing, clapping and laughing together as one. By the end of the week, I couldn’t get the songs out of my head and still wake up in the middle of the night singing them.

Since I had such a hard time capturing my experience into words, I created this short video of some of the footage I took during the week. Every time I watch the video it makes me smile. Hope you can get a sense for what my week was like by viewing it

Global Health Global Issues Kenya TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION
Kakamega Rainforest, Kakamega, Kenya

The Journey to Reach the One Millionth Child with Safe Water in Kenya

“Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step”. –  Lao Tzu

I left for Kenya on a Thursday afternoon feeling the normal pre-trip jitters of an exceptionally long 24 hours of travel ahead. I was flying from Minneapolis to Amsterdam with a five hour layover, and then I had another eight hour flight to reach Nairobi. I knew that it was going to be a long, exhausting journey yet I was exhilarated all the same to be off on a trip into the unknown.

I boarded my first flight with anticipation wondering what was in store for me when I finally arrived in Kenya. I had been chosen to join LifeStraw’s Follow the Liters campaign to reach the one millionth child to receive safe drinking water. I had a packet of detailed information about the program and the campaign but that was all I honestly knew. I was traveling alone and would meet up with ten of the 130 members of the the LifeStraw team in Amsterdam to continue our journey.

LifeStraw, a part of the Vestergaard global health company, began the Follow the Liters program four years ago in Western Kenya after realizing they could be a catalyst for positive change throughout the region. Children were missing many days of school due to waterborne diseases and illness caused by drinking unsafe water. Some were even dying. The need was immense, and LifeStraw had the answer.

With over twenty years of experience working on global health issues in Kenya, Vestergaard understood that Western Kenya was the perfect place to launch the campaign given the fact that it is one of the most populous, rural parts of the country which is in dire need for safe water. At the end of 2014, 158,000 school children were reached during the first Follow the Liters Campaign. Four years later, we would be reaching one million kids! I could hardly wait to be a part of it.

Giving Back through Retail

LifeStraw is not a pure one-for-one program (like TOMS shoes) because the needs of the retail market and local market on the ground in Kenya are quite different.

For each LifeStraw product sold in retail markets in Canada and the U.S, one child receives safe drinking water for a year. It is not a “buy one give one” model but instead a comprehensive program implemented and adapted for the needs of the local market. For each school LifeStraw serves, they provide ongoing training, education and follow-up for a minimum of five years. It is a long term commitment that employs local staff from the community to ensure sustainability of the program.

Global Health Global Issues Kenya SOCIAL GOOD TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION
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International Women’s Day 2018: In Honor of the Women and Girls of Western Kenya

“If we don’t empower women, we don’t allow them to unlock the potential of themselves and their children”. – Melinda Gates

Today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day, a day celebrated around the world in honor of the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. Women and girls have made a tremendous amount of progress over the years however much work still remains to be done especially within the developing world.

In honor of this special day, I wanted to share a few of my recent photos of some of the inspiring girls and women I met in Western Kenya last week with LifeStraw. It was a truly life-changing trip that fed my soul with joy, compassion and hope. I can hardly wait to share more!

Over the course of a week, our international team of 130 LifeStraw staff and volunteers, rose at dawn and were off on the road by 6:30 am to reach the schools. We were divided up into 15 teams with the goal of reaching 3-4 primary schools per day. Our days were long but incredibly exhilarating and rewarding as we provided training and installation of safe water filtration systems at each school.

At our demonstrations on how to use the LifeStraw Community (a water filtration system that treats unsafe water making it safe to drink), it was almost always the girls who were up front and center participating in the program. Many of the girls were selected to be prefects in charge of maintaining and cleaning the LifeStraw Communities, a tremendous honor.

I was thrilled to see that in all the primary schools my team visited (15 in all ) and in the 11,923 school children we met, there was not a wide gender gap as you normally see throughout Sub-Saharan Africa and the developing world. In fact, girls and boys have reached gender parity in schools and that is a huge sign of improvement and success.

CULTURE SOCIAL GOOD Women and Girls