How has it grown or changed over time?
There have been so many huge jumps on the learning curve. That curve, both difficult and amazing, has been continual. The beginning of our sponsorship was the first leap into understanding their society through their educational system.
Sierra Leone is worlds away from America. Education is rote and tied completely to a single test every few years. Teachers often go unpaid for months. Female students very commonly are pressured by teachers for sex in exchange for grades or even a report of grades.
Overseeing our sponsored students, getting a good hold on their progress, making sure they weren’t too hungry or too ill, the lack of any kind of academic expectation for girls – these were all things we had to learn to handle. In a place where it’s not unusual for high school graduates to be well into their 30’s, we had to come to learn all the difficulties of the system that our students faced. Sometimes their ability to succeed was really determined by outside factors. We realized we needed to enter their world more fully then mere report cards would allow. And so, we came to believe in mentorship – the weekly attention of American volunteers towards our students’ progress and lives in general. Through this, we learn about our students’ situations in detail and they feel they have people who care about them – somewhat miraculously since they had never met their mentors before and live thousands of miles away. These relationships became so significant that two of our mentors made the huge effort to travel to Sierra Leone and met their sponsored students.
And through this kind of close contact with these future leaders, our values of altruism and outreach become internalized. Our most recent student was added by the boys themselves, who welcomed him into their tiny room because he had recently dropped out of school over money. This was a serious move considering how small their room is. Sharing their tiny space with one more is the kind of sacrifice for community that is exactly what we wanted them to learn. They actually didn’t tell me about this until one of my stays there when I met him. I said, “Why didn’t you ever say anything about this?” They replied, “We thought you’d be upset maybe.” I had to laugh about that, but also to see it as these teens taking a risk and taking the initiative to help someone in need – young vision in Africa.
What’s your everyday role?
My own everyday role is leadership, outreach, and communication. Watching our goals being fulfilled day by day, adjusting when something isn’t working, observing which personnel might be ready for which projects. To be honest it is very often our Sierra Leoneon personnel that determine the breadth of our projects. Our volunteers/employees sometimes go way beyond what we were hoping for and what we were imagining. Seeing their own unexpected vision and ability, we respond by expanding our projects to meet their full potential. Though we are often limited by resources, if we can, we seek to support the projects that they themselves enable. It’s a wonderful and successful thing when we do that.
Often the reality is that the passion of somebody’s dreams cannot sustain itself. In a place like Sierra Leone, the basics of life and survival have very narrow margins.
On the flip side, as far as our beneficiaries go, I have seen too many individuals that our resources could not accommodate – too many hopes that were unfulfilled and discouraged and too many dreams that died. Often the reality is that the passion of somebody’s dreams cannot sustain itself. In a place like Sierra Leone, the basics of life and survival have very narrow margins. Your family is always one event away from tragedy and often already in what we would call tragedy. Family needs, the things they must do to survive – these are the things that take the place of their dreams. They settle in order to survive. Nobody can wait forever. Doors and pathways often have a deadline.
It is this exact truth that makes the fundraising aspect of my job so important. I’ve made some progress here, since when I started this in earnest, I had to drop out of regular middle-class society so that I could jump right into the work, without waiting for more resources. I put myself in an interesting position as can be demonstrated in one conversation with my first employee. I was sitting in a McDonalds, using their free wifi to skype him, during which time he relayed that some of the villagers were asking for a timeline on completion of some ceilings.
I said, ‘remind them to be patient – you can even tell them that right now I don’t even have a place to stay (crashing on a couch at that time). He had a good laugh and said, “Alan you’ve built many homes in that village. If I tell them you don’t have a home, they will not believe me!”
I try to remind myself that those who I’m fundraising for are bound by these deadlines of their hopes and dreams. In the West, we can often forget this because we have somewhat of a glut in opportunity. But the hard truth is that sometimes for lack of a small amount of money at the right time, I’ve seen education, careers, and even cooperation end. Of course, we could say they should be more resilient. But then we don’t live in their kind of poverty. We haven’t witnessed our whole environment and community destroyed by horrific violence. This situation creates a tremendous amount of unfulfilled potential. Releasing, enabling and directing that potential is our calling. So every day I am out talking about our work and seeking partnerships with businesses interested in socially responsible investing on a global scale. Our goal is to increase revenue so that we can expand this successful program within the village and to other villages.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
A big part of who I am does have to do with the positive aspects of vision and hope. I tend to see potential and my outlook is based on altruism. This allows for what I do in the world, but it also put YVA into a very difficult spot. The medical center we built had a single funder (a foundation) and when it finished, I asked them if they wanted to manage it, and liaise directly with our senior employee. We agreed (in writing even) that anything new they wanted to do at the center would be approved by us since they had no experience in Africa. As time went on the foundation told me they completely trusted our employee and were not asking for any receipts for various expenditures. That was clearly a wrong approach, and as our employee got personally close (through long-distance communication) to the head of the foundation, I should have started to worry.
Nothing bad happened for a while until a member of their board decided he needed to build a house of worship and they started making plans to do this with our employee and without our knowledge. All of a sudden, this foundation that always defined itself as strictly secular was dead set on a big religious building. I was told that this wasn’t them doing it, but only their board member talking to someone locally in the village. That might have had a grain of truth to it, except that no one there spoke English or had phones!! That was the time I should have just realized there was no reasoning to be done. But the real problem was there were villagers who were not contributing towards the cooperative volunteer maintenance and upkeep of the medical center or our community farm. This was a problem in the village, and we were seeing in that group, a sort of welfare mentality developing. It was so clear that this moment was the exact worst time to start any new projects, before correcting the participation problem.
But the foundation had a board member/donor to make happy and our very own employee had been weakened by the amount of money that he was now managing, without having to account for. When we objected, they had too many reasons (all of the bad ones) to ignore us. This caused a very quick separation, creating an incredible amount of stress between our employees and volunteers in the village and those who wanted the new house of worship, no strings attached, led by our former senior employee.
We took a difficult stand for integrity and for decisions that were not based on donor gratification. And in doing so, we defined ourselves, in a very clear way, with how we intend to work in the future.
Fast forward two years and that foundation and that former employee are no longer involved with the village. I suppose they met their short-term goals but had their broken faith with us hanging over their heads. Or maybe that kind of self-oriented approach is doomed to fail in a place like this. But they still left behind some big wounds and some villagers who were able to choose dependency instead of their own growth. The whole thing had blindsided me but also taught me. Greed, weakness, and self-deception are more powerful than I had thought, and we need to be more cautious with our partnerships. There were some big silver linings though. Our people, even our high school students, observed and saw what was happening and how we were reacting to it. We took a difficult stand for integrity and for decisions that were not based on donor gratification. And in doing so, we defined ourselves, in a very clear way, with how we intend to work in the future. As the village still seeks to recover from this whole incident, we seek to continue to walk the hard road of integrity.
Any noteworthy surprises or ‘A-ha’ Moments?
His faith and confidence over the need for the program allowed him to take a big risk of starting a 20-mile walk with his new staff, knowing there was a possibility they would just have to turn around and walk back the next day!
As I referenced above, we are always being surprised. As many times as we might try something that is completely misunderstood by our employees in their cultural framework, they also do things that we were not even planning. Here’s one example. Our high school educated teachers had asked us if we could send them to a 3-year teacher certification program offered at the city 20 miles away, during school breaks. I knew it was a good idea, but amidst all the other regular expenses, I could not see where that money would come from. When the time came in July, our headmaster and teachers sent me a message out of the blue that somehow reached me on the spot. He said they were on-route, walking the 20 miles towards the city! I gently reminded him that I hadn’t found the money yet. He happily replied that he had faith that everything would work out. I remember clearly my mixed feeling of respect and helplessness at that moment. I took a deep breath and called the only former donor that I could think of who might do this. Somehow in a matter of minutes, it was settled. She was sending the money that day and was committing to one year of the training for four of our teachers. Of course, our headmaster didn’t seem to be surprised in the least. (I refrained from telling him that he was just now, the luckiest guy on earth.) It was more than luck though. His faith and confidence over the need for the program allowed him to take a big risk of starting a 20-mile walk with his new staff, knowing there was a possibility they would just have to turn around and walk back the next day!
This is yet another example of how our people on the ground push YVA towards what it needs to be. From the first orphan teens who set our direction, to our employees who know what they need to develop, to conversations and experiences that we have together, while I am there, Young Vision Africa remains largely led by the vision of young Africans.