A caravan of five Land Cruisers bounces along a rocky path. Five hundred miles north of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, the village of Atsemba is only accessible by a dirt road, and the nearest town is over an hour away. The passage is not so much a road as it is simply the clearest line of travel across a dusty landscape scattered with stones and scrub grass.
In this remote region of East Africa, donkeys are more common than cars. And the arrival of so many sport utility vehicles in this austere community of 3,200 draws an excitable crowd Laughing voices rise with the sound of beating drums. Ululations and cheers from the growing throng are jubilant, welcoming. People of the village and the surrounding community come running to meet honored guests-17 tired travelers. Their white skin and pristine sportswear are a stark contrast against the dark complexions and second-hand cotton clothing of the villagers.
But everyone shares broad smiles and eyes that shine bright with excitement. The visitors, from North America and Australia, are eager to see their vision of foreign aid brought to life in the shape of a four-room schoolhouse they helped to fund here. The people of Atsemba are just as anxious to show them. Children are quick to take the strangers’ hands as they enter the heart of the village. The new arrivals exchange greetings with village elders, some offering handshakes, others offering hugs. It’s a boisterous and happy parade of strangers, one of which-a tall, athletic blond woman-tries to go unnoticed.
She’s hard to miss, and, as she’d visited Atsemba before, a few of the villagers recognize her as the catalyst for the occasion. She smiles warmly, but Shannon Wilson tries not to draw anyone’s attention. It’s clear she doesn’t want today’s celebration to be about her. Even as she cuts a bright pink ribbon to dedicate the new building at the Atsemba Community Primary School she has very few words.
“We hope that your children will envision a brighter future for themselves.”
Wilson’s goal is that all of Ethiopia’s children will have brighter futures, and she’s working hard to help them get there. The 37-year-old founded Imagine1day, a non-governmental organization based in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2007; and despite a busy schedule managing a career and five kids, Wilson is vibrant when it comes to the organization’s mission: to bring education to all the children of Ethiopia by 2020.
“Right now we work in the Tigray region, where we’re currently developing schools for grade-levels one through four. Where there is enough attendance, we can then carry on to grades five through eight.”
Fewer than 45 percent of Ethiopia’s 16.5 million children attend primary school, and Wilson knows it’s an uphill battle to get more of them into classrooms. But she’s not deterred by the ambitious nature of her goal. If there’s one thing Wilson is capable of, it’s helping people reach beyond the limits they set for themselves and bringing ambitious plans to life. Wilson’s approach to education in Ethiopia follows the same model as the one she and her husband Chip applied to the business they started together-the super-successful clothing brand, Lululemon Athletica.
The Wilsons applied a philosophy to Lululemon that’s all about encouraging people to reach beyond their vision.
“It is a functional athletic clothing company,” she says, “but the key to our success is our larger mission-to take people from mediocrity to greatness.”
Based in Vancouver and founded in 1998, Lululemon exploded onto the active apparel market and opened more than 100 stores between 2000 and 2010. Their salespeople, called “educators,” receive fashion training along with a form of life coaching based on techniques taught through the Landmark Forum. The “Forum” is a leadership development program that teaches integrity, self-reflection, and goal-setting transformation with an intensity that some people liken to that of a religious cult. In the case of Lululemon, the philosophy manifests as a work environment where educators and customers are encouraged to maximize their personal potential.
“We have something incredible going on in our stores,” says Wilson. “Our educators have access to generating a future for themselves that’s exciting and challenging. When you have those kinds of people interacting with customers, it creates a conversation and an environment that people want to be a part of.”
It’s the goal-setting aspect of Lululemon’s culture that Wilson brought to Imagine1day. And it’s that same goal-setting strategy that makes her confident about taking on a challenge of such monumental scale that, to the rest of us, it seems impossible-like educating an entire country’s youth to envision a brighter future.
“I’ve always believed that it’s important to look out for those around us,” Wilson says. “If I can help just one other person, I feel like I’ve done something worthwhile.” But her goal isn’t to help just one, so she’s enlisted Lululemon’s philosophy of empowerment through passion to help others get involved too.
Back in Atsemba, that strategy’s proving to be a success. The 17 foreigners gathered around the schoolhouse are the proof-they’re the first group of donor-travelers on Imagine1day’s inaugural three-week tour dubbed “Imagine Ethiopia.” Their trip is an experiment to test Wilson’s vision for bringing together her donor community and the organization’s on-the-ground efforts. Together, the group, including an investment banker, a green energy consultant, and a personal trainer, raised more than $100,000 to cover the full cost of constructing a primary school in the village of Laley Wukro, three hours north of Atsemba in Tigray.
“We wanted to find a way to take someone’s passion, something they’re willing to do without getting paid, and turn it into a contribution,” Wilson says about the $7,000-plus that each of the participants raised to earn the right to participate in the trip last fall.
Creatribution-using talent and creativity to make a contribution-is the driving force behind Wilson’s efforts in Ethiopia. With a growing track record of success establishing schools like the ones in Atsemba and Laley Wukro, Imagine1day is building momentum and organizing another trip to Ethiopia next fall, one for ordinary people with the ambition to muster their talent and bring education to the children of Africa. The trip is for donors who are eager to make that connection-a creatribution-of their own. Majka Burhardt’s first trip to Ethiopia had nothing to do with creatribution.
The 34-year-old climber and writer first learned about Ethiopia in 1984, when she wrote a song about the famine as a school project. Growing up, she’d mostly forgotten about it, spending her teens and 20s pursuing a career as a professional climbing guide and earning a bachelor’s degree from Princeton and an MFA from Warren Wilson College. Her first visit to the East African country in 2006 wasn’t a humanitarian mission at all; she was there as a journalist on an expedition to research coffee. When the research was finished, she stayed to put up first-ascents of sandstone towers in Ethiopia’s northern high deserts. Two books later-Vertical Ethiopia, and Coffee Story: Ethiopia, just hitting bookstores this summer-Burhardt’s passion for climbing and her ability to give back to Ethiopia through writing make her a shining example of Wilson’s ideal for creatribution. She was also the perfect addition to Imagine Ethiopia’s leadership team so she traveled with the group last fall.
“We wanted to add an adventure component to the trip,” Wilson said, “to make it fun and exciting.”
Roped climbs up sandstone rock walls paired with mountain bike rides and village visits took the multi-dimensional learning experience of Imagine Ethiopia to another level of self discovery for the group of (mostly) women. Burhardt established a new, safe, top-rope area for the region, where trip participants could push their limits. Even the climbing itself is an apt metaphor of the motivating purpose and methodology behind Imagine1day. Just as the climbers/fund-raisers trusted a guide and worked together to reach new heights, they’re offering the same guidance-and hoping to garner the trust of villages like Atsemba-to help people there lift themselves out of poverty.
“We really got to be a part of the culture,” says Chelsea Wheeler, a regional manager for Lululemon Athletica in Sydney and a fit and exuberant addition to the team. “Being part of Imagine1day allows us to achieve and give back in a way that we couldn’t do by ourselves.”
It is true that no one person or solution could solve Ethiopia’s problems. The country of 80 million, ravaged by drought, famine, and war, is one of the poorest on the planet. The average adult life expectancy is 55 years, and almost 40 percent of the population lives below the international poverty line, earning less than $1.25 per day.
“Education,” says Wilson, “especially the education of girls, is what transforms any society.”
“Education lowers the birth rate, it increases the age of marriage, and it decreases the age of mortality,” says Wilson, “If we’re going to do any kind of charitable work, it makes sense to get behind education.”
Over the past four years, Imagine1day has built or helped to fund 32 schools in villages throughout Tigray. Operating from a central office in the town of Mekele, about 400 miles north of Addis Ababa, a group of eight local staffers provides resources and training to local teachers, encouraging them to not only educate children but to build the school into a focal point of community engagement that will improve the quality of life for everyone in the village.
The hope is that the sturdy stone buildings will provide a safe and comfortable place for learning, one that’s close to home and may reduce instances of rape and abduction. Similarly, new wells provide drinking water and support a system of micro irrigation, and the school’s latrine offers sanitary hygiene and waste disposal, reducing disease and providing village girls with a private place to manage their menstrual cycles. By making small but meaningful investments, Imagine1day is able to help establish a sustainable social infrastructure for flourishing communities that, in time, become self-sustaining.
“Sustainability was a really important consideration as we set goals for Imagine1day,” Wilson says. “Billions of dollars in aid has been dumped into Africa. We thought, ‘If we’re going to get involved here, we need to know that it is going to work and, most of all, last.”
While raising money for infrastructure and building schools is the foundation of its efforts, Imagine1day also helps mediate partnerships with the Ethiopian government to fund road-building, pay teacher salaries, and purchase school supplies. The organization also helps plant thousands of fruit trees, provides micro-loans for income-generating livestock, and tries to bolster the community’s ability to support itself moving forward. A partnership with Imagine1day equates to accountability, and eventually the community has got to be able to support itself-it is getting a hand up, not a handout. For decades, much of western relief work in Africa has taken the form of straight giving: providing food and the financial resources to build infrastructure. But Imagine1day instead follows a principle that encourages people to provide for themselves.
One of last fall’s Imagine Ethiopia participants, and a fund-raising professional in Toronto, Sarah Shaw was surprised that her own vision of charity and giving changed by witnessing Imagine1day’s model.
“From the very start, [Imagine1day] makes it known that this is not aid, it is a partnership,” Shaw says. “With our help, they’ve seen incredible results in academic achievement and income generation, but in a couple of years [the villages and schools] want to be totally self-sufficient.”
The Ethiopia-based staff of support professionals allows Imagine1day to make regular visits to each of the communities it serves and to provide ongoing training to teachers who help to raise the performance expectations of the village as a whole. Teachers are the ones who help to define a line of development, a clear path toward social renewal and out of poverty. It’s a form of community investment, and the focus on promoting self-sufficiency makes Imagine1day an organization the travelers-turned-contributors want to support.
“I believe their model of charity is more sustainable. It’s more impactful because they’re not only giving tools that the community needs but they give knowledge, training,” says Wheeler.
A great procession of village men carry canes and long-handled scythes, dancing before the train of departing Land Cruisers. Chanting and singing fill the air, and a gaggle of children wave goodbye as the entire village of Atsemba escorts the procession along a narrow path at the edge of the settlement. Their school has been built. And the villagers now have a new vision and a path toward that brighter future, a course of progress that may well lead them out of poverty. Creating sustainable partnerships, Imagine1day is bringing people together-villagers, teachers, guides, climbers, fundraisers, and farmers-into a network focused on achieving new heights and changing their own definitions of success.
In the same spirit of teamwork that encourages each climber to the summit of a high mountain peak, the people of Atsemba are getting the support they need to succeed under their own power, to set and achieve attainable goals. And just like climbing, with time and practice they will continue to ascend to higher goals, gaining strength, confidence and new partners with each attempt.
Motivated out of a deep desire to do good, Shannon Wilson founded Imagine1day following a model that had served her well in business and which is helping to re-shape people’s ideas about aid, giving, and their own ability to participate in that process.
“I really can’t say that this is the best way to do what we’re doing,” she says with a chuckle, “but it seems to be working.”
By giving of themselves, their skills and talents, Wilson says anyone can help to bring about positive change. And whether they work toward educating children in Africa, or some other worthy cause, anyone can aspire to make a difference in the world.
“I just really believe that if someone wants to do something, there’s something they can do.”
Think you can put a creatribution into action? Participant sign-ups for Imagine Ethiopia 2011 (October 23-November 5) are open now. For more information, visit: imagine1day.org
This story originally appeared in the Spring issues of Women’s Adventure Magazine
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