For those who don’t know, I created and ran my own nonprofit for four years, many moons ago. It was called Cheti and it was something I poured my heart and soul into – something I considered my mission in life.
I launched it after a month-long volunteer trip to Tanzania, where I taught elementary level students in the slums of Arusha. I met and highly admired a school director named Zuma and it goes without saying, felt an immense amount of empathy, compassion, and concern for the children I met throughout the region.
I wanted to make a difference, and with the tools I had while in Tanzania, decided to document the families’ stories. I thought that perhaps when I got home, I could get a few children sponsored. That would make a meaningful difference, and subconsciously, (hard to say this) erase some of the white-man’s guilt I was feeling.
I boarded the flight back to NYC with a new perspective and a changed mind on what to do next in my life. I arrived home and I can’t even tell you how disgusted I was with America… with the sheer amount of waste, greed, and materialism that was flaunted from every angle. I cried for days. Seriously, days. My mom flew to NYC the following weekend to keep me company and remind me that life was going to be ok despite the poverty, disease, and hopelessness that covers so much of our world.
Needless to say, I managed to turn these feelings into action. I got all 12 students sponsored within a couple of months. So I decided to continue to grow.
Within three years, I had a team of 6 volunteers, over 100 students sponsored across two schools, purchased endless healthcare, educational, and food supplies, and helped fund the construction of several classroom buildings. I was heading back to Tanzania for my third trip to hire our first part-time employee – someone to help manage the program from the ground, who could be my eyes and ears and help me get the content and information I needed. I finally felt like my dream was coming true and my impact was real.
That’s when it all seemed to fall apart.
All most people in my circle know is that at some point after this trip, I decided to stop sending money to the school. I summarized some key points in an email to all our sponsors and donors and stopped accepting donations. For all intents and purposes, I had closed the charity.
To make a very long story short, my week-long expedition to the place I loved was full of fear, misunderstanding, awkwardness and flat-out anger. I had many reasons to believe the school director I had given my trust, respect, time, energy and money to (lots of it!) for several years had been misusing money. He physically threatened our new hire. He didn’t know where many of our “sponsored students” were or why they weren’t at school. He had new furniture in his house with a made-up story that it was borrowed from a friend. There were no records of where my recent thousands and thousands of dollars had gone. Projects I thought were completed were still in progress. He made me attend a meeting with the parents of the sponsored students and made them repeat prayers to me, (that felt more like witchcraft), which requested I keep sending them money and not hire our program manager. He didn’t want anyone seeing what was going on. He called me angrily many times. He yelled. I cried.
My heart had fallen apart and not everyone agreed with my decision. Obviously I had lost trust with the director, but more importantly – I had lost trust in myself. Here I was, a white girl synonymous with this “heroic” organization that had failed. Maybe not failed, but fell to corruption. What was I now? Who was I now? How can I trust others when I so blindly fell for this? How could I move on knowing or unknowing if these children will be able to continue to go school? I let them down, I let our donors down, my board, my friends, and myself.
It took me quite a while to recover from all of this. To build myself back up into who I was or was going to be. To remind myself that I was more than this and that I can still make a difference. And to figure out how to bounce back financially after taking so much time off to pursue this passion.
I have been wanting to share this story for a long time but not really sure how to put it all into words. Almost embarrassed of the profound impact the entire experience had on my life. It’s now been so long (almost six years), that sometimes I have to ask myself – did I really do that? Did that all really happen or was it just a dream?
I also struggle to summarize what the lesson was from the entire experience. I wish I had a one-liner, or key takeaway that everyone could take and go, but maybe I need another six-years to reflect. In the mean time, here’s a few lessons I hope you can learn from my Cheti chapter…
- Making a real difference can be hard. Sometimes it feels impossible. Sometimes you work for years and you’re not even sure if you made a difference at all. But you have to try – never stop trying. Nothing that’s worthwhile is ever easy.
- The truth really can set us free. Telling our truth, our story, is how we connect, how we can learn from one another, and how we can heal.
- Despite the resulting heartache, this chapter really was one of the things I’m most proud of in my life. I learned more through this experience about human connection, about storytelling, and about myself than through any other job or life event. If we don’t try – if we don’t put ourselves out there to fail – how will we ever know if we could succeed?