Lindsay Dorr might not be leaving until June, but ask about her upcoming trip to Tanzania and she will tell you she already has a list of things to do before she leaves.
She will need to meet with a travel nurse, get needed vaccines and medications and learn of foods to avoid while she is there — some could transmit diseases.
She has a packing list saved on her computer as well, left over from previous trips and tweaked as needed: bug spray, over-the-counter medicine, disinfectants, antibiotic ointments and clothing tailored to her destination — not solely to the climate.
“Certain things that are important to consider are where you’re going to be and what is culturally appropriate clothing,” Dorr said.
“Particularly being a woman and being a married woman, in some areas, it’s not appropriate for me to show my knees, for instance, so even if the guys can wear shorts, I can’t.”
This cultural awareness is especially important, because Dorr won’t be there as a tourist.
She will travel this summer to help build the second floor of the Upendo Encourage School as a volunteer for Be The Change Volunteers, a Columbia nonprofit dedicated to improving education access and opportunities in communities around the world.
Be The Change Volunteers
Be The Change Volunteers, often shortened to Be The Change, was founded in 2007 by Jimi and Cristi Cook, who live in Columbia and work at the Missouri Orthopedic Institute. The idea came about from a Habitat For Humanity build the pair attended in Zambia in October 2006. They loved the idea of volunteering and empowering communities through volunteerism, especially because of meeting with the people there.
This interaction ultimately gave the Cooks the idea for Be The Change. During the build in Zambia, Jimi Cook spoke with some of the community children, most of whom were orphans. He asked what they wanted the Cooks to send them, expecting them to list food, electronics and clothes.
Instead, each child asked for books and tuition money.
“It was the best kick in the gut I ever got,” Jimi Cook said. “Number one, it just made me realize that they get what will work and what they need, and number two, I asked them and I offered to help, so I had to come through.
“It really definitely changed our lives, because I wasn’t going to just walk away from that,” he said.
Later in the same trip with Habitat for Humanity, the Cooks spoke with their team leader, Brian Anderson, who told them about Rwandan students who had come to America for school in the midst of their country’s genocide. One of the students’ biggest wishes, they had told Anderson, was to rebuild their primary school.
Anderson had wanted to help, he told the Cooks, but Habitat for Humanity only built houses. Instead, he planned to fly out with friends to Rwanda and fix the school himself and invited the Cooks to come along. They accepted, and by the end of their time there, the couple had decided to create Be The Change.
In the following months and through the help of friends and family, the Cooks applied for 501c3 nonprofit status, a process that generally takes a year and a half or longer. Within four months, however, the Cooks had sent in the application and established Be The Change.
Since, Be The Change has grown considerably. The organization’s volunteers come from all over the United States and other countries, said Debbie Waggoner, senior intern of change at Be The Change Volunteers. “It’s not because I’m an intern. It’s because I’m a senior citizen,” Waggoner said with humor. She is dedicating her retirement to working for the group.
Waggoner said she knows one woman in Australia who learned about Be The Change thanks to a London radio station, which interviewed the brother of a volunteer. The brother lived in Ireland at the time.
Since its founding, the organization has partnered with communities for 41 builds. Each is labeled with a three-digit number, with that first build in Rwanda as 001, Jimi Cook said.
“They’re all three digits because my goal is 100 (builds) before I die,” he said.
As for the organization’s connection with Habitat For Humanity, Jimi Cook said many of Be The Change’s foundational principles have come from Habitat For Humanity’s practices, such as “sweat equity” — requiring all community members to contribute to the building process.
Be The Change also tries to break up larger projects into phases, returning every few years to continue projects rather than building them all at once. Jimi Cook said this practice helps team members build relationships with community members but also helps with cost and with the community’s sense of ownership surrounding the build.
All materials used on builds are purchased locally, and the organization focuses not on providing community members only with food or clothing but also in providing them the means to help themselves. This method avoids “toxic charity,” Waggoner said, which can harm communities rather than help them.
“The difference is in teaching community members to expand on their own,” Waggoner said. “You’re working, you’re getting dirty.”
Students helping students
Be The Change also invites students from Columbia Independent School to attend a specific build each summer along with a teacher chaperone. This year, rising CIS ninth-, 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders will attend a build in El Chino, Peru, a phased build that began in 2014.
CIS science teacher John Hager is this year’s faculty chaperone. Although he’s never attended a build before — faculty chaperones are different each year to allow other teachers the opportunity — Hager said he knows the experience affects the students.
“It makes a very unique experience for the upper-school, high-school students,” Hager said. “It gives them a target to aim for in terms of service learning, and CIS has a unique situation of being a JK (junior kindergarten) through 12th-grade school, so it gives students as they’re moving up through the grades a real opportunity to look forward to.
“You feel like you’re literally being a helper, and students, as they move up through the grades, can see other students who’ve participated in the trip and can envision themselves participating,” Hager said.
Throughout the school year, students prepare for their trip in many ways, including through scheduled meetings to discuss various cultural experiences they might encounter on their trip, as well as to fundraise for travel costs and other expenses.
Each trip generally costs about $3,500 per volunteer. So far this year, students have hosted after-school child-care days, a trivia night, a morning coffee sale and, in early March, a rummage sale through which they raised more than $4,000.
For some students, such as sophomore Libby Cleavinger, going on a Be The Change trip through CIS has become a family tradition.
“Everyone except for my dad has gone on a trip, and it’s going to be even more special that I’m going to be going on a trip because then everyone’s gone on one,” Cleavinger said. “Be The Change is a part of our lives now, which is a great thing.”
Along with the cultural and life experiences students get on the trips, many also form strong friendships with community members and other volunteers. CIS freshman Abigail Reardon attended the Peru trip last year and said many of the friends she made still keep in touch with her.
“I have one friend from Peru where she and I text in English, because she goes to English school, and then (another friend) and I text and talk in Spanish, so it’s cool to get that exposure, too,” Reardon said. “It’s a lot easier to text in Spanish than it is to talk on the phone in Spanish ... but it’s really cool to have an international friend to talk to and interact with.”
“This trip is one of those things that I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” Reardon said.
Building schools, learning about life
Volunteers do their share of learning on the trips. Both Jimi and Cristi Cook said they’ve had their own culture shocks across the 24 builds they’ve been on so far.
For Jimi Cook, one of those moments came during the volunteer team’s welcoming ceremony in Malawi, when community members approached the team and offered a local delicacy as a welcoming gift — sun-dried field mice, “fur and all,” he recalled. When the volunteers realized what the community was trying to offer them, he knew they wanted him to do something.
“I said, ‘Thank you so, so much, but actually, we are the ones who should be thanking you, so we would like to return the gift to your people,’” Jimi Cook said. “I think that team was probably the one that loved me the most of any team ever, in the history of the world, because I saved them from the field mice.”
Cristi Cook has had had plenty of culture shocks, too, and she’s also had experiences unique to being a woman.
“Women are not really respected in most of these parts of the world,” Cristi Cook said. “Being there, and being a leader, most of the men are confused, so you get treated differently than the men do, which for me was very difficult to deal with for a long time.”
At a build in Papua New Guinea, Cristi Cook said she was not allowed to be on any elevated platform without the approval of every man on the building site, even if it was something as small as a plank of wood lying on the ground. It was only by the end of the build, she said, that the community began to accept and understand her role as a team leader.
“I was building desks and Jimi came in, and I was almost finished with all the desks, and he goes, ‘Do you want to get up on the roof? Because the men have said you can go up there,’” Cristi Cook said. After weighing her options, she declined.
“I told him, ‘I’ll finish the desks,’” she said.
Dorr, the woman going to Tanzania in June, said one of the biggest moments of her trip experiences so far was when she went to Guatemala in 2012 to help build a school for students with special needs.
In the community there, she said, many families struggled with caring for children with special needs, often because of the financial costs associated with raising them. In some instances, Dorr said, there were infants with disabilities “literally thrown off a cliff.”
“I came back from Guatemala, and I struggled with, ‘How do I take what I’ve seen and learned and then use the time, energy, money, love, compassion that I have to somehow help that?’” Dorr said. “It was a big disconnect for me at that time, and I just think the severe level of poverty probably made it that way.
“Even though I knew we were doing good and helping these kids’ school ... I think I may have left there wishing that I could somehow just give all of them something,” Dorr said. “I felt like there were a lot of tangible needs that needed to be met in that community, and that was really hard for me.”
Cristi Cook said new volunteers often feel overwhelmed, as Dorr did, when they return from a trip. Many feel they can’t do enough to help the communities in need. She said she and Jimi Cook are asked how they are able to go on build after build.
It’s because they’re helping and doing what needs to be done, she said.
“They get so overwhelmed because they see this huge need, and you have to remind them to focus, one at a time,’” Cristi Cook said. “You’re helping this one school that’s got 40 kids in it or 120 kids or 1,000 kids. It’s baby steps.”