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Does Short-Term Travel Philanthropy Make A Difference?

We came across this great article on travel philanthropy in Architectural Digest (April 2009) — an indication of how charity and goodwill are playing a growing role in people’s lives when these stories get featured in a design magazine.

Architect Bernard Wharton and his family went on a two-week safari vacation in Kenya’s Masai Mara with Micato Safari, a luxury tour company known to include philanthropic visits in their tours. Wanting to get a balanced view of Africa, they opted to do a daylong philanthropic visit to Mukuru, a string of poor slums outside Nairobi. This little detour led the Whartons to underwrite the entire cost of building a community center compound in Mukuru.

Here’s how the story unfolds that transformed the Whartons and the Mukuru community:

The tour company, Micato Safaris, through its nonprofit arm, AmericaShare, offered an optional coda: a daylong philanthropic visit to Mukuru, a landfill-like hash of 20 villages containing 600,000 people and rampant HIV/AIDS. After experiencing the wonders of southwestern Kenya, Wharton and Walsh thought it important that the family glimpse the country’s other face, for perspective. “We just had no idea,” he says, “how awful it was and how profoundly that little detour would change all of our lives.”

As he led them through the bramble of tin-roofed shacks, their guide held on to a piece of paper. It was a sketch (“a crude pencil drawing,” Walsh recalls) of an as-yet-unfunded infrastructure development: a dormitory for orphans, a meeting space (ultimately equipped with computers) for an HIV/AIDS women’s group and a community center. “Being an architect, I was curious,” Wharton says. “I saw three honest, very true buildings—and a purity in the idea of them.” Before they boarded the plane for home, he and Walsh knew they would underwrite the entire project, which, as it turned out, was completed for a fifth of what it would have cost in the United States. Explains Walsh: “It was a tangible thing we could do, as opposed to just being overwhelmed by the living conditions there. It was something on a manageable scale that would significantly help these people.”

Wharton underscores what he calls the grass-roots aspect of their gift. “There are the Bonos and the Gateses of the world who are making incredible contributions to that continent. But there’s also the need for those like us to pick up the smaller things. You hear people say you can’t save Africa—there’s too much disease, too much poverty. I’m not in that camp. These are simple buildings by our standards, but there are things happening within them that have never happened before in that region.”

The first permanent structure in Mukuru, Harambee Center opened in June 2007. Beyond the original tripartite program, the compound includes a pair of grain mills, and a cafeteria is in operation (the couple once helped serve beef stew to 300 children there). With a goal of self-sufficiency, there is an on-site crafts enterprise, in which the women, says Wharton, are “exploring their entrepreneurial side.” During construction a borehole was drilled, creating a rare and needed source of fresh water.

“They wanted to name it the Bernard Wharton and Jennifer Walsh Building,” Wharton notes, “but we said absolutely not.

That was never what it was about: It was about the Kenyan people, their traditions and future. We were there to assist and advise, not to put our stamp on anything—and, frankly, part of the problem with Africa is the people who’ve gone in and had to have their way.” Still, for the festive dedication of their new facility, the tribespeople made Wharton—who is looking for a site in the area on which to help build a small medical facility—an honorary Masai elder. “That,” he allows, “I loved.”

There are many folks in and out of travel philanthropy questioning the value of having short, even one day, “token” visits to poverty-stricken regions of the world or the motives of those who tack on a philanthropic part to their, otherwise, luxurious vacations. Here is the value — people who normally would not go on these volunteer or service trips, who never see this kind of poverty first hand, or who never considered making a difference can’t help but be changed and compelled to give in whatever ways they can when they see the devastation of poverty with their own eyes. These short trips enlarge the giving community because it brings awareness and a sense of urgency to a segment of the population that may not have considered being involved.

These trips may be short, even one-day, but they have long-lasting effects. The relationship between the Whartons and this African community is forever cemented. We’re glad to see this travel philanthropy message featured in Architectural Digest because it is reaching a wider audience than just the service-minded group.

Photo: Architectural Digest

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One Comment »

  • gofarther said:

    The effects of bearing witness to profound need can be meaningful whether large or small. Farther Foundation (www.fartherfoundation.org) awarded a travel scholarship to Lawrence, a low-income high school student from Chicago, to participate in an education program in Ghana. After all that Lawrence experienced and learned, he could not finance a community center, but he did say:

    "Ghanians don't have what I have, but they never give up and work really hard to get very little. I felt compelled to give up certain things, so I donated my clothes, shoes and toiletries because I realized I am more fortunate than I thought. I have grown as a person and as an African-American man."

    Learn more at http://www.fartherfoundation.org and http://www.gofarther.wordpress.com.

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