My Journey to Malawi
By Heather Gray
A little background. I met Don Smith (founder of Village Empowerment) in January 2009 when we both joined a year long mastermind group that was focused on empowering entrepreneurs to bring their gifts to the world. There were 12 of us in the group, mostly women and mostly coaches with specific expertise. Don stood out as someone who was “retired” from the working world and focused on giving back. At the time his organization was called “Rescue Incorporated.”
I was immediately impressed by Don’s passion and grassroots methods for bringing change to parts of the world that have been largely ignored by those of us living in the faster paced, industrially developed countries. Before stepping into the coaching world I spent more than 10 years working with non-proftis on various public health issues mostly in New York City. During that time I got used to “red tape” and the hoops you jump through to get money and services to the actual people who need it. From personal experience, I can tell you that 80% of these non-profits energy and time was spent in staff meetings, writing grants, and analyzing data just to keep afloat. You can imagine the atmosphere this created of frustration, desperation and burn out.
Meeting Don re-opened my eyes to the difference that one person can make. I loved hearing his story that after becoming bored with retirement in the Caribbean (note to self, one can only take so many strung together days of perfect sunsets without life purpose) he made a decision to go to Malawi after a single conversation about the tiny country.
Don’s next decision is what I believe separates him from the crowd of us that want to do good in Africa. He chose to ignore the already established non-profits or groups traveling to Malawi and instead bought a plane ticket, rented a jeep and drove down a dusty lane into a poor African village on a mission to make real connections and meet with the people living there.
Who does this? What I’ve learned is that Don Smith’s Village Empowerment is built on a mix of faith, personal gusto, and an adventurous spirit. And what makes it stand out is the connections to the individuals: Don knows the names of the villagers and jokes around with the village leaders. This level of intimacy and friendship is something that the heads of larger organizations are incapable of providing.
Traveling to Malawi with Don Smith and Village Empowerment is like no other journey I have ever taken. It was a brief trip (only 5 days spent in Malawi itself) but we covered a lot of ground. In fact we hit the ground running!
Linda Limbe (Don’s Program Director and right hand gal in Malawi) picked us up from the airport in the silver, Village Empowerment truck and we immediately went into “take action” mode. When Don is in town, word travels fast, and his schedule is quickly filled with people and villages to get to. Breakfasts at the family owned bed and breakfast in town were spent strategizing that day’s activities and planning the upcoming schedule to squeeze the most out of our precious little time.
We had a full schedule of visits to individuals that needed specific assistance, village meetings to hear updates on the farming and small business programs, runs to various stores for needed supplies, a visit to the Village Empowerment orphanage (where the concern is that the orphans are now so well clothed and educated that non-orphans are envious), and stop overs into newer villages that were just beginning to establish women’s groups and educational programs. I was impressed by everything I saw and was left with a feeling of “more people need to know about Village Empowerment.”
I jokingly told Don that he was practicing the “ATM method of giving.” I had never seen anything like it. Don met with individuals. They shared what they needed. And then he made quick decisions on funding, followed up by cash in the hands that needed it or a direct purchase of the item requested (tin for making buckets, new books for classrooms, or a ride to visit other villagers in need). This meant multiple trips to withdraw cash from ATM’s — the most cost effective method for bringing Village Empowerment funds to where it needed to go.
Of course, the most successful Village Empowerment programs have matured to planning ahead with seed money for farming projects that then yield crops and earn the village enough money to sustain the next years crops with money left over for to expand the women’s groups. Those are the best scenarios. And that is where you see the real impact of a village evolving and maturing as its people gain confidence and the ability to reach out and give back to neighbors who need assistance. The meetings in these villages were full of celebration and discussions of expanding the small businesses and charitable activities.
In order to make the most of “Don being in town” the village leaders often organized large meetings where everyone could gather together. At these meetings songs were sung and individuals addressed us with updates and challenges they were facing. And then we were invited to speak. Not only Don, but myself as well! They wanted to know about my life and hear about my thoughts, despite the fact that I was brand new to Village Empowerment. Now I am not a professional speaker and being asked to spontaneously address a large crowd of people I have just met is definitely outside of my normal comfort zone. But somehow, the experience was thrilling instead of intimidating. It had everything to do with the welcoming and open hearts of the Malawi people and their desire to connect. It was life changing for me.
I realize this type of connection is rare. Village Empowerment offers an express line of connecting you to individuals living in remote villages in Africa without internet, electricity or a shared language. Yes, you really are making a difference, by being part of this Village Empowerment community. My desire is that this connection grows for you.
A place for us to start is with communication. I’d love to learn more about you and how you want to make a difference. (Perhaps traveling with Village Empowerment is something you would like to experience too!) Take some time to answer the following questions so that Village Empowerment, myself and Don Smith can find out how you want to make a difference.
How are you called to make a difference?
This can mean different things for different people. When it comes to supporting Village Empowerment, some people have shared that they would like to:
- Sponsor a specific program
- Pay tuition for an individual child
- Host a fund raising event for Village Empowerment
- Donate funds for general use.
- Travel to villages and meet with our women’s groups
- Assist with a building or agricultural project