85: I Am Because You Are

85: I Am Because You Are

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

I Am Because You Are

Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.

~Desmond Tutu

Almost two decades ago I was a wide-eyed, wild-haired white boy from the U.S. who, after an inspiring conversation in an all-black South African township bar, ended up moving into the home of a teacher that I met that night. Now I’m a father of two and I lead an organization of seventy employees who are changing the lives of more than 2,000 children. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine the road map from there to here. The most important parts of this journey were the most difficult decisions, the biggest mistakes and the people who taught me everything I know about overcoming hardship.

I didn’t know anything about global development when I first went to the townships of Port Elizabeth, South Africa and not to Wall Street like my University of Pennsylvania peers. I started by having fun and taking chances—there really was no blueprint for what I was trying to do. In the township, every social event revolved around alcohol. At the time, as a twenty-one-year-old kid, I loved it. I was having the time of my life. Of course, I romanticized both the partying and the poverty. But I think my willingness to throw myself into these extreme social situations helped me become a part of township life. If I’d been more cautious, more sober (in both senses of the word), I wouldn’t have been able to open myself up to this kind of life. I probably wouldn’t have been in the township at all, to be honest.

I could have partied and left, but I got hooked by the things I saw and the people I met—especially the children. On one of my first morning walks in Zwide Township, I came across a group of kids pressing hot stones to their school uniforms to make them neat enough for school. They were that eager to go, to learn, to show how much they cared. I thought of my own life—good schools, proper healthcare, a warm home and more food than I could ever need. For me, that moment crystallized what Ubuntu is all about: the belief that all children everywhere deserve the same shot at making it.

Ubuntu is a Xhosa word that expresses the interconnectedness of all beings. Township kids, Banks—my co-founder who I met in the bar that night, me, the university I came back to so I could raise my first few thousand dollars… we are connected, and we are only powerful through each other. We are in it together and defined as human beings by the way we interact with one another—I am because you are.

I persisted in the crazy belief that poor African children deserve the same opportunities that I had. Banks and I started our non-profit in a broom closet. With unwavering support from a group we now call “The Ubuntu Family”—childhood friends, my own family, my wife, and various kindred spirits—Ubuntu has grown into something extraordinary. I can’t count the number of mistakes we made, but through it all, we’ve remained true to our passions and our promises to the community. We are now a presence in our state-of-the-art headquarters in Zwide Township, and throughout the world, having been recognized as a best practice model by the World Economic Forum, the Aspen Institute and the Clinton Global Initiative. Today we successfully take the most vulnerable children we can find and help them build a pathway out of poverty from cradle to career.

It wasn’t easy, and the reality didn’t always match the vision. Even after persuading others to believe in us, we weren’t always prepared for reality. At one point, one of our staff members was raped. We didn’t have health insurance for our workers and we didn’t know what to do. I was half a world away, and twenty-three years old, with no idea how to handle this kind of trauma. Banks would visit her and bring her soup and bread, but we didn’t have any response in place: no funds, no counseling, no medical leave with pay we could give her. We did what we could, and what we thought was right, but we knew it wasn’t enough. This led, eventually, to a human resources department that offers Ubuntu staff, most of whom are from the townships, a safety net and a work environment that supports them professionally and personally. It was part of our journey to the realization that to make real change in the real world, we had to take on our clients’ lives in their entirety, to embrace all their complicated needs.

I feel lucky to have seen children who came to us as sick toddlers grow up, graduate from university, and enter the working world. I am lucky to be connected to people who represent greatness in the world—people like Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and Zethu, the little township girl who grew up to meet President Clinton not once, but twice.

I’ve learned so much about how charity works, and how it doesn’t: A few months before we opened the first Ubuntu Library in 2000, National Geographic wrote a short piece about Ubuntu. A high school student in Seattle read it and decided to organize a book drive to help support a township school library. She worked very hard to gather as many books as possible so we could fill the shelves, but she clearly hadn’t realized that she could—and should—reject some of the donations. When the shipping container arrived, it contained twenty-five copies of a Ph.D. dissertation on agriculture in Western Australia, encyclopedias so outdated they had entries on the Belgian Congo, and coloring books that had already been filled in.

Every one of these experiences taught us something. Most of all, the children at Ubuntu taught us. They taught us about hope and perseverance. They remind us every day that one’s birthplace should not have to determine his or her future. It’s hard work keeping it all going, raising the money oceans away, working out the best way to adapt to circumstances, making sure the community determines its own fate. It is a privilege to be part of such a grand social experiment. We have proven that if you invest in the world’s most vulnerable children in the same way you invest in your own children and afford them the same dignity, you can truly change the trajectory of anybody’s life.

~Jacob Lief

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