Not many company meetings end with the words “here is $300 now go change the world.” Ours did, and my life will never be the same.
The ultimate challenge– in celebration of Marina Maher Communications’ 30th anniversary– was to see which employee could raise the most money for She’s the First, an organization that helps girls in the developing world by giving them the chance to be the first in their families to graduate from secondary school. MMC chose to partner with She’s the First because it is aligned with MMC’s mission to help women achieve their goals and better the world around them. Because Marina started MMC with $300, those who accepted the fundraising challenge would receive $300 starter money and would be matched with a mentor at the agency. The grand prize was an all-expenses-paid trip—including 10 days off from work– to the Arlington Academy of Hope in Bududa, Uganda, where the winner would meet the girls that MMC worked so hard to sponsor.
For six months following the announcement, I stressed, strategized, called in favors, lost sleep, and called in more favors. But waking up every day with a challenge to change someone else’s world invigorated me, and nothing was off-limits for fundraising. My desk became a rotating pop-up shop of snacks, kitchenware and assorted beauty products donated by friends to support my cause; drinks with friends were turned into fundraising parties and yoga was no longer just a means for meditation but a pay-what-you can event to help a girl go to school.
When the competition ended on my 26th birthday, the founders of She’s the First called with the world’s best birthday news: I had won the opportunity of a lifetime…not just to change my life…but to make a difference to others! Six weeks, four vaccines and a handful of malaria pills later, I left NYC’s comforts of Seamless Web, laundry service and Duane Reade for Bududa, Uganda and two dozen unforgettable girls.
I landed at Entebbe International Airport and was greeted by Sula, my driver, 24 hours after locking the door to my Murray Hill apartment. Sula spoke English with a thick, African accent that I tried hard to understand as we drove six long hours to the eastern part of the country. Africa was, at first glance, just like I imagined. Women carried fruits and vegetables on their heads in flowing, exotically printed dresses, trees were flat on top, and the ground was a dark, earthy red that quickly stained my feet. But nothing could prepare me for what I was about to experience.
Living in Bududa, I quickly learned what the word luxury really meant — electricity, toilets, showers (not just hot showers!) and clean drinking water. In this East African village, for example, a “toilet” is a hole in the ground, a “shower” means dumping a bucket of lukewarm water over your head, and turning on a light usually meant clicking the top of my headlamp so I could go outside to use the bathroom after 8 p.m. Most New Yorkers would also be surprised by the number of passengers we squeezed into a Bududa taxi.
At the clinic, the volunteers proudly showed us their new maternity room, which they encourage expecting women to stay close to when they near their due date to help reduce maternal mortality in the area. Because Bududa is so mountainous, women often don’t make it to the medical clinic in time to give birth and end up coming in with severe bleeding. The volunteers also showed us the newly created charts that track malaria and HIV/AIDS in the area. Fortunately, malaria is easy to treat and many deaths in the area have been prevented thanks to the recent accessibility of medicine. HIV, however, is a different story. Because it is common for Ugandan men to have multiple wives, the number of cases in the area continues to grow, and most people don’t know that they have the virus until they develop symptoms.
The rest of our days were spent at school with the Arlington students, which were a blur of books, bubbles and beans over matoke (a typical school lunch). The students were eager to learn and asked millions of questions: “Is Barack Obama a good man?,” “How do you get crops in the winter when there is no harvest?,” “How tall are the buildings in New York City?,” “Who was the 5th president of the U.S.?” When they ran out of questions at the end of the day, our sponsored girls would take us back to their parents’ homes for dinner.
Dinners were my favorite– not because the food was incredible– but because when I was invited into their homes I was able to understand the positive impact we are making. That’s when the entire reason that I fundraised and traveled across the world really hit me. It’s hard to find the words to describe the love and gratitude that radiated from the girls’ parents when we met them. Though many of them could not communicate with us in English, we were able to communicate through the universal love a parent has for a child. I knew that they understood that their daughters’ education ensured that they had a chance to avoid early pregnancy, HIV and a future of poverty. They expressed their sincere appreciation with ear-to-ear smiles, big meals, rib-cracking hugs and gifts of live poultry (which, we learned is very common in Uganda). What they managed to communicate to me comes down to this: these people love us for helping their daughters…not in the abstract way that you think recipients of these kinds of programs feel gratitude, but personal, heartfelt love. They bless MMC every day, they remember us in their prayers; they feel an individual and ongoing relationship with us.
I felt humbled and indebted, and searched for something meaningful that I could leave behind. When I was a little girl, my dad taught me a saying: “Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Until you’re as good as better, your better best.” As I thought about what to leave these special girls with, I realized that it was not a monetary gift, but rather my father’s favorite quote. These girls have inspired me and I felt that this mantra, that encouraged hard work and determination, was something they could bring with them on every journey just as I have. On my last day in Bududa, a handful of girls followed me home from school repeating it. I asked them to define what it meant to them, and reminded them that they could be anything they wanted to be before we parted ways.
When I got back to the U.S., reassuming my life made me feel greedy and guilt-ridden. Listening to others complain about bad haircuts, long commutes or lack of weekend plans seemed superficial and nonsensical. I’m adjusting back, but I can say with 100% certainty what I know now is how important it is to appreciate everything that I have– safe drinking water, a great pedicure or the accessibility to a medical facility– just like the girls at Arlington appreciate their school lunch or a new pair of shoes.
In the end, I don’t know who learned more from my visit to Uganda—me, or the students at Arlington. But I do know that I am lucky to work at a place that inspires me to be my “better best” and help change the world, one girl at a time.
Images courtesy of Marina Maher Communications LLC