As a native Californian, Kaitlin spent time volunteering in Mexican-American communities by helping in schools, tutoring, working with unemployed adults and teaching English and computer skills, but was struck by the great divide between the two countries when she first crossed the border in 2003.
“It hit me hard – only a few minutes from the affluence that I knew so well were families living without a proper roof over their head, in houses made from scrap metal and car tires… A year later, I also spent some time in the Native American reservations in Arizona and came across more poverty, again only a few miles away from great affluence. The fact that I lived the life that I did solely by virtue of the white upper-middle class family I was born into was a frustrating realisation! I returned to University from Mexico, and became involved in a number of social justice issues - advocating against the Iraq war, the genocide happening in the Darfur region of Sudan at the time, and helping to lobby our university cafeterias to move to fair trade coffee (at least the last one was successful).” Such innate empathy was soon mixed with the feeling of disgust when (much like the writer of this article) she ashamedly witnessed the re-election of her country’s notorious president – George Bush. In Spain at the time, she bonded over the crisis with who was soon to become partner in both life and the inspirational work, Aaron.
“We shared our frustrations with the global politics of the time and the state of the world – For him, his recent experiences in South America and India as a traveller and in the Middle East as a soldier left him impassioned and determined to do something about the injustices he’d seen and even been involved in. I fell in love with his passion and being able to share our ideas and hopes for the world kept us connected over two years apart and has led us to what we are doing now - six years later.”
After seeing each other only every six months for two years, Kaitlin and Aaron each pursued a master’s degree in Sydney in 2007 in international development and international education, respectively. During this time they brainstormed ways to change the lives of the people they had met on their journeys. “We definitely didn’t imagine we’d start our own charity at the time! Aaron had visions of joining the UN and I had dreams of starting a school in Africa.” After their degrees were completed, they packed up and booked a one way flight to Kenya, where, only a few days before leaving, they came across a small orphanage on the internet looking for volunteers just north of Nairobi. “So we figured we would start out there and make our way around the continent for two years, and gain a true understanding of the challenges of development.” Arriving in Kenya a mere two days before the violent elections of that year, Aaron and Kaitlin found themselves as two of only three western volunteers remaining at the orphanage. It turned out the risk to their own lives was not enough to deter their desire to help. “We didn’t feel it was right to leave as many of the kids at the orphanage were from the tribal group being targeted and the danger did not seem that bad in the quiet village we were in… In the end, the violence did get very close to us, but neither we nor the children were harmed.”
After two months at the orphanage, they were offered a position in a slum in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to help to run a secondary school for street kids. “The school was established by an American organisation who brought us in because they felt the project was ‘lacking leadership.’ Indeed, the teachers were barely going to class, the project’s finances were not being recorded properly, and the first day we were there we had to spend bailing out our head boy from jail for assaulting a teacher! We had a big job on our hands, and the American organisation was excited to see what sort of ‘leadership’ we could bring. So we jumped in and got our hands dirty: Aaron was beginning income-generating projects, working on financial sustainability and reinvigorating the farm. I was holding teacher-training workshops, sourcing new textbooks and teaching material, organising the school schedule (ensuring teachers actually went to class!) and running an HIV/AIDS awareness group with the students. Tanzanians are very proud people, and the problem was that the head teacher was, naturally, not ecstatic to have 2 ‘mzungus’ (white people) come in to her school and shake things up. Neither were the teachers, nor the rest of the community ….So we came up against a lot of animosity in trying to apply the development concepts we’d learnt about and been told by the bosses in America to put into action.”
Their frustration at the hostility directed towards them was amplified into a feeling of overall failure when, in a period of three days, they attended three funerals of children who had passed away due to HIV/AIDS.
“All this made us realise that if we wanted to make any sort of change that would last in this community, we had to consult more closely with the community, with the teachers, with the students…with the people who we were trying to help. They needed to have a much bigger hand in what we were doing. And so we began to focus almost all of our efforts on facilitating discussions about what THEY thought needed to happen, then let THEM lead those ideas. It was a humbling experience, and what came out of it were inspired teachers, a supportive community, and motivated students. By the time we left, the teachers and students were writing and running the projects, not us…and because of this, they would continue when we left.”
They took the concept back to the orphanage in Kenya, where they facilitated its expansion, a micro-finance program, an HIV/AIDS education program and a girl’s health program. “These projects were and still are incredibly successful because we they were Kenyan ideas, which the Kenyan staff developed and ran, which therefore ensured they were culturally and locally relevant. It is a tough and humbling way to work, but infinitely more powerful in our belief.”
And so the premise behind what would eventually become Spark* was underway, and now, just a few years later, its full realisation is officially in place. Set to begin next year in PNG, the program will “search out young people who either have proven leadership capabilities through roles they have held in their community/school/workplace, or who have leadership potential – a desire to hold a leadership role and the confidence and passion to do so. We are also looking for young people with a desire to give back to their community - young people with a passion for making an impact in their community via whatever avenue they feel excited about. So someone may be studying rural health management, education, Papua New Guinean studies, communications or business. If it is clear that they have a passion to make a positive impact in their community through their chosen field, then they are perfect candidates for the Spark* program.”
Spark* has partnered with a university in PNG to identify the candidates, the first round of which will begin the Spark Leadership Program this coming February. “They will be paired with a local leadership mentor in the country and will participate in three summits throughout the year. At these summits the students will be introduced to new leadership concepts and skills and will be inspired by leaders from their own community and abroad. Together they will brainstorm solutions to the challenges their communities are facing and recognise the opportunities which already exist in the country. They will also be introduced to development concepts – perhaps something that has worked in India or Kenya (a micro-finance program, a farming technique, an education program, or a social business) and they’ll be invited to consider whether this may work to meet the challenges in their community or whether changes may need to be made to ensure it is relevant to the culture and circumstances of their community. Participants will also be given a locally suitable grant, which will be spread out in instalments throughout the year. This grant brings some a real prestige to the program and also takes the burden of the young leaders and their families so they can focus on making the best possible difference in their communities.”
Although Spark* will be headquartered in Sydney, Aaron and Kaitlin will run the program in PNG and help build up the local staff, who will then be able to lead and facilitate the program when they launch Spark* in other countries. The headquarters in Sydney, meanwhile, will seek out people who are passionate about seeing a change in their world and can help spread the Spark* initiative. “All of our team are working as volunteers and through the generous support of local businesses and creatives, we’ve been able to build the Spark* model and haven’t spent a cent here yet. Rather, the funds we raise go to where they should, to the frontline of extreme poverty. We are continuing to build corporate partnerships here in Australia and are also rely on the many fabulous individuals who support Spark* - so we have got amazing support so far, but we have big dreams for Spark*, so are really keen to grow the tribe so that more people can get involved and become part of seeing Spark* help young local leaders make a huge impact in our world.”
Kaitlin wasn’t kidding with her desire for the funds to go where they should; the full-time work both she and Aaron do on Spark* is solely for the love. “So despite living pretty comfortable lives before we moved to Africa, and having lots of degrees between us, we live very simply and very cheaply. So the lure of the luxuries of life are always there, which can be a challenge sometimes, but waking up with passion, and living out your ideals rather than just talking about them always overrides that challenge!”
With PNG essentially being the pilot project for the next few years, Aaron and Kaitlin will learn from its successes and challenges and eventually take that knowledge to other areas of the world, with a goal to roll Spark* out to another five countries in year four.
“Then the dream is to build leadership training academies, staffed by former Spark* leaders who will train the next generation of leaders in a locally relevant and inspiring way. That would be amazing.”
For ways you can help Spark*, visit their website - and be sure to attend their launch this Saturday by RSVPing via the Facebook page.
words: Seema Duggal
All photos from Kaitlin and Aaron's time in Africa