“Who would be crazy enough to live like this?” I wondered, tiptoeing through the maze of single-person tents. These volunteers, who came from every corner of the globe, were truly roughing it.
Their base camp, in a remote area of northern Peru, had few amenities. Fifty or so volunteers shared two bathrooms, ate from a “buffet” of few choices (spaghetti or egg) and bought their own beer from a local entrepreneur. Worse still, they worked up to 11 hours per day, six days a week — in scorching heat — for months at a time.
Why were they so, well … happy?
I was in Peru — and a few days later travelled to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico — on an invitation from fashion-model-turned-philanthropist Petra Nemcova, who I’ve known for over a decade. Petra was at the apex of her career as a supermodel when a natural disaster changed the course of her life.
She was in Thailand when the 2004 tsunami struck. Somehow, she managed to cling to a palm tree, horrified as the tsunami swept away her partner and others around her. From that moment, being a supermodel wasn’t enough — she needed to help the survivors. So she created the Happy Hearts Foundation to help the victims of natural disaster, which impact over 200 million people every year.
“After the 2004 tsunami, I learned children and their families get forgotten after first-responders finish their work and leave,” Petra told me. “Children can wait up to four to six years for their schools to be rebuilt. Six years is the duration of primary schooling. In that time, you lose a whole generation. To me, it was not acceptable.”
Petra’s organization recently merged with another incredible volunteer group called All Hands — also founded after the tsunami — to become All Hands and Hearts. Their global mission is to provide first-response relief work for natural disasters and then stay, to work with communities to rebuild in the aftermath in a process it calls #SmartResponse.
“The majority of funds are raised in the first three-to-four weeks after disasters. From that, 80 per cent of the funding goes to first-response. If we focus only on first -response, we can’t build resilience,” she said. “Now as All Hands and Hearts we are providing Smart Response by coming early for first-response and staying late for rebuilding of safe resilient schools and homes. With this approach, we are able to put children and their families back on their feet much faster.”
I was in Peru to visit one of the schools I helped Petra fund after floods ravished parts of the country last year. But I also had another motive. With me were a small group of friends, who I hoped would be inspired to do something on their own once they saw others in need. I refer to this approach as “triggering the hand-to-wallet reflex.”
As we sat around the bonfire in Peru, my mind was preoccupied with the mechanics of the All Hands and Hearts program. This is the kind of on-the-ground thinking I try to do when designing initiatives that address other social issues such as refugee work or helping people elevate themselves out of by helping build sustainable businesses.
But something else caught my attention that night. These people, living and working in extreme conditions, sometimes in tears because of the hard work, were happier than almost anyone I meet back home.
Group leader Mike Ball had left his job at a law firm to volunteer for an organization in Nepal, then had come here. Why? Everyone he had worked with at the law firm was miserable. The corporate environment in which he spent every day had somehow removed a basic human need — a sense of working together as a community, face-to-face interaction with peers and compassion for others.
Volunteer Sandra Ivanov had escaped Serbia with her family during the Balkan wars of the 1990s for a better life in New Zealand, where she worked for the government administering aid. But pushing paper and emails thousands of miles away wasn’t enough. She yearned to meet the people she was helping. So she was in Peru, too.
Here they had found the happiness missing from their lives, and the genuine smiles of appreciation from so many members of the community they were helping. The human connection was infectious and exhilarating.
As I listened, I could see the common thread. Doing this on-the-ground work, helping people they could connect with, made these people happy and gave them a sense of purpose they weren’t getting from their careers or even a healthy bank account or rising stock portfolio.
While I initially wondered, “Who on earth would be crazy enough to do this kind of work?,” the real question might be, “Are the rest of us the crazy ones, living dull, empty lives with no purpose other than materialistic success — to never experience the satisfaction of working as a community and helping those around us who are in need?”
The truth is, we all seek purpose in our lives. But a vehicle for that now seems to be lacking in our society. More and more, I’m finding that when I share experiences of my philanthropic work with my friends, and when I take them to the projects we are supporting, they want to fill the void and get involved.
It’s because the essence of the human fabric is to be part of a community. Most of us are deeply moved by the appreciation of those we help. Yet in our modern society, where social media rules, true community has become deprioritized. This essential human connection seems to be slipping away.
But something magical happened that night, around our bonfire in one of the most impoverished parts of Peru. The friends I brought met real people on the ground. They listened to their stories. And saw a tangible way to connect. At the end of the trip they pledged the funds to build a third school, with hopefully more to come.
I’ve never seen them happier.
Frank Giustra is CEO of The Fiore Group and founder of The Radcliffe Foundation.