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From Peace Corps Pals to Jolkona Partners: A Philanthropy Origin Story

Everyone likes a superhero origin story. How about a philanthropist origin story? At Jolkona, our superheroes are the donors and volunteers who save lives by fighting poverty, especially far from home.

In this effort, we are privileged to partner with Upaya Social Ventures and Dagbé, two nonprofit organizations founded by volunteers who served together in the Peace Corps six years ago, in the West African nation of Benin. In a recent conversation, Upaya’s Steve Schwartz and Dagbé’s Sebastian Seromik discussed how this shared experience inspired and empowered them to create their respective organizations.

According to Sebastian, who primarily worked with social workers during his service, it’s crucial for volunteers in developing countries to find the balance between idealism and realism, and establish personal connections. In his words:

We leave the U.S. with some idea, grandiose or not, of the kind of impact that we are going to make. And when we get there, we realize that we can’t make the change and impact that we had in mind. Because we didn’t know the culture, we didn’t know the people, we didn’t know the communities we’d be serving, we didn’t know the challenges we would be facing, we didn’t know the personal stuff that we would be dealing with…

At a certain point, you feel useless as a volunteer. Especially in the first few months, when you’re getting up to speed. Maybe you had a couple projects that have failed, and you’re not quite sure what’s going on. I got to this point… And I realized, you know, I’m not here to move needles. I’m not here to make the poverty rate drop by a certain amount in Benin. If I think of it that way, then I’m never going to have an impact. If I look it as ‘I’m here to serve the person, the human person, that’s in front of me at this very moment,’ then I can have an impact.

If you think about it, that’s often the way we go about our daily lives. Whether at home with our families, or with our coworkers, oftentime it’s responding to the needs of the people we know. It’s often these personal relationships that we have a familiarity with, and that’s why we can be effective.

But when you go thousands of miles away and think that you’re going to be effective without knowing anybody, then it’s really hard to do that. I realized that you need to take advantage of relationships. Once you get to know people, and really determine their needs, then you can really start having an impact.

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Villagers in Tchaourou, Benin

Check back over the next few days to read more about how Sebastian and Steve used their Peace Corps experiences to start their own nonprofits, fighting poverty in Benin and India.

If, like Steve and Sebastian, you’re looking to make a major commitment of your time and skills, the Peace Corps is an excellent opportunity. In Seattle’s nonprofit and global development sectors, from Jolkona’s grassroots partners to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Peace Corps alumni seem to be everywhere. And we keep exporting volunteers, too: last year, our state’s University of Washington, Western Washington University, and Gonzaga University led their respective categories for most Peace Corps participants.

If you aren’t ready or able to take a step as big as a two-year commitment, however, you can still get a taste for this kind of work by visiting our partners in developing countries through a Jolkona Expedition. (We still have some spots available for the next one: March 16-30, in Kenya and Tanzania.) And of course, you can always make a high-impact contribution by supporting organizations like Dagbé and Upaya through Jolkona’s donation programs.

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