Moments That Inspire Philanthropy: Dagbé’s Peace Corps Origins

A single moment can inspire great works of art, literature, engineering and even philanthropy.

Over the last two days, we have blogged about Peace Corps volunteers who strive to make a measurable impact, including how Jolkona partner Steve Schwartz mined his experience as a small enterprise volunteer in Benin to create his nonprofit organization, Upaya Social Ventures. His friend and fellow Jolkona partner, Sebastián Seromik, was also inspired during their service in West Africa — in his case, to found Dagbé, an organization that works to provide opportunity to children in crisis situations in rural Benin.

After studying business at the University of Michigan, Sebastián felt driven to volunteer and give back to the global community. Several unforgettable moments during his Peace Corps experience cemented his path to becoming a lifelong philanthropist. In his own words:

When we were in Abomey [Benin] doing our training, I stayed with a host family… they had a little girl that was a domestic servant. I was obviously a little thrown back by it. But, Peace Corps explained to me that this was something that happened in the country and that I had to be ready for it. Obviously it was a delicate situation where you couldn’t just speak up and say to your host family, “oh, you shouldn’t be doing this.” And, you know, sometimes you had to understand the situation. Sometimes the girls would come from, you know, you never knew where. Maybe it was part of the distant family or some relatives that were taking care of her.

But, in this case the girl was a domestic servant maybe eight or nine years old,  and she was sent to bring water to my room. Water was a quarter mile away, and people had to pay for it. It cost about the equivalent of five cents to get a bucket of water from the tap that was a number of houses down. She went out and five cents is actually a decent amount there, especially for water which you’re using every day to cook, to clean clothes, to shower, just about anything you can think of and then you drink water — you need water to stay hydrated.

She was bringing it back and when she got closer to my room, she was maybe about 10 paces away — she had been carrying the bucket by the metal handle. The handle ended up ripping through the plastic from the weight of the water and three quarters of bucket spilled all over the ground before she quickly picked it up and saved the last quarter of the bucket. And the father of my host family came out, took one look at her, and he just hit her over the head several times.

I was just frozen. I didn’t know what to do. And to this day, there is still something in me that feels awful for not having said or done anything in that moment…

These kids are put in these situations, either because of poverty or because of their parents passing away and they don’t know what to do. They don’t get a chance to play, to go to school, to do the things that other kids do — the things that we take for granted here in the States…

When I got to Ouesse [near the Nigerian border], these practices were prevalent. You saw girls serving as domestic servants, boys out in the fields all the time used as extra labor…

I learned that there wasn’t a single facility dedicated to caring for children in crisis situations: orphans, vulnerable children, victims of trafficking, victims of abuse, victims of extreme poverty. I was approached by a couple of people in town — a couple of community leaders working in social services. They wanted to build a center that would care for these children.

That is where it all began. I walked into the Peace Corps director’s office in Benin and said, ‘Look, I have this project. I know most projects are around $3,000; this one is at least ten times that. I’m prepared to stay in country, extend my Peace Corps service for as long as it takes to get funded, and then complete it. She told me a couple years later, ‘I wasn’t sure what to think then, but you had this look of determination in your eyes. I thought, ‘I’m going to trust him, and go with it.’

Today, Sebastián continues to make an impact in Benin with Dagbé in four key areas: Care for Children and Families; Human Rights and Anti-Child Trafficking; Education and Youth Development; and Social Enterprise and Business Training. We can thank Upaya’s Steve Schwartz for facilitating Dagbé’s partnership with Jolkona.

To help Sebastian and Dagbé continue making a difference, you can provide care to keep Beninese children from being further victimized by trafficking, or help cover tuition fees for public secondary school in Benin.

We hope you have found these stories inspirational. At Jolkona, and the rest of the nonprofit sector, volunteers and donors make our work possible. Whether you decide to join the Peace Corps, make a gift through Jolkona’s programs, or find another way to donate your time, skills or money — you can make an incredible, measurable impact.

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