As Publisher and Editor-in-Chief this global media platform, I was delighted to have the opportunity not long ago to get acquainted with Alan Chorun, Director & President of Young Vision Africa, founded upon a mission to provide education, employment, healthcare, and homes for youth, children and families in Sierra Leone. Sit back and enjoy our “WOW” Interview below …
We’d like to hear about your professional journey before launching Young Vision Africa.
Ibegan my career teaching music in Catholic Schools, directing choirs and whole school services that emphasized enthusiasm, full participation, and emotion. At the same time, I led youth groups in local churches. After a few years, this dovetailed into a project I envisioned to bring meaning and passion to middle schoolers who were apathetic or jaded. The project was a partnership with a priest I’d met from West Virginia. He agreed to host the graduating class of my school so that I could lead them and many of their parents in a week of home repair for elderly people in isolated spots around Oak Hill, West Virginia. That was unheard of at the time for Catholic kids that young and I was told it could never happen in that upper-middle-class private school. But I had no doubts about it, everything fell into place and I was headed off to Appalachia with kids (and some parents) who would’ve never imagined doing such a thing.
At the high point, we were taking about 40 kids down and accompanying social workers etc., to learn as much as we could about the very different experience in rural Appalachia.
It didn’t take long for positive confirmation. On the second night, I knew we got it right when one of the kids said that he would never forget this trip for the rest of his life because he knew he was really helping these people. With a crew of early teens, we were also having a lot of fun, in the midst of serious work. That one trip led to several years of trips that continued even after I left the school (I put it in the hands of some of the parents). At the high point, we were taking about 40 kids down and accompanying social workers etc., to learn as much as we could about the very different experience in rural Appalachia. Concurrently, I had started to take mostly solo trips to the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota. I volunteered in kids’ camps and took in the heritage and culture of a very close-knit community in somewhat of an impossible situation. Extremely meager opportunity with just enough welfare to survive made for a type of ghetto where the isolation was made plain by the miles and miles that separated them from the nearest town.
Experiencing another type of ghetto, I taught 5 years in the inner city, dealing with kids whose lives were restricted by lack of attention (parents working three jobs) and the danger of the streets they lived on.
Starting basketball teams, clubs and activities in places that needed them much more desperately than the suburbs I used to work in, led to some great experiences for me and the students. So many of those kids were so full of life, so smart, but with so many things that they would have to overcome in their future. Wanting to do more and finally answering the call to ministry, I became an assistant pastor and music director, seeing outstanding and often exponential growth in the two churches I worked in. But meanwhile, I had already answered a calling from Africa, visiting Sierra Leone as a wandering volunteer who had to break the rules of the safety-first western volunteer culture, to go and spend time with the local people themselves, outside the barbed wire compound. And there, I saw both resilience and a need that is unseen in America. I solidified my commitment (and connection to communities there) with two visits during the Ebola crisis. By then YVA was already established and our work was well underway.
Tell us more about the Young Vision Africa and the inspiration behind it.
YVA started purely to relieve widows and children who were wet, cold, sick and dying from torrential rain falling through their worn-down thatched roofs. In the wake of the Blood Diamond war that had come within inches of obliterating their whole society and culture, we were reaching out to innocent people who were suffering in many ways. After I visited the village myself, we would do additional relief work including fixing their only well (several times), constructing four more homes and building a birth-oriented, solar-powered medical center that saved many lives in the Ebola epidemic. We’ve given a number of microloans for farms and small vendors and employed completely local labor in all our projects, giving a boost to employment and skill development in the area. But none of this is our main focus.
Since my goal is always to see youth change their environment, I had a dual purpose of helping the ones suffering but also allowing teenage war orphans to do good for those around them.
The construction of our first four homes was triggered by the simple request of a rescued war orphan who had seen for the first time, the need of his old village. Since my goal is always to see youth change their environment, I had a dual purpose of helping the ones suffering but also allowing teenage war orphans to do good for those around them. I had helped people around the orphanage see that they could reach out further than just protecting the children there. For instance, I got a lot of attention by leaving the orphanage back to the capital on the back of a motorbike. It was an all-day trip, middle of the rainy season and of course, the road wasn’t all paved. But it was a statement about Sierra Leone itself and the level of safety and trust that I had in it. In Sierra Leone, like America, there are many things that are possible that people just don’t try. So when I first asked my volunteers to head all the way out to the village to scout it out, it was the kind of venture they knew I would do myself. We got serious construction going, pushing through stranded trucks etc., and then went even further when I persuaded the orphanage to let me take about ten of the teens there to reach out to the illiterate children of the village. I brought these teens to where most had never been, closer to their tribal ancestral heritage, to see poverty they hadn’t even seen and do something about it, at least for a few days. After having a great time in what was a significant cultural exchange, I was given a point-blank challenge by one of the orphan youth.
Young Vision Africa has always been about the vision of young Africans.
As we debriefed back in the comfort of the orphanage, Ishmael said to me, “You know, nothing will change in that village until you send some of those kids to school.” And so, our real focus began. Starting off with the sponsoring of five students from the village to middle school, we began our foray into literacy and leadership that would eventually lead us to save a closing school, found our own school right in the village, and intimately sponsor over 15 students in different areas of the country. Meanwhile, we employed (both part time and full time) several of the original orphans who were now becoming young adults.
In the village, we’ve brought a sea of change in their awareness that women can be independent. Since we started our work there, we’ve brought two full-time nurses, two full-time female teachers, and a female pastor. This was quite a change from the universal pregnant mother role that women there played. But it was the little girls in our school that really opened their eyes. Our female teachers were hired because the village elders THEMSELVES requested it – they declared that the top students in our classes (almost all girls) needed to see role models they could follow in their classes. This was one of those changes we would’ve never imagined. Meanwhile, the orphans, now as young men and women, have been employed to look after our sponsored students, bid, negotiate and contract our building projects, conduct our medical clinics and teach our children during programs and camps. We want to empower these orphans, our older students and our young students by presenting opportunities to them and fostering their development of altruism and vision. We know they are the only ones who can deeply and lastingly improve their country – as they have already started doing.
Regarding our inspiration, there is one answer – God.
But as this topic is so often confused, I want to clarify that the One who inspires us is the God who has eyes for the very least of our brothers and sisters. This is the God who can bring life out of death – the God of absolute Love who inspires a response of absolute commitment and a faith that goes beyond the sight that is commonly accepted. A God of VISION for Change.
When did you launch and what’s been your biggest challenge?
I visited the country in 2009, started fundraising in 2010 and walked into the village to see the homes in 2011. It was that trip in 2011 where YVA really began, though we would not become a 501c3 for another three years.
How has it grown or changed over time?
There have been so many huge jumps on the learning curve. That curve, both difficult and amazing, has been continual. The beginning of our sponsorship was the first leap into understanding their society through their educational system.
Sierra Leone is worlds away from America. Education is rote and tied completely to a single test every few years. Teachers often go unpaid for months. Female students very commonly are pressured by teachers for sex in exchange for grades or even a report of grades.
Overseeing our sponsored students, getting a good hold on their progress, making sure they weren’t too hungry or too ill, the lack of any kind of academic expectation for girls – these were all things we had to learn to handle. In a place where it’s not unusual for high school graduates to be well into their 30’s, we had to come to learn all the difficulties of the system that our students faced. Sometimes their ability to succeed was really determined by outside factors. We realized we needed to enter their world more fully then mere report cards would allow. And so, we came to believe in mentorship – the weekly attention of American volunteers towards our students’ progress and lives in general. Through this, we learn about our students’ situations in detail and they feel they have people who care about them – somewhat miraculously since they had never met their mentors before and live thousands of miles away. These relationships became so significant that two of our mentors made the huge effort to travel to Sierra Leone and met their sponsored students.
And through this kind of close contact with these future leaders, our values of altruism and outreach become internalized. Our most recent student was added by the boys themselves, who welcomed him into their tiny room because he had recently dropped out of school over money. This was a serious move considering how small their room is. Sharing their tiny space with one more is the kind of sacrifice for community that is exactly what we wanted them to learn. They actually didn’t tell me about this until one of my stays there when I met him. I said, “Why didn’t you ever say anything about this?” They replied, “We thought you’d be upset maybe.” I had to laugh about that, but also to see it as these teens taking a risk and taking the initiative to help someone in need – young vision in Africa.
What’s your everyday role?
My own everyday role is leadership, outreach, and communication. Watching our goals being fulfilled day by day, adjusting when something isn’t working, observing which personnel might be ready for which projects. To be honest it is very often our Sierra Leoneon personnel that determine the breadth of our projects. Our volunteers/employees sometimes go way beyond what we were hoping for and what we were imagining. Seeing their own unexpected vision and ability, we respond by expanding our projects to meet their full potential. Though we are often limited by resources, if we can, we seek to support the projects that they themselves enable. It’s a wonderful and successful thing when we do that.
Often the reality is that the passion of somebody’s dreams cannot sustain itself. In a place like Sierra Leone, the basics of life and survival have very narrow margins.
On the flip side, as far as our beneficiaries go, I have seen too many individuals that our resources could not accommodate – too many hopes that were unfulfilled and discouraged and too many dreams that died. Often the reality is that the passion of somebody’s dreams cannot sustain itself. In a place like Sierra Leone, the basics of life and survival have very narrow margins. Your family is always one event away from tragedy and often already in what we would call tragedy. Family needs, the things they must do to survive – these are the things that take the place of their dreams. They settle in order to survive. Nobody can wait forever. Doors and pathways often have a deadline.
It is this exact truth that makes the fundraising aspect of my job so important. I’ve made some progress here, since when I started this in earnest, I had to drop out of regular middle-class society so that I could jump right into the work, without waiting for more resources. I put myself in an interesting position as can be demonstrated in one conversation with my first employee. I was sitting in a McDonalds, using their free wifi to skype him, during which time he relayed that some of the villagers were asking for a timeline on completion of some ceilings.
I said, ‘remind them to be patient – you can even tell them that right now I don’t even have a place to stay (crashing on a couch at that time). He had a good laugh and said, “Alan you’ve built many homes in that village. If I tell them you don’t have a home, they will not believe me!”
I try to remind myself that those who I’m fundraising for are bound by these deadlines of their hopes and dreams. In the West, we can often forget this because we have somewhat of a glut in opportunity. But the hard truth is that sometimes for lack of a small amount of money at the right time, I’ve seen education, careers, and even cooperation end. Of course, we could say they should be more resilient. But then we don’t live in their kind of poverty. We haven’t witnessed our whole environment and community destroyed by horrific violence. This situation creates a tremendous amount of unfulfilled potential. Releasing, enabling and directing that potential is our calling. So every day I am out talking about our work and seeking partnerships with businesses interested in socially responsible investing on a global scale. Our goal is to increase revenue so that we can expand this successful program within the village and to other villages.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
A big part of who I am does have to do with the positive aspects of vision and hope. I tend to see potential and my outlook is based on altruism. This allows for what I do in the world, but it also put YVA into a very difficult spot. The medical center we built had a single funder (a foundation) and when it finished, I asked them if they wanted to manage it, and liaise directly with our senior employee. We agreed (in writing even) that anything new they wanted to do at the center would be approved by us since they had no experience in Africa. As time went on the foundation told me they completely trusted our employee and were not asking for any receipts for various expenditures. That was clearly a wrong approach, and as our employee got personally close (through long-distance communication) to the head of the foundation, I should have started to worry.
Nothing bad happened for a while until a member of their board decided he needed to build a house of worship and they started making plans to do this with our employee and without our knowledge. All of a sudden, this foundation that always defined itself as strictly secular was dead set on a big religious building. I was told that this wasn’t them doing it, but only their board member talking to someone locally in the village. That might have had a grain of truth to it, except that no one there spoke English or had phones!! That was the time I should have just realized there was no reasoning to be done. But the real problem was there were villagers who were not contributing towards the cooperative volunteer maintenance and upkeep of the medical center or our community farm. This was a problem in the village, and we were seeing in that group, a sort of welfare mentality developing. It was so clear that this moment was the exact worst time to start any new projects, before correcting the participation problem.
But the foundation had a board member/donor to make happy and our very own employee had been weakened by the amount of money that he was now managing, without having to account for. When we objected, they had too many reasons (all of the bad ones) to ignore us. This caused a very quick separation, creating an incredible amount of stress between our employees and volunteers in the village and those who wanted the new house of worship, no strings attached, led by our former senior employee.
We took a difficult stand for integrity and for decisions that were not based on donor gratification. And in doing so, we defined ourselves, in a very clear way, with how we intend to work in the future.
Fast forward two years and that foundation and that former employee are no longer involved with the village. I suppose they met their short-term goals but had their broken faith with us hanging over their heads. Or maybe that kind of self-oriented approach is doomed to fail in a place like this. But they still left behind some big wounds and some villagers who were able to choose dependency instead of their own growth. The whole thing had blindsided me but also taught me. Greed, weakness, and self-deception are more powerful than I had thought, and we need to be more cautious with our partnerships. There were some big silver linings though. Our people, even our high school students, observed and saw what was happening and how we were reacting to it. We took a difficult stand for integrity and for decisions that were not based on donor gratification. And in doing so, we defined ourselves, in a very clear way, with how we intend to work in the future. As the village still seeks to recover from this whole incident, we seek to continue to walk the hard road of integrity.
Any noteworthy surprises or ‘A-ha’ Moments?
His faith and confidence over the need for the program allowed him to take a big risk of starting a 20-mile walk with his new staff, knowing there was a possibility they would just have to turn around and walk back the next day!
As I referenced above, we are always being surprised. As many times as we might try something that is completely misunderstood by our employees in their cultural framework, they also do things that we were not even planning. Here’s one example. Our high school educated teachers had asked us if we could send them to a 3-year teacher certification program offered at the city 20 miles away, during school breaks. I knew it was a good idea, but amidst all the other regular expenses, I could not see where that money would come from. When the time came in July, our headmaster and teachers sent me a message out of the blue that somehow reached me on the spot. He said they were on-route, walking the 20 miles towards the city! I gently reminded him that I hadn’t found the money yet. He happily replied that he had faith that everything would work out. I remember clearly my mixed feeling of respect and helplessness at that moment. I took a deep breath and called the only former donor that I could think of who might do this. Somehow in a matter of minutes, it was settled. She was sending the money that day and was committing to one year of the training for four of our teachers. Of course, our headmaster didn’t seem to be surprised in the least. (I refrained from telling him that he was just now, the luckiest guy on earth.) It was more than luck though. His faith and confidence over the need for the program allowed him to take a big risk of starting a 20-mile walk with his new staff, knowing there was a possibility they would just have to turn around and walk back the next day!
This is yet another example of how our people on the ground push YVA towards what it needs to be. From the first orphan teens who set our direction, to our employees who know what they need to develop, to conversations and experiences that we have together, while I am there, Young Vision Africa remains largely led by the vision of young Africans.
What about outcomes/impact/success stories?
Our overall impact has been to enable and empower many young Sierra Leoneons to help their country in a meaningful and efficient way. The long-term effect of this is to teach them that it is indeed possible and rewarding to commit your life to improving the lives of others, although it will take hard work. We have exposed these young people to amazing and un-imagined endeavors such as starting a school, running medical clinics, managing sponsored students, contracting and constructing a school building, running school-wide drama and film presentations, interacting with young Americans who come from a vastly different perspective and starting an environmental initiative.
It should be noted that this is by no means automatic or easy. No one who lived through the Blood Diamonds war has escaped its impact. Everyone has some amount of PTSD and it is usually from witnessing harrowing events that most Americans have difficulty even thinking about. To help our young employees and volunteers work through this takes patience, straight talk, and sustained and consistent positive attention. Most importantly it takes a focus that great things will happen if you learn to look forward.
Here are some specific outcomes.
What’s next/on the horizon?
Yes, I am not lying when I say we need to focus on youth leadership development. However, we have a healthy distrust of unbridled charity. We’ve seen self-oriented donors and dependency and greed – so what is one way to avoid that? What is one way to make sure our resources and energy go towards our real mission of strengthening and not weakening? How do we reward the growth of effort and engagement? How can we encourage creativity and positivity? We have one idea that the 360° audiences might relate to… BUSINESS!
Of course, our real goal is to bring leaders out of some of the toughest and lowest places. But to see these leaders (employees and sponsored students) develop full potential, to teach them perseverance, to push 100% out of them, we want to make our foray into entrepreneurship. That is realistic, on the job leadership training. And in Sierra Leone the conditions are ripe. They have had 16 years of stability and there is one thing that is starting to reveal itself – there is a small but growing upper class that’s taken advantage/succeeded in this stability.
In a rather unexpected and unforeseen move, we are looking to ride the front of this wave and start an upscale restaurant in the second largest city of Bo. If other people are making money in Sierra Leone, then why shouldn’t we do it for a better reason than them!
We have some creative innovations in mind, but we realize that success won’t be achieved overnight. We do know that we already have a staff that is trustworthy and hard working. Once again, they are ready to push us forward. We’ve prepped in various ways, consulted those in the restaurant industry here and there and feel confident that we need to jump and jump now. We also want our business to be a community. I understand that this will be a real challenge, but we are shooting to give our employees a feeling of working towards something meaningful. (Once we pay back our startup money, all profits will go towards our direct work in education and development.) So even within business, within entrepreneurial activity, we want to spread integrity, honesty, and altruism. We are setting a very high goal of a good community atmosphere that is profitable and adaptive. And this community (our restaurant staff which will include our youth) will start YVA towards self-sufficiency.
How can our global audience learn more about and support Young Vision Africa?
To learn more about us you can check out our Young Vision Africa Website and our YouTube Channel and reach out to me through email [firstname.lastname@example.org] or phone [001-862-222-2370] if you see the need for our mission and have questions. And please explore the following opportunties to support our critical mission:
Our new school building is fully constructed but we owe $16,000. We’ve committed to repaying it by December 30! If you want to be a significant part of that please contact me, and/or make a donation below:
Our bread and butter is our small group of monthly supporters. If you want to join us please contact me and/or make a donation below:
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