I don’t remember what I wanted to be when I was younger, but I know it wasn’t the founder of a nonprofit. I had very little experience with philanthropy growing up. Selling girl scout cookies and putting together Thanksgiving baskets was pretty much the extent of my nonprofit experience, but my path took turns I didn’t expect, and I became the founder of a nonprofit not even two years out of university.
The summer after my third year of architecture school I wanted to switch majors. The workload was ridiculous, the teachers would mercilessly rip us to shreds, and I was sick and tired of hearing them tell me that I was ‘helping people with my designs’. From where I stood my designs of fancy homes, office buildings, and museums weren’t helping anyone who truly needed it. I was just over everything and I wanted a change.
In the end I decided not to switch majors (I had already dropped out of a different university, switched majors, and said no to transferring to a number of top schools), but I decided to take control of my situation and went looking for a volunteering opportunity. What I found dramatically changed the course of my life.
After my first research trip to the small village of Ngong in Northern Cameroon I decided that I needed to help this community. I was going to do whatever it took to provide them with the classrooms they needed for their secondary school. I spent the next semester designing a new classroom that would better serve their needs and be less expensive than the government alternative. The design process came with its own unique set of challenges though. My university didn’t want me to pursue an independent project (generally, in an architecture studio all the students work on finding their own unique design for the same project). I fought back, hard. I finally ground down a teacher into letting me design my classrooms alongside his students who would be working on a different project in South Africa.
I was totally wild once the semester started. I was fresh off the plane from my time in Cameroon and I was butting heads with my teacher, the one who enabled me to even work on this project, on an almost daily basis. I’d get criticised at reviews and would talk back to the jurors telling them that they didn’t understand the context and therefore couldn’t appropriately critique my work. It didn’t matter who gave me advice, I didn’t listen. Overall, I was wildly out of line and totally obsessed with creating a building that the local population liked and accepted. I didn’t care what anyone in North America though about my design or project. All I cared about was that the community in Ngong loved it.
After I graduated I was faced with how to turn this idea into a reality. Naively, I thought that a simple GO FUND ME page would do the trick. It didn’t, and it was at that point that I went ahead and created Design Cause Inc. It was January 2016. With the paperwork in place I went ahead and started fundraising. It quickly became painfully clear to me that I had absolutely no idea how to fundraise. I thought it would easy. Unicef brings in like 20 million a year surely I could string together $50,000 right? I couldn’t have been more wrong and fundraising for Design Cause’s first project turned out to be one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that no one truly believed that I could complete the project and because of that lack of faith no one wanted to put any money down. I was an incredible gamble in their eyes, which I was completely blind to at the time. In my mind the classrooms were an inevitable certainty. I knew I wouldn’t give up until they were complete because I had made a promise to the community, and I fulfill my promises.
In the beginning people were excited. After two months I had brought in about $3,000 which seemed like a fortune but was very far from the end goal. The next five months was completely dry. I mean not even one dollar in donations even though I was trying everything I was suppose to do. Crowdfunding, getting articles written in the paper, running all sorts of different campaigns, asking everyone to donate, nothing was working and I was lost. I hit a point where things got really tough. I wasn’t bringing in any money for all my work with Design Cause, and I was working nights as a waitress to cover my bills. I was tired and frustrated that I couldn't figure out how to convince people to donate to my charity, and I was still living at home. It was horrible and my confidence plummeted.
Then my local church took some interest in the project, and I thought it was my last chance to finally make my dream a reality. I put everything I had into convincing them that it was a great project that everyone could get behind. After a few meetings it went to a vote and they decided to take on the project as a fundraising initiative. I was over the moon and started to focus my attention on the next steps.
To my utter horror, the next week my church decided to back out of the deal and abandon the project. It was the ultimate blow. I was completely crushed and spent the next few days trying to pick myself up off the floor. It was the first time I ever considered giving up on the project. I saw my ultimate dream crumbling in front of me and it was horrible.
I’m not sure what changed inside me, but I woke up a few days after this and simply decided that it wasn’t over and I wouldn’t give up. At that moment everything seemed to shift. When people saw that I just wouldn’t give up they started to believe in me. That coupled with great timing plus my now formidable knowledge about fundraising resulted in raising over $30,000 in just over two months. It was hard to process everything that was happening. Before I knew it the funds were secured, construction was set to start, my flight was booked, and the real adventure was about to start.
I remember sitting at the gate in the airport thinking, “What the hell am I doing?” I was minutes from boarding a plane and taking off on a 16 hour, multi-stop flight to Yaounde, Cameroon. From there it would be a series of trains, taxis, busses, and cars over the course of two days before I would reach my final destination of Ngong, Cameroon. I was excited to start, literally, building what I had dreamt about for the last three and a half years.
When I reached the construction site and schoolyard of St. Andrew’s it was late on Sunday afternoon and the only people there were the guard’s three small children playing in the sandy soil. Even that first day was hot, around 92F degrees in the evening. I was covered in sweat, sand, and an excitement to finally start building.
The following two months were an absolute roller coaster of happiness, fear, loneliness, anger, frustration, exhaustion, sadness, gratitude, and confusion. The only things that stayed constant were the heat, the sun, the sand, the goats and chickens in the street, the endless buzz of motorcycles, the complete absence of English, and the smiling faces around me.
Construction was a true labor of love. The local laborers who came to build my dream were experienced masons but they had never used the soil stabilized blocks that we were using for the new classrooms. These bricks are made using local earth with a small amount of cement and need to be cured in the sun for 28 days to harden. The machine to make them was extremely labor intensive but the benefits of these sustainable, cheap, and insulating bricks was hard to ignore, so we pressed on and made 9,000 bricks.
For four weeks we built up the walls, brick by brick, until they stood solidly in place and cast a long shadow. Even with the walls finished I still had students, teachers, and community members asking me if these new bricks could withstand the wind and rain of the wet season. Having never seen this kind of brick before, there was serious fear that this new technology would crumble and fall when the weather wasn’t as fair. Although there are many examples of successful projects using soil stabilized bricks across Africa, the community needed to see for themselves that they are strong and durable.
At this point in my trip I was personally going through a lot of challenges. I was homesick, tired of the food, tired of the heat, and just wanted a friend who didn’t think I was part alien. I had become accustomed to my simple living situation, a cot with a mosquito net, spigot for showers, outhouse for the bathroom, but the social component was proving to be extremely difficult. I am an extrovert who didn’t have any close friends or even acquaintances at this point. Many people in the village were scared of me and thought I was a witch and others gave me frequent marriage proposals. I was looking for a sense of belonging which simply wasn’t there. Even on the job site the workers weren’t comfortable with me and wouldn’t talk to me. I spent a lot of my time writing, reading, and walking alone in the hot sun to and from the job site. I was counting down the days. I never thought this part of the journey would be so hard.
The roof went up in two weeks. A different crew came to the site and made the trusses, installed the ceiling, and nailed down the corrugation metal. After that it took four long days to finish the hand mixed cement floors, and another two days to install all the windows and doors. My last week in Ngong was devoted to painting, cleaning, adding electrical, and any other finishing touches.
Everything came together in the last few weeks. Not only did we finish the project, but I started to make friends and have the experience I expected. The workers would take me out to the local bars and show me how to drink the local beer. They showed me traditional dances and explained cultural things to me. I worked with a few of the students on the weekends and after school. We did homework together and they told me stories about their lives. I was finally starting to be seen as a part of the community and less like an intruder. These were some of my favorite memories, but I was still very excited to go home.
When the work was done I walked away from the sparkling new classrooms and looked back over my shoulder at what I had created. The sun was shining, it was about 104 F, the sand was hot under my broken flip-flops, goats and chickens were still searching for trash, motorcycles were still zipping through the windy sandy streets, and I hadn’t heard any English in months. But now there were three new classrooms full of students with a fourth on the way.
These new classrooms showed the community what is possible when you use local materials in a new, innovative way. The structure itself was mesmerizing to the community who had never seen anything but a mud hut, or cement stucco walls with a gable roof. This new design broke the rules. It had a broken roof line for water collection and solar panels (which we don’t have but hopefully will down the road); it used bricks made of earth which made the interior space up to 10F cooler that the standard government designed rooms; it was constructed using simple methods which are easy replicated by locals; and it was 45% cheaper to construct than the standard government designed rooms.
With the project complete it is touching for me to know, without a doubt, that Design Cause made a difference in the lives of the children, teachers, and members of the community of Ngong. Now students who walk hours to get to school will no longer be turned away from class during the hottest time of the year because the interior temperatures are too oppressive. Because of these new classrooms they will be able to comfortably learn for the entire school day, go on to receive their diplomas, and then contribute to their families and society. I was told in Cameroon that “education is the key to a good life” and I’m proud to say that Design Cause played an integral role in improving education in the growing town of Ngong.
On my last day students came to visit me at my hut to wish me safe travels and bring me handmade gifts. Some of the children cried and told me they didn’t want me to leave. They had never seen a young white person before, let alone one who walked to school like everyone else and stopped to talk to everyone on her way. It saddened me to realize that one of the major reasons I was accepted was simply because I trusted and valued the local community.
I learned so much during my trip but one of the things that struck me the hardest was that the majority of aid workers in this region weren’t stopping to talk to locals or trying to live the way they do. The people of Ngong had literally never seen a westerner walk the streets, drink bil-bil at the local outdoor bars, or stop and shake the hands of the children who followed them down the street. It was because of these simple compassionate acts that locals would give me a lollipop from their stand if I had a cough, buy me a local treat so I could taste it for the first time, teach me phrases from their local language, and invite me into their homes to meet their families. It was those compassionate acts that made my trip memorable and taught me so much about how to live a good life and be happy.
Now that the classrooms at St. Andrew’s are completed and filled with the energy and smiling faces of students I know that the work I did was fully embraced by the school and the community. They don’t view it as “my” building or “Design Cause’s” building, they view it as “their” building. This happened because I wasn’t there to solve their problems, I was there to learn from them so we could build something together, and that simple distinction was the difference between a successful and failed project.
The classrooms in Cameroon were finished in March of 2017. Now Design Cause has selected a new project and is currently in the fundraising stage. I put so much effort into accomplishing the first one that I never thought we would do a second project. It’s so special to be able to work with another community and impact them through the organization I created.
Through this experience I have learned a lot about myself and even more about how to turn dreams into reality. The first step is belief. You have to believe in what you are trying to do, I mean REALLY believe. That belief paired with unstoppable determination and persistence will win out. It’s just a matter of time. Everyone thought I was totally out of my mind when I first started talking about building a school in an area of Cameroon that was under travel warning and affected by Boko Haram. Some of my donors were scared that I was going to get kidnapped or killed. Even after years people still thought I was blowing hot air, but when I just kept getting up after all the setbacks they finally started paying attention. I heard through the grapevine that when things finally started to come together people would talk about me and say, “Kelsey is finding success because she simply won’t give up”, and I found that to be the biggest compliment I could ask for.