To preface this article, I just want to let you know how incredibly hard this was to articulate into words. As it was such an emotionally filled journey, no amount of words on paper, or in this case a word document could do it justice. It’s very hard to tell you just how this trip and the children impacted me, but I have tried my best.
I reached that stage of life last year where you recognise what is fundamentally important to you; I guess you can call it “reshuffling of one’s life priorities”. All it might take is an introspective moment which leads to a subtle shift in perspective and you begin wanting – needing – to work towards something with more meaning, more substance. This shift in perspective may have a domino effect, as it did in my case, and you begin wanting to only spend time on things that matter most to you.
For me, the last 12 months have been quite turbulent, to say the least. Through this maelstrom of emotion and upheaval I gained a desire to engage with the world a little more. This manifested itself as a desire to help those without the advantages I have in life; to work with charitable organisations and, ideally, make some kind of difference to the world. Initially I didn’t know where to start. I knew I wanted to tread carefully, to work in an ethical way – I didn’t want to compromise the dignity of the people I’d like to help. I recognise that not all volunteer work is beneficial for the countries in need – unless we have time and transferable skills, oftentimes it can better to travel, trade and spend money in these developing countries. With that in mind, my goal was to find a charity that aligned with my passions, that stands for everything I believe in and, perhaps most importantly, that I knew where the charity that people are kind enough to provide was going. Above all I wanted transparency.
So, how do you go about finding a charity – an experience – that genuinely makes a difference? To say I thoroughly did my research is an understatement, and through this research I found The Cotton On Foundation (COF); an organisation committed to making a change in Southern Uganda, South Africa, Thailand and the Northern Territory, Australia. I put many questions to them relating to how donations are distributed and the ways in which they work with the communities they are involved with. Via my communication with the Foundation, I soon realised their goals and ethics aligned with everything I stand for. Most importantly was the level of transparency the organisation displays. Their main focus is on empowering youth through quality education, and if growing up with parents as teachers has taught me anything, it’s the value of quality education.
COF projects fall under four pillars within the Quality Education Model; education, infrastructure, healthcare and sustainability – all pivotal in making lasting change. I was lucky enough to personally experience this first hand in Mannya, Southern Uganda a couple of weeks ago.
Uganda will overwhelm all your senses – the sights, the smells, the sounds were like nothing I have experienced before. I arrived some 55 hours after leaving Australia; with a cancelled flight, three passport stamps and missing bag. None of these missteps mattered because the feeling of actually standing on African soil transcended any other feeling. I automatically felt disconnected from everything back home and all I could concentrate on were my deepest motivations. I met my group of 28 incredible people from Cotton On and Lisa, a fellow blogger and from then on our days were action packed – we visited school, HIV clinics, read with the children, played various games, saw their nutrition mission program in full force, spoke with teachers about the curriculum and buildings of their school and got see the COF incredible work, first hand.
We visited a little village called Mannya, which is located in the Rakai District of Uganda. To tell my story today you need to understand why Cotton On began making a change in Mannya a decade ago.
Cotton On Group’s Founder, Nigel Austin, established COF back in 2007, working alongside the local parish’s priest, Father Nestus, who we were fortunate enough to stay with whilst in Mannya. Nigel saw firsthand how Mannya had been devastated by the HIV epidemic, almost wiping out entire generations. These effects are still apparent to this day, with many children left without parents and grandparents, ongoing famine and of course major economic downfall.
Nigel and Nestus were left with a very complex – if not near impossible – situation. Initially Nigel was asked to make a small donation to a healthcare centre in Mannya and now 10 years, they’re kicking clear goals; building schools, educating communities about the importance of sanitation & nutrition and above all, changing lives. To date the COF have created a total of 6,000 educational facilities globally and they’re on track to increase that number to an incredible 20,000 by 2020. Whilst 14,000 further places of education might seem like a lot to achieve in a 2 year timeframe, it is a commitment, passion and determination from their team in Australia and Uganda that helps to bring about such dramatic change. Having witnessed this sheer effort first-hand, I am certain they will achieve any goals they set for themselves. The team are absolutely immersed in their work, and together they’re committed to making a difference.
I was lucky enough to visit several schools whilst in Uganda. There is a notable disparity between the level of facilities provided. Some were tin sheds that were temporary solutions, so the children in the community could still attend school while the sustainability built, brick buildings are being completed by local tradesmen and women. Others were established schools, similar to what we would find in Australia. What I found fascinating was that in some classrooms there might be anywhere from 60-100 children in attendance. No matter what the numbers or circumstances surrounding their education, the children in each of these classrooms are eager to learn. One of my favourite memories is 7 children reading from their African Stories Book; a compilation of stories from local children, published by Cotton On. When you see the smiles on the children’s faces, you can not help but feel proud of them and marvel in seeing them in such an inspiring and safe place to learn. The way I see it is, quality education and a safe place to learn is creating an opportunity for them to have a choice in what they want to do with their life; something they may not have had prior to this.
Each school is built with sustainability in mind. For instance, the kitchen stoves are powered by bio-gas which allows the children to be fed two meals at school every day, we all know that food helps with learning capabilities. Also; Cotton On have implemented fruit bearing trees around the boundaries of their schools which is an addition to their nutrition program.
There is a level of commitment required from volunteers in order to make the projects successful. To date the total funds raised is in excess of $70 million globally with 100% of proceeds going towards its global projects. I think to have even the smallest influence upon improving another person’s life makes it beyond valuable and a worthwhile endeavor for anyone to undertake.
I was concerned that going to Uganda for only a week would mean the relationships forged with students would dissolve as soon as I boarded the plane home. I was, however, quickly disabused of this notion: thanks to social media, volunteers and members of the COF have the opportunity to stay connected. This illustrates the enduring power that programs such as these can have long after the trips end. Additionally; Cotton On has a hell of a fundraising model: all proceeds go to the charity. I think this is such an important concept that I’ll repeat it again. All proceeds go to the charity – when a Cotton On sales assistant tells you that one bottle of water equals seven bricks for a school in Uganda, they mean it, and it does. Of the $2 you spend on water or any other products, 36c is spent on production. $1.64 goes straight to the foundation. It is with the incredible generosity of customers and the passion of team members that COF has been able to make a positive difference in people’s lives across the globe.
Within the small space of time I was on the ground in Uganda, I quickly learned that a trip like this isn’t like your average trip overseas – it has the power to change you in unexpected and important ways than you could ever anticipate. As I took time to reflect on my 25 hour trip back to Australia, I thought about everything I had experienced within that week; the tears I cried, the smiles and laughter from all the children and, most importantly, the knowledge I returned home with. It’s a travel experience that goes beyond photographing the major iconic cities or selfies with a famous landmark. Uganda gave me so much more than I thought was possible and with it a great shift in perspective. Within that week I went through so many changes that are hard to define, and part of a bigger self-evolution. It’s taken me some time to evaluate and digest my experience of Uganda, but here I am today, filling you all in. And this is only the beginning of what is yet to come…
HOW CAN YOU HELP?
So how can you contribute? This is the easiest part! To support the foundation & champion for change, it’s as simple as walking into one of the Cotton On & Co stores (including Cotton On, Cotton On Body, Cotton On Kids, Typo, Rubi Shoes, Factorie & Supre) and purchasing a foundation product: water, totes, tissues et al.