A World Of Difference
Jimi and Cristi Cook were awestruck when they heard a group of Rwandan refugees planned to return to their country 13 years after its devastating genocide.
“What was incredible about it was all they wanted to do was go back and rebuild their school because they thought that was a key to rebuilding their country,” Jimi says.
Jimi and Cristi were so moved, they went to Rwanda to help in 2007, and the experience convinced them that they could — and therefore should — change the world through building and supporting schools in disadvantaged communities. In 2008, they, with another couple, founded Be The Change Volunteers, a not-for-profit that takes teams of volunteers into some of the world’s poorest communities to build and renovate schools.
“We are just doing what we feel called to do, have been given the resources and platform to accomplish and is ‘right’ for us,” Jimi says, explaining why he and Cristi have a hard time talking about Be The Change as their legacy. “But it certainly has made life more fulfilling. When people ask us if we have kids — we do not have any biological kids — we say, ‘Yes, we have 5,000 kids in 15 different countries around the world, and we are so proud of them all because they are fighting with all they have and sacrificing whatever is needed to get an education.’ ”
“Be The Change”
The name Be The Change Volunteers comes from a quote from Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” advice Jimi and Cristi have heeded, much to the admiration of those around them.
Lawrence Benedicto, a village leader in Malawi, Africa, where Be The Change Volunteers has helped build a library and renovate classrooms, describes Jimi and Cristi as “a great visionary couple” with “a great heart for the unprivileged people in the world.”
“I have come to understand that every penny they get, they want to use it to serve many and to give a chance to those who have no chance by bringing them whatever they want in terms of education,” Benedicto says. “They are aiming high to give the world a great change that every person wants to see.”
“They have done something really extraordinary, but they carry themselves with such humility,” says Jennifer Anderson, a teacher at Columbia Independent School, which has participated in several builds. “I think those of us who have gotten to know them are just more and more impressed with them.”
The extraordinary work of Be The Change Volunteers includes 27 projects completed in 15 countries in less than seven years. One example is the Omo Community School in Papua New Guinea. In four visits between 2010 and this fall, Be The Change Volunteers has constructed three two-classroom buildings, a science laboratory and two teacher houses for the school, which serves more than 300 children. Before the school was built, the children had to walk or hitchhike four to 10 miles each way to attend school in neighboring villages, where they were often turned away after the long trek.
Martin Petrus, the Omo Community School’s chairman, describes what having their own school means to his village in a 2013 letter of thanks to supporters of Be The Change Volunteers.
“Omo Community School has become the pride and identity for the 3,000-plus people of Omo and its neighboring traditional villages and settlements,” Petrus writes. “Our dream school has resurrected hope in the minds and hearts of our rural and disadvantaged children of having access to quality education. I thank BTCV and friends for partnering with us and making our dream come true.”
Seeing how people in communities such as Omo dream of a better education keeps Jimi and Cristi inspired. And they do need inspiration because Be The Change Volunteers requires significant sacrifice. Jimi and Cristi spend hours each week raising funds, working out logistics for future projects, doing accounting work, sending donation receipts, giving talks to raise awareness and completing various other tasks — all of which they manage to do while continuing their full-time jobs as members of the University of Missouri faculty.
Jimi and Cristi have also gone on 17 of the 27 builds, which means for the last seven years, all of their vacation time has been spent on difficult travel, followed by hard manual labor, with minimal accommodations, usually in demanding climates. No relaxing trips to the beach for these two.
Then, there are the emotional sacrifices — it’s not easy to see AIDS orphans, mothers trying to decide which child to feed that day, untreated injuries and infections, or bullet holes in walls at a school that witnessed genocide.
Add it all up, and running Be The Change Volunteers “is something that really requires your all,” Jimi says.
But, he adds, the sacrifice has not been a struggle.
“The rewards so far outweigh the costs that it really makes it easy to do,” he says. “The fundraising can be a struggle, but nothing else is a struggle at all.”
“It was amazing the first time we returned home from a build and we opened up our email to find a picture of 20 kids in their uniforms at their new desks in their new classroom, with their new pencils, with huge smiles on their faces!” Cristi says. “Wow! That was worth every second, every penny and all the sweat and labor we put into it!”
However, she adds, one thing that has been unexpectedly hard is the little piece of herself that stays with the kids.
“The personal sacrifice of bringing someone into your life is a little more difficult,” she says.
Jimi and Cristi also draw inspiration from their faith. Both Christians, they say their faith is the foundation of their efforts.
“We believe strongly in serving others, putting our faith into action and loving our neighbors,” Cristi says. They made Be The Change Volunteers a nonreligious organization, she adds, “so that as many people as possible could have improved opportunities for education.”
There have been countless moments when Jimi and Cristi have seen and known that Be The Change Volunteers is doing good work. One came in the summer of 2013 in Malawi. Two years earlier, Be The Change Volunteers had built the school’s library, and the community asked if they could return to help fix up the classrooms and latrines, which were in bad shape. Jimi and Cristi said the community was welcome to submit an application and stressed the importance for community “buy-in,” mentioning that things like teacher housing have been shown to have profound long-term effects on schools and communities.
The Be The Change Volunteers board approved the Malawi community’s second application for help, and in 2013, Jimi and Cristi lead a team there to renovate two classrooms and refurbish all of the school’s desks. A big surprise awaited them.
“When we arrived on site to plan the work, the village chief and school headmaster had huge ‘cat that swallowed the canary’ smiles on their faces and said they wanted to show us something,” Jimi recalls. “They lead us to the far side of the school to show us two beautiful new teacher houses and completely refurbished latrines that the community had built all by themselves!”
While improved education is the most obvious legacy Jimi and Cristi have built through Be The Change Volunteers, the impact does not stop with the people helped. Volunteers also see their lives profoundly changed.
Grant Venable, the director of change for Be The Change Volunteers, describes how the Cooks have impacted his life.
“I am blessed because the Cooks believe in me,” Venable says. “Working with the volunteers, communities and schools is a regular reminder that what we do with our own legacy, our own story, matters immensely to someone else. That will always drive me to be a ‘changer’ for the good of others.”
At Columbia Independent Schools, Anderson says she has witnessed changes in her students who go on the builds..
“Our students come back and say: ‘Oh my gosh, I have this amazing education, and I never realized it was amazing. I’m so lucky I go to school every day, and I don’t have to worry that my going to school is taking away from the livelihood of my family.’ It’s such a gift, that appreciation.”
Jimi says what he hopes volunteers receive are perspective, gratitude and a global view.
“I want them to see that the only real difference among all people is where you were born and the resources provided to you,” he says. “I want them to be grateful, truly grateful, for what they have — resources, opportunities, freedom, acceptance, nutrition, health care, etc., etc. etc. — and understand those are the things that largely ‘separate’ people and that realizing that and working to provide the opportunities for these things for others — not give it to them but provide development aid in a sustainable way — can bridge this gap and make us all ‘better.’ I want them to think about ‘starving kids in Africa’ every day, but not in pity or inferiority or separation but with understanding, respect and hope, to believe that they are ‘our kids,’ too, part of the global community, a precious resource with beautiful smiles, amazing hearts, powerful strength of character and purpose, and resilient souls who just want to learn and grow and communicate and contribute.”
Whenever she begins to feel overwhelmed by the need, Cristi says she remembers the story of the little boy and the starfish and determines, once again, to create change “one life at a time.”
“The legacy,” Jimi says, “is the lives that are affected in a positive way by whatever resources, time, finances and/or hard work you can and will give to others. That is the legacy I want to leave, and that is the change I want to see in the world.”
There are a multiple ways to get involved with the Be The Change Volunteers mission.
- Join Columbia’s local chapter and learn how you can help achieve fundraising goals and create awareness.
- Volunteer for the next project, planned for February 2015 in Bihar, India.
- Take part in next month’s CoMo Gives campaign and give to Be The Change Volunteers.
Learn more at www.bethechangevolunteers.org