How to change the world
I really love stories about the power of one. I love stories that involve a person—just an ordinary person—starting out on a journey that seems impossible, even crazy, at the beginning, but then persevering and doing miraculous things. These stories let us know that we can change the world. We mere mortals, simple ordinary people, can put one foot in front of another and do a lot of small things that add up to big miracles.
Tom Affleck discovered the power of one. He was an ordinary person who had a simple encounter with a young girl in Nicaragua. That incident set him on a journey that seemed impossible, even crazy sometimes, but he persevered. One small thing led to many small things, that added up to big miracles. He helped that girl go to school, and since then, he’s helped thousands more through SchoolBOX. Tom Affleck is president of the organization that makes education possible for children in Central America. I spoke with Tom to hear his story:
Q. Tom, tell us about the moment that started it all.
A. In the spring of 2006 I was in Nicaragua, and I went to a small coffee village. I took along with me some notebooks and pencils on a whim—I just thought I’d give them out to some of the kids. And I did. In one household in particular, which was a very small squatter shack with plastic walls and wood planks, I gave a little girl a notebook and a pencil. Her dad came around the corner of the house and he looked at her and he looked at me and his face just beamed and he said, “Now that you have a notebook and a pencil, you can go to school.”
At that point I’d been working in large international development projects with multi-million dollar budgets, in Peru and in Nicaragua, and I had never seen anything like this. This was an impact. For about 25 cents or 50 cents worth of school supplies, this little girl was going to have a chance to learn to read and write. It launched me on this dream that has become SchoolBOX. It’s about helping children reach their potential through education, removing barriers that they face, and really doing our part to make education possible for these kids. That is—a simple, cost-effective initiative to help children go to school.
Q. Many people in their travels might encounter similar situations, but they don’t end up doing anything about it. What prompted you to take action?
A. At that stage I needed those children as much as they needed me, and that continues through to today. When I started SchoolBOX I was in a very difficult place in my life. I’d seemingly lost everything, and it was in that time that I became a Christian, and really I wanted to reach out and try to help, try to love in a way that actually made a lasting difference. I was seeking and looking for something that I was able to do that was going to have a substantial impact for people and their families. When I gave this little girl a notebook and a pencil, the lightbulbs went off. It was a watershed moment for me.
Q. Sometimes people look at work like this and feel that involving themselves would mean giving of themselves without getting anything back. You’re saying that you get from this as much as you give?
A. There’s no question. It’s been an incredible process for me. And, to be honest, it’s been a healing process. When I started up SchoolBOX I was in a dark place, and through helping these children, my life has become lighter and lighter. I’ve met wonderful people, I met my wife through SchoolBOX, and that has been just an incredible gift to me—we work on SchoolBOX together. I have wonderful friends, and I am able to live a very passionate life.
Helping these children to reach their own potential is such a joy. You can see their lives opening up and doors, rather than closing, opening. Every door that they go through leads to a bigger door with a brighter room on the other side. To be part of that journey with them, it really lifts my heart. In terms of the give/give relationship, I certainly getting as much as I’m giving.
Q. Having faith is not a pre-requisite for doing good in the world, but you do have a strong faith. How has that been a difference-maker?
A. It’s everything. There would be no SchoolBOX if it wasn’t for my faith. I think that my personal Christian faith is what sustains me and has kept me putting one foot in front of the other and walking forward when it all seemed totally impossible. It keeps me walking forward today. I think that God is holding me and keeping me through this—and our community and our dream—and I think that has come from love and it belongs to love,and that’s God in every way shape and form.
Q. How many times, if ever, have you wanted to throw in the towel?
A. Hundreds, probably. Maybe thousands? There have certainly been a lot of challenges. As a start-up charity with no capital, we have faced some very difficult moments. There have been times when I’ve wanted to get a real job, in terms of a real salary, and have wanted to step away from SchoolBOX for some normality, for lack of a better word. But I’ve just somehow managed to keep walking. I think that is faith. I really can’t see anything else that explains it. I just know that deep inside of me, this is the right path, and perseverance has been a major component of this dream. That perseverance is paying off, and so, thankfully, I didn’t quit. There are wonderful people around me who continue to support this and encourage me and much of the credit goes to the community of SchoolBOX. We just kept it moving forward, and today we’re helping more than 10,000 kids go to school. I’m really proud of that because I know what it cost us to get here.
Q. What has been the most rewarding aspect of what you do?
A. Seeing the dream unfold. It has been a real gift to see such a tiny seed—I’d venture to say a mustard seed—growing into something so beautiful, and continuing to grow. Holding on and watching how things happen, and more and more incredible people get involved in our organization and our community growth. Ultimately, that means that we’re able to help more and more children. That has been the joy of it—that creation.
Q. What’s next for SchoolBOX?
A. We are continuing to grow, so we’re going to be working in some new regions in Nicaragua this year. We’ve got some very ambitious construction projects coming up with schools up to nine classrooms. We’re also looking forward to opening into some new countries. We would like to be in another country in Central America, I think by the end of 2011. It’s an exciting time for us. Here in Canada we’re continuing to grow and bringing more people into our community. The idea is that it spreads out in a very organic way, through word of mouth primarily, and that is a powerful way to get the message out.
Q. How can people find out more?
A. I would encourage them to go to our website at www.schoolbox.ca. They can also visit us at our Facebook page, which is SchoolBOX, just search for it, and it will pop up. From there you can find the donate page and find out about our operations and what we’re up to. We also have the volunteer program for people who would like to come down to Central America and build schools with us. That’s a wonderful hands-on way of effecting change.