Thursday, September 18, 2008

Empowering others

The story of Kari Grady Grossman and her book Bones That Float has been told here a few times, but its a story worth telling time and again. More here.

Woman establishes school in Cambodia - by Stina Sieg, Glenwood Springs Post Independent
In an act of charity, it takes real love to empower people, rather than make them depend on you. Kari Grady Grossman has come to understand that. The reason why is quite a journey. In 2001, she was a freelance journalist, working for the Discovery Channel’s website and living in the mountains of Wyoming. These days, she’s a Front Range mother of two adopted children, an award-winning author and founder of a successful school in her son’s native home of Cambodia. "To be honest with you, I’m kind of in awe,” she said. She’s not the only one. Her recent book, “Bones That Float: A Story of Adopting Cambodia” has won several accolades, and Grossman herself has been named “Peacemaker of the Year” by the Independent Publisher Book Awards. She’s given presentations across the country, and thousands have bought her memoir. People seem eager to hear her story. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s a simple one to tell.

Her connection to Cambodia began when she and her husband, George, wanted to start a family and faced infertility. World travelers already, they thought of international adoption immediately. Grossman liked the idea of being part of some distant place. “You’re not just American anymore,” she explained. “You’re Cambodian-American. You’re Indian-American. You’re really connected with your child’s history.” She completely took that to heart. After adopting Grady, now 8, from an orphanage, she learned about his country’s complex history, about the abhorrent acts committed by its government and the role our own government had there. What she saw was a corrupt, war-torn nation, and she just wanted to help. Full of empathy and good intent, she started up the Grady Grossman School in a small, mountain town and began a nonprofit to support it. For years, she acted mostly in a fundraising capacity. Her efforts were valiant, but something was missing. She wanted more for these people. “It wasn’t very empowering for them to depend on a nice girl in Colorado to raise money for them,” she explained, “And (what) we really needed to do with that community was empower them to support their own school.”

What she was dealing with was a culture so used to foreign aid that its citizens felt entitled to it. It was frustrating for Grossman, as she wanted these people to feel they could help themselves. At Grossman’s school there were constant absences of both teachers and students, and some of the surrounding areas were completely deforested, as the trees were cut for fuel. The two issues might seem divergent, but they weren’t. It all stemmed from an economic and social depression, one that discouraged any form of creative problem solving. These people didn’t feel ownership over their own lives, and they’d been scared into silence about it for years by their government. They were desperate and had no idea how to make things better.

So Grossman decided to shake everything up for them. These days, the Grady Grossman School is completely different than before. Teachers want to be there, because they’re compensated extra for their attendance. The town’s environmental nightmare has been squelched, as Grossman found the residents a way to make briquettes out of waste instead of using wood. The manufacturing of this burnable material generates income, as well, which helps the residents stay afloat, and allows more kids to stay in class. Instead of just being given funds, people have to work for them. If they want a library or some other addition, they have figure out how to pay for it. Slowly, the people who want change are taking over the reigns of their lives — economically, socially and educationally. Strangely, by making the villagers more fiscally accountable, it’s as though Grossman’s setting them free. “Our mission is to empower communities to sustain schools through economic development,” she said, adding later, “We’ve kind of stumbled on a real answer.”

In America, her nonprofit, formally known as Friends of the Grady Grossman School, is now Sustainable School International. As she sees it, this is a totally new way of running a charitable organization. She can’t help but want to spread it far and wide. But, of course, when it comes to dealing with people, nothing is cut and dried. Though her family moved to Fort Collins to be closer to a major airport recently, Grossman can’t always be in her adopted village to oversee things. She has Grady and her 4-year-old daughter, Shanti (from India) to take care of. In her absence, all kinds of things can happen. People can make mistakes and argue and use poor judgment. They’re human. They are what makes Grossman’s efforts so complicated and trying — and absolutely rewarding, too. This is really about people, after all, not the schools. “You’re telling them you believe in them,” she said. And that’s what makes all this possible.


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