In Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, a group of children play soccer—the African country’s most popular sport. (Chris Wire started the nonprofit A Goal of Their Own to connect soccer-loving kids in Malawi and Saratoga.)
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Brandee Barker (in striped pants) makes an alms offering of lunch and helps serve the 90 monks studying at Kalaywa Tawya Monastery in Myanmar, mere months before the Rohingya crisis escalated to levels of genocide.
Photo: Courtesy of Brandee Barker
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Katie Stanton’s daughter, Kiki, in Ecuador.
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The family was part of a group helping to build the foundation for a classroom.
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Silicon Valley's elite can easily jet to the poshest spots around. Yet, increasingly, when it comes to vacation destinations, some local movers and shakers are opting instead for some of the world's most impoverished places—to pick up paint brushes, hammers and shovels, and to listen to heartbreaking accounts of violence, upheaval and turmoil. This type of international humanitarian travel is gaining in popularity, attracting 1.6 million volunteers annually who spend $2 billion, according to a 2008 study by Tourism Research and Marketing. What prompts these volunteers to do what they do? Often, very different reasons. Meet three who share their experiences here.
To Chris Wire of Saratoga, soccer is so much more than a game. A coach for eight years of his middle son’s team, he knows the sport can forge athletic skills, teamwork and friendships. At times, it can even provide salvation. That was no more evident than last year, when Wire, the vice president of information technology for San Jose’s Xilinx Inc., lost his wife, Jennifer, to cancer. Left to raise their sons—Nate, 18; Luke, 16; and Devon, 13—he longed to find a way not only to transcend that catastrophic grief, but to fittingly memorialize her legacy. He found the answer in the familiar leather paneled ball he and his sons kicked around the field.
His wife, who volunteered at her children’s schools, came from a family of educators. In fact, a couple of them had just returned from a trip to Africa. With all of those thoughts swirling in his head, Wire decided last year to start the nonprofit A Goal of Their Own, which connects soccer-loving kids in Saratoga with ones in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in Africa. This July, Wire and his sons—as well as his sister-in-law, brother-in-law and son’s soccer coach—will travel together to Africa for three weeks, spending a third of that time in Malawi. It will be Wire’s first humanitarian trip. But he doesn’t expect it to be his last. He hopes to make A Goal of Their Own a sustainable enterprise that can grow to connect other local communities with developing countries.
“Soccer is such a universal passion, but soccer is not the end goal. It’s using soccer to make social changes,” says Wire, who is working with the nonprofit Play Soccer Malawi. “That group incorporates HIV and other health information in its program. Having boys and girls play together is also a powerful way to enforce gender equality.” The first trip will help him assess the needs there. He’s already thinking of having the kids from each country exchange friendship bracelets, photos and videos to help them get to know one another better. “You kick a ball at a kid—no matter what gender or from what country—and they know what to do with it,” he says. “I think soccer can certainly make us much closer and show us that our differences are not so great.”
On her left wrist, Brandee Barker wears a bright-orange bracelet that is impossible to miss. It is fashioned from a life jacket, the same type fleeing refugees are swaddled in when they are rescued during their desperate, dangerous attempts to cross the Mediterranean Sea. It is a prominent reminder of a newfound calling in life, one so powerful that Barker—the former head of public relations for Facebook, who has been an adviser to Sheryl Sandberg as well as the founders of Uber, Airbnb and Dropbox—decided recently to step back from the day-to-day running of Pramana Collective, the high-profile boutique firm she co-founded in 2013.
Although Barker is no stranger to trekking to the far reaches of the globe, it was a growing disillusionment with politics in the U.S. that led to four life-changing trips last year to Myanmar, Jordan, Kenya and Sicily. “I was sitting in sorrow as this country transferred to a new administration,” she recalls. “I had traveled to developing countries before and remembered how much energy I had gotten from that. Silicon Valley is one of the most privileged areas in the world. I fundamentally believe we all have a responsibility to give back, even if in the smallest of ways.”
She first went to Myanmar for two weeks with an old college friend, ostensibly just to be a tourist taking in the sights. But she couldn’t help but be shaken by the genocide inflicted on Rohingya Muslim civilians by the Myanmar military. A few months later, another friend on the board of Mercy Corps, a global humanitarian aid agency, invited her to join a trip with four other women to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. What she saw there rocked her to the core. “It was devastating,” she says. “That doesn’t even capture all the feelings I had when I saw what has happened to the Syrian people in the wake of this eight-year war. Just sitting with children in a sand pit, making sand castles with them, brought tears to my eyes. In many cases, these kids have been living in tents for more than half their lives.”
Three months later, she was in Kenya with The Village Experience, an organization dedicated to socially conscious tourism; there, she helped paint a school. A few months after that, she went to Sicily with Human Rights Watch, whose board she has since joined, to learn the horrors that migrants endured as they fled Libya in overcrowded rafts on a perilous four-day journey to the shores of Europe.
Barker is not done yet. This spring, she will host a fundraiser at her Menlo Park home for Kenya-born Umra Omar, founder of Safari Doctors, an NGO that provides free basic medical services to impoverished villages on the Kenyan island of Lamu, accessible only by boat. The event, expected to be attended by a who’s who of Silicon Valley, will raise funds to purchase a boat staffed by a medical team to provide everything from immunizations to dental care to this remote island. “Buying one boat is $100,000,” Barker says. “That’s like the cost of four tables at a gala in Silicon Valley or some people’s third car in Silicon Valley that they undoubtedly paid all cash for. After being there, I just felt compelled to help more.”
Katie Stanton has long been drawn to international affairs, ever since she spent a college semester abroad in Europe. She still remembers turning on the radio Nov. 9, 1989, hearing that the Berlin Wall was being demolished, and grabbing her backpack to witness in person that pivotal moment in history. “It opened my eyes to global affairs and the importance of being a change-maker,” she says.
Her life since then has encompassed that sentiment, as former principal of new business development at Google, former vice president of global media at Twitter and the first director of citizen participation at the White House during the Obama administration. Now chief marketing officer of Color Genomics, a Burlingame biotech company specializing in genetic testing kits, Stanton has instilled in her three children the same passion. Daughter Ellie, 17, and 15-year-old twins Declan and Kiki have all accompanied her on trips to Kenya and Ecuador through ME to WE, an enterprise that organizes volunteer trips abroad, centered around health, education and economic development.
In Ecuador last summer, the family got down and dirty to help build part of a new school, which turned out to be quite humbling. “I like to think I’m active and strong,” Stanton says. “But I struggled with mixing the cement, and a grandmother of 10 there would just grab the shovel from me because she was so much stronger.” Two years before that, in Kenya, the family lent a hand to hoist cement blocks and install steel rods to help build a surgical wing of a new hospital. In fact, when it was time to leave for the day, Stanton’s son asked to stay a little longer to help. This summer, he will travel to Ethiopia on his own with ME to WE.
Stanton, who hosted the Kenyan Boys Choir at her Los Altos home in December, is grateful to have shared such meaningful experiences with her children. “We are not on this planet to collect things,” she says. “We’re here to give and to make it better. It teaches us compassion for ourselves and our community, and connects us to the common good in the world.”
Originally published in the April/May issue of Silicon Valley