Looking back on how a meainingful friendship bridge was built
Ten years ago, I had the great fortune of making friends with some wonderful people in Malawi and a nonprofit organization based in the US called the Face-to-Face Project. Out of this experience has come lifelong friendships, joy that’s nearly impossible to replicate, and a helpful perspective on life that I would have surely missed without going down this path. For many years, I had wanted to volunteer and give back, but I struggled to find a project that really resonated with me. I would make small donations here and there, but never really had a sense of where the money went and if it really made a difference. Reflecting on a few decades of adult life now, what I really wanted during those seeking years was a personal connection to a support effort — a connection that would prove to me it’s possible to have a positive impact in a place that desperately needs it, along with a journey that perhaps would also brighten my soul in some way as it unfolded. Thankfully, I found exactly that. In this post, I share my experiences with you, to perhaps help you find your support calling as well, or at least to brighten your day with a story of connection and warmth that spans continents and cultures.
When the volunteer is ready, the right opportunity appears
When I first learned about the Face-to-Face Project, I was intrigued with their unique approach to improving lives in the poorest regions in the world — specifically in their way of investing in long-term relationship building within the traditional village leadership structure and directly with the PEOPLE receiving support, instead of working through governments and large NGOs. I also appreciated how it all worked on a small budget and by training and empowering local teams, including teenagers, to provide education to their fellow community members on healthcare topics and permaculture gardening techniques. In other words, it wasn’t about dropping in infrastructure or other “things” that attract corruption or about outsiders coming in and telling anyone how something should be done, rather with F2F, it was and still is about providing locals with support to teach each other effective techniques in sustainable farming at a family garden level, and helping them better care for their health.
Working with my fellow coaches Oz & Moritz at one of the first CrossFit gyms in Switzerland back then (CrossFit Zurich), we organized a 5K run up a local mountain as a fundraiser. We made a video of our group at the top of the mountain and transferred it along with our donations to the project. A few weeks later, we received a video back from a group of teens in the Kang’oma village in Malawi. They were singing, dancing and smiling — in front of huts made from mud — showing a level of emotion that touched me, especially cast against what seemed at the time as a dire backdrop. These warm and smiling teens invited us to Malawi to visit them. And as we had carried a 3-meter long Swiss Alphorn up the mountain in our charity run, they asked us to bring it to Malawi as well! They won my heart with that video. It built a bridge and started a long friendship.
Not long after that moment, I organized a 24-hour workout challenge event, and working with some great coaches, athletes and friends, we made it a charity event for the Face-to-Face Project’s efforts in Malawi. We organized this within 2 weeks — very un-Swiss to rush a process — but passion and drive can move mountains, and that’s how we operated. Our team worked hard physically before and during the event, raised some much-needed funds, had a great 24-hour workout adventure together, and got to know the situation in Malawi at a deeper level.
We made a video for them during this event, and again, weeks later, we received a video back from the village. We were getting to know each other, and a virtual bridge between our communities was strengthening each month.
We thought long and hard about that invitation to visit. We were dead-set against going as a charity tourist, to waste money and time that could be better spent directly on the project’s efforts in local villages. We didn’t want to be the type of people who visit Africa to take pictures of themselves “doing good work,” only to return to their luxury hotel after an hour in the field. If we went, we wanted to immerse ourselves, make friends and really understand with our own eyes what this project was all about. We decided to make the trip.
Seeing for ourselves: visiting Malawi
My eyes were filled with tears upon entering Kang’oma village for the first time. We were packed like sardines in a small truck, bouncing around on rough dirt roads and covered in dust. A group of teens had run from the village to meet us at the main “road” that entered the community. I never felt so alive when I saw them, especially as they were “heroes” I had only seen on video until that moment. They were the ones doing the hard work of the charity on the ground, while living in conditions I had only seen in documentaries. And their eyes and smiles just reached into my heart.
We got to know all of them, as well as Ken Wong, the founder and director of the Face-to-Face Project. And from that moment, we got to truly know the local team in Malawi, the men and women who do all the work to make F2F as effective as it is. That first visit to Malawi, which happened right around the time I was crossing into my 40s, was life-changing for me and an experience I will forever treasure. No grand adventure or holiday to an exotic island has or will ever match the range of emotions and feeling of being human, alive and connected to others, as I experienced it in Malawi the first time.
Years passed and we grew not only our relationship with Face-to-Face in Malawi, but also our 24-hour charity events. Other gyms in Switzerland joined the project, including BeastMode Baern, where a good buddy of mine, Chrigu Imhof, would go on host numerous fundraising workout events and bring his unmatched energy & heart to Malawi on countless visits. Chrigu and I were both eventually asked to join the F2F Board, roles we have served on a volunteer basis ever since.
I’ve visited Malawi 4 times over the past decade. The core local team has been the same for all of these years. Their loyalty and passion is unparalleled. I also had the opportunity to visit the project’s work in Cambodia as well. During all of my trips with F2F, I’ve recorded a lot of video. I wanted to share some highlights with you in this post. I think these videos do a great job of showing not only what it’s like in Malawi and how Face-to-Face’s Victory Garden project works, but also how one can find a volunteer project that connects with their heart.
This has got to be my favorite video from Malawi — guaranteed to bring a smile!
Next up: seeing Victory Garden success firsthand
This is what a challenging water situation looks like
Fitness with the Kang’Oma Youth Group
The joy of gifting a bicycle
I hope you found some moments that resonated with you in this post and in the videos. What I offer in closing is that when you observe an opportunity, a situation or even a problem in the world that creates a spark in your heart — run toward that spark. Ask questions about it. Get involved. Dig in, even if it scares you to do so. Your ability to not only help others, but to help yourself along the way, is absolutely worth getting out of your comfort zone to fully explore. Few, including myself, regret taking those steps. Once we’re out of this pandemic, I look forward to seeing my friends in Malawi again. And I look forward to hearing from you as well, about wherever and however you focus on your own support projects.
Wishing you the best,
Jeff Grant is the author of Flow State Runner: Activate a Powerful Inner Coach’s Voice, Hill Running: Survive & Thrive, Run Faster: Unlock Your Speed in 8 Weeks, Running Heavy, and UltraRunning: Ultimate Guide. Based in Switzerland, Jeff is a coach and writer who specializes in mental coaching, peak performance, and transformation. He is also a Co-Founder of BridgeX Teams LLC, a global virtual team building company. Jeff’s popular newsletter is a digest containing inspirational and instructional resources, including his latest content. See recent issues and subscribe for free here. Refer to Jeff’s bio for more information, and please check out Jeff’s Coach & Author page on Facebook.