We didn’t start out with the idea of helping a school build a library. It’s the kids’ fault really. Without them, we would have simply been tourists enjoying a beautiful island in the Caribbean. But they provided the spark of the idea and, back home, they helped keep the idea alive. This is the story of how our two young girls turned a family vacation into a life-long lesson on how anyone can make an impact. I call it “accidental philanthropy” because we stumbled onto it. And it’s been a powerful lesson for our family of four that, as we approach the holiday season, with cooler temperatures and family gatherings, is a relevant lesson that feels worth sharing.
It all started when my wife, Alison, and I were looking for a destination to spend a week. We had several criteria, which included relative warmth (we were looking for respite from the cold, snowy New England weather), great hiking, accessibility (we were leaving our daughters – then 3 and 6 years old – at home with our trusted long-time friend and babysitter and wanted to be able to return home quickly if needed). A good friend suggested the Caribbean island of Dominica. He had never been there but thought it sounded like a place we’d enjoy. After some research and planning, we decided to give it a try. No kids for a full week!
It turned out that Dominica isn’t as accessible as we hoped it would be, but after flying from Boston to San Juan and making a tight connection to a small turboprop plane, we landed on the tiny island in the West Indies. And from the moment we arrived, we were captivated by its natural beauty, the friendly locals, the simplicity and laid back vibe. We spent a week exploring its volcanic rainforests, snorkeling its reefs, eating fresh fruit and celebrating Carnival (Caribbean-style Mardi Gras). As an independent island nation, with 5,000 foot mountains packed onto a 30 square mile rugged volcanic gem, Dominica lacks the topography that large resorts require for golf courses and tennis courts and has an agricultural economic base that so far has protected it from becoming spoiled with an unbalanced focus on tourism. What that means is that locals are generally very friendly and fiercely proud of their beautiful island. It was an incredible vacation – exactly what we were looking for. As we left, we agreed that we needed to return with the kids. And the next year we did.
The idea of traveling with kids that age for a full day with multiple transitions was pretty daunting, but we’d been bringing them along with us on adventures since they were born. Our oldest recently proclaimed she was “born to travel”. Since we’re more shoe-string than 5 star travelers, we were thrilled to hear that our lack of creature comforts hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm for travel. With lots of airplane and car time, we filled whatever space we had available in our bags with books, crayons, games and whatever else would distract and amuse the kids.
These items turned out to be the key to our accidental philanthropy.
Wherever we went, little kids would come up to our children and ask to see their books. It was a great opening for our kids to meet locals. Our girls enjoyed having something that was so interesting to other kids, and the local kids were excited to see the stories that unfolded in these books.
What happened next set us on the course of a 6 year relationship with Dominica and an education in grass roots giving back.
“Why is everyone so interested in our books?” our 6 year old asked us. “Why don’t you ask them?” we replied. In just a few conversations our girls discovered that many of the children they met had never owned a book. No books of their own? This was a mind-blowing concept to our girls, who each had a whole book case of their own books to choose from whenever they wanted. Alden and Willow found it so hard to believe that someone might not have enough money to buy something as important as a book. It opened up terrific conversations with them about poverty, wealth, priorities, what makes people happy and much more.
Through this conversation, the kids both agreed that we should leave all the books we brought with us to Dominica and distribute them to kids here. We left Curious George with kids on the beach andIs Your Mama a Llama? with the son of a woman who runs a restaurant. Coloring books and crayons stayed with the daughter of a woman who cleaned the apartment we rented. The kids felt great knowing that they were sharing something that was important to them and sorely lacking in the lives of the kids they met.
We ended up leaving more than just books. We looked at our clothes as we prepared to leave and assessed what we really needed to keep and bring home with us. We returned home with a quarter of the luggage we left with, and it felt great. It was a terrific vacation. What made it one of the best we had ever had was that we did more than nurtured our own needs. We realized that we were also helping others in a very tangible way. We loved watching our local friends devouring their new books.
It was exciting, motivating, and inspiring, and the feeling made us want to do more. We didn’t plan it that way. It just evolved. Returning home, we found ourselves talking about the people we met and thinking about how the books, pencils and crayons we left there suddenly had a new life in a new place, with people who craved what we often take for granted. For the first time in our travels, we thought about returning to Dominica rather than seeking out a new destination for a future trip.
The girls were really proud to know that their books were being passed along. And most of all, they realized they could make a difference – and they did it without opening their piggybanks!
What we didn’t know at the time was this this was just the beginning. As with any good adventure, this journey into accidental philanthropy took many twists and turns in the years that followed, presenting experiences and opportunities we never imagined.