When you reach a certain age, you have two choices when you’re asked how you wound up where you are in your life. You can either spout a well-honed story of charting your career step by step, every decision meticulously planned. Or you can tell the truth, which for most people is that a whole lot of random coincidences have put you in places that you never would have dreamed of had written your own future.
That’s what I was thinking last April, when around 3,000 Cameroonian villagers danced and chanted my mother Dorothy’s name as they sang praises to me. It was the celebration of a senior center, dedicated to my mother and funded through generous donations from nearly a hundred Americans. This surreal episode happened because a remarkable man in Cameroon decided to do something sustainable with a heartfelt donation of $500.
My journey with Francis began in Perth, Australia, in 2015. We were both invited to speak at the Global Aging Network conference, and we wound up on the same panel. I am fiercely proud of the work done by our company It’s Never 2 Late, connecting older adults living in senior living communities to modern technology. But when I heard Francis’ story about how he has successfully stood up against policies that oppress women and the elderly in Cameroon, I felt a sense of awe and insignificance. We spoke briefly after his presentation and went our separate ways after no more than 15 minutes of conversation, but his spirit stayed with me.
Back in the U.S., I sent Francis a brief email of thanks and had our company send a check for $500 to honor his work. There were certainly no strings attached; it was just a small gesture of kindness and gratitude for Francis’ work. But instead of the form thank-you letter I expected, Francis had a different response that has completely rocked my world (and will ultimately rock the world of thousands of Cameroonian people).
Six weeks later, I received an innocuous email from Francis. To my amazement, and also my amusement, Francis had taken the $500 and established the Jack York Elderly Woman’s Sustainable Goat Rearing Project in Northwest Cameroon. He went to nine villages and delivered each a goat designed to help foster his mission of people taking care of themselves and for each other. Along with the narrative, Francis sent videos of people chanting thanks to Jack York, man of wisdom, for his generous donations to Cameroon! Are you kidding me? These videos were an intersection of National Geographic meeting Saturday Night Live!
Soon, I found myself wondering what this man and his organization would do if they were given more money, say $20,000 or $30,000. With that in mind, we invited Francis to the U.S. for a whirlwind fundraising trip combining thousands of miles of driving with thousands of miles of flying. In two weeks, we visited seven states and Washington, D.C. It was magical, not only seeing Francis’ exuberance on his first trip to America, but also seeing our country open its arms to welcome this gregarious man from 7,000 miles away. The trip raised more than $30,000, which led to the funding of the senior center named after Dorothy York—the first facility of its kind in Cameroon.
This story has not ended. If $500 can turn to $30,000, what’s the next step of the journey? Why not keep thinking bigger? One painful reality I saw with Francis’ help is how a lack of school bathrooms in Cameroon causes thousands of girls to drop out before graduation. So Francis will be back in the U.S. this fall, and we’re delighted to say we’ll be visiting the state of Washington. Our goal will be to raise funds to construct one bathroom that could honor the state of Washington. I will head back to Cameroon to help build these bathrooms in April 2018.
So the message is simple: Whether you send the $500 check, or receive the $500 check, we are all change agents on this marvelous planet of ours. If you keep your eyes open, and look beyond your current situation, you might start the next revolution to make things better. And if you’re really lucky, you may even have a goat named after you.
Jack York is a co-founder and president of It’s Never 2 Late, a company dedicated to helping older adults use the power of technology. Learn more at in2l.com, and see more stories and photos from Cameroon on the website’s blog.