Launching an International NGO: A Conversation with Cara Lawler
Tell us about yourself. Where are you from? What were you doing professionally before your first trip to Africa?
I was born in Pittsburgh, PA, but I grew up mostly in Aurora, CO. I went to school at Chapman University, and worked as a fitness coach at Train Insane Gym in Anaheim, CA for a few years right before my first trip to Kenya.
What made you decide to volunteer in Africa?
I had always wanted to go to Africa. I’ve always been interested in the music and culture, and I wanted to explore it for myself! My best friend signed up with the Peace Corps in 2013, and I was insanely jealous when he was placed in Rwanda. After a couple of weeks it hit me…it’s pretty silly to be jealous..I could go too! I wasn’t ready to commit to two years with the Peace Corps, so I looked into other volunteer opportunities and started with a three-month trip to Kenya with International Volunteer Headquarters (IVHQ).
Where did you volunteer while on that first trip? What was the experience like?
I volunteered at the El Shadai Grace Children’s Centre in Githurai Nairobi, Kenya. I always struggle with explaining this experience to people…it’s nearly impossible to avoid using all of the cliches that you expect to come out of my mouth. I hate using terms like “life-changing” and “inspiring” which have become so generic that they’ve all but lost their meanings.
But when I use a washing machine, I am truly grateful that I don’t have to hand wash every item in that load of laundry. When I use a dishwasher, I am truly grateful that I get to put my dishes in and walk away to do something else while my dishes are washed for me. When I turn on a faucet, I am truly grateful that I have an unlimited supply of clean water at all times. When I walk down the street, I am truly grateful that I live in a country where our sidewalks are paved and our streets aren’t quite literally filled with trash. It also completely changed my attitude about how I want to spend my life, and what is truly important. The children at El Shadai are some of the funniest, brightest, and sweetest children I’ve ever met, and they deserve to have a legitimate chance at a bright future. They are now my priority!
Tell us about your nonprofit, SAWA. Why did you decide to start it?
SAWA—Someone A World Away—is an international NGO that currently supports El Shadai. We help with their rent payments (for their home and private school) as well as other daily needs for the children. We have four sponsors who pay for the older children to attend higher quality secondary boarding schools, and we have several monthly donors who contribute to their ongoing needs.
I decided to start SAWA after my first trip. I knew I couldn’t just go back to my everyday life and treat those three months as an interesting vacation. Those kids changed my life, and I knew I wanted to continue to support them. During my first three months there, the other volunteers and I accomplished many renovation projects to improve the living conditions at their rental property. But eventually we hit a dead end with projects that were worthwhile. At some point, it made no sense to continue to improve the property because the landlord could kick them off at any time and raise the rent for his newly renovated property! We all realized that they would always be limited by the space and conditions until we could get them into their own permanent home.
I decided to start SAWA so that all volunteers (past, present, and future) could work together to accomplish this long-term, life-changing goal. When we are able to build a new orphanage, we will eliminate their monthly rent payment, provide them with electricity and running water (neither of which they have now), more space for the kids to live comfortably, more space to bring in more children off of the streets, and provide the security that they will always have a roof over their heads.
What were some of the challenges and highlights of launching an international aid organization?
It’s absolutely an exciting process, and some of it has been quite fun! But it is definitely always evolving and changing, and we are learning a lot as we go! I am lucky enough to have a few amazing friends who have started their own international NGOs in Kenya and in their home countries, so I have a lot of great resources to guide me! One of the greatest challenges is bridging cultural gaps between processes that are normal here in the US and processes that are entirely different in Kenya. Communicating between my friends/family here in the US and my friends/family in Kenya and trying to explain both sides of the coin isn’t always easy! It’s important for our donors to understand how things work in a country so different from our own so that they feel comfortable trusting the orphanage staff with their money.
What is your day-to-day work for the nonprofit?
Day to day work can be anything from updating the website, to coming up with new fundraising ideas, to researching grants, to answering interview questions! Everyday is different. The exciting part of being a new organization is that the world is at our fingertips…there is no shortage of work to be done to move our project forward!
How often do you travel to Kenya? What’s it like managing the nonprofit from abroad?
So far, I have been able to travel to Kenya about every six months. I returned from my first trip one year ago (Dec 3 actually!) and now I’m leaving for my third trip next week. It has its challenges, but I am extremely close with one of the women who works at the orphanage, Debra, and she and I talk via WhatsApp almost daily. She is my right hand, and I wouldn’t be able to manage everything without her help.
From your experience, how is working in Kenya different than working in the US? How have you adapted to working in Kenya?
The culture is completely different than in the US. One of the hardest adjustments was to realize that their main priority is NOT time…and we are completely obsessed with time in the US. “Kenyan time” can mean anything from 20 min-2 hours late, and Kenyans joke about it with us. Everyone is more focused on personal relationships rather than time; so if you meet a neighbor or friend in the street, you would never blow them off and say, “I’m sorry, I’m running late!” You greet them, speak with them, and arrive at your destination whenever you arrive…and it’s just fine!
During the first few days at the orphanage, my volunteer partner and I had big plans for how to be the most efficient with the housework the next day–one person could wash dishes, one could cook lunch, one could fetch water, and we’d have everything done before lunch, so that we could run errands afterwards! We soon learned that the time spent with all of the women at the orphanage in the kitchen wasn’t always the most efficient, but it became the source of some of our favorite memories. THAT is the point. Personal relationships above all else. The work will get done in time!
What advice would you give to other women who have had similarly impactful experiences while volunteering abroad and want to continue their work?
I would tell anyone that if they enjoyed themselves, continue the journey! It is SO easy to come back home and settle right back into our “norms” and forget all about our experiences abroad. Continue on! Travel somewhere else! Stay involved with the people you met, both volunteers and locals! It absolutely takes effort…but traveling the world is an amazing privilege that can enrich your life in ways you can’t imagine. Don’t leave it behind in the back of your mind as “something you did once.”
Anything else you’d like to share with the Pink Pangea community?
Traveling to Kenya truly changed my life. I fell in love with 23 beautiful orphaned children, learned about a culture drastically different than my own, learned a lot about myself and my own culture, and made some incredible lifelong friendships. Since I decided to embark on my first trip, I have heard more people tell me how they’ve “always wanted to do something like that,” and I wish I could tell the whole world to GO. DO IT. Figure out a way. Even a week-long trip can be amazing! Make your life experiences a priority, and make it happen!