Salt Lake City’s CHOICE Humanitarian, helping African communities

Story and slideshow by ALEXA WELLS

Visit Kenya with three women who volunteered for CHOICE Humanitarian.

CHOICE Humanitarian, The Center for Humanitarian Outreach and Inter-Cultural Exchange, is an organization that helps the countries of Kenya, Nepal, Bolivia, Guatemala and Mexico. According to the website, the goal is to “end extreme poverty and improve quality of life through a bottom-up, self developing village-centered approach.”

CHOICE Humanitarian was founded in 1982 by Dr. Tom Evans and Dr. James Mayfield. It is a registered nonprofit organization and takes pride in making every dollar count with solid management and low administrative costs. The headquarters are located in Salt Lake City.

CHOICE expeditions are open to the general public and all ages and different backgrounds. Each village has different projects depending on their unique needs. There are many different tasks that volunteers may end up working on such as: classroom construction, community water systems, bio-gas digesters, health clinics, personal hygiene workshops, pit latrines, micro-enterprise training and other village needs.

CHOICE Humanitarian focuses efforts on two of Africa’s highly impoverished areas, the Kwale and Kinango districts located in the Coast Province of Kenya and East Africa. According to worldhunger.org, in the Kwale area, 32 percent of the population has been reported to be classified as “food insecure” while 40 percent of the population is in absolute poverty. This district results in one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country.

According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development, about 79 percent of Kenya’s populations lives in rural areas and relies on agriculture for most of their income. Nearly half of the country’s 40 million people are poor, or unable to meet their daily nutritional requirements. In some places the conditions have improved since the early 80s, but the poverty rate has remained the same at 48 percent. Kenya has one of the world’s fastest population growth rates and in the last 30 years the population has more that tripled. This population growth causes the country to not have enough resources, resulting in extreme poverty.

Lisa Crossley lives in Layton, Utah,  and has participated in the Kenya expedition for the last three years with her neighbors, Tasia and Kimberly Jensen. Crossley and the mother-daughter team  first participated in the program in summer 2009, where they helped to build a school. In summer 2010, they returned to the same village and helped to teach the children in the school. And the following summer, after saving money from the previous year, they helped improve the water catchment systems in Kenya for two weeks.

“My whole outlook on life has changed since I started volunteering in this organization,” Crossley said. “You don’t realize how good your life is until you go somewhere like Kenya. The children of the school eat a cup of grains for lunch and are lucky to have a place to sleep at night. They are so grateful for the volunteers and the help that they bring to the village. I highly encourage anyone to come and experience this, because it is life changing to be able to make a difference.”

People who volunteer for these expeditions gain hands-on experience while working on the village projects that they are assigned. According to the CHOICE Humanitarian website, “They can learn how to combat poverty with new strategies, such as important hydro-electric installations now in the planning stages. With CHOICE Humanitiarian imput, these and other humanitarian organization projects will result in better economic conditions for tens of thousands of villagers.”

Tasia Jensen said, “I highly recommend for everyone to go on a humanitarian trip sometime in their life. It really makes you appreciate what you have, and you learn so much about the African culture. I spent most of my time hanging out with the children. I did art projects with them and helped teach some of them how to read and write. One of the art projects that was created by the students of Kwa Mulungu Primary School was auctioned off by CHOICE Humanitarian, and the proceeds were to benefit the villages in poverty around the world. They were so happy that I was there to help them, I loved seeing their smiling faces.”

All of the expeditions with CHOICE Humanitarian run one week long. Those who are interested in applying need to book their expedition three to six months in advance due to medical testing and travel assignments. Those who don’t have the time or money to go on expeditions with CHOICE Humanitarian also have the option to donate money to the foundation, get involved in Women’s Equity programs, volunteer at CHOICE headquarters, or create a fundraiser. For example, people can donate money to purchase school desks for the schools in these countries that need them.

“The best part of the expedition was the first day that we got there,” Kimberly Jensen said. “The villagers had a welcome celebration in our honor, and we danced around and sang to their music. It was an amazing experience. They were all so happy to have us there, it really touched my heart.”

Details about expedition costs and country-specific needs can be found on the CHOICE Humanitarian website. The price of the expeditions range from $1,995 to $2,195 per person, not including airfare. The fees include village lodging, food, ground transportation, project costs and materials, and two nights in a hotel. While working within these communities, volunteers are treated as a welcomed guest as they help with their daily life schedules.

“I would help them with their water supply and carry the water in giant buckets on my head. It was so heavy and the temperature there was so hot, I thought I was going to pass out. Then I thought, wow … this is what they do every single day, when all we have to do is turn on the water faucet,” Tasia Jensen said.

While the expeditions are only one week long, most volunteers stay extra days and book other adventures and things to do before or after. Things like sightseeing trips, safaris and hikes are all common outside of the CHOICE Humanitarian program.

“The first year that we went to Kenya we booked a week long African safari after our humanitarian excursion. I am so glad that we did that, it was a great experience to see all of the wild zebras, lions, cheetahs, elephants and so many more amazing animals,” Lisa Crossley said.

CHOICE Humanitarian continues to lift the spirits of thousands of villagers within the five countries where volunteers work. In Kenya, the major tool to fight against poverty is education.

“I will continue to volunteer for this organization because it has changed my life,” Kimberly Jensen said. “I do not regret a minute of my time I spent helping the villagers and children in Kenya. I will make sure that my kids get to experience what I have experienced, and I hope that more people will become involved in humanitarian projects.”