I’ve waited literally months to share this.
The annual September campaign is past, and respect for the privacy and security of the Smiths has been given. I’m now free to share some of the details of our trip to Ethiopia this past summer.
Rewind a little bit. In 2011, you helped my company, Authentic Jobs, raise nearly $25,000 for charity: water in our annual campaign. That amount, or the sum of your generous donations, qualified our campaign for the chance to visit Ethiopia with Will Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith.
But only two spots on the trip were given to each of the three qualifying campaigns, based on overall donation amount. I remember fielding the call from Paull Young, notifying me that our campaign was one of the three, while I was at the soccer fields watching my sons train. I was elated. And yet, simultaneously, I felt empty inside. You, all of you, had donated so charitably, and I didn’t feel worthy of an opportunity that every one of you should have been privy to.
Weeks passed before the details of the trip were finalized by charity: water, in large part due to working around the Smiths’ schedule. This afforded me plenty of time to continue lamenting the fact that I shouldn’t be the one to go; that all of you were equal suitors for the chance. In the end, I convinced myself that I would represent all of you on the trip. My wife, Suzanne, was the logical choice to occupy the second spot, having been at my side since founding Authentic Jobs seven years ago. I felt her perspective would be critical to sharing the experience with all of you.
Fast-forward to Summer 2012. We were on a flight. A rather long one. To Ethiopia. TO JOIN UP WITH WILL SMITH WOW THIS IS CRAZINESS SRSLY? And how were we supposed to address them? Mr. & Mrs. Smith? Agent Jay & Gloria? We asked ourselves this question numerous times, I assure you.
To clarify, and this is important clarification, the trip wasn’t about the Smiths. It wasn’t about visiting Africa with an international superstar and his celebrity wife. We were there to see the impact charity: water and its supporters (again, you) have made in one of the many regions where charity: water has brought clean drinking water to local villages through freshwater wells and other purification efforts. We were all in this together for three days.1 And it really felt like that.
For those three days from sun up to sun down, we traveled from village to village. Some villages were very remote requiring half-hour drives by car over rough terrain. Some had received a well already. Others were anticipating receiving a well. All were welcoming.
As we drove into each village, a welcoming party was there to greet us, sometimes numbering several hundred strong. Signs in both Tigrinya and English were waving, drums were beating, and we were expected to dance with the locals (which we did). It was a party unlike any other I’d ever seen. Most importantly, it was a gratitude party, as I’d call it. Have you ever attended one of those? I hadn’t prior to Ethiopia, and it was incredible to experience.
After the initial welcome, we were whisked away to the center of the village where we were fed and showered with gifts.
The expressions of gratitude continued, which were nearly redundant, for you could see the gratitude written all over their faces. Words weren’t necessary to convey their appreciation. It shone abundantly in their countenances.
There was plenty of walking, and during that time we had a few moments to chat with the Smiths. We joked about the scene in one of his movies where his face swells up from a food allergy. “That really happened to me as a kid,” he explained, but from a bee sting. “So we worked it into the movie.”
There were other times we shared meals together, back at the Gheralta Lodge. We sat right across the table from Will and Jada on a couple occasions, and they were genuinely pleasant.
Yet as I said earlier, we were all in this together. We were there for the locals, not the other way around. Will and Jada took every step in stride, as we all did. You can see, for example, the genuine interest and concern on Will’s face as he watched Suzanne give an impromptu speech at one of the schools we visited.
I was fortunate to capture her speech with my iPhone. I was seated with the rest of the locals, and pulling out my rather cumbersome Canon 7D didn’t feel right. So I quietly removed my phone from pocket and began filming. How grateful I am for doing that.
But of everything we experienced during the trip, nothing impacted us like the children. Consistently we were left behind by our group as we tried to communicate with them using hand gestures, as we took photos and showed them the images on the camera’s screen, and as we made them smile and laugh with high-fives and other Western gestures.
Just look at those faces. How can you not fall in love with that?
Below are video recaps from our trip. The first we produced, and the second was produced by charity: water. Most of the footage in both was captured with my Canon 7D camera, which records video exceptionally well.
As for the impact the children had on us, I’ll share more about that before the year is over. For now, please enjoy the videos and photos. More importantly, please share our campaign site on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and consider donating generously to help us reach our $30,000 goal.
The ‘we’ being Suzanne and myself; Will and Jada Smith; Matt Hall and Dr. John Nosti of Smile Generation (the second qualifying campaign); charity: water founder Scott Harrison and two important staff members, Lindsay Ratowsky and Lauren Miller, who masterminded literally the entire trip. Jane Berentson of Inc. magazine, the third qualifying campaign, was unable to attend our trip but did attend another. ↩