Feature Story written by Jen GodboldLately I have been seeing more and more situations going on where celebrities are helping children in developing countries. Oprah Winfrey recently opened a school for girls in South Africa. Jessica Simpson won a car at an awards show and traded it for a van that she donated to an orphanage in Mexico. Angelina Jolie has done countless work with children overseas and is now a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Jolie has even gone so far as adopting three children of her own from developing countries. Madonna has followed in her foot steps by adopting a boy from Africa.
I think that sometimes when we hear these stories, we are not able to see how a small contribution can help these children. We feel that any contribution we make isn’t going to make any difference because the problem is so huge. Or we may feel that it’s somebody else’s responsibility to help. With the media portraying celebrities as doing so much for children in developing countries, it seems like only celebrities and rich people have the means to help make a difference.
However, this isn’t the case. We fail to notice the individuals in our own communities who are working towards making great improvements in the lives of children in developing countries. These individuals have assisted these children simply by accumulating big and small contributions from donors.
One of those remarkable individuals is my best friend Sunyata Choyce from Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia. She is the young woman who founded Project COLORS International. I met Sunyata in grade ten. Sunyata was different in that during a time when everyone felt it was important to be liked and popular, she already knew exactly who she was and what she stood for. I remember when she told the guidance counselor that she was going to work with children in developing countries. He looked at her and said she would never do it because she didn’t fit the typical characteristics of people who go and do that type of work. That guidance counselor obviously wasn’t aware of the saying don’t judge a book by its cover.
Prior to founding Project COLORS, Sunyata was looking at working for other international organizations, but was discouraged when she found out that they involved fees, and were all operated by middle-men. Being the most practical person I know, Sunyata didn’t see the sense in paying money to be a volunteer when none of that money gets to the host organization you’re actually going to work for. Creating Project COLORS was Sunyata’s way of making sure that the money donated would go directly to getting the supplies that the children needed, rather than towards administration costs and fees.
How it all began…
Sunyata initially went to South African to work with primates, but the owners of Monkey Land took one look at her and said she would be giving tours to the tourists, not feeding and caring for the primates as she was promised. As soon as she heard this she was out of there. Soon after she left, Sunyata met a German girl on a bus who was working with AIDS orphans. With the help of her new friend Sunyata realized that she could do more by creating some small-scale projects to get funding for the children.
In an interview with The Daily News Sunyata said that “it was very grass-roots, because we were working directly with the
people we wanted to help, we experienced what they experienced, even on a different scale but we were there.” She also makes an interesting point in saying that “we are not that far removed that these children could’ve been us or someone we know.”
The idea grew into Project COLORS – Children Overseas Learning Opportunities and Resources – International. Sunyata tells me that they went with the American spelling because she simply couldn’t think of anything for the letter u. I asked Sunyata why she chose the name Project COLORS, her reply was endearing. “Well, I thought of a few different names but colours just seemed to fit. Colours capture ideas. People also tend to associate colours with art and children playing with colourful things. It also fit well because the project initially started in South Africa and the children there were an array of skin colours.” I tend to think of the name as though Sunyata has brought colour and hope into the lives of the children she has helped through her
The experiences and stories that Sunyata carried with her about the children from South Africa led to the expansion of Project COLORS into orphanages in the Dominican Republic. The children from the orphanages began to receive care, and benefit from Project COLORS programs and initiatives. “Essentially it was the project in Africa that inspired a chain reaction,” Sunyata said. “I was also able to share stories with people about what Project COLORS could provide the children of South Africa with. It was the children’s stories of success and hope that led to us receiving more support from donors. In an indirect way it was like the children in South Africa were helping the children in the Dominican Republic with stories of their poverty situations and how Project COLORS helped.”
Sunyata had proved herself in South Africa and this made launching Project COLORS in the Dominican Republic much easier. When Sunyata left the orphanage people were still supporting Project COLORS. With Sunyata’s help the network of support just kept on growing. Sunyata says that “the donations are typically generated from the success stories of the children. The outpouring of support I get when I need help for these kids is amazing,” she said. Jackie Franco director of Jackie’s Children’s Home in the Dominican Republic had this to say about Sunyata; “you’re our voice we can’t get the attention of people in North America the way that you can. You can tell the stories for us. We can talk all we want but no one’s going to listen.”
One of the programs Sunyata started through Project COLORS was an educational program for the children of Jackie’s Children’s Home in the Dominican Republic. Sunyata feels that one of her greatest accomplishments is that the educational program has grown beyond her having to be there all the time. A teacher continues to teach the children each day at Jackie’s Children’s Home. Through COLORS Sunyata was able to start ESL classes, and help pay for teachers wages.
Sunyata continues to spread the word of Project COLORS locally. She speaks with elementary students throughout Nova Scotia, and tells them about Project COLORS. She explains what she does and tells the students stories about the children that Project COLORS has helped overseas. Sunyata does this with the intention of inspiring students by showing them how they can help make a difference for these children. She shares this concept with the students she speaks with, “it’s not about how much; it’s about what is accumulated when everyone pitches in even a little bit.”
As a way of involving the students of Nova Scotia with Project COLORS, Sunyata has developed small size fundraisers that the students can take part in if they want to. The fundraisers are called Coins for COLORS and Pennies for Pencils. “I tell the students that this is a very special way for them to help the kids in the Dominican Republic and other developing countries,” she said. “This makes the students feel good, and it’s great to see kids in Nova Scotia helping the kids overseas. It teaches them so much and shows them that they can do it.”
Sunyata tells me that the response from the young students has been great. “It’s wonderful to see the enthusiasm from these kids after I give a presentation about COLORS, they get so excited. The students I speak with want to do these fundraising projects to help the kids overseas. It’s amazing to me how the enthusiasm of children is the same in any part of the world, rich or poor.”
Having Sunyata as a best friend has given me the opportunity to read about her experiences in the e-mails she sends. The stories she shares are often very humbling. One that stands out in particular is about an outing with three of the little girls from the orphanage. Sunyata along with a volunteer took the girls to an exclusive resort in the Dominican Republic and walked right passed a guard who didn’t say anything to Sunyata. With her long blonde hair he assumed she was a guest of the resort. The girls spent the day swimming and enjoying the beach that the resort was located on. At the end of the day, Sunyata took the little girls to a shower at the resort to get rinsed off. This was the first time these little girls had ever been in a real shower with warm water. Sunyata showed me the picture of the girls in their bathing suits enjoying the shower. Words cannot express the joy and exhilaration on their faces.
Sunyata’s goal is to help people all over the world, one person at a time; to give them what they need or want in small, but meaningful ways. Whether it is shampoo for head lice or a pillow for a wheel chair or a pencil to write with, she wants people to feel special and cared for. In a CBC interview Sunyata was asked if she gets overwhelmed with the enormity of the problems. She replied that she takes one step at a time. She can’t worry about how big the problems are. She can just do one little thing for one person, and that often makes a big difference. No matter who we are or what we do, small steps towards kindness and love do make a difference.