I have warm childhood memories of reading the Little Prince, the Secret Garden and To Kill a Mockingbird, among other well-loved books. These early favorites often shape who we become later in life. I believe my interest in social justice issues was first inspired by reading the latter book. So when an author of children’s books hired me to do some pr/marketing work for his collection, I was thrilled. Not that I DON’T enjoy writing about hydropower turbines and power plants … (sigh!)

Rick Moser’s Little Fables books are a delight. Each book spins an imaginative tale with a warm life lesson (kindness,

An illustration from the Chocolate Story, one of the books in the Little Fables collection

compassion, etc.) and lovely illustrations resembling woodcuts. Even better, a portion of each book sale goes to a children’s cause related to the theme of that particular book. The Chocolate Story benefits the International Cocoa Initiative to support their efforts to end forced and child labor in West Africa. The Lemonade Story benefits the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation which raises funds for childhood cancer research. The Pillow Story benefits Lazarus House, a homeless shelter in the Chicago area. A fourth title, The Scarecrow Story, will be added to the collection in August.

A scene from The Lemonade Story

Okay, here’s where it gets fun for YOU! We are giving away a free set of the first three books in the Little Fables collection, which will be signed by the author. All you need to do to register is post a comment at the end of this post, telling me the name of your favorite book when you were a child. (If you were a big reader as I was, you can list more than one book!) You have until May 27 at 9 pm Central Standard Time to register. Then we will post the name of the winner (US residents only) at 8 am CST on May 28 and contact them to get their mailing address.

Happy commenting!



Toes everywhere, rejoice!

by Cathy on May 6, 2010 · 4 comments

in People,Shop

Liz and Ben Bohannon are commanding your toes to rejoice. (Yes, that IS their company motto!) Why, you may ask? Because now your toes can be clothed in adorable sandals the Kansas City couple design and market to help raise money to send impoverished Ugandan girls to university. But this isn’t about handouts.

Liz fell in love with the Cornerstone community in Uganda and started a company to raise university funds for them.

Liz and Ben’s company, Sseko (Say-co) Designs, hires these young women for a nine month period between secondary school and university, to live and work together creating the sandals. The money they earn goes toward a university education at Cornerstone Leadership Academy. Three young women — Mary, Mercy and Rebecca — have already earned enough to attend university, with other women soon to follow. The hope is that these educated women will then become leaders who will help bring transformation in their war-torn country.

Liz shares her experience that led to the company:

“During my time in Uganda (on a trip following college), I came across an incredible community called Cornerstone. And in that community there was an incredible group of young women. They were mostly my age.  They became friends.  The commitment of these young women blew me away. I was consistently challenged by the fact that these women saw their education as a gift. They were not only committed to learning their subjects,  but also so committed to learning how to love well. To love each other. To reconcile their lives. To lead their countries.

Cute sandals just like these help change the lives of women in Uganda.

When I came to learn that many of these incredible young women were struggling to find work to finance their university education, Sseko was born.  It seemed so simple. I designed a sandal that I thought was really beautiful.  I was just a small part of a simple solution. Some of these young women are from villages that have never seen one of their own women continue on to university.  All they needed was an opportunity to succeed and earn and save. To work in a place that was dignified and honoring. We make beautiful things. We laugh and we love and we dance and we learn. And every nine months, we let go and we send these incredible women off to pursue dreams of their own.

Although consumerism makes many empty promises, responsible and proactive consumerism has the ability to change lives. Like the lives of Mercy, Mary and Rebbecca.”



Rolf Potts (left), travel writer extraordinaire, shared stories that made a Tuesday night memorable.

Monday was a turning point for us. Our youngest turned 16 and can now drive herself everywhere! Mr. Blog and I have not experienced this type of freedom for 19 years! So on Tuesday night, we did what any self-respecting, middle-aged couple would do. We grabbed the car keys and headed to the nearest college town. Rolf Potts, travel writer extraordinaire and author of Vagabonding and Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, was speaking at the University of Kansas.

We entered the room at the student union brimming with hip and cool students. Every head turned in our direction as we sat. “Were we Rolf’s parents?” they must have wondered. We did not care, we were free!

The moderator introduced Rolf by saying “Rolf Potts has a more interesting life than you do.” And he was right. Rolf travels the globe as a writer for National Geographic Adventure. His travel essays have also appeared in Salon, Conde Nast Traveler, and on National Public Radio.

I had never attended an author’s reading and you would think it would be a big yawn, but it was fun. He read from a few of his hilarious, insightful essays about

  • attending a Star Trek convention on a cruise ship (yes, it was as weird as  you would imagine)
  • teaching English in Korea and then being taken to a transvestite musical review by his students
  • being drugged and then robbed in Afghanistan and living to tell about it
  • crashing the movie set of a Leonardo DiCaprio movie in Thailand …

You get the picture. It was not your typical night on the couch channel surfing. He also shared some insights that anyone could apply, such as:

  • Embrace the unexpected in both your travels and your daily life. For example, he went to Cuba to learn salsa dancing but instead learned how to play the bagpipes. (Evidently, playing the bagpipes is big in Cuba because of the lingering influence of early European settlers.) He went to Thailand expecting to be immersed in Asian culture and instead found himself visiting a town that recreated the life of American cowboys and Indians. (Who knew?)
  • Nearly every culture he has visited cherishes the extended family. Strong family ties are central to the happiness of most people in the world. For that reason, Rolf chose to make his home base in rural Kansas to be near his extended family.
  • Time, rather than money, is the truest form of wealth. Therefore, you have to make time for the things you value in life.

Our next weekend getaway: The Oread Hotel in Lawrence, Kans.

After the presentation, we walked down the street to tour The Oread, an amazing new hotel built at the end of Jayhawk Boulevard in Lawrence. Very cool place. That’s definitely on the list for a weekend getaway.

So what about you? What’s on your list for mid-week breaks or weekend getaways? How are you making time for a little adventure in your life?



You know those people from elementary school you reconnect with years later on Facebook? Lori is one of those people on my friends list. We were chatting online about interesting people we knew who might be good subjects for this blog. She put me in touch with her friend Marcel Zuidhof, whose recent adventures characterize the Uncommon Lifestyle.

In 2006, Marcel and  Verizon colleague Onno Oostveen decided to bow out of corporate life for a couple of years to volunteer for a large NGO.

“Thinking about it more closely, we decided to set up our own project instead with both a social and economic component,” Marcel said.” Both of us spoke Spanish so we searched for a country in Latin America. The poorest country, Nicaragua, was a logical choice. During a discovery trip, we learned two things about the country: that tourism is growing and that many children either abandon school or don’t start at all.”

They decided to open a small hotel, the Hotel con Corazon in Granada, Nicaragua aimed at adventurous travelers who have outgrown hostels. Profits from the hotel would be invested in local educational initiatives.

Marcel Zuidhof (right) is beloved in this Nicaraguan community where he opened a non-profit hotel to fund education initiatives and provide jobs.

“Children who get an education develop themselves early on and still have their whole lives ahead of them,” Marcel said in an interview published in the IESE Business School alumni magazine. “Education is key for their own development and that of the community and economy.”

They found a derelict property in need of major renovations. The first step, though, was to secure funding for their project. Two NGOs provided 180,000 euros; corporate sponsors such as Carlson Wagonlit Travel provided 50,000 euros; and family and friends gave 85,000 euros by purchasing shares in the hotel.

“In reality, you can’t sell shares in a non-profit but we sell shares of 500 euros with a fixed dividend of one free hotel night each year,” Marcel said. “And as one of our Spanish shareholders pointed out, at least this is one investment where the return is fixed.”

Dozens of friends pitched in to transform the derelict property into a lovely hotel that benefits the community.

Then, 27 friends rolled up their sleeves to transform the property into a lovely hotel with 16 rooms, a bar, patios and a swimming pool. Even rotted wood beams were recreated as tables and chairs. As a boon to the local economy, the duo hired local workers to help with the renovation and use local suppliers for the restaurant’s food. Hotel guests can learn Spanish at a local language school or tour the area through a local travel agency.

Since the hotel opened, it has had more than 2,000 guests and stands to make a profit of $30,000 in 2010 alone. “We use the profits to fund two local, internationally backed NGOs and we pay salaries for professional teachers who do catch-up classes with the youngest kids in a very marginalized neighborhood. We have advertised in some local media but the best promotion comes from Trip Advisor. We have also been included in the Lonely Planet as an author’s pick.”

After a two-year stint in Nicaraugua, Marcel and Onno returned to Europe but continue to serve on the Hotel con Corazon and making plans to open additional non-profit hotels. “In our previous corporate lives, we had worked at large multinational companies but our independent spirits were strengthened through this project,” Marcel said. “Now, we work for small internet companies that are more entrepreneurial.”

More than 2,000 guests have stayed at the renovated hotel. In 2010, the hotel stands to earn $30,000 in profits that will be invested in local education.

Marcel had this advice for those in business who want to use their wanderlust to benefit others:

  • Follow your heart and stay close to the things you are good at.
  • If what you want to do feels right, don’t be stopped by the skepticism around you.
  • The bonus is that doing something different for a couple of years enriches you more than any other thing in your life.

Marcel concluded, “Our enthusiasm for the project kept growing as we went along in the business planning and all at once, we passed the point of no return. It really made it easy to quit our corporate life of working for large multinational companies.”


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I first came across the work of Samantha Oulavong when I was researching another topic for the blog. Her story inspired me to think about whether I was using my creative talents to bless the lives of people in need. A few years ago, Samantha was an ordinary educator in Chicago with an interest in photography.  Then she saw a movie and had a chance encounter in a Milan airport that changed the trajectory of her life. I’ll let Samantha tell you her story:

The movie “Born Into Brothels” in which photographer Zana Brinski transformed the lives of the children of Calcutta through photography made a huge impression on me. I wasn’t sure what I was to do with that stirring, though. Later, while waiting for a flight in the Milan airport, I met a director of a non-profit organization who works with children in Nicaragua. I told her we should keep in touch.

Two years later, I won a grant from Best Buy to purchase photography equipment to teach my middle school students. “Born into Brothels” kept haunting me. I knew I had to do something. I contacted the lady I met in Milan and shared that I would love to do a photography workshop with her children. After months of planning, I was on my way to Nicaragua. I brought eight digital point and shoot cameras with me.

Students from Samantha's photography workshop in Nicaragua

The organization received donated computers and laptops, so I was able to teach the children how to edit their photos using Picasa, downloaded from Google’s website. I posted their work on Flickr. Through critiques and positive reinforcement, the children went from being passive listeners to active learners. They were eager to express their thoughts about their work. It was exciting to see them come out of their shells and verbally express themselves.

From there, I developed a plan to work with non-profit organizations that serve marginalized children. My job would be to lead photography workshops with their children and document organizations’ work to help them raise funds. I created a non-profit organization called LOVE (Lens Of Vision and Expression)

The next year, I returned to Nicaragua to lead a workshop with the children living in La Chureca, Managua’s landfill. I was horrified at the filth surrounding these families. The week that I spent with my students from La Chureca , however, convinced me that this was what I was meant to do. The pride and confidence displayed by these children through my praises and critique of their work made my physical discomfort meaningless. They were able to share their thoughts through photography and it made them feel significant — not just children from the dump, but young photographers creating art with a purpose.

Of all the children, I believe Wilfredo, a glue sniffer, had the hardest life. The director of the organization warned me that children who sniff glue are not reliable. I took a chance on Wilfredo and the images he captured were as raw as they come. Due to the hardship of his life, his images had more maturity compared to the other students’ photography.

A few days later, I got an email from a gallery owner in Nicaragua who had been following my blog. He told me he would like to display the students’ work at the cultural center in Granada, Nicaragua, to help LOVE raise funds to help these children.

At the exhibit, the most surprising response was from my student Flora. She was shocked to see all the people coming to see her work on display. Tears streamed down her face.

Phors, a 12-year-old living in a Cambodian slum, shot this photo. She dreams of becoming a doctor.

A week after the exhibition, I flew to Cambodia to work with a non-profit organization that serves children affected by the AIDS/HIV virus. Kosal, one student, had to drop out of school in seventh grade to work as a parking attendant to support his family. In my photography workshop, he proved to be unbelievably talented. I showed him the work of several famous photographers including Dith Pran, a fellow Cambodian.

Kosal worked hard to learn from their work and tell stories about his life through photography. It is heartbreaking that Kosal’s talent would have gone unnoticed if he was never given the opportunity. Through the help of a Flickr contact, who contacted John Vink of Magnum Photo, Kosal was able to attend a photography workshop for photojournalists at the National AIDS Conference in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Through some contacts, I arranged for a large non-profit to sponsor an exhibition of the children’s photography and got press coverage from Voice of America Cambodia.

After my trips to Nicaragua and Cambodia, I led similar workshops at an orphanage in Haiti and with impoverished children in Thailand.

Currently, I’m developing my business, Samantha Photography, to finance future trips. I’m also focusing my energy on selling the children’s photographs to raise money to support the children. For example, I’m selling the prints of one student, Farah, who is 16 years old and in need of bus fare money so she can attend school outside of the landfill. That’s what my work with LOVE is all about – giving these children a way to finance their dreams through their own creativity.

If you work with a non-profit organization that has benefited from Samantha’s photography workshops, tell us about it. Click on the Comments section to share your story.

Samantha sells photos such as this from her student photography workshops to provide money to help fund opportunities for impoverished children.



Lee visiting orphans in Thailand

Lee visiting orphans in Thailand

When Emlyn Lee boarded a plane to China in 1995, she had no idea what her life purpose might be. She did know, however, what her life wasn’t about.

“After graduating from the University of Maryland, I landed a good job, but wearing a suit and sitting behind a desk all day sucked the life out of me ,” Lee said. “I wasn’t ready for graduate school,  so I sent my resume to relatives living in China. The next thing I knew, I was boarding a plane to teach English at Wuhan Iron & Steel University. I had downgraded my life significantly, earning just enough to cover expenses and travel in Asia, and I lived in a tiny, very basic apartment. Yet, I had never been more uplifted, connecting with the residents and experiencing the culture from the inside.”

The next stop for Lee was managing operations on a luxury tour boat on the Yangtze River. “Managing these high-end tours was a 180 degree turn from working at the university and integrating with the community,” Lee said. “I was earning US $120 a month teaching English, which was double the local salary, yet customers on the riverboat tours were ordering $120 bottles of wine. Eventually, I would merge these two experiences when I created my business.”

From those early years in China, Lee built a life working, teaching, volunteering and traveling around the globe. “Sightseeing and learning about local history are interesting but what I really enjoy is having long conversations with local people, trying foods that Andrew Zimner of ‘Strange Eats’ wouldn’t recognize, and spending the day wandering a neighborhood.”

On one particular trip to Africa, she realized that other tourists also were interested in connecting with the local people and  making a positive contribution to their lives. She would periodically depart from her tour group to take much needed items to a local orphanage or impoverished village. Soon, the other tourists learned about her side trips and wanted to join her. Those trips to the local orphanages and villages became the highlight of the tour for them.

Those experiences eventually led Lee to create Cultural Embrace, a company that enables people to travel internationally in ways that engage with the local culture. Through a Cultural Embrace program, participants can teach English, work or intern in a non-technical job, volunteer, study or travel as a group in more than 30 countries. Trips can be as short as one week or as long as a year. In 2009, 40 participants taught English, dozens of people volunteered, 50 students interned at various companies, and 25 young adults worked in non-technical jobs abroad through the program.

“Our American culture has changed since 9-11,” Lee said. “People are trying to determine their life’s purpose and are more willing to work in a job that is less financially compensated if it is more personally rewarding.”

Cultural Embrace is serving communities in Guatemala

Cultural Embrace is serving communities in Guatemala

For 2010, Lee and her company plan to build relationships with at-need communities by sponsoring and facilitating projects that will benefit their residents. This is currently being developed in villages around Antigua, Guatemala with plans to sponsor communities in Kenya and India later in 2010. In Guatemala, Cultural Embrace will be working with Keith Ferrazzi of Ferrazzi Greenlight to raise funds, awareness, and provide opportunities for people to volunteer in Guatemala and beyond. The two companies will work with the Guatemalan communities to create a plan to encourage education, promote gender equality, end hunger, improve access to water and sanitation. The plan will also hold village members accountable for their actions relating to population control, pollution, littering and health.

Travel has shaped my life and I’ve been fortunate to be able to combine my passion with my profession,” Lee said. “Cultural Embrace has allowed me to be a bridge that leads others to discover the world in a purposed-filled and meaningful way.”



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