Photo: Anthony Ayebare
Traveling the world donating clothing, wheelchairs, books, and chickens (when he's not laying bricks, building wells, and planting trees), Barton Brooks is giving without borders.
If you were to go traveling with Barton Brooks, there are a lot of things you might do. You might go for an elephant ride in Laos or take a long hike through a pretty Ugandan farm valley. You might go to the beach in Dubai or spin prayer wheels in a Tibetan village, or maybe just wander awestruck around the Taj Mahal until you figured you'd seen enough to go home happy and fulfilled. But this is exactly when Brooks—the kind of traveler who seems perpetually awestruck and often punctuates a meaningful moment by calling out, "This is a- maaaay -zing!"—will start looking for something better and more hands-on to do, like shopping for hens with a Cambodian granny or digging a toilet for a Kenyan school under a blazing midday sun.
At 38, Brooks is what you might call a professional helper. Simply put, he spends most of his time doing the two things about which he is most enthusiastic: traveling and volunteering. Getting to this point involved swapping a career as a real estate broker in New York for a bare-bones, itinerant existence, which he says is far more fulfilling than making money ever was. "I felt lost for a long time," he says. "I had a bit of wanderlust and somehow never felt like I was home." But four years ago, inspired by an exuberant and needy group of kids he'd met outside a temple while vacationing in Cambodia, he left his job and launched a grassroots organization called Global Colors, a deliberately small outfit with a deliberately simple purpose: connecting people who could use some help with others interested in helping. Most of the actual work gets done by Brooks himself, fueled by small donations made via his Web site ( GlobalColors.org ), but he happily encourages fellow travelers either to meet up with him on the road, or to take a few days out of their vacation time to engage in his particular form of international volunteerism, which he calls Guerrilla Aid. "Those guys who go out and drop 10,000 pounds of grain out of the back of a military plane over Sudan? That's fine, but it's not what I can do," he says. "So why not do what I can do?"