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?"
Brooks, it turns out, can do a lot of things—not because he is any handier than the rest of us but because he is perhaps more willing. He carries a little Canon point-and-shoot camera with him everywhere, uploading pictures and videos for the many people who follow him online. When a couple he met in Katmandu last winter introduced him to the 40 orphans they'd taken in off the street who were sleeping on the concrete floors of their three-bedroom home, Brooks introduced the 40 orphans—laughing and tumbling around, all the while shoeless and subsisting on rice—to his online friends. "If you show happiness that needs help, people respond better," he remarks. "Rather than saying, 'Look how sad they all are—everyone's hungry,' I say, 'Hey, I've got these amazing, joyful kids. Let's help meet their needs.'" Thanks to the instant nature of Internet donations, he spent the next two weeks buying bunk beds for the children and kitchen supplies, as well as installing a water tank and an awning for the sun-scorched roof.
Anybody can do Guerrilla Aid, according to Brooks. It is simply a matter of showing up somewhere and offering some small bit of your time and energy. "If you're on vacation in Cancún, there are three orphanages within driving distance," he says. "Why don't you make that part of your spring break? Go in, do something, get out." Guerrilla Aid is about fitting yourself into the culture you're visiting, he adds, noting that he never plans a project in advance but rather arrives in a new place and starts by asking questions and listening. "You don't just show up and say, 'Here's me and here's a present from the U.S.,'" he explains. "You say, 'What do you need? What can I help you create?' And then with them, you create what they want. You are building upon their idea, not some idea of your own."
Over the past several years—traveling on a budget of about $20 per day, with periodic breaks in the United States—Brooks has given away clothing, wheelchairs, bikes, water jugs, and chickens. ("Chickens are kind of a universal theme," he says. "Almost everybody is better off with a new chicken.") In rural India, he passed out notebooks and pens to schoolchildren. He laid bricks at a temple restoration project in Nepal. In Mozambique, leading a group of volunteers, he built a well and planted saplings on a deforested patch of land. He has given milk cows to Masai widows in Kenya, added books to a library in Laos, planted vegetable gardens in Senegal, and hauled firewood in Ethiopia. Last March, arriving on foot in a rugged and hilly part of southern Uganda, he held a fund drive to buy thumb pianos for members of a pygmy tribe who'd been forced to sell their traditional instruments in order to afford food. Brooks's blog posts to his own tribe of supporters at home usually reflect his irreverent humor ("Is my butt looking better? Because with all of this hill climbing, there's got to be something that comes out of this…."), wide-open heart ("Okay, I'm crying again!"), and unswerving focus on whatever is left on his to-do list. "We're still a bit short on chickens, cows, and dresses," he wrote from the pygmy village last winter, "but all in all we're well on our way."
His work, however, is not without its hazards. He's been stranded on an empty stretch of the Mekong River after the boat he was traveling on broke down. He's had dysentery and bug bites, and every once in a while sees a snake he wishes he hadn't. And last March, while riding a motorbike on a rural road in Uganda, Brooks came around a blind corner and was hit head-on by a truck. He broke his right shoulder, lacerated his face, and shattered his left arm and several bones in his left leg; after passing several hours splayed in pain on the side of the road, he was rescued by a passerby and driven to a clinic two hours away. He has spent the past seven or so months recovering in hospitals in Kampala and New York, where he just had his eighth surgery.
But somehow it's all worth it. One of Brooks's videos from his time with Uganda's Batwa people shows him meeting a white-bearded old man named Kilembe, who was living alone in a straw hut, unable to walk and with very little food. Asked what he most needed, the man said he'd like to live in the nearby village so he wouldn't feel so isolated. "Okay," Brooks said brightly, as if discussing what to make for breakfast, "so we just need to build him a house?" Over the next two weeks, assisted by villagers, Brooks built a thatched-roof mud hut for Kilembe, a communal chicken coop he then filled with chickens, and a beehive colony to help the villagers establish a source of income. Now finishing intensive physical therapy, Brooks expects to be back in Uganda by Christmas to check up on Kilembe in his new home before continuing on with a round-the-world Guerrilla Aid odyssey meant to promote the idea that small gestures can make a big difference. And that the rewards are entirely mutual.
"Honestly," Brooks declared one day last winter, while videotaping the lush hillsides and Batwa villagers using pickaxes to clear land for the coop, "I am the luckiest man on the planet."
More Stories of Giving
Sara Corbett is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine.
Printed from Oprah.com on Wednesday, March 12, 2014
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