Barnes: Austinites reflect on visits to Nobelity Project Kenya efforts

Updated Feb 11, 2015

“Two stories, cold and bare, still Mahiga Hope High School is the highest and best use ever made of cinder blocks,” says Austin lawyer Eric Groten of the school in Kenya supported by Austin’s Nobelity Project. “Within its walls, 14- and 15-year-old kids are doing titrations using glassware and reagents that came from … I have no idea. But there they were, half a dozen teenagers hovering over burettes and beakers. Not quite lasers in the jungle, but close. I was shocked to see the opportunity to learn volumetric analysis extended this remotely.”

Groten and his family are among the Austinites who have witnessed firsthand the work of more than a dozen Austin-based charities whose primary labors are overseas. He and others shared some of their memories in advance of the Nobelity Project’s Feed the Peace Awards Dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel on Sunday. Actor Kyle Chandler and musician Steven Van Zandt will be honored.

“The biggest deprivation that the Mahiga kids overcome is not material, but in providing a culture which says that this chem class is what everybody does to understand the world, rather than tend emaciated cattle,” Groten continues. “Just getting to that endpoint in chem class requires a level of effort and competence that few of our kids have known. Which is why my kids learned more from their day at Mahiga than they have some years in the Eanes Independent School District. Mahiga and other schools like it are changing generational momentum, on both side of the Atlantic.”

His wife, civic and fitness leader Maria Groten, talks about how even the hardships sharpened the experience for her and three of their kids.

“Every moment was life-changing for myself and our children,” she says, “from the drive to the school on dirt roads to having a hard time leaving because the children were surrounding our vehicle not wanting us to go. Our kids … were in awe of the Mahiga children. It was one of those times in life when I saw nothing but joy and love in everyone around me.”

Leslie Moore, owner of Austin’s Word of Mouth Catering, first encountered the Nobelity Project’s Turk and Christy Pipkin while catering the premeire of one of their movies. After exposure to their events and films, he started thinking of himself more as “a global citizen able to contribute something meaningful to the greater good.”

Then he visited Kenya.

“It was overwhelming to be so close to it all,” Moore recalls. “Right in the middle of dozens of young students and teachers, seeing their smiling faces, talking with them, sitting in classrooms, in the kitchen, taking pictures, watching performances and hearing what a difference Nobelity has made. It not only changed their lives but changed my life as well, and my attitude about all of the things we take for granted here in the U.S.”

Eric Webber, public relations director for the Austin advertising company McGarrah Jessee, got involved with Nobelity for selfish reasons. He likes the Pipkins.

“Hang out with them in Kenya? Count me in,” Webber says. “What they knew, that I didn’t, was the profound effect a trip like this can have on a person. That sounds Pollyannaish, but it’s true. When you meet kindergartners who don’t have to carry water two miles to school any more, or share the excitement of a student who won’t have to quit school after the eighth grade, it’s humbling, inspiring, fulfilling, a little embarrassing even. Most important, though, is that it provides a valuable lesson: You don’t have to have deep pockets to make an impact. Even a modest level of giving or involvement can create a significant difference for a student, a school, an entire village.”

Two charity luncheons

In the past, charity luncheons provided a safe option for Austin nonprofit leaders. Maybe a dozen such events were scattered over the fall and spring social seasons, so they didn’t really compete with one another. Lunches are less expensive to stage than evening galas and are less likely to get out of hand, since iced tea is the drink of choice.

True, lunches don’t gross $1.5 million, as the recent nighttime Dell Children’s Gala did. Yet the right kind of luncheon has long been an efficient, effective way to raise a few thousand bucks while allowing folks to bond with a nonprofit and, incidentally, to wear slightly dressy attire in the middle of they day.

Well, word is out. Two giant luncheons, Power of the Purse and Philanthropy Day, competed back-to-back with two other midday fundraisers last week. The first filled the Four Seasons Hotel banquet room and, so I hear, the garage, which turned away guests. The next day, the second event packed the much larger and still new Hyatt Regency Austin’s Zilker Banquet Hall. It also produced a spillover parking situation. (Since I walked to both lunches, my parking reports are based on hearsay.)

The first, the Power of the Purse, toasts the Women’s Fund of Central Texas, a giving group assembled by the Austin Community Foundation. The second, Philanthropy Day, is an international event sponsored by the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

The former gives out grants to area charities in denominations of $10,000 or $15,000. The latter recognizes leaders in the philanthropic community. Both programs are entertaining and enlightening. Ace lawyer Mindy Montford emceed the Power of the Purse event, and giving-group powerhouse Rebecca Powers did the honors for Philanthropy Day.

At the first, I sat with the folks from St. Louise House, about which, before this lunch, I knew nothing. It provides affordable housing and services for homeless women and children.

At the second, I had the privilege of sitting between David Smith, interim chief at the Thinkery, and Andrew Watt, president and CEO of the AFP’s international umbrella group. He told me that each local chapter does P-Day differently, but some of the most moving are to be found in Central America.

If you follow me on Twitter (@outandabout), you already know that the Women’s Fund bestowed its generosity this year on St. Louise House, Breakthrough Austin, Girl Scouts, People’s Community Clinic, Wonders and Worries, Hope Alliance, CASA of Travis County and Kids Vision for Life. All these charities focus on the needs of women and children.

Meanwhile, Philanthropy Day recognized Erika Herndon, Whole Foods Market, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, the Austin American-Statesman’s Season for Caring campaign, Pediatric Dental Professionals, Arlene Miller, Emily Moreland and the dynamic young trio of Claire Labry, Karlie Franke and Bridget Black.