In this issue, we meet an actor, singer and dancer from Toronto whose breadth of talent is matched by her desire to help others. She has been taking humanitarian trips to underdeveloped countries since she was a teenager with Third World Awareness, the not-for-profit organization that she helped to create. Looking at her background and education, it seems that she was meant to travel, to learn about different cultures, and to bring smiles to people’s faces.Bridget Olufunke Ogundipe was born to a Nigerian father and a Guyanese mother. The two met in Canada and made their home in Lagos, Nigeria, where Ogundipe was born, then moved back to Toronto when she was two years old. As a student at Brother Edmund Rice High School, Ogundipe joined her drama teacher and basketball coach, John Calaghan, on a humanitarian trip to Trenchtown, in Kingston, Jamaica. Calaghan organized these trips on a yearly basis, going to places like Jamaica and Nicaragua during March break and leading his students in helping others who were born into less-fortunate circumstances than themselves. Calaghan retired when Ogundipe was in the twelfth grade. None of the other teachers at Brother Edmund Rice were planning to continue the trips, but Ogundipe and a number of Calaghan’s other former students were reluctant to stop them – and so, as it turns out, was Calaghan himself. “So we found a way,” says Ogundipe. “We got support, we did it, and after we got to university there was still a small group of us that said ‘Let’s take this further.’ ” The trips were moved from March to mid-May to avoid conflicting with university exam schedules, the group created a name for themselves and became a not-for-profit organization, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Third World Awareness is funded by its Board of Directors, on which Ogundipe has sat ever since its inception, and by private donations. They became a registered charity to encourage these donations, and none of the Board members get paid at all – they pay for their own travel and expenses, and fundraise whatever they can along the way. “It’s a devotion, not a job,” insists Ogundipe, explaining that supporters are appreciative of the dedication they can see in the organization’s members. “The people that run our organization actually do the work, we actually go down there . . . and I think that attracts donors to our organization. Our representatives are honest and genuine. Our motto is ‘Through helping others, we help ourselves,’ and that’s basically it. We go down and give people joy and love and we receive even more back. And no one is excluded . . . there’s no requirements, there’s no form to fill out, there’s no background check . . . it’s just ‘You’re willing to do something like this, you’re a good person.’ ” This is a stark contrast to many large faith-based humanitarian NGOs – one former member of TWA now works with an organization, where she was surprised to learn that no one could be hired without being a baptized Christian.
Employee background checks are just one thing that TWA chooses not to use; they also work without marketing campaigns, or even a formal business plan. They do have meetings and they do keep records of donations and expenditures, but they rely mainly on word of mouth to attract participants and donors. “We’re very good speakers. We have big mouths,” Ogundipe laughs, “and we have our website. That’s it. Because we’re so passionate and very connected, people are drawn to us and what we do.” They do have one large fundraiser event every year: “It’s a concert that [Board member] Charity Adams promotes, and we probably raise between $700 and $800 per year.” Aside from that, TWA holds an annual Walkathon to raise money and awareness (their most recent one was on April 26, 2009), and some members choose to sell chocolates for $2 a box.
Ogundipe is not bothered by the fact that this may appear to some as a loosely structured organization – she says that it adds to their authenticity and grassroots appeal. “We want the work we do to come from an honest place and we don’t want to be motivated by anything else except for ‘This is what I should be doing as a human being.’ We don’t want to lose that essence of what it is, where it’s coming from.”
And while other organizations have more specifically mandated fundraising efforts than TWA, the money does come. The same spirit that motivated high school students to spend their March break working with the poor in Kingston continues to motivate individual donors and sponsorship efforts. When asked about whether the recession has made it harder to gain enough funding, Ogundipe concedes that “We’re not doing as well as we were last year, that’s for sure, in terms of donations, but the money’s coming in. I don’t know how much of that has to do with the recession,” she adds, noting that in 2008, an individual who had participated in two TWA trips inherited $10,000 and donated it all to help out with TWA’s work in Haiti. The logistics of each year’s trip are planned out once the Board Members have sat down together in early May and reviewed the funds that are available. Calaghan and Ogundipe are the only two TWA founders who are still actively involved in the outreach aspect of these trips; they have now been doing this work for 20 and 12 years, respectively.
Aside from continuing her humanitarian work and furthering her acting career, Ogundipe (who went on from Brother Edmund Rice to earn an Honours degree in theatre from the University of Toronto, along with a minor in biology and one in anthropology, and an acting diploma from Sheridan College – all within a span of five years), plans to continue writing scripts and songs, and recording her first album. She recently wrote her LSAT exam and hopes to pursue a career in humanitarian law, to “incorporate my experience with TWA into making a difference in the legal aspect of things. I’m very spiritual and I do believe in God, and I just want to be used right now. I just want to be used – based on my strengths, not my weaknesses,” she laughs.
Her advice for others is to “Live your life and do you, man. Do you. Don’t let fear get in the way of you living and doing what you want to do in life. . . . Fear can make you do some very regrettable things.” She notes that in the beginning, her family was apprehensive about letting her go to Trenchtown to work with the poor, but she now sees taking that risk as the smartest thing she’s ever done. “TWA is the greatest gift and the greatest privilege I’ve ever had in my life,” she says earnestly. “We want to provide people with an experience and for them to become aware of the situations beyond our own box . . . to provide basic necessities for people in impoverished situations, and to spread our love and spread our joy in whatever way we can, and also to become better human beings. I think that’s the end goal.”
For more information, please go to www.twawareness.org.
What They Do
Third World Awareness participates in a variety of projects. Most are based in Port-au-Prince’s Cité Soleil, a densely populated area whose residents live in shacks, among swamps, fighting with disease – it has been called the poorest slum in the Western Hemisphere.
The Manual Building Project allows volunteers to help build a school from the ground up. TWA has hired a six-man crew from among the unemployed adults in the community, and the volunteers help them out in whatever way they can. Since schooling is not free, TWA is working to provide scholarships for students. They have also tried to set up a meal program, building a kitchen, buying food, and hiring a woman to cook, but Ogundipe notes that this type of work is sometimes hard to continue because once they return home to Canada, it can be difficult to monitor whether the work is still being done.
Another site of work is Mother Theresa’s Home for the Dying, a hospital for AIDS patients. Volunteers give aid here depending on their skill and training. Sometimes nurses join TWA, and they help to administer vaccines to the population; people who don’t have medical training do simpler tasks, or they just spend time with the patients, playing dominoes and talking to them. There is a hospital right outside Cité Soleil where Ogundipe typically works, doing things like bandaging up the wounds of a nine-year-old boy who had been shot in the stomach. “My daily routine usually would be clipping toenails, giving massages. There’s people with missing limbs, AIDS, TB, whatever. If they get better they get released, and if they don’t, they die.”
There is also the Mother Theresa Malnutrition Clinic for babies. “They’re all malnourished, so our volunteers hold them, they comfort them, they feed them, they change their diapers. Sometimes the parents come visit them. And there’s another home in the mountains for mentally and physically disabled children where some of our volunteers work. So there are options for our volunteers.”
The base cost of flight and accommodation is approximately $1,200 CDN per person, but any donation effort helps. Please visit www.twawareness.org to see how you can help.
D C. Dolabaille