Ten years ago Sunyata Choyce travelled to South Africa to do volunteer work. Instead she ended up working at a wildlife rehab centre called Monkeyland. “I went there and I really wanted to do the rehab work, but they really wanted me, more or less, to be an English-speaking tour guide,” Choyce recalls.
While there, she met a German volunteer who was working with AIDS orphans. “I thought, ‘Wow, that is really amazing.’” Choyce left Monkeyland to volunteer at the orphanage, where they noticed gaps in the necessities available for those orphans: basic needs, including toothbrushes, footwear and pencils. They wrote letters home to family and friends asking for donations of basic necessities and money. “I think our goal was $500 and we ended up with $5,000,” Choyce says.
That idea of filling the small gaps was the seed of an organization that became Project Colors International, a small non-profit, volunteer-run aid organization that works on community-based projects in South Africa, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Madagascar and Sri Lanka. “Colors really just grew out of the philosophy of connecting with people and telling the kids’ stories and making things happen,” she says. “Ten years later, it’s still going.”
Halifax Magazine recently spoke with Choyce about the experience.
How does it feel knowing that Project Colors is now a role model for other organizations and people?
It’s good because I feel like we can instill that feeling of the agent of change in anyone. Every individual action in everyone can be an action for positive growth. I think so many people think the problems are so big what can I do. They don’t realize the small gaps are hard to fill.
People have a tendency to think globally and not just in their own communities.
Part of the program I do is how to teach people to be agents of change, how to make a difference. When you’re excited and passionate about something, how to take action on it. It’s all about small steps, everything is small steps. When you have this huge goal and you don’t make those small changes along the way, you might never get there because it’s feels so unreachable. If you’re going to do something away, but you haven’t done anything at home first, it’s kind of hard to get donations because someone will ask “What have you done?” It’s the primary building block.
What is your goal for Project Colors?
I want to be able to do this as an ongoing career. I want to develop it to the point where it’s sustainable, it’s ongoing, other people can use our philosophy. I am so happy to share information with others. So many NGOs don’t share with each other. I really think we need to share, network and grow and respect each others’ capacities, and help those small organizations on the ground in developing countries grow to their fullest potential. Colors doesn’t have to be a huge organization. I think sometimes when an organization gets too big they lose that connection, those relationships, that personal touch, making sure things happen and people are being responsible. I think that’s really key.
What are the challenges?
It’s almost like being an international aid worker/FBI agent sometimes just trying to figure out who needs what, who’s really going to follow through. My motivation is seeing the people on the ground doing it already. This is their life, their passion. They are doing it whether they are rich or they are poor. So you know they are going to keep doing it and all you can do it make it better and stronger.
What have you learned through this work?
Everything is unexpected. You pretty much go into it being completely flexible knowing anything can happen. It’s quite a high-risk job. When I’d leave my house on a workday I’d literally say goodbye to my things. Or you get back to your car and your window is smashed out for the fifth time. That sort of thing wore me down. I think you need to be really strong with this kind of work. I wasn’t ready for the challenge of how much I could take on. I wanted to say yes to everything. So, learning how to say no and making those choices, what’s the best choice given the funding, the timing and my own mental capacity.
What do you say to readers who are wondering how they can make a difference?
It’s such a cliché to say, “start in your own community,” but I say look within and find what you’re passionate about first. What makes you mad? What’s happening in your community, your city or your school that just drives you crazy? Maybe you can reach out to another NGO, maybe there’s a youth group you could get going. Maybe you can incorporate something with music or gardening. There are all kinds of things. But if they’re looking to help overseas, a lot of people take trips in the winter. I would highly recommend what I do and what all my friends do, we pack first-aid kits and educational supplies. So, even if you’re going to a resort, bring those things with you and take it directly to a hospital, school or orphanage when you’re there. A lot of those experiences for people are a lot better than spending a whole week at a resort. That one day going to visit a real project with real people and taking some of those extra items with you. That is something quite small, but I think it plants the seed of doing something bigger later on.