By: Liz Burkhart, Whole Foods Market Team Member

Seeing is believing.

For the past two and a half years, I’ve worked for a company whose mission and purpose extends well beyond the four walls of our stores, but nothing is as powerful as seeing that impact first-hand.  In 2005, Whole Foods Market launched our nonprofit Whole Planet Foundation to empower the working poor in developing countries to lift themselves out of poverty through microcredit. This summer, I was blessed to see that change in action.

Eight other volunteers and I set out on a two-week adventure to visit our Whole Planet Foundation microfinance partner, Jamii Bora Trust in Kenya where Whole Foods Market sources coffee, and to volunteer in a neighboring community. 

Our journey began with a week of volunteering with Comfort the Children International –a nonprofit providing hope through relationships by taking a holistic approach to community development. With CTC, we worked side-by-side with the youth soccer team to build a poultry house that would generate income for the team.

Only a handful of families in Maai Mahiu can afford to send their children to school beyond eighth grade, and the job market for teens in town is virtually non-existent. With no work or school to attend to, many young people turn to drinking, drugs and even commercial sex work. Our work with the boys was not only helping them to build a poultry house, but also a sustainable future for themselves and their teammates. With the profits from selling eggs, the youth will be able to buy their own equipment, learn the value of financial planning and the importance of owning their own futures.

In Maai Mahiu, we also took part in the monthly town clean-up as part of CTC’s “Ubuntu Day.” Ubuntu means “I am because we are,” – in other words, I’m the product of the whole community.

 For three hours, people from all over the town gathered to collect the mounds of trash piled around the city. With no public waste system, the people of Maai Mahiu been throwing their trash out into the streets for years, which had caked itself into the soil, under the bushes and in the trees. Now, armed with a new appreciation for their environment, the town worked side-by-side to reverse decades of pollution.  I was so inspired to see all of the young children who were excited to be agents of change in their own community. As we wrapped up Ubuntu Day, all of the volunteers planted a tree on the clean-up site.

Here are two of my fellow Austin-based volunteers and I planting our tree – which we named Bevo. The local children promised to look after him while we’re gone.

After our week with CTC, the group traveled to Masaai Mara – 690 square miles of conservation land along Kenya’s southwest border. Almost all of Africa’s wildlife is represented in the Maasi Mara and our amazing Safari guides, Masaai warriors “Daniel” and “Nelson,” helped us spot it all… except Rhinos, who, according to the warriors, are “very shy.”

Then came the cornerstone of our trip – meeting the incredible people of the Jamii Bora trust who’ve dedicated their lives to helping the poor to lift themselves out of poverty.  I’ve been a supporter of Whole Planet Foundation from my first day at Whole Foods Market – from paycheck contributions to Prosperity Campaign support – but nothing can compare to experiencing the sheer passion and drive of our partners in the field. 

We first met with our guide Gabriel, a product of Jamii Bora and local DJ who works to shed light on national issues on air through his weekly radio program. Gabriel took us to meet with Mama Ingrid herself, who started Jamii Bora with a group of 50 street beggars more than 20 years ago. After hearing the story of how the Trust began, microfinance clients shared how they had lifted themselves out of poverty – from street beggars, criminals and commercial sex-workers – to successful, proud business men and women thanks to Jamii Bora. I sat speechless in their presence.

Over the next few days, we toured through the coffee growing region of Neyri, meeting with microfinance clients to get a glimpse of the incredible work our Whole Planet Foundation is supporting. 

On our last day in Kenya, we visited Kaputei – a new eco-forward town being razed on 293 acres for Jamii Bora members. Once completed, this town will bring more than 2,000 families an opportunity to live in a clean, safe neighborhood with access to pure water and a premier education for their children.

In the new town, we meet with microcredit clients like Jane, who thanks to the small loans she took out from Jamii Bora, had started a small tailoring business and was – for the first time ever – able to move herself and her family out of the slums.

After more than a week back in the states, I’m still struggling to put this soul-moving experience into words. There is just no way to box it into one blog post or even 50, but the memories of the people we met in Kenya will live on inside me forever. If you’d like to see more, check out some more photos from our trip at: 

Special thanks to Chelsea Dee, who helped us capture many of the special moments we experienced while volunteering with CTC.