In the 90s, a Minnesotan family by the name of Jacobson was in central Tanzania on a mission trip through their Lutheran Church. While there in the empty, hilly, rocky farmland of East Africa, their adolescent son befriended a local boy by the name of Evaristo. The boys stayed friends through their teenage years–whether together or apart. And when Evaristo was 19, the mother and father Jacobson decided to sponsor their son’s friend to come to America and get a college education.
Evaristo worked very hard to catch up to his peers in English and technological skills. He graduated and became a software engineer, which is his profession to this day. Throughout these years, he has also married, had a couple of children, and started a project that would eventually involve me–a secondary school in his home village.
Friday evening, April 24, I stood before 110 people seated around large, round tables filling a ballroom in Edina. They had come out for a benefit dinner to support the school at which I had worked for most of 2014.
I stood up there as the feature presenter, the volunteer worker who had arrived to this rural African school with suitcases of laptops and was now back to share his experience starting the school’s computer program. The title of my talk was A Year of Connections.
Hooking the students up with computers, pairing them with a pen pal from Minnesota, seeing electric poles delivered to our previously, off-the-grid village, there were indeed many great connections to share. But I took things one step further. Connections, I said, are just the germination for change. It’s the life that results from the connection that stands out as the miracle.
As I stated this to the audience, I looked to the back–to the Jacobson family. I addressed them as the connection, the spark that made all this possible. I then highlighted all that has been made possible from their son meeting young Evaristo, to lead to the school in Tanzania, and then to this very evening benefit dinner bringing all these people together for a common goal.
It was a thrill to share my stories and help raise money for the cause I labored at for seven months and for the students and staff at the school with whom I built relationships. Relationships, of course, being the type of connection that matters most. Such connections not only allow for the technical connections of computers and electricity and the physical connections of intercontinental flight; but such modern-day connections are inspired with the goal of being able to have more experiences, connect with others, and build relationships.
It was one such connection–made five years earlier–that has led to some other remarkable life activity that I continue to embark on this week.
Five winters ago, I interned at the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, MN. On one February day in 2010, they offered me an assignment: go to a school in the Midway neighborhood and speak to them about a field trip they had recently taken.
I pulled my car up to this school, entered the building, and met with Superintendent Mo Chang. She then called in five students. She and them–and about 20 other students and chaperons–had just returned from Thailand to visit the lands from where they (and/or certainly their parents and grandparents) had come. The trip was a homecoming and a chance for Old World and New World Hmong people to come together, for these American students to relate to and experience the ways of life for their fellows across the world.
I wrote the story:
Almost five years later, October 2014, I had just returned from Africa.
I needed a job, so took to substitute teaching. The day I was allowed to teach, I saw an available half-day, afternoon shift for a school in St. Paul. I thought, “Why not?” I arrived to the school, then to my class, and noticed that almost all the students at the Community School of Excellence were Hmong.
I then went to the office and noticed in the business card holders on the receptionist’s desk the very same card I had collected from Superintendent Chang five years earlier.
Same school, new location.
She didn’t remember me at first when I approached her standing outside her office later that afternoon. Maybe it was my beard. But in seconds, her face lit up with recognition–and then suggestions for more stories I could write for the school.
“Hold on, Mo,” I said. “I’m not with the Pioneer Press. I’m here to teach.”
“Well, we need someone to share the stories of our school,” said the short, middle-aged woman.
We talked in the coming weeks, and they offered me a job as the school’s communications coordinator, social media manager, and English language specialist (proofreader). In our first meeting in her office, Mo brought up the school’s annual Global Connections trip to Southeast Asia and how she’d like someone to go along to document the trip. I knew what she was getting at and became energized with surprise at the prospect of traveling again so soon after just returning from Africa.
“Brandon, are you comfortable with a Third World environment?” asked Mo.
“Have you seen my blog?” I answered with a question.
Fast forward to today, and as I write this I’m counting down the hours to departure. Early tomorrow (Monday) morning, 37 eighth grade students and six of us chaperons are leaving for Thailand. Our main destination will be the rural north and our sister school in the Hmong-populated centers near the city, Chiang Rai. There, we’ll help out at the school, our students will spend school days shadowing their peers, and…
…we’ll deliver laptops.
The Community School of Excellence’s computer club has prepared four computers. These very preparers will be soon be presenters, just as I had been a little over a year ago in a village school in Tanzania.
It’s about the coincidence of computers, connecting students, and getting the opportunity to tell the stories from across the world.
It’s about the connections and the remarkability of life as a result of the Jacobson’s meeting young Evaristo 20 years ago and me writing a story for the Pioneer Press five years ago.
We sometimes point out the unfortunate reality that we can’t know the future. But how incredible are our lives because we don’t know how connection and coincidence will manifest! We get to experience these manifestations and await what’s around the next corner.
For the next several Sunday blogs, I’ll be writing about the corners turned in Thailand.