Today we’d like to introduce you to Peter Opa.
Thanks for sharing your story with us Peter. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
I come from an impoverished area of Africa called Adjara. It’s so poor, life expectancy is under 50. My mother died at 45. My brother Gnonwatode died at 23. Young, highly talented minds are wasting away for lack of opportunity. Students are dropping out of school because of hunger. Parents have to choose between buying books for children and putting food on the table. In fact, my coming to the United States was a miracle.
I’m forever grateful for this country and to the American people. I’m grateful for the opportunities, grateful to the people who helped me. Like most immigrants, I started from the scratch, working at night and going to school during the day. I wanted to be a waiter so I could interact with the customers, but my accent was too heavy. So, I worked as a dishwasher. I also did security jobs before landing better jobs at Safeway, Sear, Countrywide, Fox Network, etc.
Not too long after I landed in the United States, I began receiving frantic requests from home. Struggling widows, the sick who needs medication, drop-outs who need help to go back to school, girls who are defiling gender bias and struggling to go to school against their parents’ wish—they are all bombarding me with requests for help.
A Visit that Changed My Life
After living happily in America, I visited home in 2007 and what I saw broke my heart. The level of poverty had gotten worse. I saw young boys—as young as 13 years old — dropping out of school to fend for themselves; girls as young as fourteen prostituting themselves for food and some of them being forced to marry men old enough to be their grandfather. I was greatly saddened to see that something as basic as food was forcing students to drop out of school. Not only that, the girls were asking me to beg their parents to send them to school. It’s disappointing that many parents still believed that the girls’s place is in the kitchen, not the classroom. I was moved to tears when school dropouts started begging me for books. They understood that education was the key to break their vicious cycle of poverty, but had no help. Not only that, the evil of child marriage was more widespread. I spoke to parents who told me that it was a waste of time and money to educate the girls because they eventually would end up getting married into a different family.
I didn’t have all the answers. But I wanted to help. I wanted to work with the people. Though I lived in the Untied, I never considered myself smarter than them. I wanted to find out from them how they wanted me to help them. So, I called a town hall meeting and listened to their ideas. I took notes as they spoke. They needed a resource center, which included a library. And they needed help for gifted students in the community to finish their education, especially the girls.
From the American Dream to the African Dream
I came back from that trip with a firm resolve to help. I decided that I was no longer going to pursue the American dream of a big house and luxury cars when young lives were wasting away in my village because of poverty. My new dream was—and still is—to bring hope to the young girls and boys people who are hungry for education, but have no resources. They had my work cut out for me at the town hall meeting and I wanted to do my best.
And I Cried . . .
For the library project, I started asking friends and neighbors to donate their used books. Instead of gifts or dinners, I would ask for book donations or book parties for my birthday. From there, I started reaching out to libraries and librarians for book donations. I would never forget the day I went to the talk to the librarians at the Pasadena Library. What they told me—and what I saw made me cry. They told me to check the trash bins in the back of the library and I saw tons of good books being thrown away. Medical, nursing, science, business, education, maths, technology, spiritual, literature, and all kinds of books in garbage cans waiting for the landfill. Even new books! My heart jumped in disbelief! I started thinking of people who were begging for books in my hometown and began to cry. I just couldn’t hold back the tears thinking how the information in some of those books could change lives in Africa.
Being the Change I Want to See in the World.
To help the kids who are dropping out of school because of hunger and economic hardship, I launched an initiative called Food for School (FFS). The FFS provides food, buy books, and pay tuition fees for the drop-outs to go back to school and finish their education. To fund it, I started doing two jobs. Not only that, I started living more modestly. I moved out of my 2-bedroom house into a tiny studio. In addition, I sold my Honda car and started using public transportation. I stopped buying new clothes, stopped eating out, became a vegan (later, vegetarian) to avoid expensive meals—all in an attempt to save up money to help my village. This is about integrity. If I’m going to be asking people to support this cause, I should be doing the same thing. Besides, I strongly believe in Gandhi’s philosophy that we should be the change we want to see in the world. If children are dropping out of school for hunger in my village, I don’t want to be indulging myself in $30 / $50 steak dinners.
We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Before I talk about challenges, I want to thank our supporters and volunteers for the successes we’ve achieved together. Thanks to our generous supporters, we have helped more than 50 elementary and high school drop-outs get back to school and finish what they started. Some of them are now in college; a few of them have graduated and started working. Their pictures and stories can be found on my blog: www.soulgrateful.org. Not only that, we’ve had successful book drives for the library project. Thanks to our volunteers, churches, Rotary clubs, and students, thousands of books and library materials have been collected for the library project. In addition to that, clothes, shoes, and female hygiene products have been donated to help girls who often miss school during their monthly period. Americans are simply amazing. I’m grateful for their goodwill!
However, it hasn’t been a smooth road. Fundraising is the biggest challenge. Collecting hygiene products for the girls, receiving computer donations for the students, getting people to donate their used books for the library project—those are easy. What has not been easy is fundraising. Not only that, I’m not social-media savvy. Social media gives people the opportunity to mobilize support for good causes, but one needs to know how to do it effectively; you have to know how to work the platforms and that’s something I’m struggling with. So, I want to seize this opportunity to ask readers to please help us. There is goodwill out there. Americans are compassionate and generous people. But they can only support a cause that they know about. Please promote us on your Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. And if anyone is interested in teaching me a thing or two about social media, please give me a call: 510-684-9711.
Please tell us about Rethink Africa.
Rethink Africa is a charity. We are a non-profit, tax-exempt 501(c)3 organization. Supporters get tax deductibles for their contributions. My vision is for this to be a charity anchored in gratitude, fun, and relationship-building. These three elements—gratitude, fun, and relationship—are important to us. We give because we’re grateful for our blessings. Doing good for humanity, having fun doing it. For instance, when you host a book party or fundraiser, new people are met, new friendships are formed. I enjoy meeting our supporters. When somebody gives us a donation, they get more than a thank-you note; they get a call from me. And if they are kind enough to host an event for us, I try everything possible to be there.
Has luck played a meaningful role in your life and business?
I do not believe in luck (good or bad). I do believe that things happen to people and things happen for people. While one may not have control over some of life events, one can choose how to respond to them. You can choose to make lemonade when life gives you lemons. You can see a disappointment as an opportunity or a stumbling block.
- We sell beautiful Rethink Africa t-shirts to raise funds for our projects. For a generous donation of $50 or more, you get to wear one of the colorful t-shirts with pride.
- Website: http://www.foodforschool.net/
- Phone: 510-684-9711
- Email: RethinkAfricaNow@Gmail.Com
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/allways_grateful/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pg/ajaraproject2016/about/
- Other: WWW.FoodForSchool.Org
Peter receiving book donations at the Pasadena LibraryAppreciating the books he dug up from the trash can at a library Well appreciated volunteers and supporters of Rethink Africa. Please join us! Receiving a check from the Rotary Club of Paddington for Rethink Africa’s Food for School (FFS) initiative Beautiful Rethink Africa T-shirt, our thank-you gift for your support Group photo with some of the girls whose education we’re supportingAmazing supporters and volunteers at our fundraising event. Cannot thank them enough!
Picking up discarded, but valuable books in Los Angeles to build a library in Adjara where people are hungry for books.