Even when I was a child I wanted to help the poor. I was born and raised in France and Africa was in our backyard, so I always had dreams of helping people there. But for the first 45 years of my life I was selfish – I worked and got married and had kids…
In December of 2003 my wife and I went to Seychelles. We were sitting at the bar when my wife said, “Look – that’s Emma Thompson the English actress.”
I have a way with people so Emma and I became friends that night. A year later she visited my wife and I at our house in Provins.
When Emma visited I came to find out that she was an ambassador for ‘Action AIDS’ – one of the first AIDS related organizations in Uganda during the 1980’s. Hearing about what she had done with Action Aids…it was like the dream I had as a kid had been muted all these years…and she unmuted them.
“Can you introduce me to a friend of yours doing philanthropic work in Africa?” I asked.
Emma introduced me to Noerine Kaleeba, the co-founder of TASO (The AIDS Support Organization). I became friends with Noerine and in 2008 I went to Africa for first time. I went to a primary school for orphans that Noerine had helped start. The school was about to lose financial support from the Elton John AIDS Foundation, so I wrote a check for $10,000 to pay the salaries of the teachers. But I knew I wanted to do something more than writing checks to NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations).
Noerine’s grandson Komo is autistic. Noerine set up an autistic learning center near Entebbe and called it the Komo Autistic Center. She asked me to create a 501c-3 non-profit that would be valid in the United States and allow people from the US to donate money and be able to ‘write off’ on their taxes. But in the middle of the registration process I decided to rename the organization the Komo Learning Center and dedicated it to providing education to vulnerable kids: orphans, HIV positive, refugees, etcetera.
I refurbished the school with solid roofs and transformed another ten acres into farm land where the children could learn to farm, feed their families and sell the excess food for a profit. I ended up subsidizing 320 children for primary school and another 120 for secondary school.
But the problem with my sponsorship was that it was based on needs and not merit. A lot of kids dropped out and never made it to tertiary school (college). This wasted $1,200 per child, but the worst part is that it broke the dreams of the children. That’s not how I operate – I wouldn’t drop my own kid, so I didn’t want to drop any of these children. I wanted to always find a solution. I had an obsession with making it work.
I decided to refocus my efforts and started another organization called ‘LEAP’ which is a school for drop-outs. LEAP moves away from the classical education and focuses on teaching a vocation to the bottom of the societal pyramid. We teach the children ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ skills. How to become an entrepreneur and create a business. Self-confidence. Banking 101.
The courses last for a year and then the students begin their apprenticeship where they utilize their new skills as a hairdresser or shop owner or whatever else. The goal is that the children start their own business at the end of the year. Currently 81% of the children that have gone through the LEAP program have started their own business.
My whole life is about sharing. About what I can give to others. Whether that’s advice, love or a connection. Every time I meet a human I try to give them something that will make a difference in their lives. Brain, heart, muscle – whatever I can give. My reward is watching the children blossom. To know I’ve changed so many lives for the better is an incredible feeling.
Goose Chronicles Outtakes:
“What is your most important life lesson?”
“I've become a much better human being because I’ve learned how to forgive. One of my employees stole money from me. After I fired him he asked me for a loan. I gave him the loan but he didn’t pay me back. I believe in second chances, but not third chances – you have to cut your losses at some point. But I still forgive him for what he did to me.”