When Amanda da Silva and a small team get on a plane this Monday (June 11), it will be several hours before they reach a group of four small villages in the Republic of Zambia, communities where electricity, running water, and much of the infrastructure the developed world takes for granted are missing.
It's a journey da Silva, a Lambton College business and marketing student, is very much looking forward to taking, but not from a vacation standpoint.
She and several members of one of the newest chapters of SIFE—Students in Free Enterprise—will be undergoing a needs assessment as one of a number of projects that they and their faculty advisor, Jon Milos, hope will be the start of something very big indeed.
The story begins with the enrollment of Thomas Chona to the three-year Lambton College Alternative Energy Technology program. Chona, a mature student who has a banking background before he decided to focus on alternative energy (he graduates at Saturday's convocation), attracted the attention of SIFE Lambton, including faculty advisor Jon Milos (pictured above with da Silva).
It's a remarkable story, especially since the local SIFE chapter only began in January.
While Milos hand-picked four students as the nucleus of SIFE Lambton (da Silva, as well as Amanda Griffith, Kim-Ann Samuda, and Alia Raza), that number has quintupled to 20.
And now they're heading to Africa.
Given Thomas Chona's focus on alternative energy, solar energy would seem to be an obvious step forward, and at least one of the schools in the village of Chona, which is where Thomas grew up, now has a limited solar energy installation.
Still, Amanda da Silva, who serves as president of SIFE Lambton, says the group is following a focused approach to positively impacting the villages they'll be visiting.
"This is a needs assessment trip," says da Silva, who has extended her studies in order to remain incubating SIFE Lambton. "We basically want to know, first hand, what the people of the villages actually need. It's no use us coming to them and providing something that isn't going to work in their situation or their culture. Thomas is going to help us in that important first step."
The local group is part of the global SIFE organization that has about 1,600 teams working involved in universities in some 39 countries.
SIFE Lambton's "Powering the Future" pillar is where the Zambia project fits. While sustainable energy is part of the picture, both Milos and da Silva say the needs assessment is likely to reveal several other areas where the Lambton College community could make an impact.
These include education, computer training, health care , social work, building construction, sports and recreation programs, business operations, and even micro-credit, where small amounts of money can make a tremendous difference in how quickly (or at all) a local enterprise could become successful in raising the overall standard of living.
Milos says SIFE is about making a difference in the best possible way, one being in the broad field of education.
"Thirty years ago, only two students a year graduated from an elementary school of 600 students in the area we're visiting. Three decades later, that number hasn't changed."
A tragedy? Certainly. Milos calls it "beyond atrocious."
He also says helping Thomas Chona's village and the surrounding communities is the right thing to do.
For her part, Amanda da Silva says her professional outlook has changed since becoming involved in SIFE Lambton.
"At the beginning it was mostly about getting a good job but now it's about how much good I can do in the world. It's definitely been a life-changing experience."
In addition to the Zambia project, SIFE Lambton is focused on at least two other projects, speaking to specific areas where the group wants to make a difference.
Strength in Numbers
SIFE Lambton has partnered with the Women's Interval home of Sarnia, developing a four-week, eight-session financial literacy training program.
Da Silva says strengthening the financial situations of the women will help improve the economic stability of the community as a whole. "Hopefully, we can rebuild the lives of the women we impact to create brighter futures for tomorrow."
Inspiring the Future
SIFE Lambton is also assisting the Sarnia Children and Youth Centre for the Arts (SCYCA), helping to fill in identifiable gaps in the organization's services and programs.
"We believe that by providing youth with creative outlets for growth, opportunities for life skill development and positive role models, we can inspire them to brighter futures," adds da Silva.
SIFE Lambton is actively looking for ways to connect community partners able to help meet the financial requirements for the work it knows will come out of the Zambia visit.
Specifically, that includes about $10,000 to bring electricity to schools in four area villages plus $5,000 per community to be invested in micro-financing and other community building initiatives.
Milos believes the goals will be met as Sarnia-Lambton businesses see the potential impact of those resources.