We had the good fortune of connecting with Beth Heckel and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Beth, is your business focused on helping the community? If so, how?
Think Humanity began when my daughter, who is a journalist visited a refugee camp in Uganda. Kyangwali Refugee Camp was approximately 50 percent Sudanese refugees and 50 percent Congolese. Aimee came home and told me about the devastating conditions these mostly women and children were living in. At that point I wanted to do something. The following year Aimee and I went to Uganda together. Children crowded in small classrooms where learning was nearly impossible. There was no secondary school once they even made it to primary 7. Those that did were rarely girls. Girls had other purposes. They helped with the work and once they reached a certain age the father would “sell” her off in early marriage in exchange for a goat or cow. That would be how she helped the family. We saw the lack of clean water and how girls were the ones spending hours of their days carrying heavy jerry cans of water. They would risk themselves from being attacked by boys. Nothing was safe for girls.
Health care was another problem, and we were exposed to the atrocities refugee women went through during pregnancy. Malaria was a serious problem and clinics were too far apart which would require walking two to three miles while ready to deliver. It was not uncommon to see a woman deliver on the side of the road. If they made it to a clinic they waited in long lines and would be turned away if they did not have a birthing kit. A simple plastic sheet, gauze, razor blade, string, soap, and gloves. The problems were almost too much to take in, but to do nothing was not a choice even if it were to start with something small.
I became the founder of Think Humanity, a nonprofit organization in December 2007. We were already on our way to make changes. We began by telling different groups, friends, family about malaria. A mosquito net was only $5, and we knew it was something anybody could donate. We all can do something. To skip forward to many trips to Uganda – possibly 25, we have grown to the point of giving out more than 108,000 mosquito nets. We have a health center outside a refugee camp where we treat as many as 9,200 patients a year, mostly women. 86 wells have been constructed in both refugee camps and underdeveloped villages. Hundreds of children have been educated. We work in an Internally Displaced Camp (IDP) where mostly women and children live. I was told that teen girls were not going to school because they would get pregnant. Whether raped, forced, or desperate was never a question I asked. Along with a woman I met named Grace, we came up with the idea to buy treadle sewing machines and have a person come in and teach them how to sew. We began with sling bags. Making paper jewelry was another skill that they would perfect. We began bringing their products back to the States where we would sell them and send 100 percent back. We have given the entire camp mosquito nets every five years. We help orphans with their education, provide food, clothing, shoes, and we have a program called the Acholi Breakfast Club (ABC Program).
This keeps children off the street, from child labor and gives them a breakfast Monday through Friday. Now to share my favorite program that is something that I am so passionate about. Girl education. Going back to Kyangwali Refugee Camp. We decided to begin educating girls by bringing them away from the refugee camp about 50 miles to attend better schools and to mix in with nationals. We would bring in Congolese, Sudanese, Ugandan Nationals, and Rwandans. They were from different tribes but only English could be spoken.
We began in 2012 with 30 young girls, all beginning with senior 1 (8th grade). They voted on candidates such as president, vice president, secretary, etc. They made their own mission statement, vision, and motto. These 30 girls were paving the way. We call them our firstborns. They have all graduated now. Some are in the university and many have employment. Janipher started her own tailoring business. Hellen is ready to graduate nursing school. Gloria is going to be a pharmacist. Flavia a mathematics teacher. Grace graduated from tech school and has been our cook for four years. We began with a second group of girls in 2018 and we are watching them flourish. We never know who they will become but we know that this will improve their lives, the lives of their future children and their communities. Each time we are there we hold a Women’s Leadership Summit. The girls all have a part in organizing the event. Girls and women have hope for a future and to make a positive change.
The best ending to all this is that we are in the process of building a school. The school will be for girls in secondary school. We hope to open in 2022. This is a dream come true. When you see a problem as possibly too big. It is not. Take baby steps and before you know you will be running. You do not have to be famous, rich, or educated to make a difference. You just need to find something that you are passionate about and never give up.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I have always loved being around children. I began babysitting at the age of eleven, but back then, I had no idea that one day my life would be dedicated to changing the lives of thousands of children from ten thousand miles away. I just knew I felt called to help and care for children. So I did. I went on to become a paralegal but after nearly four years, I realized it was not fulfilling. I wanted to do something more impactful. I had always been drawn to nonprofit organizations.
My first nonprofit position was at the famous Elks National Foundation Headquarters in Chicago while my husband attended college. Once we moved out West, I worked for a university and in between, there were other nonprofit experiences, until I got a career at a nonprofit. I spent twelve years working in a nonprofit preschool that helped disadvantaged families with a sliding scale. Working in the office taught me the details of running a nonprofit, from record-keeping, bookkeeping, and grant writing, to only name a few. Little did I know that I would be traveling to Uganda to one day direct my own nonprofit. When I took that school office position, I had no idea that the many years of nonprofit experience were preparing me for a future passion and purpose far beyond my wildest imagination.
Once Think Humanity began, I was called by different organizations to speak. I was always deathly afraid to speak in front of others, and I especially did not want to ask people for money. Those two things were what I disliked and feared the most. However, somebody needed to speak up for those who could not speak for themselves. So I learned how to put aside my own personal fears to be the voice for others. In comparison to that great purpose, my fear became so small. Today, I look back and laugh at how scared I used to feel to speak in front of groups. I am convinced if you are passionate about what you believe in, you can do anything.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Being from Loveland, Colorado, and living here for 45 years, I have seen it grow from 16,000 to more than 75,000. While there have been many changes, one thing that has never changed is the Rocky Mountains. I would take my visitor to Estes Park to walk through town and look at all the different shops. After that we would visit Rocky Mountain National Park and drive up to Trail Ridge Road (the highest paved road in any national park in the country) to the visitor’s center. We might be risky and even take the Fall River Road. Renting a cabin is my happy place. We would stay in a cabin at Pine Haven Resorts, maybe the Daniel Boone cabin with a bedroom downstairs and one on a loft. The deck overlooks tall pine trees. You can smell the pine and hear the wind blowing through the trees. It is otherwise silent. I would introduce my friend to George, the proprietor, and his dog Rex and let him tell his stories, for example how Rex got lost and they found him years later in Denver with a man who was living on the streets. I would pack food for the weekend so we would not have to go back to town. We would go for hikes and visit the top of the rock to look over the entire Fall River Valley. When back in Loveland, we would go to the Foundry to visit the Colorado Coffee Company. I would introduce her to my friend Stacy, the owner. We would then walk over to Vatos Tacos, where we would sit outside and have our lunch. That to me would be a perfect weekend to share with a friend.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Nothing could happen without those who support this work by encouragement, volunteering, and financially. However, one influence rises to the forefront of my mind today, one person who shaped my heart and who is my strength when the work gets hard: my mother. She was an orphan who was sent to different foster care homes, lived in an orphanage and finally with grandparents on a farm. She was forced to leave school after the eighth grade. She instead moved out to be on her own and lived in one room in the back of a store. She was determined to finish school, and she did. Her life story encouraged me to want to help orphans and children who were not allowed to further their education. She is a small woman of four-foot-eleven, but in my eyes, she is a giant. She taught me to keep fighting for what I believe in and to never give up. As I write this, my mom is lying in a bed in hospice, not able to speak. But her legacy of compassion and love will live on through generations and around the world. I thank her for what she has passed on to me.
Other: https://www.facebook.com/Think-Humanity-African-Handmade-Products-109903279022332 https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCSfFvDKAMITwtKXhmCBn2MA https://www.guidestar.org/profile/26-1635429 https://greatnonprofits.org/org/thinkhumanity-inc