From IWU Magazine, Spring 2011

“Hopelessness cannot be an option.”

Story by SYLVIA ZUKOWSKI ’11

The Illinois Wesleyan alumni who are helping in Haiti are part of a long tradition of University students and graduates who have traveled around the world to help alleviate poverty and provide medical and educational assistance to those in need.

For alumni like Justin Ahrens ’94, the call to help can sometimes come in surprising ways. It was a simple question raised by his 5-year-old daughter that provoked Ahrens to decide that his life of “suburban dad and entrepreneur” was not enough.

“How can we help in Africa?” his daughter asked.

The question was inspired by “Idol Gives Back,” a charitable drive promoted on the TV show American Idol to help people in poverty both in Africa and the United States. Stirred by “Idol Gives Back,” celebrity Bono’s activism in Africa and his daughter’s words, Ahrens embarked on a mission that would take him around the globe and into some of the world’s poorest slums.

Ahrens is founder and principal of the creative design firm Rule29. Based in Geneva, Ill., Rule29 has a wide range of clients, from Fortune 500 companies to not-for-profits. After hearing about Life in Abundance (LIA) and its charitable work in Africa, Ahrens wondered how the talents of his nine-member Rule29 staff might help the group meet its ambitious goals.

Justin Ahrens worked on documentary films depicting the lives of children in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya (above), and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

According to its website, LIA “identifies churches working within the poorest communities in Africa and trains, equips and empowers the churches to serve their local community.” Since 1993, over 100 churches and over 3,000 community workers have been trained to help their communities in seven countries. LIA provides financial support to help implement programs that range from schools and feeding programs to sanitation training and home-based AIDS care.

To better understand how Rule29 could help LIA, Ahrens and several colleagues spent two weeks in Africa in 2008. “Halfway across the world, unable to speak the local language and working in the slums, I could not be further from my comfortable life in the suburbs of Chicago,” says Ahrens. He witnessed “children playing in sewage, mothers with HIV trying to support their kids and whole communities decimated by poverty, sickness, malnourishment and completely marginalized.” 

Since that unforgettable trip, Rule29’s staff has donated hundreds of hours on marketing and communications efforts to help LIA “share its amazing story here in the States,” says Ahrens. Starting with a fresh logo design and identity system, “we expanded their new look to include a redesigned website, a newsletter and various other materials.”

Rule­29 also helped create This is My Home, a film showcasing work LIA does with slum children in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. In April 2010, Ahrens traveled with colleagues to the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, to shoot a second film for LIA, which will premiere this spring. The films and books produced by Rule29 for Life in Abundance have so far helped raise more than $300,000 in donations.

On his blog, Ahrens wrote about his experience filming in Nairobi. “The location was different than our last documentary project … but sadly many of the same issues exist, all of which are simply not right. Dangerous living structures, no roads, unhealthy water, no sanitation, no waste removal, lack of education, no health care, crime, fear, HIV/AIDS, loss of hope, and the vulnerability of children to simply name a few. It was a rare day when you didn’t turn your face to cry for a few minutes.

“The issues of the slums are so complex — government corruption, health concerns, religious culture, commerce, structural issues, etc. … And the fact of the matter is that us Westerners tend to think we actually live in an Extreme Home Makeover world. If we build this, or fund that project, all things get fixed and fall in place. But that way of thinking is simply not accurate, and it inevitably continues to add to the issues. The reality is that we need to help battle the biggest monster of all: generations of slum residents with the mindset that slum life and its living conditions are acceptable. But, hopelessness cannot be an option.”

Ahrens and his Rule29 colleagues are looking for new ways to help LIA in its goal of empowering communities. For example, LIA supports income-generating activities and skills-training for target groups like youth, street children, those living with AIDS and single mothers. “We are helping develop products for this program to help generate a sustainable business model,” he says.

Ahrens, who plans to return to Africa next year, hopes that his family will join him on a future trip. “My kids really want to go,” he says.

Reflecting on his experiences, Ahrens says, “Africa has really been hard for me — to reconcile what I thought was important and what really is. I actually struggle with that every day. Africa has inspired me to serve in all aspects of my life.

“‘I need Africa more than it needs me.’ My friend from LIA wrote those words, and that is completely how I feel about Africa,” he says.

To return to the story on alumni who volunteer in Haiti, click here.