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It’s never 2 late

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International columnist Jack York shares the remarkable story of Francis from Cameroon

When you reach a certain age (in my case, 58), you have two choices when you get asked how you wound up where you are in your life. You can either spout out a well-honed story of charting and planning your career, step by step, every decision meticulously planned. Or you can tell the truth, which for most people is the reality that a whole lot of random coincidences have put you in a position and place you could never have dreamed of if you would have written your own future. I was thinking about that when I spoke in India last February, zipping around in my auto-rickshaw in Hyderabad, speaking at the ‘International Conference on Services to the Elderly’.

I was particularly contemplating this on 22 April last year when around 3,000 Cameroonian villagers, in a tiny village high above Mbemba in northwest Cameroon, rhythmically danced and chanted my mother Dorothy’s name as they sang praises to me. The event was the dedication of a senior centre, dedicated to my mother, and funded through generous donations from close to a hundred Americans throughout the country. It was surreal, never could have been planned (much less dreamed of), and it only happened because a remarkable man in Cameroon, Francis, decided to do something with a heartfelt donation of $ 500.

My journey with Francis began in Perth, Australia, in October 2015. We were both invited to speak at the Global Aging Network conference and, either through coincidence or destiny, we wound up on the same panel. I am fiercely proud of the work our company, It’s Never 2 Late, does, connecting older adults living in senior living communities to modern technology. But when I heard Francis’s story, how he has almost singlehandedly successfully stood up against policies that oppress women and the elderly in Cameroon, I felt such a sense of awe and insignificance. We spoke briefly after his presentation, said goodbye after no more than 15 minutes of conversation, and went our separate ways. But his spirit, in a hard-to-describe way, floated inside of me after the conference. He touched me in a way that I didn’t realise at the time.

I came back to the US, sent Francis a brief email of thanks and appreciation of his work, and had our company send a modest cheque—the $ 500—to honour his work. There were certainly no strings attached to that donation, no expectation of any ‘return’, just a small gesture of kindness for a man who has given his life up for the greater good. Many of us, and our organisations, make donations like that; what one gets in return is a form letter (attempting not to look like a form letter) thanking us for our generosity, with a lot of blanks filled in. Francis, however, had a different response—and his response has completely rocked my world, and will ultimately rock the world of thousands of Cameroonians.

Instead of the thank you in an email, six weeks after we sent the donation, I received an innocuous email with several attachments from Francis. To my amazement, and amusement, Francis had taken the $ 500 and established the ‘Jack York Elderly Woman’s Sustainable Goat Rearing Project’ in Northwest Cameroon! He went to nine distinct villages in Cameroon, and delivered each one of them a goat designed for long-term sustainability to help foster his mission of people taking care of themselves and each other. Along with the narrative, Francis took multiple videos, videos of people chanting thanks to Jack York, man of wisdom, for his generous donations to Cameroon! Are you kidding me? These videos were an intersection of National Geographic meeting Saturday Night Live!

After the insanity of the whole experience started to fade, it hit me, deeply: what could this man and his organisation do if they were given more money, say $ 20,000 or $ 30,000? With that in mind, and our company’s management having a spirit of gratitude, we invited Francis to the US (his first visit) and went on a whirlwind trip, a combination of thousands of miles of driving with thousands of miles of flying; in two weeks, we visited Louisiana, Texas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Maryland, Washington DC and New York. It was magical, not only seeing the joy and exuberance of Francis but seeing our country open up its arms and welcome this gregarious man from 7,000 miles away. The fundraising was a success and the fruit of the money raised (over $ 30,000) led to the funding of the senior centre named after Dorothy York—the first of its kind in the country of Cameroon.

This is a story that has not ended; it’s just a series of beginnings. If the $ 500 can turn to $ 30,000, what’s the next step of the journey? Why not keep thinking bigger? One of the painful realities I saw in Cameroon, and Francis educated me about, was the lack of bathrooms in the village schools, a scenario that causes thousands of girls to drop out of school before high school graduation. Francis was back in the US earlier this year; we travelled to over 15 states and are well on the way to funding latrines in several of his villages. Many senior living communities are partnering with the villages; we are hoping the latrines will be the first projects and that, over the years, they will lead to many, many more. I will be heading back to Cameroon, hopefully with an army of colleagues, to help build these bathrooms in April 2018. Feel free to come along for the ride; we could use some creativity coming from India!

So, the message is simple. Whether you send a $ 500 cheque, or receive one, we are all change-agents in this marvellous planet of ours. If you keep your eyes open, and look beyond your current situation, you might start the next revolution to make things better. And if you’re lucky, you’ll have a goat named after you!

In conclusion, holiday greetings to Harmony readers; thanks for letting me share some thoughts from around the world. If you know of any work being done in America by your countrymen let me know, I’d be happy to meet them and tell their story. Travelling to India early last year was one of the highlights of my life. The intensity of your culture is intoxicating; the culture, the food, the people, the passion. It’s a large planet we live on, but it’s a small one as well. Thanks for opening my eyes to a culture and a country full of beautiful people doing remarkable work. Bring on 2018!

York is co-founder of It’s Never 2 Late ® (iN2L), an American company dedicated to helping older adults realise the full benefits of today’s technology

Photos: Jack York
Featured in Harmony — Celebrate Age Magazine
January 2018