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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Hakuna Matata

Editor’s Note: Michelle Nolan was the first of nine RSM US LLP (RSM) employees given an opportunity “pursue their passions” through the firm’s 90-90-9 program. Through 90-90-9, RSM is celebrating its 90th anniversary by providing nine employees with $90,000 ($10,000 each) and nine paid days off to fulfill their personal dreams. Michelle’s dream? Provide water to orphans in Africa, while achieving a personal goal of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Read her story:

This all started with one small idea a few years ago. Over time, with the support of others, I ALLOWED it to grow into one HUGE crazy dream. Now, in 2016 that dream grew even BIGGER and also came true! I emphasized ‘allowed,’ because often what holds us back from dreaming or accomplishing things is ourselves; it’s our fears, our self-doubts and our worries. The longer we let those linger, the more hold they have over our lives and decisions. I believe that happiness is a choice and the only one who can ensure that for myself is me! I’ve also found the bigger supporter I am of myself, the more I believe in myself, the less fears I have… I’m giving others the confidence to be supporters, as well, and to be confident in me too!

I’d like to give a special shout-out to Becca Brown (travel partner extraordinaire. “Asante Sana Rafiki!” (That’s Kiswahili for, “Thank you very much, friend!”) Looking back on this trip and the experiences leading up to it, I think I speak for both of us when I say I am humbled and grateful. I went into this wanting to gain strength, courage and inspiration. I got that and so much more. I continue to struggle to find the words to describe my experiences! I’m simply and utterly in awe –  of myself, of Becca, of the generosity of RSM, our friends and families and all of those who reached out to support us physically, emotionally, spiritually and financially; in awe of Kilimanjaro, of the 20+ children at Living Water Children Center of the 600+ kids of Yakini Primary School and  of all those in Africa who have devoted their lives to the children and making their communities a better place, to those who have so little financially, yet have more true “wealth” than most I know. The beauty of this trip is that even though it ended, the impact continues to grow!

We arrived in Tanzania, after traveling 27 hours, with emotions ranging from excitement to fear to disbelief. Our luggage included 90 pounds of donations: school supplies, sports equipment and clothing. (Many thanks to those at RSM who donated!) Yes, 90 pounds, a bit ironic huh!? (Insert Alanis Morissette song lyric here.) We were tired and nervous, but strong and ready. This is also when it started sinking in that running water, plumbing, a solid roof and beds were a thing of the past for the coming week.

You might think that as novice climbers we’d pick a small mountain, but no! We went with the “go big or go home” approach, and chose a difficult route, with only a 46-percent success rate for the ascent and descent in seven days. Why? Good question! I wondered that myself – from the day we booked it until the day we reached the base of the mountain. The route was rated high in scenic value and low in traffic. (I wonder why?!). Apparently we’re suckers for a good view and a huge challenge! Becca and I both also chose to have a sensible level of naivety. We went with the “know enough not to get ourselves killed, but leave the rest alone” approach. We figured we’d tackle each thing as it came. And we did.

SUMMIT DAY! The day had come, one day sooner than expected, for us to summit Mount Kilimanjaro. Our guide informed us that the night we planned to climb, a storm was expected, so he recommended we go a day early! (Insert freak out moment here, and reminder: I’m a moderately fit asthmatic!) We took the guide’s advice. This meant that within a 26-hour period, Becca and I spent just over 20 hours climbing and hiking. I still cannot put into words what that experience was like. It was life-altering, breathtaking (figuratively and literally – the air is sparse and thin), and truly an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  Those moments are etched in my memory and will forever bring me joy!

After summiting the mountain, we headed to Arusha to stay with the Kimaro family, who founded both Living Water Children’s Centre and Yakinni Primary School. They graciously opened their home and their hearts to us, as they have to so many others and countless children. The children’s center is just up the hill from the family’s home. Becca and I, raced up the hill, as I couldn’t wait to see the children and she was anxious to meet them. Instantly I fell in love all over again as I saw the smiling faces of children I remembered, as well as a number of new smiles. It didn’t take long for Becca to fall in love either. (Love at first sight does exist!) We spent the afternoon playing games, singing and taking #selfies.

Over the coming, days we made several trips to both the children’s center and the primary school. We met with the head master of the primary school to discuss the school’s challenges. The lack of funds for textbooks has been a struggle for the children, their families and the teachers. With a passion for education and reading, I was overjoyed to be able to support the school by buying and donating 422 textbooks. Previously, one textbook was shared among 10-20 students, but now nearly every student has his or her own. The children, teachers, and the school’s support staff were tremendously thankful, as they truly believe in the power of a good education.

Also at the school and in the surrounding communities, accessibility to clean drinking water has been an issue. I was honored to fund a project that now supplies the 600+ children of the primary school with access to clean water daily. This water will also be accessible for those in the surrounding communities.

I’m continually amazed when I reflect on the impact of this trip. There schools and communities in Africa who now have access to clean water and more opportunities in education because of this trip and because of RSM. The greatest gift, is that these projects will continue to impact future generations. At some point, the reach of these will be immeasurable.

Closing Thoughts
Continue to create dreams that initially seem impossible! 
  • All things truly are possible if you believe in yourself.
  • Happiness is a choice; make it a priority.
  • Running water and plumbing is a luxury to many.
  • Life lessons and growth come when you push yourself outside your comfort zone.
  • Pumba in The Lion King led me to believe warthogs would be fun and cuddly. They're neither.
  • Eleanor Roosevelt said a lot of inspiring things in her day, so I'll close out with some of her words... "The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams."

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