Julie-Anne Savarit-Cosenza: How Making Friends Led Her to Start a Nonprofit
“I’m much more of a heart versus head kind of thinker.”
This is Julie-Anne Savarit-Cosenza speaking, Executive Director of the African Education Program (AEP). Julie-Anne’s story brings home how acting from your heart creates big change around you.
AEP is a nonprofit that empowers youth through education in Kafue, Zambia, in order to break the cycle of poverty and AIDS. The organization runs a youth center, as well as programs to support students into and beyond college, and it had a somewhat surprising beginning.
Julie-Anne explained the story of how it all started. It began over ten years ago, when she and three friends founded the organization.
Believe it or not, they were in high school at the time.
Julie-Anne and her friends had just watched a video in class about children during the Apartheid era in South Africa, and it struck a chord. They felt compelled to do something to help. They decided to collect books for children in Africa, and put a call out to the community for donations.
The result wasn’t what they expected. It led to two years of collecting and more community support than they had anticipated.
“I remember my friend and cofounder Hillary had this unfinished basement,” she says, “and in [it] there was a rug that was six by three feet.. you know, like a small rug. We were like, ‘Oh, this will be our donation rug. We’ll put all the things we get on the rug.’”
Well, it didn’t go that way.
“We took over her unfinished basement. I’m talking wall to wall, books everywhere, computers everywhere, it was amazing.”
“What was amazing too is how much schools throw out. I mean, we were getting full series of books that for some reason never made it into curriculum and just sat on shelves for years, and they were brand new, like they’ve never been used… math books, English books, chemistry books.”
She laughs to herself as she recalls how their nonprofit came together in those years. The simple reason they did it was to get bigger donations. (And they did.)
“I mean again, we were teenagers, we had no idea what we were doing. A friend’s dad who was a CPA was able to get some bi-laws from someone else that he knew and, you know, we put the work in, and so in March of 2004, we became a nonprofit.”
They had no idea how this story would continue to unfold, or how the relationships they were beginning in Zambia would continue for the next decade.
When they told their soccer coach what they were doing, for example, he knew where to point them. Julie-Anne recalls how he told them that his brother lives in a “pretty poor community called Kefue,” saying: “you should connect with him and he can help facilitate on that end.”
So they did. Julie-Anne describes: “…his name was Amos- we would talk to him and his family, and it was super personal, whereas in the past we always did [activities] to raise money, but you know, when it goes to this Cancer Research Society, as a teenager you have no idea how that actually helps.”
“This was impact we could see and feel.”
A couple weeks before their Prom in their Senior Year, they raised the $10,000 needed to send the container to Zambia. “You know, we pack it up and it goes. And that was sort of supposed to be it.”
But a grant from a community member enabled them to travel to the community to help it receive and unpack the container. There, they made more personal connections that led them further.
“At the time, we were just spending time with our high school peers [there].” One day, they were with a new friend, Chilala, a young woman who had also just finished high school. They asked her what she did for fun.
She invited them to walk to a bridge. It took an hour. Then they walked back. It wasn’t what Julie-Anne was expecting, and she was struck by the vast difference in privilege. “These students live in homes that don’t have electricity, a lot of the homes aren’t finished, so instead of windows, they have to brick it all up, and there’s darkness.”
“It was Chilala,” Julie-Anne says, “who was one of the students who said ‘we need a place to go after school. We need a safe place, a place that’s quiet- or fun- you know, where we can get help. We don’t have that’.” The students told them: “You can’t stop your work. You have to open a youth center.”
And so that personal exchange created their next step. They found a donor to cover the costs of opening a youth center. “And it all sort of launched from there.”
Fast-forward eight or so years, and Julie-Anne has finished college and is now the Executive Director of AEP. During those years, she says, her mother, who “fell in love with this community as much as we did” ran the daily operations on a volunteer basis. “I really have my mom to thank for AEP still being alive today.”
One of the other founders went on to architecture school, and is also back at AEP, designing their new, custom-made youth center. The organization grew up, and so did they, and they all seem to have come full circle.
I asked Julie-Anne how she sees herself as a leader, now that she’s Executive Director.
She pauses, and stumbles. “Wow.. I’m having trouble finding words…”
But after a pause, she finds them, and says: “This organization… evolved so organically, and the fact that it was never even supposed to get this far, I think that’s why it’s hard to see myself as a leader.” Everything they did to create it had just seemed like a good idea.
It’s the responsibility she carries now, though, causes a shift in her tone as she describes it. That’s where she’s more conscious of the leadership involved of her role.
“You know, jumping into this Executive Director role has sort of forced me to think about [leadership]… because I’m managing four local staff members in the day-to-day of this organization, which is still small, but still doing a lot.” She has people counting on her.
She questions herself from time to time, like most leaders responsible for the livelihoods of others do. But with all decisions, she seems to go with the same kind of instinct that led her to start AEP in the first place.
“You have to go with your gut and I think I sort of fall back on knowing that as young as I might be, I have a lot of experience, and have done my best to integrate into the culture that I’m working in, as best I can, and you know I really rely on my gut. If it tells me it’s going to help me go one way, I usually follow it.”
It helps that she knows and loves the people she works for and with (she repeatedly refers to them as family). In fact, that’s what drew her back to AEP after working at a communications firm, post-college. She couldn’t stay away.
When she left her old job to become Executive Director, she was relieved to make the right decision for her, she says, but “has a different stress now.” “I still have heart palpitations, but it’s healthy stress. It’s because I want to do the best I can for these kids.”
For Julie-Anne, stress is different when you’re creating impact you can see and feel, and this is what drives her commitment.
She explains: “I think it comes to… on the ground you really see saved lives, and making lives. Not only are we helping these kids escape their poverty, but we’re helping them create real lives.”
“You know right now, from our college graduates, we have a doctor, we have an economist, we have teachers, we have these girls, who could be prostitutes and dead by now, who are making a living and are choosing not to get married until they know they’re independent and they’ll marry for love and not for survival.”
“And we have these young men who are sustaining their families now. Even one, Nathan, he’s the regional manager for a big agricultural firm in Zambia. And in the town that he lives, he’s sponsoring orphans… he’s giving back to his community.”
AEP has another initiative, too, that stems from their origin story. They facilitate relationships between funders in the United States and the people of Kafue, and by doing so, Julie-Anne and her partners are intentionally bringing vastly different communities closer together.
She knows first-hand how bridging worlds can make your family a whole lot bigger.
As we say goodbye, I note to Julie-Anne how much her heart comes through as we speak, and how touched I am. It’s clear how committed she is to her Kafue community.
For her, relationships really do come first.
What relationships are most important to you? What relationships in your life could be bridged by a small act of the heart?
This week, consider what might be possible if you broke habit and reached out to someone different from you, initiating a new relationship.
Then go for it. Take the first step, and keep your heart in it.