Building Bonds While Building a School
BY CARLOS PIGNATARO · DISTINGUISHED ENGINEER · U.S
I love my job as a Distinguished Engineer in Cisco Services; it is both highly rewarding and demanding. But my story is not about technology or talent, it is about volunteering. I love traveling and volunteering, in fact, those are two of our family’s passions. My wife Verónica is on the board of Sharefish, a non-profit organization devoted to improving education for disadvantaged children in a small town in Honduras. My daughter Sofía, who loves animals, volunteers at the SPCA. She and I also volunteer at the YMCA.
Earlier this year, a non-profit organization called WE.org, working through my son Luca’s school, invited kids and families to help build a school in a very remote area of Kenya, the Maasai Mara. Luca, who is 13, said, “I really want to go”, and invited me to join him. I was very grateful to use the new Time2Give program offered by Cisco, where employees are given five days of paid time per year to volunteer.
So in March of this year, Luca and I grabbed the opportunity and flew to Nairobi, Kenya. From there, we travelled more than six hours by bus and truck to an amazing place in what is really in the middle of nowhere. To see just how remote it is, check out this link. During our seven days there, we finished a classroom and started a library for the Laila Primary School.
For us this trip was easy, and it took only one thing: The decision to take the time to do it. Actually, I don’t even feel that time is “mine to give” because it doesn’t belong to me. It’s about priorities and values. In this case, what I valued most were the mothers who came to welcome us when we arrived, the children who were singing, dancing, learning, and playing, and the goat they gave us the night before we left to thank us for helping them.
My job makes me passionate about innovation, but this project was not about being innovative. We just had to be there working, playing, and surrounded by kids. The mothers worked next to us because it’s a school for their kids who have never had one. That touches you on a very personal level. Some of these kids walk a couple of hours a day to reach this school. Sometimes they cannot even attend school because elephants are crossing the territory. I had a tremendous sense of community, of solidarity, of togetherness.
During our time in Kenya, I learned that we are all the same. You wouldn’t think you shared much with the Maasai Mara people. Their English was rudimentary. We spoke only ten words of Swahili—me two, and Luca eight. However, when you walk with the kids, and hold hands with them, you open up a deeper language beyond spoken words. You find we are all humans and individuals, equal in this world. In that context, we all have a deep responsibility to each other.
At Cisco we’re collectively helping to change the world through active participation in our communities and employees are empowered to choose where they want to contribute. I got a lot more in terms of inner peace and compassion in the seven days we were there than I gave in laying concrete blocks. One of the most powerful aspects of this trip was that I did it with my son. Sharing this experience with him and being with him in this great adventure sewed us together. We now have that experience in common. We lived those days together. That is priceless.
The outcome of this story is so much more far-reaching than a school or a library where children can read, learn, and become educated. Those children, our future leaders, their mothers, and people we met are very special to us. They have forever enriched us. The outcome is unfolding and ongoing, as we think of new ways to connect. When you give back, you always receive more.
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