Chris Fontana is the executive director of Global Visionaries in Seattle, Washington, an organization dedicated to creating true global citizens through leadership training and work with high school students of different ethnic and economic backgrounds. Diverse groups of students selected to participate in the program study Spanish and Guatemalan culture for many months before taking a two-week trip to Guatemala, where they live with a local family and work on a specific project they have chosen. That work might include planting trees in an area that has been deforested or helping to build a new school alongside local residents. It might include spending time in a hospital with the elderly or disabled patients who live there full-time, holding their hands and sharing stories. Sometimes it involves working with Guatemalan families who make their living growing and selling coffee.
With free-trade and even fair-trade practices, the farmers receive only a shockingly small percentage of the total cost of the coffee when it is sold in stores. In fact，it is such a small amount that they can never really get ahead financially. Some Global Visionary students participate in a direct-trade program where they transport, roast package, and sell the coffee themselves. This results in a far greater percentage of the profits going to the farmers. The students benefit as well，for they are able to use their share of the profits to fund their trip to Guatemala.
The students claim that seeing the way people of other cultures live in the world helps to give them an expanded perspective. They often return to the United States feeling less of a need to accumulate material possessions and more of a desire to help others and the environment.
Some students have difficulty fitting back in with friends stateside who have not made the journey.
Chris Fontana started college with a desire to teach Spanish to high school students in his hometown of Chicago. In his junior year，he studied in Spain，which changed his idea of who he was and how he lived as an American. He started teaching in the public schools and found himself one day after Thanksgiving with no lesson plan. The bell rang，signaling the start of class，and Chris decided on the spot to talk about current events in South America . In that class the high school freshmen became outraged after learning that industrialized countries were cutting down the Amazon rainforest at a rate of one and a half acres per second，and they decided to take immediate action. They started an ecology club and wanted their school to begin recycling，but the administrators responded by informing the students that such a program was not necessary. The teachers and custodians took the students’ side，and for two weeks they all secretly saved and storing in cupboards the used paper that accumulated in the classrooms. At the end of two weeks, the students placed the mountain of paper in the middle of the cafeteria and called the newspapers to cover the event. A brand -new recycling program was implemented in the school immediately afterward.
Chris comes from a family of teachers and in 1992 he and his brother Joe Fontana, along with Jason Foster, one of Joe’s highly motivated students, decided to create a Youth Environmental Summit similar to the international Earth Summit that had been held for adults in Rio de Janeiro that same year. Jason helped to organize the summit along with other high school students, which included raising money and signing up speakers. In the years that followed, they held two successful youth summits that were well attended by young people from forty states and thirty-two countries. The summits gave participants and organizers a feeling of deep connection with the world and also a feeling that they could do anything. Following that experience, Jason Foster backpacked around the world for a year, returning with the idea of creating Global Visionaries. Chris and Joe thought it was a fabulous idea and hopped on board. (Jason went on to become an attorney and currently works for the United Nations.)
Global Visionaries is run in a democratic fashion that empowers students. The teens who return from Guatemala have the option of returning the following year to mentor newcomers. Students engage in fund-raising projects throughout the year in order to pay for their own trip expenses and to make a donation to the Guatemalan people they want to help. Throughout their training period, students in Seattle
make friends with other teens from areas outside their own neighbor hoods and ethnic backgrounds, thus expanding their understanding and cooperation skills.
Chris learned the power of people working together toward a common goal when he was a child. His mother raised her energetic family of eight in a unique way when she decided to bring democracy to the household. They held meetings regularly，and the children’s voices were heard and honored. All jobs were distributed evenly and no one could go out and play until the work was done. Chris laughs when he mentions that he was cooking family dinners for eight people by the time he was in second grade. If friends came over, they were also given chores to do. Some of them had never operated a vacuum before! There was a strong sense of unity in this family because of these practices. Chris wanted to bring this philosophy and feeling of shared accomplishment to his students in the Global Visionaries program.
Chris admits that when he began the organization he had no business skills, little money, and few contacts. His only support came from friends, family, and the parents of some of his students, but that did not hinder him. “No one is ever ready until they start,” he says. Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone.” He suggests that the best way to avoid getting overwhelmed or depressed about the state of the world is to take action:
Keep alive the possibility that you could actually achieve your dream. Action keeps me optimistic and that affects the outcome. Even when mistakes are made along the way, I keep saying“It’s going to work out! It’s going to work out!” And somehow it does. When I began this work I tended to think I had to do it all, but I found out that that attitude can quickly lead to burnout. Let other people contribute. Let them do what they’re good at and enjoy doing
If he does feel burned out or lost occasionally, Chris taps into mentors in the community and asks for their support. He used to think that lack of money was the biggest obstacle to achieving his goals for the organization, but he now feels that problems can be solved by staying connected to the community, to people and creative resources. “It’s people who make the difference. For a number of years we did a bunch of work with no money,” he says. This service-oriented group is creating peace on earth, social justice through education, and hands-on experience because a few dedicated people with a life-altering vision had the heart and courage to put their dreams for a better world into action.
Memories Monday is the new thing! We like to dedicate this post to Chris Fontana
The Quote is a book excerpt from Wizard of Us, written by Jean Houston. In the book, Chris told the author of his determination to start a non-profit that helps teens understand our fast-paced world today through international learning.