Passion Points: Giving Back
The chic cylindrical bottles of Voss water can be spotted in the world’s hottest restaurants and hotels, but the company has another meaningful presence miles away from Gramercy Park Hotel and London’s Hakkasan: the rural villages of Sub-Saharan Africa. The four-year-old Voss Foundation has changed the lives of thousands of people in Africa by providing access to clean water in five countries. By building and maintaining wells, the organization not only helps prevent disease, but also relieves women and girls of the burden of water retrieval, allowing them to attend school and help further their communities.
Indagare spoke to Executive Director Kara Gerson about the charity’s accomplishments, the personal impact of overseeing such inspirational projects and tips on what not to miss when visiting the home of Voss: Oslo, Norway.
Which experience with the Voss Foundation has been most inspiring for you?
“A few times a year I get to visit the water projects we have sponsored and meet people whose lives we have changed. Seeing how drastically and rapidly futures are improving due to the availability of clean water has an enormous impact on me. In the countries we have worked in—Liberia, Kenya, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mali—I have learned about such beautiful and fascinating cultures and created memories that motivate me throughout the year.
“We have just had incredible news from the Samburu village of Latakwen, in northern Kenya, where we constructed our first solar water system four years ago. The area was suffering from a horrific outbreak of cholera, but when we built a well providing clean water, the disease all but disappeared. Within a couple of years, the town has had to double the size of the local school because so many more children are surviving, thriving, and able to get educations. The Kenyan government is also investing in the region now, turning the health center into a real hospital and even adding a maternity ward.”
How was the Foundation founded?
“In 2008 on a family trip to Kenya, our Founder and President Knut Brundtland, the then-CEO of Voss Water, was struck by the sight of women walking along the roads carrying water on their backs and heads. He was really upset to learn this was often unclean water, and that having to carry the water was dangerous and took away from education and work. As the head of a premium luxury bottled water company, he felt a responsibility to help people who struggle for clean water.”
What is the most recent well project you have overseen?
“So far in 2012 we have completed our fourth project in Kenya, our fourth project in Ethiopia, and have new projects in progress in Kenya, Ethiopia and Liberia. Additionally this year, I’ve overseen two staff and donor trips to Kenya, and in May and June I traveled to Liberia.”
You get to know the people and cultures of the regions you work in—what have been some of your favorites?
“Kenya is definitely the most accessible, and while it has been a tourist destination for years, it has managed to stay true to its culture. Though when we visit our clean water projects, we hike for days to reach the villages and camp out in the bush, I always feel very comfortable in Kenya.
“This spring, my trip to Liberia blew me away. After fourteen years of civil war, business is booming and there is a general attitude among the people of such ambition and energy—they are most definitely looking forward, not backwards. The geography is also stunning and varied with beaches, rainforest, rolling hills. It took my breath away more than once.
“Despite everything we read about the Democratic Republic of Congo, I had a wonderful experience in the Southeastern region of Katanga. Of course that province is far removed from the violence in the east and the political issues in Kinshasa, but I was really impressed by the governor, Moise Katumbi, and his development plans. Learning the histories of these countries are fascinating and add such layers to my visits.”
You travel often to Oslo, where Voss is headquartered. What do you recommend to visitors?
“Oslo is small, exceptionally safe, and everyone speaks English, so for me, it’s an ideal city to wander around. When I have had time to explore or been able to bring my husband, we love to visit the Viking Ship Museum, the ski jump Holmenkollen, the very powerful Nobel Peace Center and stroll Karl Johans Gate. I love to have a meal or get drinks on the water in Aker Brygge or further west toward Bygdøy, and in good weather to explore *Vigeland Park and cool neighborhoods like Grünerløkka. One of my favorite things about Oslo is that you can walk straight from the bright blue sea right through the city up to a gorgeous mountain hike, and back down for a Michelin-starred dinner.
“Oslo is a big art city, filled with all kinds of museums and galleries. My favorites are the National Gallery, which has a great collection of Munchs, the modern art at the Astrup-Fearnley, the Blomqvist auction house and the beautiful Kistefos Museum, which is in a converted industrial park just outside town.
“Summer is definitely the best time to visit, especially the white nights in July. Last year I was in Oslo on May 17, their national day, where everyone wears bunads (their historic, traditional dress), eats ice cream and has parades. The entire city was one big party and the energy was incredible.”
Where are your efforts most focused these days?
“We’re currently planning our Women Helping Women luncheons in San Francisco (October 22) and New York (November 14). Women Helping Women is an international campaign we began in 2009, with the idea that we could bring together groups of women in cities around the world and they could each fund a well or water system for a community. We provide donors with their project’s detailed description, budget, and timeline, we update them throughout implementation, and then offer them the opportunity to visit after completion and meet the people whose lives they have changed. We keep donors updated throughout the years after the project is complete, to inform them of the ongoing success of their project.
“We are also working hard on our African Bazaar, which sells crafts from the villages we support on our site as well as at the Women Helping Women benefits. I was inspired by projects like the Indagare Souk and FEED Raiser and so my colleagues and I have started buying and sourcing distinctive and beautiful items when we travel, and they have been very popular at events in the place of traditional silent auctions or raffles. Our supporters get to bring home gorgeous scarves and jewelry that remind them of the people they are helping, with 100% of proceeds helping us build more clean water projects.”
For more information on the organization and to buy tickets to the Women Helping Women luncheons, visit www.thevossfoundation.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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