From our Founder & CEO Justin Zoradi
It’s 2:00am and I’m wide-awake, sitting on the curb of a youth hostel in Cape Town, South Africa. My mind racing, I can’t sleep. It was 2006 and I was in South Africa on a summer service trip, building houses with Habitat for Humanity and playing on a soccer team of Northern Irish students, taking on local community teams in the townships of Cape Town.
It was on those battered soccer fields that These Numbers Have Faces was born. Through the summer, I kept meeting local high school students desperate for higher education. Talented students graduating near the top of their class, gearing up for University life, hoping to learn real skills, graduate, and pull their families out of poverty.
But one after another they expressed fear for their futures. Their families were poor, scholarships and loans out of reach. Instead of sitting in a lecture hall next year, they’d find themselves sitting at home working low-wage jobs or not working at all. For the girls, an early pregnancy was a more likely scenario. For the boys, they were easily drawn to gangs and lives of crime.
The night before I left South Africa, I made a promise. I promised a local soccer coach and some new friends that I wouldn’t forget about them. I would stay in touch and I would do something, anything, to help. It was that night that I found myself up late on the curb of the Youth Hostel. The promise I made pulsating through my mind. I was to leave Cape Town the next morning, the long flight home to California, and then a move up to Portland, Oregon.
I was 24 and had just started graduate school. My passion for my own education was a constant reminder of the promise I had made in South Africa. Sitting on a bench in downtown Portland, I was forced to ask myself a very important question, “Will I deny for others, what I demand for myself?” Knowing I had to do something, I walked to Powell’s Books in Portland and bought a book, How to Start and Build a Nonprofit Organization.
One of the smartest moves I made early on was understanding the scope of my own limitations. I had scraped by with a C minus in Microeconomics in college, so I knew all too well that I’d need help to launch my fledgling vision. I had a picture on my phone of a mural in South Africa. It read, “Together we can do what must be done.” In the living room of my apartment and later the attic of a dilapidated house in Southeast Portland, this mantra of togetherness drove us forward. A handful of volunteers moved from all over the world to help. I rallied entrepreneurs and screen printers, marketing experts and computer geeks. We were youthful and idealistic, hopeful and unashamed.
We called ourselves These Numbers Have Faces because I was sick of what I was reading in the news about Africa. They weren’t bar graphs, pie charts, or data sets. They were people, they were my friends. The goal at that time was just to help a few of our South African friends attend local universities. Our first three students, Anda, Xolani, and Khanisa, were three soccer players doubling as college students. We had no big vision, no budget, and no idea how we’d grow out of my attic.
I look back on those days fondly. It wasn’t about raising money, proving our impact, or sustaining a vision. The whole point was the relationships with our friends in South Africa. Late night phone calls, international texts. We’d celebrate when they passed classes, cry with them when they were robbed on their way to school.
We floundered through those early years to get any real traction, but soon the real vision became glaringly apparent. We began to wonder if we could bridge the gap between education and poverty all over Africa. Can we invest in the next generation of entrepreneurs, lawyers, doctors, and scientists, and also provide top-notch leadership training to lay the foundation for generations to come? To see educated and moral leaders empowered to give back and become change makers in their own communities, that’s where it gets really exciting. I get goose bumps just thinking about it.
I have a poem by Bishop Ken Untener in my desk that I read every morning. In this poem, I find solace in the belief that our work is meant to be incomplete. The revelation of incomplete work helps me remember where we came from, forge ahead for the future, and stay committed to the small things.
Prophets of a future not our own
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
- Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw
People often ask me what it is I’m most proud of about These Numbers Have Faces. The easy answer is how proud I am of our scholars. Young people who have faced genocide, war, and the legacy of apartheid. Orphans and survivors who have fought, tooth and nail, for the opportunity to succeed. But if I turn it back on myself, the thing I’m most proud of is how we’ve just stuck with it through all these years. We toiled for years as volunteers in a run down house, selling shirts and buttons to send kids to college 7,000 miles away. And for some reason, we just kept showing up. We kept showing up because we knew we were a part of something big. We knew God had a vision for us to step into.
I hope you’ll join us.
Justin Zoradi - August 2013