The first morning Art Livingston spent at the orphanage in Kenya, the temperature was 35 degrees. It was summer. The children had no coats, no shoes, minimal clothing. The shelter they called their home consisted of sheet metal walls, an iron roof and dirt floor. There was no insulation.
“I always thought I had a vision of poverty, somebody that’s on the street or in a homeless shelter,” says Livingston. “When you go over there, it takes the perspective that you had and completely throws it out the window.”
Livingston was in the African country to help out as part of a “voluntourism” trip. The president of Marlo Plastic Products Inc. (asi/68873) had donated products or money through his company before, but despite a persistent desire to do something greater, he had never found the right moment. In 2012, he urged his college-age daughter to use her interest in medicine and volunteer overseas. She countered that he should do the same. Three weeks later, they boarded a flight to spend two months in Africa.
The children at the orphanage affectionately called him “Guukah,” which means Grandpa. He saw with his own eyes how just a little help makes a world of difference. Something stirred inside him. Most volunteers go once and never return; not only did Livingston go back, but the people there remembered him. “That’s when things started changing,” he says. “Instead of ‘Here’s a nice guy who’s giving some money or helping out,’ it all of a sudden turned into a relationship.”
Livingston has traveled to Kenya four times, and each time his charitable goals grow larger. He and others have established a nonprofit organization and are seeking land in Nairobi (the capital of Kenya) to establish a home base for international volunteers. The group’s goal is to offer microloans to help residents and orphans learn skills, create work and contribute to the community. It’s an uphill battle in a country where the unemployment rate has reached as high as 40% and people look out for themselves just to survive.
“The first thing we have to do is help on a community level so they can start even small projects,” Livingston says. “But they need to do it themselves, because if an outside source comes in and gives money, they learn they don’t have to do anything.”
Livingston’s experiences in Kenya have certainly resonated at Marlo. “It’s changed our personality and our philosophy,” he says of the Neptune, NJ-based supplier, which he and his father purchased together in 1989. The company now helps at a local food bank just a mile away, volunteered for a cancer run last year and contributes habitually to music education organizations.
In between the trips, Livingston stays constantly in touch with Kenya through email. While he and other humanitarians undertake the hard work of setting up a charity, his message is that anyone can affordably visit the country and make a difference. “It’s really not that hard to help,” he says. “The hardest thing is to step on a plane. Once you’re on the plane, the rest is easy.”