Do What You Love, Dream Big, Make a Difference…in Afghanistan

Shannon at our Deaf School site near Kabul

Years and years ago, when I first started traveling, the basic reason was nothing more than I wished to change up my routine and see something different. Early on I tried the “tourist” travel thing (for a very short while I might add) with pre-planned tours and guided excursions into the places where they thought I wanted to go. While these types of holiday trips were indeed relaxing and thought/trouble-free, it didn’t take long to figure out that this type of “travel” definitely wasn’t what I was looking for. In fact, until I decided to simply buy an airline ticket, throw on a backpack and set off with NO plan was it that I finally understood the lure of being what I consider a “traveler”.

Because I’ve chosen to travel the way I do, I’ve been fortunate enough to serendipitously find myself in places that have changed me at the very core of my existence — places that left me with a recondite feeling that I somehow understood our world a little better. There have been times when I’ve found myself among poverty so desperate that it left me feeling hollow, selfish and nauseatingly helpless. Other times have fortunately been more comical such as the times without even the slightest command of the language I’ve tried to negotiate bus fare, get directions or order something from a menu that was not only free of beaks or talons, but at the very least cooked to the point where it wasn’t’ still wiggling around on the plate.

Anyhow, I was so blown away with the culture and kindness of the people on a trip to Southeast Asia a couple of years ago, I’ve since thought more and more about what all this travel really means in the grand scheme of things, if anything. Could there be another reason for it outside of becoming a more understanding and compassionate person? Could I possibly do something to help make a positive difference for the people in the countries where I’ve traveled? Sometimes I think yes, sometimes I think no. Thinking about making a difference in someone’s life thousands and thousands of miles away sometimes seems almost impossible, if not completely impossible. Besides that, if you could help one person there are just millions and millions of others in exactly the same situation, or even worse situations. It’s so overwhelming to think about.

Ironically, about the same time I returned from Asia the last time, I was attending another installment in a speaker series here in Golden at the American Alpine Center. Unlike most of the other typical presentations, this one wasn’t about climbing some ridiculously hard route in some remote place. Instead, this one featured a young woman named Shannon Galpin who’d started a non-profit called Mountain2Mountain. The goal of her organisation was to bring basic human rights, education and simple hope to women and children in conflict and post-conflict regions. Sounded interesting enough so we went.

Throughout the evening she explained how she believed in her work so much that she’d sold everything she owned, including her house, to fight this fight. She reiterated time and time again this wasn’t something she was doing on a lark but was committed to making a difference because she was, quote, “tired of sitting on the sidelines and doing nothing to change the way things are”. I think she also said something about “not showing up in Kabul on rainbows and unicorns”…which, now that I know her a little better, makes me giggle. She explained that she was a realist and knew wouldn’t see a global change in her lifetime, but if she could simply make a “ripple” in the way things currently are then that’s what she had to do. Her words that evening touched me in an extremely profound way. There was someone who was actually trying to make a difference despite the overwhelming odds.

After her presentation a mutual friend introduced me to Shannon. We talked for a bit before she graciously invited me and Donna to join her and her friends for margaritas. It was so inspirational to sit in a group of people who had traveled extensively (dirt bag style in most instances) and had felt the same feelings and emotions that I had felt all those times while roaming places off the normal tourist track. Looking back, this evening was probably the biggest seed that started my internal search for a more clear meaning of what my travels meant, or could mean.

Shannon and I have stayed in touch since and I consider her one of my closest personal friends. I’ve kept current on her projects in Afghanistan such as building rural schools, bringing health and education opportunities to women’s prisons and establishing mid-wifery programs in many of those same rural areas. I might also mention that she travels to these areas with only a translator and without a NATO or US military escort.

Oh yeah, and then there’s her historic mountain bike ride across the Panjshir Valley in the northeast part of the country. Why historic? Keep in mind that this is a country where in most areas a woman has few or no basic human rights whatsoever and then there’s the fact that in this country, the notion of a woman straddling a bike seat is deemed unacceptably provocative. In Taliban controlled areas of Southern Afghanistan women have been publicly tortured and killed for lesser offenses.

The Panjshir Valley where Shannon rode has not been and is not currently controlled by any Taliban factions, nevertheless you can probably imagine the commotion stirred amongst the villagers as she’d come riding into these traditionally conservative mountain hamlets on her “burqa blue mountain bike”! I hear her stories all the time and I still find it mind boggling that she’s doing this. You can read all about her ride in an edition of Outside Magazine that came out this past spring

Back around the first of the year she sent round an email to a few friends and from her words I gathered that some of the steam behind her efforts had begun to ebb. Knowing Shannon, this was not the norm so naturally I was concerned. The fact was that the job she was doing was so insanely huge and she was taking on so much of it herself that she understandably began feeling the weight of those efforts.

For a few weeks after her email, Shannon and I would meet for brunch or just hang out when I was up in Summit County or sometimes when she was down here on the Front Range. We’d philosophise about travel, her work in Afghanistan, fundraising ideas, mountain biking and of course ripping some big tele turns in deep powder. It was always incredibly inspiring to hear her talk about her work because she is so passionate about it.

To make a long story short(-ish), a few months back Shannon called and asked if I’d consider becoming a member of her Board of Directors at Mountain2Mountain. I admit that my knee jerk reaction was that I would be getting in way over my head and there was no way I’d do it. I’d read the bios of the other members of the board, the development board and the advisory board and I honestly couldn’t imagine what I could contribute that would be meaningful.

I consulted with some of my inner circle friends to ask their opinion about the idea of joining the organisation and basically what they told me was that what I could bring was a rare seed of enthusiasm and a sincere desire to make a difference. They said that that “seed” alone would be enough. As flattered as I was, I naturally thought that was a pretty bogus answer because this was an organisation that needed momentum and people who could make things happen…people who had traveled the world and seen things and knew things and could do what needed to be done. Then it hit me, maybe this is what all my travels in the past had led me to. All that time spent trying to understand different cultures, religions, beliefs, customs and ideals might finally have an avenue to be more than a bunch of selfish endeavours. So I agreed.

With another couple of new board members coming on around the same time, we sort of had a “let’s push the RESET button party”  and we all vowed to refocus this effort into the machine it had the potential to be. I’m happy to report that in just a few months we’ve made some amazing progress in gaining back that momentum and are in the process of doing some rather historic work in a region that desperately needs something positive. Let me explain.

Not long ago Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, generously granted Mountain2Mountain five acres in the Kabul area to build a  deaf school! It is here that we had high hopes of building the very first K-12 Deaf School in Afghanistan…the VERY first of its kind. With human rights a precious commodity in this war fatigued country, you can imagine the odds of a deaf child receiving a fair chance at  any kind of education, much less one that would cater to their specific needs. There again, Shannon had a big dream and through tireless work and determination, she got that land to get it started.

Despite having the land, actually building a school would prove a larger and even more difficult task. The first order of business would be to build a security wall around the land. Without that, the construction would simply never happen. Conversely, if we left the land open for too long it’d surely be absorbed into the community and we’d lose our rights to it. Keep in mind that things in Afghanistan don’t exactly work the same way as the US…to put it mildly.

Once again, tireless work (and luck) paid off when one of our connections here in Colorado, who just so happens to be from Afghanistan AND just so happens to own a couple of construction companies, offered to help us out. We are now ecstatic to report that our contact, along with his incredibly generous support in Afghanistan, has completed our security wall and presented us with the architectural plans for our deaf school. I should also mention that this wall was built solely on the belief that we would complete this project and would make good on our promises to him. The photo at the top of the page is of Shannon standing near the construction of the security wall during its early phases.

The wall and school projects are estimated to cost approximately $800,000 and we’re currently working hard at securing the necessary funding to complete it. One of the fundraising/educational efforts we have is a traveling, life-sized photography exhibit called the Streets of Afghanistan.   If you ever get a chance to see it, I would highly encourage you to do so. It is a collection of awe inspiring photos depicting life throughout this beautiful country comprised of photographic work from Afghan and American photographers alike. I should mention that the exhibit tour will conclude when Shannon takes it to Afghanistan and sets it up as a public display for all to see. That promises to be an incredibly moving event.  All proceeds from the US Exhibit Tour will go to the completion of our school.

We are also hosting regional cycling tour/events across the US where we’ll celebrate Shannon’s ride across the Panjshir region. Keep in mind this is not a race (in most cities) but rather a celebratory ride with all proceeds going toward our efforts at completing the school. We even have 11-year old Reese Arthur in Saratoga Springs who is absolutely killing it by organizing a ride on her own to support the Panjshir tour! This world definitely needs more people like Reese.

Most of all I’m just happy that Shannon has once again regained that inner fire and passion I saw when I first met her. She is a person who dreams big and I can tell you firsthand when she gets rolling with big ideas, there’s no stopping her. It’s pretty easy to feed off her enthusiasm and start to believe that you can also make a difference.

I’ll close by saying that I never thought the traveling I’ve done would amount to much more than a ton of photos, an increased appreciation for different cultures and more awareness of the tribulations people might be facing. I’m very proud that my journey up until now has led me to be part of Mountain2Mountain and their work and proud of our efforts to bring about change in regions where the simple notion of hope may only be a dream.

All we can do is try.

Ski hard. Paddle far. Run long. Climb high.


3 responses to “Do What You Love, Dream Big, Make a Difference…in Afghanistan

  1. Another great post about an inspiring endeavor…thanks

  2. Barry, I’m very close to the young lady whom you mentioned, Reese, and I want you to know that she IS a true force in this world. She has taken over a corner of my heart and settled in deeply. She is not tethered by the usual ‘girl’ issues in our modern world, and yes, the world needs more like her!
    As one of two women (my partner, Kelly, is Reese’s amazing mom) running a global girl focus camp for girls, ThinkPeace Workshop, we live on opposite coasts, have busy family lives and sometimes barely have the stamina to make an ounce of progress! But when our daughters and other campers do something that touches a deep chord within us, like Reese is doing, we are given reserves to put our weary aching feet back into our hiking boots and start climbing that mountain (or biking those backroads..) again. Thank you for your inspirational article. You have struck another chord in me. May you find a place in your heart where peace resides!!

  3. Hi Barry, I have a personal request, which is, can you please re-send your email response to me? I’m so sorry, something went buggy on my phone and I lost your email mid-read! I was so pleased to hear back from you. So bummed to lose the email! (not sure you want to publish this request, but if you do, no harm done!) Thank you so much. All my best, liz

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