Griffin Matthews went to Uganda in 2005 to volunteer, and came back the founder of be.the.change.uganda. His organization has just seen their first sponsored young person graduate from University, has an amazing musical, “Witness Uganda,” which they just presented to producers for further development, and is forging ahead to create better lives for young people whose families have been affected by HIV. Love and Water had a chance to connect with Griffin and talk about his journey with be.the.change.uganda.
Love and Water- What was your inspiration to start be.the.change?
Griffin Matthews- It kind of fell into my lap. I didn’t go to Uganda to start an non-profit, I went to volunteer for six weeks in 2005. After I got there I wanted to continue helping some specific kids I had been working with, but when I got home I couldn’t find a way to do it. There wasn’t an organization in place that could help me with that. I could have gone with World Vision, but I still wouldn’t have been able to help the kids I wanted to because actually they were too old- World Vision only helps little kids, and the kids I worked with were in their late teens. I decided to start raising money through friends and family, and that’s when I started to learn about the non-profit world. Everyone started telling me about tax write-offs and how to structure the donations, you know, all that non-profit talk that I knew nothing about. But I went with it and we started to raise a lot of money really quickly. We went under our church’s umbrella.
L&W- Who was making the donations initially?
GM- Well friends and family, initially. Before I even left Uganda I started emailing people about what I wanted to do and people started immediately pledging and then telling their friends. So by the time I got home we already had around $3,500.00, and some of it was from people I didn’t even know . Then once I was home we quickly raised several thousand dollars beyond that, so it became a necessity that I had to start it.
L&W- How did you spread the word so quickly?
GM- We started throwing parties. Parties for a Purpose is what we called them. We figured people in New York are going to go out and spend money anyway, so we rented out a loft space and threw parties every weekend, charging $20.00 at the door. And it was great because we raised thousands of dollars!
L&W- That’s such a great idea- because you’re right, people are going to spend that money anway on a Friday night.
GW- Yeah, it was tricky at first because I’m from Pittsburgh and growing up we always held car washes to raise money for things. So I first thought “let’s have a car wash!” but then realized it doesn’t work in New York so well. So we had to think outside the box and say what are we already doing that we can turn into a findraiser for charity.
L&W- I love that- especially since I’m from Ohio and we also held car washes for everything!
GW- (laughs) Yeah- it’s such a mid-west thing.
L&W- When you went to Uganda the first time I understand that you found this group of kids who needed extra help and you just started teaching them.
GM- I had been a summer camp counselor for years, so I really felt drawn to older kids. I feel it’s a really crucial time in life when you’re 16, 17, 18, so if someone isn’t guiding you into that phase of becoming an adult, you’re in trouble. So I’ve always been drawn to older kids. I also feel that you can really keep it real with them. So when I meet these older kids I said, “aha! That’s what I’m doing here.”
L&W- What was the inital contact like?
GM- Well I was on a tour of one of the villages with this particular organization and I met this kid on the street. He came over to me and introduced himself. His family had been affected by HIV and he wasn’t able to go to school, I found out, because the organization didn’t have enough money to help the older kids. They actually turned them loose on the street because they didn’t have the funds to help them. So we talked, and he introduced me to more of his friends who needed help and I just said, “let’s start. I’ll teach you what I know.” So that’s how it began- it wasn’t like I went home and meditated on how I could help them; I just knew I had to start right then. So for the next six weeks we had class everyday.
L&W- What did you teach them?
GW- We started with basic health education, a lot of HIV awareness, since most of their families had died due to HIV infection. So I did some research and came up with a curriculum for that. I’m an actor, so I had them do public speaking. I had them write a speech about their dreams, and what they wanted to become, and we would work on their delivering those speeches. We even did Bible study, because they’re very religious so they wanted to learn more about the Bible. So we were very off-the-cuff, whatever worked. We even did a field trip to Kampala to go out to dinner because they had never been out to dinner before.
L&W- Wow! What was that like?
GM- Their minds were blown! They had never gone into the city, which is 15 minutes away by taxi. They were afraid to go in because they didn’t have the right clothes on, but once we got them in they just had the time of their lives. We started doing more field trips- to the clinics, to volunteer, so they could see the patients and talk to them and sing to them. We just also really got to know them. We hung out, they taught me about their culture.
L&W- So when did the idea for “Witness Uganda ,” the musical you and your partner, Matt Gould, wrote, come to life?
GM- That idea also came from a necessity. We had been throwing the parties for a couple of years, and all these people who had been coming finally started to ask what it is we do with the money. They knew we were helping these kids in Uganda, but they didn’t exactly know how. So we knew we needed to do a presentation, and since I’m an actor I didn’t want to do the typical slide show/dinner where we just show pictures. So Matt, who is a composer, said why don’t we put together a show. He interviewed me, and we interviewed the others who had gone with us, and the students, and we pieced together the history of be.the.change.
L&W- Yes, it’s very much in the same vein as Anna Deveare Smith, where the interviews are performed verbatim.
GM- Yes, it’s kind of poetic that way, as in it’s just what we said. It’s exactly what happened.
L&W- The music is pretty brilliant, a combination of the kids’ language and ours, and extraordinarily moving. Did Matt write all of it?
GM- Yes, well I gave him these phrases and he worked from the interviews and stories as well. And he just holed-up into a closed room and came out with all these songs.
L&W- Where will the show go from here?
GM- Well what you saw was a presentation for producers. So we’re trying to find someone who wants to fund the development of it so we can grow it into a full-blown show. We also are interested in other non-profits commissioning us to write shows for their presentations. We would love to do that, because it’s such an exciting way to raise money for your cause.
L&W- You have 11 teens right now who have sponsors. Can anyone sponsor a teen?
GM- We have monthly sponsorships now to help sustain the kids already in school. You can do that for as little as $10.00 a month.
L&W- And what does that $10.00 do?
GM- It goes to the “pot.” The high schoolers all go to boarding schools, because that’s how it’s structured there. And some go to university. Each student gets an allowance to buy their books and food while they’re at school- kind of like when we were in college and our parents gave us money for a meal card and books. It’s so they can eat, travel and whatever they need. All of our staff is volunteering at this point. So all of the money we raise goes directly to the students. There is no middle man at this point. And the way we keep track of that for our books is that every time a student purchases something they get a receipt and they scan it and email it to us. So we pretty much know where every penny goes. We also have a good relationship with the schools, since they’re all private schools. We know the headmasters, and if there is ever a problem they immdeiately contact us.
L&W- Our tagline for Love and Water is “every drop counts.” How does that ring true for be.the.change?
GM- Well first of all, it’s a brilliant idea. We have a program called “Change Matters,” where we gave out jars to everyone at our benefit and we said, “fill these up, go to the bank, and send us the check.” We’ll take pennies! Your $2.00 here is doubled in Uganda, so it’s really $4.00. So everything really does count. It’s our perspective as Americans that we can spend $5.00 everyday on a cup of coffee. So imagine if we gave that $5.00 to an organization once a week. To put that into action is truly the key.
L&W- Yes, and to know that it makes us feel so good to do so.
GM- That’s it. When I go to high schools to talk to kids about be.the.change, I always start with the knowingness that everyone is a visionary- everyone wants to do good. I don’t meet people who are like, “no I don’t really want to do good!” It’s the opposite. We all want to do something. And everyone can. People often say to me, “Griffin, I want to do what you’re doing.” And I say, “you can!” Because I didn’t know what I was doing when I started, I just started.
L&W- Yes, yes. Just start. And that’s how magic begins.
GM- Last year we had our first student graduate from University. I don’t know how that happened, but every year we raise the money we need and we make it happen.
L&W- That’s pretty amazing.
GM- Yes. Give a little- like you did with RAINN. To give $5.00 a month, if that’s all you have, is more than you will ever know. And it’s those acts of courage that can change lives. It does change lives.