Sometimes, a life-changing adventure doesn’t begin with careful planning, but with the simple flip of a coin — literally. At least, that’s how it went for intrepid traveler Barry Hoffner. And while Hoffner has immersed himself in many far flung places, the one that truly stole his heart was Timbuktu, located in the in the West African country of Mali.
It’s here that Hoffner got the inspiration for his nonprofit, Caravan to Class, which works to bring education and literacy to the villages around Timbuktu and the Southern Sahara by engaging diverse communities of supporters.
I caught up with Hoffner to learn more about his inspiring travel story.
1. What inspired you to want to travel, and what made you choose Timbuktu?
When I was graduating high school in 1978, my best friend and I flipped a coin to see if we would spend our savings from work on traveling/backpacking through Europe (his choice) or surfing in Hawaii (my choice). He won the coin flip and that changed my life. Since then I have lived/worked in nine different countries and have traveled to over 100 different countries.
In college I read a book about the Sahara Desert and was fascinated by the idea and mystery of Timbuktu. Visiting Timbuktu became a high priority on my bucket list and I was able to realize my dream to travel there in 2010.
2. You had encounters in Timbuktu that had a huge impact on you. What was that? How did you turn that experience into a positive one?
I traveled to Timbuktu in 2010 purely for the sense of adventure; however, while there for the famous music festival, the Festival Au Desert (which was last held in 2011 due to the insecurity in the region), I visited a village and saw that they had no school. Meeting with the head of the village and his wife in their tent, I was impressed with how sincere they were about the need to educate their children and how engaging and open they were, particularly the deference the chief showed to his wife.
It was at that moment that I told myself that I would raise the money to build that village, Tedeini, a school to celebrate my 50th birthday. That was the birth of Caravan to Class.
We have had some challenging times doing our work in Timbuktu. Only days after I visited Timbuktu to see our second school built in 2012, the entire region was taken over by a group linked to Al Qaida and our schools were shut down. Thanks to the French military the area was liberated in early 2013 and we were able to resume our work shortly thereafter.
3. For those looking to make a positive impact on the places they visit, what advice would you give?
In much of the developing world, particularly in Africa, it is the villages where a traveler will really see the soul of a country. Africa is a continent of villages, not cities. I would advise travelers to make a concerted effort to try and visit a village or two. Bring practical things like pencils, paper, old backpacks and find a way to visit a local school and hand them out directly to the students. In many cases, mid to larger size NGO can arrange visits to schools and hospitals. Find a place that inspires you, a cause that is important to you. Do your research to find the organization that best addresses the challenges/injustices faced by that place and get involved, through becoming a donor and/or volunteer.
4. For those looking to volunteer or work abroad to help the local population, what tips would you give for choosing a responsible placement where they can make the greatest impact?
There are many great non-profits that can arrange volunteering and working abroad on their programs. Unfortunately, smaller organizations like Caravan to Class simply do not have the infrastructure, particularly given the security situation, to provide these opportunities. Do your homework, find a non-profit that resonates with you, ask the hard questions and take a chance and go. You will not regret it.
5. For those looking to start their own nonprofit/charitable organization, what advice would you give?
First, find a place, cause and culture that truly inspires you. Think through critically whether you can create an organization that can begin to solve some of their problems. If you truly believe that you can, I would then offer the following advice:
- Get friends or colleagues to be inspired by the same place, cause and work together as a group.
- Find a local NGO whom you can trust. Do your due diligence. Start small to ensure that the planned work is happening on time and within budget.
These days, it is not difficult to start a 501c3 in the US. Focus on three important areas equally:
- Programming (the programs you will offer and the impact they will have)
- Fundraising (there are many different ways to raise funds, small online campaigns, writing grants, focus on a core group of major donors)
- Administration (do what you do in a well organized way)
6. What have been some of the most important lessons you’ve learned, both from traveling and starting Caravan to Class?
The biggest thing I have learned is the need to have more depth than breadth. It can be challenging running an organization whose work is so far away in an area with security challenges. It has helped that Caravan to Class’ focus is in one specific area (villages around Timbuktu) and on one specific cause (literacy).
Small organizations can be torn in so many different directions. Staying very focused has contributed greatly to our success. If you are true to your core, good things will happen.
In 2014, Caravan to Class got on the radar of the Good People Fund, an amazing granting organization, that believes that small actions can have huge impacts which not only became a grantor to our work in Timbuktu but became a true partner to provide strategic and specific advice which, for small non-profits, is regularly needed and always welcomed.
If you are truly committed and put the effort into your work, and do it intelligently, good things will happen!
7. What have been the biggest challenges of visiting communities in need, and how have you overcome them?
Caravan to Class is a bit of a special case. While Timbuktu has always been difficult to reach, a long/hard journey from Mali’s capital Bamako, since 2012, the region has been very insecure. Today, Timbuktu is run by the UN Peacekeepers and the French military. When I travel there, I do so on a UN Humanitarian flight and have a UN Peacekeeping escort to visit the schools Caravan to Class has built. Still, Caravan to Class is committed to our cause of bringing literacy to there villages despite these challenges. We simply cannot let the forces of extremism prevent us from doing our work, as to do so would be a defeat for creating a more tolerant and just world.
8. What does Caravan to Class do exactly, and how can people and travelers help grow literacy rates around the world?
Caravan to Class builds schools in carefully selected villages around the fabled city of Timbuktu. We support these schools’ operations, paying teachers’ salaries and providing school supplies and food for a period of three years. Timbuktu, once the Islamic world’s third most important center of learning, today is one of the world’s most illiterate places. We seek to bring back this important legacy of scholarship, with French language education, one villages at a time. We are currently building a school in the village of Kakondji.
While for Caravan to Class, our long-term goal for the area is universal literacy, our immediate goal, when we built a school, is “to get kids to go to school.” When we build a school, the children in that village are the first generation in hundreds of years to attend formal schooling. We measure ourselves by both the ratio of girls/boys attending the school and the attendance rate with our goals being 50%/50% and 70% respectively.
About Barry Hoffner
Barry has lived and worked in many locales around the world. After completing his B.A. in Economics at the University of California, Irvine and his MBA in Finance at Columbia University, Barry began his career with JP Morgan and worked in global postings such as New York, Buenos Aires, Paris, Zurich, Singapore, Tokyo, and Moscow. His community involvement is varied and includes service as the President of the board at Slide Ranch, Founder and Executive Director of Caravan to Class (started in 2010 and president of the Pine Mountain –Cloverdale Peak Grape Growers Association. Barry is married to Jackie Hoffner and they are parents to two children Benjamin, age 18, and Daniel, age 16. In his spare time, he enjoys olive and wine-grape growing at his ranch, his children, travel, bike riding and the outdoors.Jessica Festa is the editor of Jessie on a Journey as well as Epicure & Culture. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and living with a family in Ghana.