Unexpected Gifts

Published November 10, 2011

Written by Marianne Nepsund

I am thrilled and honored to be Rebuild Sudan’s first official intern. As such, I must introduce myself appropriately – with a confession:

Food and epiphanies seem go hand and hand for me. I’ve never been a speedy eater. So perhaps it is the contemplative nature of my dining habits that invites the occasional revelation.

My latest experience comes from the Chen Clark family’s kitchen. Executive Director Blake Clark and his wife Sabina Chen are my gracious hosts while I am working in New Hampshire. I emerged from the basement office for lunch, drawn by the smell of Sabina’s homemade tomato soup. As I sat at the table, I looked outside, admiring the surrounding eight acres of New Hampshire woods, dressed in their fall colors. Mid delicious spoonful, I realized, this is possibly the most fantastic internship…ever. All you interns trapped in cubicles, eat your heart out.

To summarize, the first 2 1/2 weeks of my internship have included a brainstorming session in Boston, sketching potential floor panel fastening systems, multi-person video conferencing, some graphic design, and learning to manage all of the moving parts involved in this project. I just finished crafting a presentation on Rebuild Sudan that Blake and I gave at UMass – Lowell this week. Did I mention Blake is also teaching me to drive a stick shift? I’m told this is necessary if I ever want to do foreign aid work.

But let’s rewind to the food-related insight that brought me to New England. The economy has been particularly unkind to young architects. After losing my job twice in the same year, I was exhausted, frustrated, and three months into a lease. Grad school applications were postponed and I took the first job that paid my rent, a server position at an upscale restaurant. I consoled myself with the intention to use the flexibility of my less glamorous job to do whatever ‘things’ productive yet underemployed designers did to demonstrate commitment to their careers.

Fast forward to summer. Every road seemed to dead end. Though I searched for ways to take my love for design and for people beyond intention, ‘things’ weren’t happening. I still had an income (thank God), but I was restless and unfulfilled. And with the architecture market still volatile, I hesitated to stick my neck out again. While having lunch with a friend I hadn’t seen since graduation, it all came to a head. As we each summarized the past 2 ½ years over our pad-thai, something akin to panic set in as I began relating my current situation. This wasn’t the story I wanted to be telling. That’s when my friend told me about an impossible building project he was collaborating on in South Sudan. He told me the story of a prototype school in a place with scarce material resources, unstable soil conditions, and a harsh climate. The project challenges and innovative solutions fascinated me. As I expressed my envy, it hit me: why wasn’t I doing something like this, right now? I have the time, means and job flexibility to pursue my passion in a way that makes tangible, positive changes on a global scale. So, I contacted Rebuild Sudan and offered them my skill set.

So many non-profit projects never make it off the drawing table due to costs and logistics. Yet, here we are (I get to say ‘we’ now!), preparing to break ground. Given the additional challenges that come with building in Jalle, this makes Rebuild Sudan a rare gem in the world of NPOs.

Some of the best gifts come in unexpected ways. I look forward to all the other unique surprises and opportunities this new partnership has to offer.

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