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Dani’s Work for Education

October 23, 2010

Dani | buildOnDani is a young woman passionate about education. She writes that education “can help break the cycle of poverty, reduce abuse in communities, increase equality, and so much more.” So rather than ignore her strong beliefs, Dani embraces them.

The next in our Great Life Experiences series, here’s Dani’s story why she works on and after-school program for teens in rough Chicago neighborhoods and why she recently raised money to travel to Nicaragua to help build a school.

Can you explain your job with buildOn?
I have been working with buildOn for almost 2 years now as the Program and Service Coordinator.  A large part of my work involves helping high school students realize that they have the ability to make positive change in their communities, and in other communities around the world through service.

On a regular basis I am creating and facilitating volunteer projects for students to see the need in their community and know how to get involved.  Beyond their Chicago community, I want my students to understand that their issues aren’t isolated to their own community, that those same issues [poverty, broken families, etc]are happening in places all around the world.  A lot of the issues in our community and communities around the world can be positively affected through increasing access to education.  My students are learning to care about communities on a local and global level!

What motivates you to work with education?
For a longtime I have been passionate about youth and education. Before I began working for buildOn, I was always having an internal debate on whether I wanted to put my energy into making a postiive change on a local level or on a global level. Working for buildOn allows me to do both!
I truly believe the youth can be leaders in our community, and I want to make sure they know that as well.  I also believe that everyone should have access to education.  Education is instrumental in a person’s life; it can help break the cycle of poverty, reduce abuse in communities, increase equality, and so much more.
Dani working in Nicaragua

Dani working in Nicaragua

You recently traveled to Nicaragua to work where buildOn is building a school. What was it like?
I tried to get the most out of my time in Nicaragua.  In our village, there wasn’t much “to do” in the sense that we think of.  With no electricity, my day started early (around 5:30am) and ended REALLY early (around 7:30pm).  I was dirty, sweaty, and happy the whole time.  I excelled at pooping in a latrine.  I rode a horse through the village at dusk (and then in the pitch black of the night on the way back home).  I also sang the national anthem a surprisingly amount of times.  It felt like I spent most of my time, while not on the worksite, eating.  In the morning, my host mom fed me enough beans, rice, and tortillas for three people. Which leads me to the most important thing I did while in Nicaragua, helped to build a school.

The first day of work was pretty easy.  It mostly involved painting the metal pieces of the frame so that they wouldn’t rust.  Each day, the work got a little harder.  Toward the end of our adventure, we had dug larges holes for the foundations, carried large bricks up a hill to the work site, and pick-ax the heck out of where the latrine would soon be.  I was incredibly filthy everyday after work. It was wonderful.

Dani with her host family in Nicaragua

What was most meaningful about going to Nicaragua to help build a school?

There are a lot of reasons why this trip was meaningful.  Some people believe in “Location Location Location.”  I believe in “Education Education Education.”  Education allows people to have more choices.  With this as one of my core values, it really meant a lot to me to be a part of making education a reality for people when it wasn’t before.
In addition, going to build a school is an opportunity that many of my buildOn students consider.  I wanted to be able to speak personally about why they should go, why they should care, and what their experience would be like.  Surprisingly, many of my students are really intimidated by the thought of going to another country to go build as school, live with a host family, eat the local cuisine … and poop in a hole.

I wanted to go build a school to help encourage my students to live their lives to the fullest and take advantage of opportunities.  For many of them, much of their life is filled with “no” or “you can’t.” As much as I can, I want them to think “yes” and “I can” especially when it comes to making change.

Nicaraguan Students saying Thank You

Nicaraguan Students saying Thank You

To see how Dani raised her money or to make a donation to her efforts, visit her WiseGifter donation page. You can contact her at dani.mccarthy84 [at]


Want a Great Life? It’s a Matter of Choices

October 14, 2010
Jump! Our Tour Group on the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Jan 2009

Where we live, how we live, what we buy: these are all choices we make. But how they effect us, we sometimes don’t thoroughly consider. Stuff may hold us back. . . clutter our lives. . . fill our time and leave us daydreaming for change.

Do your choices subconsciously keep you from your best life? Want to change that?

We have a plan to help inspire you to live the life you want to live. But first, I’d like to share our story.

Why would be bother helping others achieve their dreams?
Because everyone has the potential to get on a great life path. It just takes a spark to start to get inspired and sometimes a kick in the pants. We’re grateful we got our spark and kick in the pants a few years ago and hope others will find the same.  Dream big. You’ll be surprised what you can make happen.


Visiting Wat Trapang Tong in Sukhothai, Thailand. Oct 2010

Visiting Wat Trapang Tong in Sukhothai, Thailand. Oct 2010


Our Choices: Living a Life of Travel
We’re not just preaching, we live what we speak. 5 years ago, Kyle and I dreamed a silly dream of traveling full-time. After reading Vagabonding by Rolf Potts, we cooked up a plan to start traveling On Our Own Path. We questioned our choices, reprioritized and changed our lifestyles to save $25,000 to travel for a year.

How did we save $25,000? Big budget goals & sending chunks of our paychecks directly into savings accounts. Lifestyle changes like cooking at home, staying in with friends, and free movies in the park. We lived in a smaller, cheaper apartment. And when it came to wedding gifts we fought the pressure of traditional stuff, and family and friends gave us gifts on a site that’s grown into WiseGifter.

The sacrifices weren’t always fun, but it was worth it. And the changes started us on a lifestyle we love. One year in Latin America led us to teaching in Korea, and now we’re in Southeast Asia, living, working, volunteering, traveling, and smiling. We’re amazed and pleased we’ve been traveling 2.5 years, through 20-some countries.

The best part: we keep finding inspiration and the means to continue. It’s all fueled by finding dreams to chase on the road. My latest dreams: being self-employed and becoming a yoga instructor.


Being eXtreme at the top of Telica Volcano, Nicaragua. Sept 2008.

Being eXtreme at the top of Telica Volcano, Nicaragua. Sept 2008.


Our plan to inspire you.
We’re going to share great people’s choices we’ll call “Great Life Experiences”. Every week for the rest of the year, we’ll be bringing you profiles from kick-ass people that have accomplished a dream, some small dreams, some big, some a work in progress.

We’re not talking, fluffy motivational hoo-haa. We’re talking, real people, real lives. Travelers. Dancers. Volunteers. Vegans. May they inspire you live a better life.

Just imagine what’s possible!

Follow along, and you’ll read stories from real people that live bravely and follow their dreams. If you’re already on your dream path, these stories can help you keep you invigorated and connect with others living that think just like you. We hope these “Great Life Experiences” will keep thinking up crazy ideas and taking the next plunge.

Guest Post? Interested in joining the list of awesome people getting profiled? Drop me a line at bessie {at}

Fighting the Stuff Dream

October 5, 2010

Toby's Brave Fight by Kevin Steele

It can be difficult to fight the dream of Stuff. We’re constantly inundated by images and messaging that we need something more to be happy. Buy more. Buy new. Ads say more stuff will make you happier, but study after study confirms they don’t.

You think you’re living pretty well, but actually not unless you’re driving a certain car. Think you’re gonna impress a pretty lady tonight? Not unless you buy her a nice, cold specific beer. But to get her attention, you also need the right body spray.

They get me where it hurts.

Whether subconsciously or not, we all absorb the ads. You ever see a product and burst out in some jingle? I hear the voices in my head singing the slogans to things as I walk through stores. “Choosey Mom’s Choose Jif.” “You’re not fully clean unless you’re Zest-fully clean!” Researchers and advertisers spend big money and long hours tweaking ads and products to seduce us.


So how do we avoid living lives driven by products?

Ignore ads. Whether it’s skipping over them in magazines, using a pop-up blocker, or flat out redirecting your attention when your commuting. Mute or don’t watch tv ads and the commercials that pop up before videos online. And the next time you’re shopping, consider how advertising might be swaying your choices.

Be a person advertisers hate. Foil their plan of buying heavily advertised products and seek alternatives. There’s something of a movement around buying local, and it’s a great one to propagate. Beyond supporting local businesses and buying local food, support local talent and avoid big brands. Spend your money on products you believe in.

Wear it out. When was the last time you really wore out a pair of pants or shoes? I’ve put you up to the challenge.

The doosy: consume less. Think Handmade, Reuse & Repair. I remember my disbelief when my mom and I pulled up to the tv repair shop as a kid. It was full of old tvs stacked up and gutted with wires and little parts I never knew existed. Often we think of replacing something when it’s not working, but instead find a repair shop to keep it alive longer. Reinvent old objects, and even repurpose them. Turn old containers into planters. Repaint old furniture. And if you can’t use it, sell it, give it to a friend and give it new life.

Have other tips? Feel free to share.

Running a Business for the Long Haul

September 25, 2010
Calm Ocean Waves

Calm Ocean Waves, Malapascua, Philippines

Because of all the news we see about internet start-ups, it seems as if the assumption that people have is that you make a website, you make it really big, and then you cash out for some ridiculously large sum of cash.  And with talking to other online entrepreneurs, a lot of them make a business plan with exactly this strategy: we will invest X amount of money, then sell the company for Y amount, making a million-dollar profit.  You can call this strategy many things, but the only word I can think of is this:


Let’s think about this.  If your singular goal is to create a short-term business that reaps a profit, what kind of mindset do the owners of the company have.

They probably won’t think about making customer service in such a way to make their customers happy for year after year.  Why would they?  If the goal is to build a portfolio attractive enough to sell in a few years, why would maintaining customers for the long haul be a priority?

The website is probably not designed in such a way to be maintainable.  I’ve seen this plenty of times where the code running a site ends up being an unmanageable mish-mash of different things without any regard to how updates and maintenance is going to happen.  Over time, change becomes slow because it takes so long just to do the simplest of technical tasks.

Lastly, they are more than likely in it solely for the money.  I’m not arguing that businesses should all work on some altruistic angle where everyone works for happiness and pixie dust; profits are important.  But, if your sole goal is cash, you’re likely to make decisions that short your customers in order to make an extra buck.

And this is where we are different:

We actually like what we do and we want to have this business for many years to come.
I know, it’s a crazy idea: liking our work.  But, we do and so since we have an opportunity to to something that we like every day, we are going to hold on to that opportunity as long as we can.

We truly enjoy the process of making a website that works for our customers.
We don’t see the website as this thing that spits out money for us to do other things.  We actually like making the website work.  Kyle is actually the technical brain behind all the code that runs everything, and it’s not a chore for him to do keep the website up and running; in fact, he quite likes it.

We’re excited to get up everyday and tell people our message that experiences are better than stuff.
Outside of all the bottom-line business stuff, we truly believe in our message.  In fact, we live by our message every single day and want to spread the word as much as possible that how you live your life is way better than the things you own.

We are happy to talk to our customers and learn how our business is helping them.
Nothing gives us more fulfillment than when we see people using WiseGifter to improve their lives in small and big ways.  When we know that people are getting gifts that allow them to have new experiences that enrich their lives, it is an amazing reward.

In other words, we like what we do, so why would we want to give that up?

You’re Right Not to Spend Money On New Stuff

September 12, 2010
Hikers Ascending El Hoyo, Nicaragua

Hikers Ascending El Hoyo, Nicaragua

Hey, it’s not me telling you that.  I’m just repeating this top read NY Times article, But Will it Make you Happy?.

And that’s not all it says.

We Don’t Need that Much Stuff to be Happy

“The idea that you need to go bigger to be happy is false…I really believe that the acquisition of material goods doesn’t bring about happiness.”

This has been known for thousands of years all the way before the day Jesus was born to modern-day minimalists like Leo Babitua. This isn’t a particularly new idea, but it seems to be getting more traction day after day.

Now that we’re in the 20th century, of course, we can do in-depth studies psychological studies and actually empirically prove what people have been theorizing for thousands of years:

“One major finding is that spending money for an experience — concert tickets, French lessons, sushi-rolling classes, a hotel room in Monaco — produces longer-lasting satisfaction than spending money on plain old stuff.”

So, there you go.  Spending your money on experiences will make you happier than getting just about anything at your local Target.

Yes, the new iPhone is really cool and shiny, but how about spending that money learning how to dance salsa? (or trying to learn how to dance salsa)  Studies show that will make you happier than your awesome new gadget.

You’re Not Alone, You’re Part of a Bigger Trend

I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking that you must be the only one who doesn’t spend my money on the newest gadgets or the latest fashions. But, here’s the thing. This is no longer an underground, small group of hippies kind of thing like you thought it was. Buying less and spending money wisely on things we know will make us happier has gotten so big that large retailing research firms are taking notice:

“We’re moving from a conspicuous consumption — which is ‘buy without regard’ — to a calculated consumption,” says Marshal Cohen, an analyst at the NPD Group, the retailing research and consulting firm.

It’s even got the attention of the world’s largest retailer: Wal-Mart.  As a response to this trend, they have started arranging the items in their store to create experiences.  For instance, backyard items are arranged so that you can turn your own yard into your own slice of the backwoods.  In other words, Wal-Mart has started to sell experiences instead of just stuff (even though you are still buying stuff).

What This All Means

People all the way from the NY Times readers to Wal-Mart shoppers are shunning stuff to spend their money on life experiences.  People are foregoing the material luxuries for the emotional highs.  The world is becoming less consumerist and becoming more savvy at doing the things that make them happy.

This means that you are right when you don’t spend your money on stuff and spend it on experiences.  So, keep going out there and spending your money wisely!

Want to live a simpler life? Here’s some inspiration for you.

August 26, 2010
Lone Flower in Bali, Indonesia

Lone Flower in Bali, Indonesia

Want some insipiration for living a simpler life and getting out of the cycle of consuming?  Try this quote, from one of my favorite authors, Rolf Potts: (source)

In March of 1989, the Exxon Valdez struck a reef off the coast of Alaska, resulting in the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Initially viewed as an ecological disaster, this catastrophe did wonders to raise environmental awareness among average Americans. As television images of oil-choked sea otters and dying shore birds were beamed across the country, pop-environmentalism grew into a national craze.

Instead of conserving more and consuming less, however, many Americans sought to save the earth by purchasing “environmental” products. Energy-efficient home appliances flew off the shelves, health food sales boomed, and reusable canvas shopping bags became vogue in strip malls from Jacksonville to Jackson Hole. Credit card companies began to earmark a small percentage of profits for conservation groups, thus encouraging consumers to “help the environment” by striking off on idealistic shopping binges.

Such shopping sprees and health food purchases did absolutely nothing to improve the state of the planet, of course — but most people managed to feel a little better about the situation without having to make any serious lifestyle changes.

This notion — that material investment is somehow more important to life than personal investment — is exactly what leads so many of us to believe we could never afford to go vagabonding. The more our life options get paraded around as consumer options, the more we forget that there’s a difference between the two. Thus, having convinced ourselves that buying things is the only way to play an active role in the world, we fatalistically conclude that we’ll never be rich enough to purchase a long-term travel experience.

He’s specifically talking about how consumerism can stop us from doing long-term travel (he calls it vagabonding), but this can easily be expanded to howconsumerism can keep us from life goals in general.

Maybe your goals are to donate more to charity or simply spend more time with your family.  Or perhaps you want to start a business of your own, but feel like you don’t have enough time or initial capital to get it started.  Sometimes it’s just the goal of working less. (and who doesn’t want to do that?)

Now, look around at all of the stuff you have around you.  Think about how much of it you really need.  Which is more important to you, your stuff or your other life goals?  And if you really want to dig deep, think about why you bought all of your stuff, and if it’s helping you achieve those goals.

Now, I’m not implying that you should go live in a cave and deprive yourself of all belongings.  That’s a little drastic.  But I do think it’s important to be conscious of how you spend your time and your money – be aware of how they really affect your life.  Be aware of the choices you are making, and if they help you live a better life.

I bet at this point you can think of one thing, one simple thing, that can help you save money or time.  Try it. Does it bring you closer to your bigger goals? Then stick with it.  The next week, you might think of one more little thing.  So do that, too.  And keep doing it, week after week, month after month, one small step at a time.

Before you know it, you’ll be living a simpler life and on your way to living your dreams.

What is one way you can simplify your life and bring you closer to your goals?

Giving: Is it a gift or a contract?

August 9, 2010
Homeless Anonimity by .craig

Homeless Anonimity

How would you feel if you gave a homeless person money and later found out they spent it on beer and cigarettes? Are you angry that they didn’t use the money more wisely, say on a sandwich? Or would you feel happy that they used the money as they wished?

It’s a sensitive question, and one that recently jostled me in an article called “Gifts vs. Contracts,” that I’ll summarize. The writer points out that a gift, by definition, is something transferred to another without receiving anything in return. If, however, you give something to another to do something specific, you’re actually entering a contract.

There’s a difference in your uncle giving you $100 free of expectations and getting that same $100 to pay your electricity bill. If you end up spending the money to see your favorite band (who rocked), your uncle could either be glad you rocked out with his gift or angry that you broke the contract and didn’t pay your bill.

It’s something to think about the next time you’re handing something over – and this could apply to your money, time, or really anything at all.

Are you giving a gift that’s free of expectations or are you actually extending a contract? How do your expectations alter the gift your giving?