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Isabelle Fries was just 15 years old when she went on a mission trip to East Africa with the Global Livingston Institute (GLI) in 2013. Without the comfort of family or friends, the Denverite flew nearly 9,000 miles to Uganda with GLI’s founder Jamie Van Leeuwen and a few families to interact with and serve East African communities in need. The Denver-based nonprofit, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary on Tuesday, sends nearly 300 students and community leaders to Rwanda and Uganda every year for a series of immersion experiences focused on education and job creation in rural communities.
Over the course of her first trip, Fries worked closely with a primary school in Kabale, Uganda, to help create a common knowledge curriculum—which they still use today— so that students could learn more about the world. She grew close with the headmaster John, who brought her into his home to meet his family and share a meal. It’s a relationship she’s proud of to this day, one she formed all on her own at such a young age by just showing interest in a foreign community.
Now, six years later, Fries, 21, and John still communicate nearly everyday. He sends her questions to improve the curriculum and she asks for updates on each of the students. Fries returned from her first trip with a relationship she feels is more valuable than any tangible souvenir, and she’s gone back six times since.
“Giving a child a pair of shoes is not going to change their outcome in life,” Isabelle says. “Giving a community $1,000 will do a little, but then when it runs out, it won’t do much. What sets GLI apart is they give underdeveloped communities in need tools, knowledge, and programs, and teach them how to sustain it on their own. That’s more than any pair of shoes, clothes, or food can do because it’s all about sustainability.”
Jamie Van Leeuwen created GLI with the goal of engaging young people and students who were interested in helping underserved communities through a mission trip to East Africa. Now, in partnership with 19 academic sponsors, including the University of Denver and Creighton University, GLI facilitates women’s leadership retreats, a work development program, youth summits, and the largest music festival in East Africa that offers potentially life-saving services for free, including HIV testing, cervical cancer screenings, tetanus shots, and counseling. Last year’s festival included an appearance by touring Lumineers band member Stelth Ulvang and drew over 44,000 attendees—more than 8,000 of whom received free HIV testing.
“We created this great vehicle with the festival, but the point of it and what I think is really important, when we look at our 10-year anniversary, is how much we’ve learned from those communities,” Jamie says. “The music festival wasn’t some white guy going to Uganda’s idea. It was the community saying: ‘Hey we would love to share music with you, and when we’re sharing music together could we do something that has an impact on our community that we know we really need?’ That music festival is owned and was created by the community we serve. It’s getting people to think differently and think bigger about how we do our community development work.”
On October 1, in celebration of the organization’s anniversary, GLI is bringing the music festival home to Denver, inviting the local community to hear stories from Ugandans and Rwandans who have been impacted by the organization and embrace the volunteers who have worked to improve the nonprofit’s international development. Guests will hear performances from Ugandan and American musicians, including local rock bands Tracksuit Wedding and Rob Drabkin, popular East African rapper Navio, and more.
“I think sometimes we lose the human element of how we serve our communities, and I think that our 10-year anniversary is a reminder of how we can reach communities and connect with them through music,” Jamie says. “If you go back and rewind to 2009, the GLI was me leading a trip of 18 young people. Ten years later, the GLI is a group of 50 community leaders working together as a team to figure out how to engage community development and to listen and think in ways that we weren’t talking about 10 years ago. I see myself as a small piece of that.”
Outside of her education work in East Africa, Isabelle, who already has plans to return this summer, is also a singer and has performed at the past concert series. She will be sharing her experiences with GLI and her love of music at this year’s event as a tribute to the organization that she says has made such an important impact in her life.
“Just seeing how they’ve grown in the past six years that I’ve been involved is incredible,” Isabelle says. “I think as more ideas and relationships form and the more people that get involved—which I know there will be more—the more GLI’s vision can expand and their reach will go even further.”
If You Go: The 10-year anniversary concert takes place on Tuesday, October 1, from 6:30–9:30 p.m.; Bluebird Theater, 3317 E. Colfax Ave. Tickets are $20–$250.