The phrase "He's seen it all" isn't usually taken literally. But for George Namkung, founder of the California-based nonprofit Kids of Kilimanjaro, it holds a certain weight.
Born in 1942 in Shanghai, during a time of civil war and the looming threat of communist rule, George's family moved to Hong Kong in 1949. And when communist activity began permeating that city, his family set out for Japan on a freight ship.
“During our trip there,” George told The Huffington Post, “We hit a horrendous typhoon and lost everything we had.”
But he and his family made it to Japan alive, and George ended up living there for the next 15 years, attending International Christian University in Tokyo, and making hundreds of friends from all over the world.
Many of his classmates were planning to move to the United States after school, but due to a lack of Japanese government assistance, they found themselves clueless about U.S language and customs. So George, in one of his first major entrepreneurial decisions, started a one-of-a-kind program in the early 1960s, aimed at assisting Japanese workers in their transition to the United States.
The program brought in quite a bit of money, but George’s workaholic nature was pushing him over the edge.
“I was working 16 hours a day,” he remembered. “I fainted and collapsed and ended up in a hospital, and the doctors said, ‘If you keep this up, you’re going to kill yourself.’”
He was only 24 years old at the time. “I didn’t want that to be my life," he said. "That wasn’t a very good game plan."
So George decided to make a drastic change, moving his entire life to San Francisco, CA. He took various jobs and gained 30 pounds during his first summer. “Before that I looked like I'd been in solitary confinement," George said. "I suddenly felt great."
He soon laid the groundwork for Namkung Promotions, the company he has owned and operated for more than 30 years. He also volunteered nearly every week for various organizations, first as a Big Brother, and later as a seventh-grade teacher for Junior Achievement.
But In 2002, George was gearing up to turn 60, and he wanted to do something extraordinary. He’d read an article about the African glaciers melting because of global warming, and decided he wanted to see them before they disappeared. “It wasn’t like I wanted to do something crazy, it was more that I had made it to age 60, and isn’t that great, you know?” he laughed. “It was a real milestone.”
So George hiked Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. “20,000 people try to climb it every year and 10,000 of them turn back,” he said. “You don’t know how it’s going to affect you.” Along with two experts and close to 40 porters, George made it to the top in seven days.
But George’s time in Tanzania wasn’t done there. Curious about Tanzania's education system, George ventured into town to visit a local school, and what he saw there changed the course of his life.
“Nothing gave the impression that this was a school. No fields, no places to play, no signs, nothing,” he recalled. “There were no lights, no running water, no food for lunch. There was a mud floor, kids were slushing around in this wet mud.”
Yet, George remembers, the kids seemed so happy, so content with their lives and so eager to learn. At 60, George was approaching retirement, but he felt as if something had to be done about the conditions there. "I wasn't sure what to do," he thought. "Can I really do something to help them? What will my family think?"
Before George left the school that day, a young girl raised her hand and said, “I don’t have a question but I do have a wish: I wish you a safe trip home, and I wish you a healthy and long life so that we may have another opportunity to meet again.”
“At that moment,” George thought, "OK. I’m doing this.”
He returned home to California and laid the groundwork for Kids of Kilimanjaro, a nonprofit that today provides school lunches for 15,000 children in 40 Tanzanian schools. The lunches keep students in school for the entire day, while also combating hunger in the villages and general malnutrition and disease. The attendance rate for partnering schools is now close to 100%.
The organization has also inspired he and his wife, the Dublin-born Joanne Jacobs, to downsize their own lives. They’re in the process of putting their Newport Coast house on the market and selling many of their belongings.
“I came back from that trip and had a different perspective on what was really important,” George said. “The kids over there don’t have iPads or computers or texting or Twitter, but somehow they seemed happier than anyone I’d ever met. It goes to show you don’t need much to be happy in life.”
Learn more about George's organization here.
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