05/30/2012 12:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Untapped Wonder: The True Sierra Leone

I just returned from paradise. I met up with old friends, made new ones, swam in the ocean, slept under the stars in a modern earth dome, and was serenaded by midnight bonfires by the beach. If anyone had ever told me just six years ago that paradise was awaiting me in the West African country of Sierra Leone, I would have never believed them. Because like many people, when I thought of the continent of Africa, particularly Sierra Leone, the words "suffering," "war-torn," and "tragedy" were what came to mind. How thrilled am I that I was wrong. I'm even more thrilled that thanks to my local partner Tribe Wanted John Obey, a groundbreaking ecotourism immersion program where locals and tourists work together to build and live on a sustainable seaside eco-village, the true cultural experience of Sierra Leone is made accessible to the international community. Today, I can tell you the words that genuinely describe this incredible country and its people are this: Sierra Leone is an untapped tropical wonder that reminds you to breathe and that we are all capable of just about anything.

To fully understand my appreciation of Tribe Wanted, I have to share my experience of founding my non-profit organization- Shine on Sierra Leone (SOSL). When I founded Shine On Sierra Leone six years ago, I experienced what many people see when they visit an under-developed country for the first time: poverty, sickness, injustice. But I also saw the resilient spirits of its people and the undeniable curiosity and optimism within them. After absorbing everything I'd seen, I made it my mission to raise awareness and funding to help the people of Sierra Leone. I did this through shocking photographs of the environment, stories of dire need, tales of abandonment, and the jaw-dropping statistics that came with Sierra Leone's history. My intention was not to shame donors into giving but to urge them to contribute to those truly in need.

Since then, significant success has been achieved. SOSL has six fully developed and executed initiatives including primary education, adult literacy, computer literacy, micro lending, agricultural investment, and sustainable building. I'm beyond proud to share that the outcome of our work has resulted in 500 students receiving a free and excellent education (in a school that was once ranked 600 and is now in the top five in aptitude testing nationwide), 12,000 computer literate individual nationwide, more than 5,000 micro lending loans for small business owners especially women, and now a healthcare program supported by the First Lady of Sierra Leone and Wellbody Alliance. However, despite all of our success, I felt a void and disconnection from the work that I had now dedicated my life to. I no longer had a sense of urgency to "change" what was Sierra Leone. Instead, I desired to dive deeper into the relationships that had been created over this short period of time to discover something even more powerful than educating students and launch businesses. One may ask what on earth could be more powerful than that? As an individual who loves nothing more than to engage at the deepest levels with others including strangers, I had an undeniable gut feeling that there was more to this humanitarian journey. This desire came as a result of me noticing an unsettling pattern. No matter how much money I was able to raise, it was never enough. There was always more to be done and there would be continuous needs. And as a result, I would do whatever I could to raise the funds to "fix" it. It was unsettling to know that there was something off. We had created an unbalanced exchange where everyone was looking at our organization as the solution and an economic shift in their favor as the only answer. I couldn't figure out how to address this dilemma until I remembered what had propelled me to get involved in the first place. It was about love.

I began to focus only on what I loved about Sierra Leone and the people that lived there. Their culture is warm, inviting, hospitable, and laid back. I decided to celebrate this culture as it is rather then about what needs to be different. As a result, my sharing of Sierra Leone was not a sad story and not even a story of hope but a story of an opportunity to have a mutually beneficial relationship with a culture starkly different than your own. And as if by design, my relationships began to deepen and new, transformative programs began to bloom.

The first, in the form of a remarkable partnership between Shine On Sierra Leone and Tribewanted: Sierra Leone (TWSL) with Filippo Bozotti and Ben Keene. TWSL is a unique cultural adventure in the tropical heart of Sierra Leone that allows one to live and grow with a local fisherman's village while building an eco village on the beautiful white sand beaches of Sierra Leone's stunning coastline. The Tribewanted experience also includes travel to the countryside to explore Shine On Sierra Leone's current programs in education, maternal health and microfinance.

What is fascinating about my journey is that I no longer see Sierra Leone as "the least developed country on the planet" and the people as impoverished or illiterate. I don't wake up each day striving to "change" Sierra Leone. My strongest desire is to become apart of Sierra Leone's transformation and to experience the beauty of what is right now. As one beautiful tribe member once said: "If you are coming to help us, you are wasting your time. If you are coming because you know that your liberation is bound up with ours, then let us work together." The most beautiful element of joining an SOSL and Tribe Wanted travel experience is that this is a mutually beneficial relationship. A true partnership that highlights the value of all members from the donors to the donee. Everyone from the start is an equal and considered as such.

My trips to Sierra Leone are unlike the early days. I see men and women living freely and beautifully. I honor the poetic simplicity of village life and yearn to induct a form of this within my own community and friendships. I have our partnership with and development of Tribewanted: Sierra Leone is to thank for this.