I am one of the lucky few. I was born into an affluent western family. All my needs were met; I enjoyed excellent nutrition, health care, and a privileged education. I grew up in Switzerland, a country with the highest living standard in the world. I skied in the winter, lazed around the lakes in summer and did not have a care in the world.
When I turned 17, I left home and travelled to Canada to learn how to fly airplanes and pursue my passion for aviation. I worked as a waitress to earn enough money for flying lessons. I flew planes; I studied weather, navigation and aerodynamics. I got my pilot’s license, had many adventures and did not have a care in the world.
I returned to Switzerland and started working. I worked hard; I moved up and started travelling the world. I got married and moved to the US and found a job in international business. My clients were in the upper echelons of society, the former King of Malaysia, the Crown Price of Holland, heads of State, members of FIFA and the IOC. In a few shorts years I racked up millions of frequent flier miles travelling to Southeast Asia, Japan, South America, almost every country in Europe and the Middle East. I saw the world, or at least I thought I did – what I saw was the top 1% of how the world lives and that was my world – it was a beautiful, privileged world, with opulence, no hunger, no homelessness, no strife and I was happy that the world was such a beautiful and safe place.
Until one day – I opened my eyes and looked around…
I was on a trip to Thailand; a two week around-the-world business trip from Austin, Texas – where I lived in a confortable home that I had just purchased, a reward for my many years of working long hours. I jumped into the air-conditioned limousine and set off for the short, but traffic-congested trip to the ultra-luxe hotel on the banks of the Chao Phraya River in downtown Bangkok. Although only 19 miles, it would take at least one and a half hours to reach my quiet, luxurious hotel room with cozy white robes and slippers and a bed swathed in luxurious linens, washed to a buttery smooth softness.
I rested my head back on the white cotton covered seats of the limousine and closed my eyes. I was tired as this was my fourth city on an around-the-world tour. Already I had visited Tokyo, Kula Lumpur and Singapore – after Thailand, I was heading to Cairo, Kuwait and stopping in Zurich before heading back home. I was thinking that my schedule was tough, that I was getting tired and that I needed to take a break when I got home. I had been burning the candle on both ends for six years and I wanted to take a break from the constant travel, time changes and long hours sitting in planes in business class.
The limo had come to a complete stop and the soft whir of the air-conditioning was lulling me into a peaceful bliss.
Then I opened my eyes and looked out the window.
We had stopped on the freeway, a congested collection of vehicles We were amidst a sea of brightly colored vans and tuk-tuks, open mini taxis with locals piled in, trucks of varying vintages spewing exhaust, loaded with open boxes of fruit and chickens. Motorcycles, some carrying an entire family of four, were swerving in and out at dangerous speeds.
We were entering the city and the notoriously bad traffic had come to a complete stop; only the bicycles and mopeds could move forward and the air looked dark and noxious. I was happy to be inside my car and instinctually covered my nose with my sweater, hoping to add another layer of filtration from the toxic air outside.
I lazily looked out the side window and noticed for the first time that we were passing a slum town built up alongside the roadway and partially covered by an overpass. I had never noticed that people lived here before. People lived here … it hit me PEOPLE lived HERE – along this noisy, congested road, breathing in this toxic air. I blinked and took a closer look and then it happened.
Photo Credit: CNN
Maybe three feet away from me on the other side of the barrier dividing the makeshift homes from the road, stood a young woman. I was looking at her and she was looking at me. We were looking into each other’s eyes – almost able to reach and touch each other but worlds apart – worlds apart – yet the same.
I realized in that instant that I could be her and she could be me – the only difference between us was that I was born in the affluent west and she has been born here, poor and uneducated under a bridge in Bangkok. I realized that, but for the grace of God, I was in the safe confines of my car and she was out there in the streets, poor and penniless.
She saw me looking at her and smiled and raised a hand to wave hi. I smiled and raised my hand as well and put it against the smooth surface of the window. Somehow we were both caught in this moment of stillness. There was sadness behind her eyes and I shifted my gaze to take in the rest of her. She wore a small threadbare, pink t-shirt and a striped fabric was wrapped around her waist as a skirt, her feet we bare. Her feet were bare – I kept looking at her bare feet – no shoes. Then I looked at her surroundings, she was standing in front of her house, a ragged collection of discarded wood, plastic tarps and jagged corrugated panels – it was dirty. It was more than dirty, it was filthy. At her feet a small child lay sleeping on a piece of cardboard – a child. Sleeping on a piece of cardboard.
I could not breath, I could not think, I wanted to cry – I wanted to open the car door and ask them inside but I didn’t. I sat there looking, looking and realized for the first time that the world was not a beautiful and safe place after all and that there was huge injustice and a disproportionate amount of people living desperate lives of poverty. Somehow I felt horrified with myself, sitting there in the security of the cool, clean air of the limousine while she stood by the railing, her child asleep in the toxic air by her feet. I think she saw my moment of realization and smiled a sad smile and raised her hand again; a soft benediction. This time as I raised mine, it was to honor her and to promise that she would not go unnoticed and that I would do something in my life, something with my life to make a difference for girls like her.
The car then sped up and soon I was whisked away from the girl by the road and into a whirlwind of meetings, dinners and multi-million dollar business deals with the titans of greed, of which I sadly had to acknowledge, I was one of.
A few years after this awakening moment and after I had sponsored several children through Save the Children, I became a stay-at-home mama to two beautiful girls and focused my attention on raising them. We moved to a sunny enclave in Southern California where they were given a privileged education, rode horses and surfed, and grew up strong and smart. I wanted them to have every opportunity to live happy and productive lives and not to have a care in the world.
Then one day … I was sitting on another plane, heading to Switzerland for a hiking vacation. I was leafing through Newsweek and came across an article about businessman John Wood, formerly of Microsoft, who had just launched a non-profit called Room to Read. I was immediately drawn in by the picture of John surrounded by children in a small village in Nepal, handing out books. I went on to read about his goal to change the lives of one million children through his non-profit called Room to Read. He was building libraries and providing an education to the poorest of the poor in Nepal, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. My thoughts immediately went back to the girl in Bangkok and I thought what could she have become if she had an education; if she had the opportunity to move beyond her circumstances. That, I realized, was the key differentiator between her and I. Not only that I was born into a luckier place on earth, but also that I had an education, which gave me knowledge, gave me freedom to make choices, to make a living and to make a difference. I decided then and there that I would contact John Wood and I would donate and raise funds for the girls’ education program. I was determined to send 1,000 girls to school.
I started Alp-n-Rock as a vehicle to send girls to school and to create lasting change through the gift of an education. I strive everyday to create timeless clothing, made with love and attention to detail from the finest fabrics, that provide joy for those who purchase them and provide funds for the girls’ scholarship program through Room to Read. To date we have sent over 168 girls to school, however we still have a long way to go to reach the initial 1,000 that I committed to.
I consider it an honor and a duty to fulfill that goal and am ever thankful for the day my path crossed, and my eyes locked with that young woman in the Thailand slums.
This is why …
We donate 10% of profits to fund girl’s scholarships in developing countries providing them with the lifelong gift of an education. After all the years of being fortunate to live in wealthy countries and sample the finest the world has to offer; for me, the greatest luxury is the ability to give back.