China Travel interview: Choice to Choose founder Maciej Koterba

Travel | by Stephan Larose
Posted: October 23rd, 2010 | Updated: July 25th, 2012 | Comments
Two young orphans from Lijiang, Yunnan province, China I met Maciej during my recent visit to Lijiang for the Snow Mountain Music Festival. Maciej had organized a three-day mini-festival for orphaned children just behind the main stage. It featured tons of games and activities as well as performances by some of the artists playing at the concert. Intrigued and moved by the excellent charity project he'd put together, I sat down with Maciej to talk about his experiences traveling and working around China, and about how others might volunteer or do good works while visiting this amazing country. Spoiler Alert! This article includes a slideshow of Maciej's SMMF charity event! What's your name and what do you do? My name is Maciej Koterba and I'm involved in many projects. I started a charity foundation called Choice to Choose in 2003 and we ran many different projects in China and Poland. I also run a company in the forestry sector and sell high-quality Polish amber in China, so people here can buy the real thing instead of the fake stuff you find all over China. I do all this in the hopes that it'll allow me to support my family and make enough money to run charity projects. I'd like to be able to focus on the charity work, not on looking for funds, but that is not easy these days... What inspired you to found this organization? I've worked for a few different NGO's before, but I was always thinking about what I'd do differently were I in charge. So, in 2003, my wife Siyu and I decided to start Choice to Choose and start working in Sichuan's rural communities. During our three years there, we supported 40 families. We were able to pay for the children's school fees, run small micro credit projects and do fun stuff like emotional painting projects, photography projects and children's days with all kinds of activities. How does your organization differ from other charitable organizations? I don't know, I think difference is that I always try to cooperate with people and I listen to what they have to say. I'm the founder of C2C, but every project is done in cooperation with new people.  I don't have a very rigid agenda. I have plans and goals but the road to achievement is always different and depends on many external factors. I always try to find good people who share my enthusiasm for the project I'm involved in and try to make them feel like it's our project, not just mine. I give partners full control in directing how projects should develop. It's a lot of fun this way, and I believe that this kind of cooperation not only gives people a greater feeling of achievement but also empowers them to do similar things on their own and it's worked out very nicely. Could you describe a few of the projects you've been involved in around China? We were supporting 40 families living in small villages around Anyue, Sichuan. My wife and I were teaching English there and one day we decided to take the local bus to the last stop and found a local middle school to teach English at. Soon afterward, we asked for a list of the families  who couldn't afford to enroll their kids in the school. We selected 40 families and started paying their school fees so they could attend. They were from 6 to 17 years old. After a year we wanted to give these families a chance to get some income, so together with the families we decided to buy pigs. We did this at their request because you can breed pigs, but we needed to train the farmers. We gave them money so they could buy the pigs special feed. This was quite an expensive project, but we put on a music festivals in Poland and got some sponsors so we could afford it. It wasn't easy, farmers didn't follow their training and some of them bought bricks instead of pig feed. So it was up and down, but in the end the most important thing was that the families with which we started in the 2003 had a lot more to smile about when we finished in 2006.  Their kids were in school, their homes were cleaner, this was the biggest success for me. We were very lucky to be able to take this three-year journey with those families. I learned and experienced so much thanks to them. I just hope that I've helped them a bit on their own journey... What part of China have you enjoyed the most and why? I feel at home everywhere, but I like to settle down in one place for a while so that I can get to know people and the place around me more. We've lived Yuxi, Yunnan; Anyue, Sichuan; and now we live in Dali, Yunnan. I also spent some time in Zhengzhou where my wife is from. Every place is so different, we love small places where it's easy to walk around and people have more time to interact. So I felt great in Anyue. But now with the Happiness for the Children Project running I'm finding that Dali, Lijiang and Shangri-La are great places too. I love China, I love Chinese people and I'm very grateful that I can tell foreigners about China as I've experienced it, which is so different from the China they've heard of... A lot of people like to do volunteer tourism these days. Could travelers volunteer and travel with you guys? What could they expect to experience? I love to work with volunteers. Right now we don't operate on a daily basis, but if somebody would like to come and do an emotional painting project or take part in the my Happy Car Exploration Trip, they are more than welcome to contact me so that we could arrange some activities. What  do they get out of this?Just look at some pictures from previous Happiness for the Children and emotional painting projects. [showtime] Could you recommend any organizations people could get involved with in order to volunteer while they travel? There are lots of opportunities teaching English, that' s an easy way to start. Anyone interested in this kind of thing can easily search Google and will find a lot of interesting training centers running long-term volunteer programs, and I know there is often an option of doing short term work too. The Yunnan Institute of Development is based in Yuxi, Yunnan. Describe the project you had going on at Snow Mountain Music Festival. What part did you most enjoy? What was the most difficult or challenging aspect? I enjoyed the whole production process from beginning to end. Being able to do this kind of event at a music festival in China, being part of the music festival production team here and seeing how people made it happen was an amazing opportunity. I organized music festivals in Poland but China is completely different story. I was curious about how it would work in here, I have some experience with the music industry and concerts. Unfortunately charity events like ours are the first to be cut if the budgets aren't being met. When I first met the SMMF organizers I told them I would find sponsors to cover the costs of the event. But I think I underestimated the size of that burden for both me and the friends I had helping out. Getting those funds raised was by far the hardest and most stressful part, because we simply couldn't find sponsors to cover the costs of this event. Our friends donated some money here and there, but in the end SMMF decided to cover all the outstanding costs, and it was a big chunk of the pie. We were all very grateful when they stepped in and I'd like to say thanks to Spring, Hwee Ling, Siyu, and all the volunteers who helped us, you are the best! Many thanks to Song Jie from SMMF as well. A couple bands, Iowa Super Soccer and Honing, took part in our activities performed at the Lijiang orphanage - which was great fun. Thanks a lot to everybody who helped us to make this happen! As a musician one of the most gratifying things for me was being able to bring Iowa Super Soccer to China. Those guys are from my home town, I've know them for many years, so seeing them playing at SMMF was a huge highlight. I hope I'll have the chance of bringing more great musicians to China in the future. In your line of work, you must have had quite a few amazing experiences. Do you have any interesting stories you could tell us? I've met so many great people and seen lots of great things happen. I  met a high school girl in Sichuan who had her whole village support her financially so she could go to the best high school and later to university. I met lots of Chinese volunteers in the Yunnan Institute of Development with huge hearts. Many of them had parents who were sent to work on collectives during the Cultural Revolution, and while their friends are making careers and big money, they're out in the Chinese countryside, living in very hard conditions for months trying to help out. Some of them go all the way to India or Zambia, sometimes against their families' wishes because they are so driven to volunteer. I find people like that very inspirational... What's the strangest thing you've ever seen in this country? Something I find very strange is the complete lack of concern for animal welfare in some parts. I saw a photo essay of a family who raised a dog for years, and then one day the decided to eat it. Poor dog, they way they butchered it extended its suffering for many hours and I simply can't understand how those people could feel absolutely no sympathy for it while it was so obviously suffering. That really broke my heart. I try not to judge though, I know that sometimes there are incidents like that in slaughterhouses in the U.S. and in Europe but still... I think one of my next projects will be to start an information campaign in China just to let people know that animals can suffer and that we should do our best to spare them that suffering. I don't think it's a matter of cruelty but rather a lack of information and awareness. I hope I can do something about it... Well we certainly wish you the best of luck in all of your endeavors. Thank you for your time. Learn more about Maciej's work at Choice to Choose.
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