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Young people create nonprofit to foster connections

Cameron Conner and Austin Zimmerman have helped form a new nonprofit, Conscious Connections Foundation. 

Austin Zimmerman and Cameron Conner
Austin Zimmerman and Cameron Conner collaborated to form the nonprofit ameron Conner and Austin Zimmerman have helped form a new nonprofit, Conscious Connections Foundation.

They created it to advance marginalized individuals by promoting access to education, health care, skills development and improved facilities.  The goal is to create vibrant, economically viable communities to educate North Americans on their ability to have a positive impact on individuals’ lives through direct donations. 

The initial project is the Power of 5, which raises scholarship money to educate girls in Nepal.

Cameron grew up immersed in his parents’ fair trade business.  Denise Attwood and Ric Conner co-founded Ganesh Himal Trading as a wholesale business to market products from Nepal.

When he was five months old, Cameron sat on the lap of a Nepalese woman craft maker, one of many he at age 17 considers part of his family. 

He has visited Nepal seven times, and he spent his freshman year of high school traveling with his parents in Western Europe, the former Yugoslavia, Asia, North Africa and South America.

“Travel has given me a thirst to contribute to the world, as much as the world has contributed to my life.  The cultures are as different from each other, as they are from U.S. culture,” Cameron said.  “I want to open people’s eyes as mine have been opened.”

From immersion in different cultures, he knows people fear what they do not understand.  His travels dissipated his fears, by exposing him to cultures, even if he does not fully understand them.

Cameron, a senior at West Valley High, where he is in wrestling and tennis, is applying for college, open to many potential majors.

The daughter of friends of Ric and Denise, Austin has known them most of her life.  She first helped Ganesh Himal as Cameron’s summer nanny, which she did through high school. In the summers during college, Austin helped with the business, learning about fair trade as  Ganesh Himal Trading grew from a trailer to a warehouse to a website.

After graduating in 2007 from the University of Colorado with a bachelor’s in sociology and pre-law, Austin lived three years in Europe—playing professional volleyball—and decided to return to Spokane.

At 25, she considered coaching volleyball, but was interested in fair trade and worked part time with Ganesh Himal while Denise and family spent a year abroad.

“I love being in a business that influences the world on a micro and macro scale,” Austin said.  “I have seen relationships ripple into generational change.”

She first traveled to Nepal with Ric and Denise in 2012 and 2013. Her first experience in a third-world country was overwhelming. 

She took mental notes as she met producers and discussed products, beginning with the relationship building questions: “How are you?  How is your family?”

“I’m the same age as many of the producers’ children.  Some run their parents’ business or have started their own projects.  While parents had one to three years of education, some of their children have gone to college, a big change in one generation,” Austin said.

On her trips with Denise to Nepal, Austin met recipients of the Girl Child Education Fund, set up by the Association for Craft Producers with whom Ric and Denise have worked since 1985.

When Austin met Heema, 16, and her mother, she thought Heema would be happy about the scholarship that allowed her to go to school. 

“I asked how she liked school and what she wanted to be when she grew up,” Austin said.

Heema was not sure she would finish, because the scholarships lasted for only three years and she had exhausted hers.  Her mother cried.

“I thought, for $60 a year, or $5 a month, I could sponsor her, but Denise said that to be fair. We had to support all 180 children in the program, not just one or two.”

After returning, Denise watched the documentary “Half the Sky” and awoke at 3 a.m. with the idea that became the Power of 5: asking people to donate $5 for a bookmark and use the money for scholarships.  One bookmark equals one more month of school for a girl. Austin and Cameron picked up the idea.

Cameron, who last visited Nepal when he was 14, wants to have impact on Nepalese people because they are part of his life.  On the 2010 trip, when the Baseri Health Clinic opened, he helped celebrate the grand opening by handing out 500 toothbrushes. Ric and Denise had worked for several years with their friend, Sita Gurung, to set up the clinic.

Returning from travel in poor countries, Cameron has found it hard to communicate his experiences with his peers.  Now he has the chance to channel his insights into the Conscious Connection Foundation.

Cameron, Denise and Austin realized the Power of 5 and Baseri Clinic needed to be under a nonprofit.  This spring and summer, Cameron researched how to create a nonprofit and filed with the Internal Revenue Service at the end of July.  The status was approved in September.

Austin, who helped design the logo and bookmarks, said The Power of 5 is an easy concept for people to rally behind.    In 2012 and in 2013, 150 people who came to their fund raiser at Nyne Bar and Bistro raised $5,000. 

The foundation’s board recently started the Joy Attwood college scholarship fund, in honor of Denise’s late mother.  Heema, who will graduate from high school this year, will be the first recipient.

In addition to support from Ganesh Himal friends, the 250 fair-trade retail stores it serves help promote the Power of 5 by displaying the bookmarks and collecting $5 donations.  Each bookmark has a photo of a girl and represents a month of school for one girl.

Conscious Connections Foundation is an umbrella nonprofit.  The board hopes to include more projects. 

The 2014 fund raiser and auction for the Power of 5 is from 2 to 5 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 22, at Nyne Bar and Bistro, 232 E. Sprague. 

 

For information, call 499-3320 or email cameron.conner@eagles.ewu.edu or austin@ganeshhimaltrading.com.





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