VATICAN CITY (CNS) — While tourists walking around the lobby of Rome’s Crowne Plaza Hotel eagerly discussed their vacation plans, young men and women from around the world were nestled in a nearby conference room, engaged in a different kind of conversation.
Five winners of the 2017 BridgeBuilder Challenge gathered in Rome Oct. 2-4 along with members of the GHR Foundation, a philanthropic association founded by a Catholic couple from Minnesota, to share their winning ideas, which range from launching tree-planting drones that will restore mangrove trees in Myanmar to providing ethical mining jobs to former combatants in Congo.
The foundation along with OpenIDEO, a web-based global innovation community with chapters worldwide, launched the first of three competitions for social innovators who will share a $1 million prize and will work with the GHR Foundation to continue to advance their ideas.
Mark Guy, senior program officer for the GHR Foundation, told Catholic News Service Oct. 3 the idea for the BridgeBuilder Challenge was inspired by Pope Francis’ call “to build bridges,” especially at a time of global turmoil and when headlines continuously speak of division and building walls.
While the foundation doesn’t see itself as a Catholic or faith-based organization, it remained inspired by its founders’ Catholic faith and tied to “the strong Catholic roots within the family,” he said.
The 2017 BridgeBuilder Challenge winners are:
— LIFT Chicago’s plan to make early childhood education and community activities more accessible to families on Chicago’s South Side.
— Local Youth Corner Cameroon’s initiative to work with young violent offenders through rehabilitation facilities that offer lessons in leadership, as well as vocational and entrepreneurial skills.
— Peace Direct’s efforts to offer work and a steady income to ex-combatants through ethical gold mining.
— NaTakallam, a platform that assists refugees in becoming tutors for Arabic learners around the world via Skype.
— BioCarbon Engineering’s spread of drone technology to plant trees in Myanmar, where forests are threatened by rising sea levels due to climate change.
Achaleke Christian, the winner from the Local Youth Corner, told CNS his idea was meant to counter violent extremism in Cameroon by providing young people with entrepreneurial and vocational skills as well as peacebuilding techniques.
According to the foundation’s website, the funding received from the BridgeBuilder Challenge would support “the rehabilitation and reintegration of 300 young offenders across eight facilities in six cities and provide training to rehabilitation facility staff members on countering violent extremism and building peace.”
Christian, who was “born in one of the most violent communities” in Cameroon, said the idea was based from his own personal experience.
“I saw violence firsthand, I lived it. I watched my friends being killed, some burnt alive, some jailed,” he told CNS. “That was how the whole drive to engage in peace came about, trying to correct some of these wrongs which we did as young people and trying to see how we can change perceptions.”
Seated beside Christian was Sol Anderson, a young man from Chicago’s South Side whose idea to make early childhood education more widely available in his city also stemmed from his own personal loss and experience of seeing “young kids who look like me dying every day.”
“I had a cousin who was one of the 750 homicides in Chicago last year, and I’m a father now,” Anderson told CNS. “I see my son and I want to create a better world for him to live in, I want him to not fall victim to the things that my cousin fell victim to, the kids I grew up with. It’s just very important for me to create that better world.”
“The world needs to be better for them than what it was for us and our friends and family members who fell victim to all of that,” he said.
Christian, who once aspired to become a priest, and Anderson, whose father and grandfather served as ministers, did very little to contain their excitement at being only a few miles from the person who inspired the BridgeBuilder Challenge.
Pope Francis “is that symbol of peace and that message of peace which I refer to always. He is the next level of inspiration,” Christian said. “I told my parents that I am closer to the pope and they are very happy.”
“It’s hard not to be inspired (by Pope Francis),” Anderson added. “When the pope speaks, the whole world listens regardless of your faith. And for him to speak so actively on how important it is to build these bridges, to reach across sectors, to make real authentic connections with people, the world is going to listen to that and the world is going to move on that.”