Touch A Life Foundation Director of Project Development Rachel Brown
Meet Rachel Brown, who at the age of 29 has already spent a great deal of time traveling the globe in an effort to make a difference. Rachel Brown works for Touch A Life Foundation in Dallas, an organization working toward healing and empowering children who are suffering, exploited, and at-risk around the world. Rachel's first foray into non-profits was in the entertainment marketing office of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital where she says she was "struck by the prospect that everything I did, no matter how small, made a difference in the life of a child in the hospital's care."
The experience at St. Jude stayed with her and after graduating college, Rachel took her first trip to Ghana as a volunteer with Touch A Life. That trip meant a great deal to Rachel: "The memories I made broke my heart for Ghana, instilling a fiery passion within me to work there someday, somehow." And she did just that. After a few months working for a boutique PR and marketing agency, Rachel switched gears and became Touch A Life's first hire in January 2009. She has been with them ever since.
Rachel's role has evolved over the years and her current position with Touch A Life is primarily heading fundraising campaigns and developing relationships with donors (which is no small feat). She also assists with event planning and coordinates all volunteer activity (including all trips to Ghana) among other things. In her spare time Rachel maintains a personal blog and writes for Darling Magazine. Needless to say, she has her hands full and she wouldn't have it any other way.
Whether or not you work in a non-profit, we're certain you'll be inspired by Rachel's story. Keep reading for more on Rachel's experiences, her advice for women, and the lessons she's learned along the way.
Name: Rachel Brown
Current Title/Company: Director of Project Development, Touch A Life Foundation
Education: BA in Journalism at Pepperdine University
Both during and after college, you had several internships in the Los Angeles area. Tell us more! How did you land them and what did you learn?
My alma mater, Pepperdine University, required internships for certain majors and classes. This really helped launch students into the real world, forcing us to establish connections and obtain excellent job experience. To widen my journalism horizons, I pursued several media-based internships in the LA-area (near where the university is based)—one with NBC Universal, one with a local wedding magazine, and one with a film and TV production company. I applied for the NBC internship and was accepted to the program, and the opportunities with the magazine and the production company were a result of following through with connections that had been facilitated on Pepperdine’s campus. I learned so much about working in the worlds of journalism and media, and I quickly understood how much effort it takes to stand out in the midst of so many talented people and companies.
The internship opportunity that impacted me the most was the one I had with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in their entertainment marketing office in Beverly Hills. Through my other internships, I had come to learn firsthand that you truly must work your way up the totem pole by performing tasks that may seem menial but are undoubtedly necessary (read: run errands, write reports, follow up on media inquiries, assist supervisors with important projects). I did the same type of work for St. Jude that I had done in previous internships—stuffing goody bags for events, filing paperwork, cataloguing fundraising event submissions, assisting coworkers—but I was struck by the prospect that everything I did, no matter how small, made a difference in the life of a child in the hospital’s care. Whether I was stapling marketing materials or running errands for my supervisor, it mattered. That really got me thinking seriously about working in the non-profit world in some capacity, whether as a full-time employee or as a committed volunteer.
What was your first job out of college and how did you land it?
My first job out of college was with a small boutique public relations agency that specialized in sports and entertainment marketing. It was a great environment for a first job—the staff was comprised of four people, myself included; my coworkers were fantastic. We had accounts with really fun and interesting athletes, like Pete Sampras and Sugar Ray Leonard. I graduated in 2008, right when the economy was really taking a turn for the worse, and I struggled to find a job that fell within the traditional confines of my journalism degree. Public relations and marketing seemed like a great alternative, as the subjects allowed me to utilize the concepts and techniques I’d acquired in my journalism classes while also expanding my skill set to encompass new tactics and practices.
While pursuing internships and jobs post-college, you took a trip to Ghana, West Africa with the Touch A Life Foundation. How did the opportunity to travel to Africa arise? What did you learn while on the trip?
During my last semester of college, I worked on Pepperdine’s campus orchestrating luncheons for speakers who made presentations to the student body during our lectureship series. These luncheons afforded students the unique opportunity to come enjoy a meal with a speaker they had just listened to in a larger setting, giving them time to ask deeper questions and learn more about what the presenter had to share. My (future!) boss, Pam Cope, spoke about her foundation, Touch A Life, and I found myself enrapt with her story while working at her luncheon. She mentioned that she was heading to Ghana a few months later and that she was taking a group of volunteers with her. I was in the midst of the job hunt so I didn’t know if it would be realistic for me to join the trip but something about the idea really tugged on my heartstrings. I had studied abroad twice in college and been to Egypt during that time but that was the extent of my travel to Africa. I had always wanted to spend more time in Africa but I wasn’t sure why—was it because I had selfish travel ambitions, or was it because I was meant to be there in some larger capacity? I started praying and thinking about it a lot, and I just let the idea marinate while I went about my daily life. As I mentioned, it was so hard to find a full-time position after I graduated (I was a nanny while interning and volunteering so I could make ends meet and reach out to new contacts), and three months before the trip, I realized that I actually could find the time and resources to go. It ended up being a blessing that I didn’t have a full-time job yet because it gave me the freedom to travel to West Africa for a week, and my side jobs had equipped me with the funding I needed to go (additionally offset by generous gifts from family and friends who were passionate about the idea, too).
That first trip to Ghana rocked my world. To be honest, I spent most of the time there adjusting to the culture, the setting, and the new experiences I was confronting moment after moment. It was very uncomfortable and not necessarily natural. There were so many things I loved about the trip, of course—the children I met, the volunteers I served alongside, and the time I spent bonding with Pam, who would eventually hire me to work for her. But the things I experienced during that first trip were so outside of my comfort zone that I struggled to process it all while I was there. The culture was so different from anything I had ever encountered and the children I worked with had all been rescued from severely exploitative situations, which was just so difficult to comprehend. When I came home, I realized that the struggles I faced were an integral part of my own personal journey—the memories I made broke my heart for Ghana, instilling a fiery passion within me to work there someday, somehow.
After returning from Ghana you worked part-time for a marketing and public relations company. What were your job responsibilities?
I was essentially learning the ropes about public relations and marketing at this job. I helped set up interviews, coordinate schedules, and research background information prior to events and meetings. I also helped plan and execute details for several large-scale events, and I assisted my coworkers in projects they were working on. It was a short stint—only four months—but it taught me so much about juggling the demands of a full-time job. My coworkers were genuine and kind, and they really took me under their wing as I transitioned from college to adulthood.
A few months after returning from West Ghana, you were offered a job with the Touch A Life Foundation and have been with them ever since. Currently you are the director of project development. How has your role with the foundation evolved over the years?
I was Touch A Life’s first hire in January of 2009. My boss, Pam, was in the midst of writing her memoir, Jantsen’s Gift, and she was literally handling finances, donor communication, and website maintenance from her kitchen table. So initially I played a supportive role for Pam in whatever capacity was necessary—I traveled with her to domestic events and to our program sites in Ghana, I took over donor communication projects, and I created content for the website and our social media outlets. I helped facilitate book-signing events once Jantsen’s Gift was released and I coordinated travel logistics for our adventures to Ghana.
We’ve been through so many seasons and transitions since then and, as a result, my role has really evolved. Over the past year or two, I’ve found myself more on the development end of the non-profit spectrum. Now I’m in charge of developing and driving fundraising strategies and efforts, establishing and maintaining donor communication strategies, and nurturing and growing relationships with corporations, foundations, and individuals. I coordinate all volunteer activity (including all trips to Ghana) and I assist with event planning and the implementation of creative projects. Next year I’m wading into the world of grant writing, and I’ll also dabble more in community outreach, like implementing fundraising and awareness-raising programs at local schools, universities, businesses, and churches.
The Touch A Life Foundation does incredibly important work in Ghana. Can you tell us about the organization’s mission and how it started?
Touch A Life was born out of loss. Pam and Randy Cope’s son, Jansten, died of an undetected heart defect when he was 15 years old. The Cope’s grief was oppressive, and to find solace and peace in the midst of their heartache, they took a trip to Vietnam to visit an orphanage that their friends had built. It was the couple’s first trip overseas and their eyes were opened to the beauty of other cultures but also to the desolation, poverty, and exploitation occurring around the world. Though nothing could ever fully lessen the pain of losing their son, the Copes found hope and purpose through serving the suffering. That trip gave them the passion to use Jantsen’s memorial fund to start Touch A Life, an organization that would come to the aid of exploited and vulnerable children around the world.
Six years later, in 2006, after building up the work that Touch A Life was doing in Vietnam and other countries worldwide, Pam read an article in The New York Times that changed her life. It was about a six-year-old boy named Mark Kwadwo who was working as a slave on Lake Volta in Ghana, a place where an estimated 7,000 children are enslaved in hard labor. He was owned by a master who was a fisherman, and for 16 hours per day, Mark bailed water out of leaky canoes, cleaned fish, and untangled nets. Mark broke Pam’s heart, and she knew that Touch A Life had to get involved in his rescue. After partnering with Ghanaian abolitionists, Touch A Life was able to rescue Mark and six other children, including Mark’s brother and sister. The Ghana piece of Touch A Life’s puzzle was put into place.
Since then, our organization has grown so much, and our priorities have shifted to focus mainly on our work in Ghana. After rescuing over 100 children from slavery on Lake Volta, we identified the glaring need for a center to exist to provide long-term rehabilitative care for these children. A few years ago the only option for formerly trafficked children was for them to be placed into short-term care facilities where they would be medically assessed and then returned to the families who sold them into slavery. Touch A Life stepped in to make long-term care an option, focusing on providing customized holistic care plans for each child and emphasizing the benefits of healing practices like art therapy. In 2012, we built the first long-term rehabilitative care center for the trafficked child in Ghana, and our program has grown infinitely since then. It has been a joy to be a part of Touch A Life during these imperative transitional seasons.
Over the years you've taken 11 trips to Ghana. How have these trips, and the experiences you’ve had while there, shaped you as a person?
Ghana is a sacred place for me. It rejuvenates and restores my soul. I admit that I sometimes get bogged down in the chaos of the everyday schedule here in Dallas—the hustle, the bustle, the meetings, the conference calls, the paperwork, the schedules. Those are all good, necessary things, but they weigh me down occasionally. In Ghana, I am brought back to my roots. I don’t use my cell phone or check my e-mail or worry about what my hair looks like. I spend hours upon hours with the children and our staff. I listen well and laugh often and revel in the beauty around me. It is pure unadulterated bliss. Being in Ghana forces me to slow down, reflect on my blessings, and practice gratitude.
There’s an organization called the Mocha Club that has coined the phrase “I need Africa more than Africa needs me.” That resonates with me more than I can say. On my inaugural journey to Ghana I remember anxiously awaiting to confront the poverty, exploitation, destruction, and devastation that ravaged West Africa. I remember thinking that I could be part of the solution, a piece to the puzzle that would help alleviate, in some small way, the pain that people experienced there. And yet when I met the beautiful children in Touch A Life’s program, all of whom had been rescued from slavery, I couldn’t reconcile their horrific pasts with the joy, gratitude, and happiness that they exhibited constantly. It was then that I realized that I certainly needed Ghana more than Ghana needed me. Those children have taught—and continue to teach—me so much more about life, love, gratitude, peace, and joy than I could ever teach them.
Tell us about the Touch A Life Foundation team! How many employees does the foundation currently have? What is the office culture like?
Our office is based just outside of Dallas. There are four of us on staff, and I am the only full-time employee. We pride ourselves on keeping administrative costs low, stretching each donor’s dollar as far as possible to assist in our efforts in West Africa. As a result, we all wear a lot of hats! But that cultivates a genuine spirit of teamwork inside and outside of the office – we really have to pull together to achieve our goals, and that ultimately creates a family-like dynamic within our organization. We’re all very close, which is truly a gift. We have so many hilarious memories from our travels to Ghana together, too—especially Pam and I—and those have bonded us more than anything else. There are many things that we’ve encountered while traveling to Ghana that are so outside of the scope of everyday life here in the U.S., and while sometimes we get frustrated over cultural miscommunications or crazy travel mishaps, we have to laugh about (and be thankful for!) this wild ride that we’re on.
We rent a small office space in Irving, a suburb of Dallas, and I love it. It’s a great place for us to host donors and partners and it’s also conducive to volunteers coming in to help with donor communication projects. I do have a dream of opening up a workspace for non-profits someday. I have this vision of a beautiful old house that’s been renovated and divided into spaces for several non-profit organizations to call home. Our groups could collaborate on ideas and strategies over lunch and vibe off of each other’s creativity. Someday!
When did you first develop an interest in working for a non-profit?
I was introduced to the non-profit world at an early age, thanks to all of the amazing service opportunities afforded to me by my family, community, and church in Wheaton, Illinois, where I grew up. In addition to participating in philanthropic events in my hometown, I got to go on service trips to Washington, DC, the Appalachian Mountains, inner-city Chicago, Mexico, and the English countryside. All of these experiences shaped my worldview in a very impactful way.
One of the reasons I chose to go to Pepperdine was because the university instilled a spirit of service into the students. As a freshman, I enrolled in a four semester-long colloquium called Social Action and Justice. It was amazing and transformative. We learned about so many different facets of the non-profit world, and one of our class requirements was to obtain an internship with a not for profit organization. I worked in Pepperdine’s Intercultural Affairs Office and got to play a role in planning interesting cultural events, many focused on social justice topics. It was so empowering, and it really motivated me to dedicate my life to service in one way or another.
What advice do you have for women seeking careers in the non-profit sector?
Start volunteering for a local organization that you love, or apply to go on a service trip abroad. Make a commitment—put it in your calendar, set aside your resources (whether that’s time, money, or a unique skill set that you have to offer), and devote yourself to the cause. This will fill up the place in your heart that is aching to do more with your life. As a bonus, your world will be opened up to a whole new group of people who can connect you to job opportunities in the non-profit world, and you’ll have access to tons of great information about how non-profits work.
Also, think outside of the box when it comes to your skill set. Even though I had an interest in the non-profit world, I never thought that my journalism degree would lead me to the career I have today. But what I’ve come to find is that the things I learned in my journalism career—how to write and communicate well, how to conduct great research, how to ask poignant questions, how to stay organized and detailed—have benefitted my work at Touch A Life in such an impactful way. Your talents, whatever they may be, can be utilized at a non-profit. Non-profits need people who dream big dreams and get in the trenches and travel around the world, yes—but they also need accountants, lawyers, social media mavens, marketing & branding consultants, receptionists, photographers, printers, videographers, compliance managers, financial experts…the list goes on and on. Basically, they need YOU. So don’t undervalue the experience you have, even if it’s not in a traditional non-profit setting. Use the skills you’ve gained to show how your background and knowledge can uniquely benefit an organization.
In your spare time you maintain your own blog and also write for Darling Magazine. What have you learned from these experiences?
I have learned that, in some way, shape, or form, I always have to be writing. It brings me back to my journalism roots, and it is like creative therapy for me. Some people paint or draw or sculpt—my art comes in the form of the written word. Even when I was young I loved to write storybooks. Writing has just always been in my blood.
Writing for Darling Magazine has been a particularly treasured experience. Thanks to my college roommate, I was able to get in at the ground level as a writer, which enabled me to provide my own ideas for the content I would be writing. I write about a variety of topics but most of my pieces have a human interest/service-based spin. I even got to write a piece about Touch A Life in one of the earliest print issues of the magazine.
From maintaining my blog and writing for publications like Darling, I’ve learned that, regardless of how much extra effort and energy it takes, it so worth it to have creative pursuits outside of the workplace. Writing is life-giving for me, and it creates space for me to think, grow, stretch, and dream. Some days my extracurricular writing projects (namely my blog) feel like a chore, but I’ve learned that I have to push through and just get the writing done in order to nurture my inner creative spirit. I have aspirations of writing something more substantial someday—a memoir, perhaps?—and I’ve learned that I can’t expect these dreams to come true without putting in the effort and practice now. It’s like exercising, really—my writing muscles won’t get any stronger unless I spend a little time each day working to improve them.
Be open to the possibility of the unknown. So much beauty resides there, and you’ll miss it if you’re buried in your calendar or caught up in your own mind.
What is a typical workday like for you?
I start my day by drinking a piping hot cup of black coffee while answering e-mails, checking voicemails, and detailing my to-do list of projects. From there, my schedule looks different each day, which I love. Some days I am out and about constantly, attending workshops or seminars, meeting donors for lunch or coffee, checking in on projects or event details. Other days I’m at the office working with volunteers, coordinating donor communication projects, cooking up new strategies and ideas with my coworkers, or prepping mailers or donor gifts to go to the post office.
I am grateful to have an office that is separate from my house. I actually work from home on Mondays, which I love (it’s such a gift!), but it’s nice to know that I have four more days to spend in our foundation’s office. It’s the perfect space to meet with supporters, store our documents and supplies, and brainstorm as a staff. It’s easy to work around the clock as a non-profit employee because there’s so much to do and because you’re typically working with supporters and volunteers who are giving you their time and energy after their workdays conclude (aka at nighttime). I have to actively resist checking my e-mail after 7:00 p.m. or so because I could just work on and on…and on and on.
Best moment of your career so far?
I am thankful that I’ve experienced several best moments in my career so far. If I had to pinpoint one, I would have to say that it was the first rescue I was able to participate in on Lake Volta in Ghana. We had identified a trafficked child named Moses who was in need of rescuing and long-term care. Our partner team of Ghanaian abolitionists had negotiated his release and we were there to participate in his rescue. Shortly after the abolitionists exchanged a few words with the slave master, Moses appeared from the lake. He was scrawny and unkempt, beaten and bruised. But he was also beautiful, and my heart broke at the sight of them. When he was instructed to gather up his few belongings, Moses tearfully prepared to leave the island. I was initially struck by his resistance to leave the island he lived on—after all, it was a place of so much tragedy and abuse. But I realized that because Moses had been working on the lake for most of his childhood, this life was the only one he had ever known, and a departure from it was terrifying. He cried as he said his goodbyes.
And then suddenly, once he was on our boat, it was as if the walls came crumbling down and a transformation began; Moses implicitly sensed that he was safe. He began to trust us. I showed him pictures of himself on my digital camera. Moses had never had a mirror and was delighted at the image of himself. Slowly but surely, he began to smile; giggle, even.
After Moses had visited the doctor and settled into the Care Center, I went out onto the porch of one of the children’s dormitories so I could read, breathe, and take in that evening’s gorgeous sunset. I sensed a presence behind me and as I turned around, I found Moses standing shyly beside me. I waved him over and plopped him down on my lap. This child, who could barely make eye contact with me mere hours before, gladly obliged and snuggled up next to me. As I watched day turn into night, I sat contentedly, thinking that though there are so many worthy children waiting to be rescued out of on the waters of Lake Volta, for that moment sitting there with little Moses was enough.
What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self?
Quit over-thinking and over-planning everything! Have dreams and goals and ambitions and ideas—those are so, so good for your soul, so keep creating and scheming and brainstorming. But be open to the possibility of the unknown. So much beauty resides there, and you’ll miss it if you’re buried in your calendar or caught up in your own mind. You cannot predict your future, which is a great thing, because it’s going to end up to be so much fuller and richer than you ever could have imagined or planned.
Rachel Brown is The Everygirl...
Morning or night?
I am a daytime gal! I know that wasn’t a choice but I’m neither a morning person nor a night person. I desperately want to be a morning person—I love coffee and soft morning light and early walks with our puppy—but I admit that I love sleeping in a whole lot. I super love the daytime hours—my best working, playing, exploring, traveling, writing, exercising, and eating experiences happen throughout the day. By the time nighttime rolls around I’m ready for my pajamas, a glass of wine, and an early bedtime.
Best advice you’ve ever received?
My mentor, the president at Pepperdine University, told me that it is so easy to be above average in this day and age. What he meant is that, specifically, our generation takes opportunities for granted and relies heavily on electronic modes of communication, forgoing the opportunity to engage in genuine relationships that can enrich both their personal and professional lives. I hate to admit that I’ve not only seen this to be true but I’ve also fulfilled these same generalizations myself. He encouraged me to go above and beyond in the little ways in order to stand out and form genuine relationships. Return voicemails and e-mails in a timely fashion (this one really irks me—please set up an auto-responder if you’re going to be unavailable). Send handwritten thank you notes (bonus—an excuse to stock up on cute stationery!). When possible, meet people in person instead of scheduling yet another conference call. Follow through with commitments you’ve made as well as with connections facilitated by others. You never know where your thoughtfulness can lead. In my experience, a thoughtful, genuine, hardworking, responsive person is hard to come by these days, so becoming one is a guarantee that you’ll stand out in a crowd.
Favorite part about living in Dallas?
Gosh, there are so many fun things about living in this city! It is a nostalgic place for me, as it’s where I moved when I started working for Touch A Life, which was a huge transition for me. Initially I knew no one—being from Chicago and living in Los Angeles hadn’t provided me with many Texas connections. But after moving here I met my husband and some of the very best friends in the whole world, people whom I truly cannot ever imagine living without. Aside from that, I’d have to say that my favorite thing about Dallas is the food scene. In addition to travel and the occasional home décor purchase, all of my spare change goes to dining out, and Dallas is a great city for foodies. From tacos (my personal favorite) and barbecue to bahn mi and pizza, we have it all—and it’s so good.
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and what would you order?
I would have lunch with my favorite author, Shauna Niequist. I would ask her about her writing process, her inspiration, and her favorite restaurants and travel experiences. We would swoon over super thin crust pizza and ice-cold champagne, and we’d share something decadent for dessert (paired with one more flute of bubbly, naturally).