Remote Nation Impact Stories: How One Airplane Ride Inspired Positive Change in Cape Town
Written by Catalina Todd
While on Remote Year’s 12-month work + travel program, Heidi Liedtke and her Remote Year peers were instrumental in initiating a lasting partnership to support Emthonjeni, a local NGO that works with women and girls in Cape Town, South Africa.
Over the course of 12 months, many of our Remote Year programs earn themselves something of a reputation. Some programs are known for their love of the great outdoors or epic reunions after the program, some groups even commemorate the experience with matching tattoos. Our RY Bourdain program has since become famous for two things: romantic matches and its members' commitment to positive impact initiatives.
To learn more about how the RY Bourdain program earned this reputation, we connected with Heidi Liedtke, USA, who traveled with Remote Year in 2019 while working as a Research Associate at Korn Ferry. In her work, Heidi helps nonprofits and social impact organizations find new leaders, CEOs, and board members.
Heidi’s passion for social impact extends beyond the workplace. One of the reasons that Heidi chose to join a Remote Year program is because she feels Remote Year provides the opportunity to volunteer abroad in a smart and realistic way. As Heidi put it, positive impact opportunities with Remote Year are ethical and don’t fall under the umbrella of “voluntourism”.
While on the RY Bourdain program, Heidi was instrumental in initiating a lasting partnership with a local NGO in Cape Town, South Africa,called Emthonjeni Counseling and Training.
Emthonjeni is focused on helping women and girls, and provides counseling for victims of domestic and gender-based violence, HIV education, and youth empowerment opportunities. The Emthonjeni organization also helps distribute essentials and feminine hygiene products to those in need in the community.
Keep reading to learn how a fateful trip on an airplane led to a longstanding Remote Year partnership and ultimately raised over $2,500 of funds to support Emthonjeni.
Tell us a bit about working remotely at Korn Ferry.
I had worked at Korn Ferry for over two years and was working there during my Remote Year experience. Prior to Remote Year, I was working in the office most days. Eventually, I realized that my job could be done remotely and that I was well-positioned to join a Remote Year program.
What made you decide to spend a year traveling with Remote Year?
Traveling has always been an important part of my life. I majored in International Relations and Arabic, and I spent time in Jordan during college. I was beginning to feel stuck in my routine in Washington DC and was unsure of what I wanted to do professionally. It seemed like a great way to try something new while maintaining stability in my career. I had been wanting to do Remote Year for a while, and one day I just had this epiphany that I felt comfortable asking management if I could join the program and that timing-wise it made sense to go.
I was specifically interested in Remote Year because I didn’t want to travel alone and I wanted to join a community. I was looking forward to leaving what I knew behind and to getting to know myself better. I was not looking for a relationship at all, but I actually ended up meeting my fiance while on Remote Year! Around half of our Bourdain group ended up in a relationship by the end of the year.
Can you tell us about your point of view on the importance of creating impact while traveling?
Other than community, the top reason I chose to travel with Remote Year were the impact opportunities built into the program. Prior to Remote Year, 80% of my travel experiences centered around learning or volunteering. I loved the idea of being able to contribute while learning from a community, and I wanted to volunteer abroad in a smart and realistic way. Many of the Remote Year positive impact projects touched different interests within our group, and we were able to work with animals, help women, so everyone was able to engage.
I also take sustainability very seriously, and it is a big part of my life. When I travel I like to provide donations to offset my carbon emissions. I also consider myself vegan-ish. The way I look at it, I can cut out meat, but I can’t stop traveling. Travel is something I am not willing to sacrifice.
I think that social impact is important for Remote Year participants and helps to create global citizens. Many times when traveling it can be easy to stay with your group, and relationships with locals can be mostly transactional (ordering at a restaurant, shopping at a market). Positive impact initiatives allow you to have different relationships with locals and learn more about daily life.
How did an airplane ride inspire you to give back to the local community in Cape town?
Cape Town was the final destination of our Remote Year program, and as we were exiting our flight from Istanbul, I noticed that many passengers had left behind travel hygiene kits. I knew that these kits could be easily donated to help the homeless population in Cape Town, and so I recruited a few friends to help me grab as many as possible. After living in Cape Town, this small donation didn’t seem like enough. It was around Christmas time, and I knew that during the holiday season people would be more likely to want to donate to organizations in need. I reached out to friends on Instagram asking for donations to purchase soap, washcloths, feminine hygiene products, etc. In just one day, we raised over $500 and were able to put together over 30 hygiene kits.
What led to your partnership with Emthonjeni Counseling and Training?
I reached out to a local named Ayanda for advice on finding a women’s shelter. He connected me to Nomfundo Eland, a woman who runs Emthonjeni. Emthonjeni helps women and girls by providing counseling for victims of domestic and gender-based violence, HIV education, and youth empowerment opportunities. Nomfundo helped us make a shopping list for the donations including pads, soap, underwear, washcloths, snacks, toothbrushes, and toothpaste.
Can you tell us about some of the work you did in conjunction with Emthonjeni Counseling and Training?
On Christmas Eve, 4 women from the Bourdain program met with 35 girls in the Khayelitsha township, where we gave out supplies and held an educational and fun event focusing on feminine hygiene. The girls spoke varying degrees of English, so we also had a translator on hand if needed. During the event, we learned that for many of the girls, reusable pads are a preferred period product as they are washable and less expensive than disposable products over time. When we learned this, we wanted to reach out to the next group heading to Cape Town with Remote Year. This second program (RY Ramses) loved the idea and managed to lead a $2,000 fundraising campaign to purchase reusable pads from a woman-owned South African company that is also focused on giving back to the community.
How has this partnership continued after you left Cape Town?
Unfortunately, when COVID hit, the organization lost funding. Our RY Bourdain group and RY Ramses have maintained contact with Nomfundo and tried to help whenever possible. We have reached out to the Remote Year community and have been able to send additional donations, raising funds for those in need of help due to domestic violence. We’ve also been working to help rebuild the organization’s website in order to bolster fundraising efforts.
What is so great about this positive impact project is that it is easy, engaging, and is replicable for other Remote Year programs coming to Cape Town. It also helps that many of the girls speak English, so we are able to form connections easily without relying completely on translators.
How did your Remote Year experience change your life personally or professionally?
The program did open my eyes to the value of community. Tapping into RY Citizens has been huge. I’ve seen friends get jobs, leveraged the incredible travel knowledge of the community, and connected with others interested in helping out Emthonjeni. The community environment is unique to Remote Year and something you can’t get while traveling alone.
I am still learning what the experience means to me. I was only home a little over two months before the pandemic hit. I have not been able to travel since, which has been a challenge. Traveling is part of my identity, so without it, I don’t feel complete. I’m looking forward to when it’s safe to travel and my Bourdain group can start planning a reunion.