In a profession synonymous with urging people to buy stuff, Rule 29 design firm founder Justin Ahrens of Geneva wanted to do something a bit more ambitious.
"I've always struggled with this idea: Can design change the world?" says Ahrens, a 38-year-old husband and father of four. Being able to answer "yes" to that question required Ahrens to visit some exotic locales. But the idea was sparked in a most suburban way.
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"I was watching 'American Idol' with my daughter. I'll admit it," Ahrens says with a smile. The "Idol Gives Back" charity spot was about a donation of disease-preventing mosquito netting in Africa. Ahrens also was intrigued by rock star Bono's work in Africa.
"I just really didn't understand what was going on in Africa," Ahrens realized. While talking about his desire to do something to help Africa, Ahrens learned a friend's son, Justin Narducci, was about to land a job as director of Life in Abundance, an international charity that works through churches in seven African nations to help the poor and needy.
"I live in Geneva, Illinois," Ahrens remembers thinking. "No offense to Geneva, but what can I do?"
Before Ahrens could donate his talents and those of his staff to the charity, Narducci wanted them to understand the situation.
"It's so different from your day-to-day life in Geneva," says Narducci. "It's jarring. It's like living on another planet."
So in April 2008, Ahrens and his photographer friend, Brian MacDonald of Wheaton, spent two weeks in Africa, visiting filthy and crowded slums in Ethiopia and Kenya.
"It was a soul-tearing, horrible, awesome experience," says Ahrens.
Ahrens, whose family includes his wife, Sarah, who works in the design firm, daughters Mackenzie, 10, and Ava, 5, and sons Jackson, 8, and Quinn, 6, admits that he went to Africa figuring "I was never going to go back." He and MacDonald have made that pilgrimage every year since.
Ahrens and his Rule 29 staff have donated professional work (800 hours just in 2010) to help Life In Abundance improve communications, publicize their efforts and raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations. Ahrens and MacDonald, who owns MacDonald Photography and Wonderkind Studios in Glen Ellyn, have shot documentary films that introduce donors to starving children, HIV-infected moms and others who live in conditions that go well beyond what we think of as poverty. (See Rule 29's website at http://makingcreativematter.com for examples.)
"That's one of the nights that will stay with me forever," Ahrens says as a photo brings to mind a cold night in an Ethiopian slum where 50,000 orphans fend for themselves on the street. Under the protection of armed guards, Ahrens rounded a corner and saw two boys, maybe 10 and 12, huddled on top of each other in an attempt to keep warm in their thin T-shirts and bare feet.
"We're all crying," remembers Ahrens, whose efforts to give the boys his coat was rebuffed by the local soldiers who explained, "You can't give them your jacket because they'll get beat up."
Instead, they led those lads to a larger gaggle of boys so they'd have more bodies to generate heat. The books and films Ahrens uses to tell these stories have helped raise more than $300,000 to help people who live in those conditions.
"It's so rewarding," Ahrens says of the pro-bono work. He's involved in everything from home construction to microfinance plans that loan money to people with business ideas in villages where the leading industry is the making of coffins for children.
Working with a budget of less than $1 million in 2007, "we've doubled in size in three years," Narducci says.
"We're deeply entrenched in sub-Saharan Africa," Ahrens says of his 10-person firm. "You can't serve and not have it change you. There's no good about poverty, but the one thing about poverty that is interesting to me is they appreciate life in some ways more than we do. I've met some amazing people. What I've learned most about poverty is it's a state of mind. As soon as someone feels they are not worthy, all is lost."
As far as that world seems from his comfy family life in Geneva, Ahrens says he finds a very typical suburban dad way to make the connection.
"Sitting at the dinner table with kids who won't eat their food," Ahrens says, "I can literally say, 'There are starving children in Africa,' and I was just with them."