Three young guys in Southern California buy a used camera on eBay and make a decision that scares their parents: They’re going to a war-torn area of Africa to capture what they see, but they don’t have a plan. Nor much money. And they’ve never done anything like it before. They also don’t plan to watch CNN or BBC to get a feel for what they’re getting themselves into. It’ll be a youthful odyssey, they figure.
Never did they imagine that their resulting film would propel them to start a nonprofit organization, Invisible Children, which may be rewriting the book on how to raise awareness of a cause. They especially didn’t envision that they’d spark a grassroots movement mobilizing thousands of American teens into action to raise money to rebuild war-torn schools in northern Uganda and provide scholarships to African youth.
“When we took off, we looked at it just kind of like a young adventure, if you will, and didn’t know what was going to come of it,” says Bobby Bailey, who was 20 and in film school in 2003. That’s when he joined Laren Poole, 19, and mastermind Jason Russell, newly graduated from film school, on the first of what would become many Africa trips.
They freely admit they were naïve. Stranded in northern Uganda, the trio stumbled upon a grim discovery they would capture in a fast-moving, MTV-style film: Every night, children were kidnapped from their homes and forced by a violent rebel army to serve as child soldiers. Hoping to avoid that fate, thousands of barefoot children commuted each night, week after week, month after month, year after year, by walking to the center of their nearest cities to sleep safely out of the reach of the rebels.
The scrawny youngsters slept side-by-side, practically atop one another, on thin mats or spread-out clothes laid on bare floors at St. Mary’s Hospital Lacor in Gulu, Uganda. That scene—a sea of humanity—astounded the filmmakers. Using a camera suspended by a makeshift crane made by a couple welders they knew, they captured the image for their inaugural documentary/ road trip-type film, Invisible Children: Rough Cut. The film has the feel of a reality show—it’s clearly unscripted and strangely hopeful.
"When you realize the joys of giving back, it changes you."
As the film clearly shows Russell sick and vomiting from malaria, you really feel for the filmmakers— they could be your sons or brothers. It’s clear they were sticking their necks out to make the journey. They encounter obstacles and touching moments of connection with kindred, English-speaking locals who like American pop culture and struggle to get schooling. Yet there isn’t any self-aggrandizement (example: The film doesn’t say the three filmmakers came down with malaria; Poole became so sick he lost 60 pounds).
The shoestring-budgeted film premiered in July 2004 in front of 500 people, including friends and family, at a San Diego community center, then spread virally, grassroots style. Teams of volunteers called “roadies” later began to hit the road in RVs with film-screening equipment, almost as if they were a startup rock band. Their mission: get the film and its sequels screened at high schools, places of worship and colleges. More than 5 million people now have seen the original film at scores of concerts, 550 churches, 1,250 colleges and, among other venues, 1,100 high schools.
Teacher Shelly Francies of Downington High School West in suburban Philadelphia remembers a screening: “One of the football players was sitting next to me, and he was sobbing the whole time,” she says. “It’s very impactful.” Francies helps oversee her school’s popular Generation 4 Africa club. The club was started by a student to serve as a vehicle to raise money to rebuild schools in northern Uganda through Invisible Children, the nonprofit organization launched by the filmmakers. It’s one of many high-school groups around the nation that hold bake sales, book sales and creative fundraisers to answer the film’s challenge: What can we do as Americans, especially youth, to end some of these atrocities going on in the world?
“Kids are feeling a lot of responsibility, a sense of ownership, a chance to dream big,” Francies says. “They’ve done some cool things—a little out of the box—for fundraising,” such as starting a traveling choir that has raised thousands of dollars. Her club received $10,000 from a car dealership two consecutive years.
Ben Keesey says he interned at JPMorgan and out of college had a good job lined up at Deloitte, but changed his mind after watching the premiere and going to Uganda with his friends—the filmmakers. They told him: We need your help now. He became chief financial officer right out of college to help transform the film enterprise into a nonprofit organization with programs. His parents loaned him $70,000. That gave the organization a good start, as the crew worked in donated office space in a San Diego industrial park.
“We started generating money,” Keesey says. “People started donating on a bigger scale.” Eventually, the crew realized that creating awareness “isn’t enough anymore. We started saying: Man, how can we start having a tangible impact to start helping these kids today?”
Jolly Okot, a Ugandan woman who is credited with bringing the filmmakers to her region and who now serves as Invisible Children’s Country Director, had a ready answer: If they’re going to have an impact, they have to get Ugandan kids to go to school. Education is key. The government doesn’t pay for high-school education. Invisible Children responded by offering Ugandans high-school scholarships and mentors. College scholarships followed. So did an internship program and a teacher-exchange program that lets American teachers volunteer in northern Uganda in summer. Propelling them along is the revenue: The nonprofit organization has raised more than $17 million since its inception, mostly through donations and purchases from young people.
Things have snowballed. Programs proliferate as the filmmakers and staff see needs to meet. People need jobs in an otherwise unemployable war area? The filmmakers started a bracelet campaign. Each colored bracelet sold at InvisibleChildren.com is handmade from reed and wire by Ugandans and comes with a short film narrated by an invisible child. War-tattered schools need rebuilding? Schools across the United States now compete against each other to raise the most money to rebuild Ugandan schools through Invisible Children, and several winners get to send a student to Uganda with the filmmakers.
Brittany Deyan helped make 1,000 cupcakes in one night, for example, as she spearheaded her Newport Harbor High school in Southern California to raise the most money in 2007: $42,000. She serves as a co-star, of sorts, in the filmmakers’ latest road trip-style film, called GO. In the film, Deyan connects with Ugandan teenager Lilian Ojok, who pays for school by selling pastries. In one scene, Deyan takes it upon herself to teach Ojok to ride a bike so she can earn more money selling pastries.
“Lilian is a great student,” Deyan says in the film. “But while my future is all mapped out, Lilian worries about tomorrow. Her father died in the war, and her mother abandoned her. All she has left is her grandmother. Even someone as bright and determined as Lilian knows she’ll never have a chance to go to college unless she raises the money herself. This girl—so much like me—had lived a very different life.”
The two still keep in touch through Facebook. Deyan considers the Uganda trip life-changing. “When you realize the joys of giving back, it changes you,” says Deyan, who arranged a film screening during her first week as a freshman at the University of California-Berkeley. “There’s no other way to live than, I don’t know, to be selfless.”
And so it goes. What started as a youthful filmmaking adventure by three guys has spiraled into something far bigger. It’s unleashed energy. The filmmakers have set their sights on other lands, with a new office opened in the United Kingdom and fund-raising forays into Canada and Australia. It’s a “dynamic, growing organization that is changing the lives of thousands of individuals across four continents,” says Invisible Children board chairman Dave Karlman, who also is chairman and CEO of American BioHealth Group in San Diego.
The filmmakers are editing 2,000 hours of footage into a two-hour motion picture they hope will be distributed nationally this year, and Bailey has started scoping out filming in a new location—war-torn Congo, where rebel soldiers are replicating the evils of Uganda.
Looking back, “It’s been a huge, huge learning experience,” Bobby Bailey says, but “I believe in spending your life—you know, really cashing it out, if you will—as much as you can, especially when you’re young.”
Not that his mom is used to the idea. A couple of weeks before his flight to the Congo, Bobby said, “I haven’t really told her about the Congo trip yet because it freaks her out a little bit. And I’m going to have to leave during Thanksgiving and possibly not be here for Christmas. Yeah, she gets worried and kind of bummed, but I tell her it’s just part of the season I’m in, and someday it’ll be different.”