Changing the world is hard. And that used to be really frustrating for Michele Stumpe. “I didn’t have a ton of money. I had a career. I had a family. I had all these obligations that I couldn’t walk away from,” Michele says. “I felt helpless.”
Then she got a change in perspective, courtesy of Dad. “He told me, ‘Honey, quit hoping to change the world and focus on changing one person’s life,’ ” Michele says. “Maybe I was only throwing one pebble, but the ripple effect from that pebble can create a tidal wave of impact.”
Michele’s tsunami of change is a charity she founded in 2009 called Children of Conservation, which both educates African children and helps wildlife. Animals have always been her soft spot. An opportunity to help at the zoo first drew her to volunteer work when she was just 13. As she gave of her time, she also gave her heart—to the great apes.
Through the years, that love hasn’t waned. Michele and husband Kerry spent their honeymoon volunteering at a wildlife sanctuary in Cameroon, a trip they repeated again and again. “At first it was all about the animals,” Michele says. “Then we got to know the workers at the sanctuary. We wondered why their kids weren’t in school. We learned that there’s no public education. It would take a year’s salary for a sanctuary worker to send a child to private school—$300 to $500. They couldn’t afford it. But Kerry and I could.”
The Stumpes paid for three kids to go to school that year. Now, through Children of Conservation, about 120 kids in five African countries are going to school. All of them will have their education paid for through high school and college as long as they continue to get good grades and their parents continue to work for wildlife.
“The kids are my heroes,” Michele says. “Kids like Michael Tangue, who was part of the first group we sent to school. He was just a little boy who volunteered at the sanctuary; now he’s at university studying accounting and is in the top 10 percent of his class.”
Children of Conservation is so important to Michael that he traveled four hours to be at the sanctuary for the scholarship announcements this year. “He gave a speech to the kids about responsibility,” Michele says. “About how people on the other side of the world who don’t know them believe in them, and how they have an obligation to study and an obligation to promote the value of conservation.”
Working with animals, you see, used to be looked down on in Cameroon. “Cleaning up gorilla poop was not considered a noble profession,” Michele says. “But now they see kids going to school because their fathers are animal keepers. And no one goes to school unless their father has a noble profession. We’re changing the social norms in regard to conservation.”
By helping animals, Michele is also helping people. “It’s so empowering,” she says. “All I’ve done is paid $300 for this kid to go to school, but his life is changed, his parents’ lives are changed, the whole village is changed. And this is pretty doable for almost anyone, no matter how busy they are. We all can make an impact. We all can change one person’s world.”