Ah, the power of fresh air. Last week's run took place late Sunday evening as some storm cells moved East over a threatening Chicago sky. Nothing gets you out the door for a run like the charge of an ensuing thunderstorm. Adding to the visceral effect of much warmer temperatures, were the welcomed signs of spring: green buds on trees, heavy and humid air, and the tall cumulus thunderheads above. Welcome back summer.
Knowing that just a few weeks ago we were still struggling through remnants of our historic winter, Sunday evening's swim had only one inkling of concern, getting in and out of the water before the storm. Running on the Lake Front Path with the storm's tail wind, my rushed sense of time stopped dead in its tracks as my feet hit water. In a single moment of frigid lake water, humid hot air and an exacerbated sweating-self, I took one of my final weekly plunges for RIPPLE Africa. In that singular divine instant, I was at my best.
This moment of clarity poses a question we can all ask ourselves: When are you at your best? This simple question has an enormity of value in shaping how we conduct ourselves, whether in business, socially, personally or even unconsciously. Different for us all, I recently found mine in Malawi. I suppose I knew the make-up of what I needed, but it was the composition of the details that led me to this fundamental individual need.
Recognizing it was half the battle, the other half being the actions you take to proactively achieve what you seek.
In a general sense, this could manifest itself in a litany of ways: your social interactions, your work space, your routine, priorities, what you eat, etc. For me, part of that equation is tied to running. For example, the very idea of Reflections for RIPPLE came to me last October on an evening run with my brother. Since that silly thought of jumping in the lake, we've raised a sizable amount of money and awareness for RIPPLE Africa's projects in Malawi.
All of this through the power of knowing where you work best. This type of recognition will reach far beyond
these weekly updates, and even past RIPPLE Africa itself. Because when we're at our best, dots begin to connect: between people and places: between ideas and problem solving. It's this web of inertia that can help propel us to make connections that solve global problems. How about this one for kicks, Lake Michigan to Malawi. In all its complexity this web is an entanglement of 'good' that defines us as individuals. Connect your dots and be the change you want to see in the world. So ask yourself, when are you at your best? Find it, live it and apply it.
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Here we are in May, only a few weeks away from Reflections for RIPPLE's official ending on May 17th. It's hard to believe this endeavor started 6 months ago in November 2013. Who knew our weekly winter swims would coincide with one of Chicago's snowiest and coldest winters. At any rate, the added chill and snowfall added to quite an elaborate planning schedule. We've got a swim in every gosh-darn week! And thanks to the dozens of contributions we are very close to achieving our target of raising $5000 for RIPPLE Africa. A sincere thank you to all who have donated.
This past weekend, Gardner and I took off on our run/swim early Sunday afternoon. Though a slightly cooler lake breeze wasn't quite up to the 70+ Saturday temperatures, 55 degrees and a cool on-shore breeze made for a very welcome change to our usual 20-40 degree norms. Perhaps it is the small green buds, reawakening of chirping birds or the fragrant floral scents that have lead to a more energized feel around Chicago's lakefront. I for one am beaming at the fact Spring is in full bloom. Hasta la vista winter!
Our afternoon jaunt toward Lake Michigan began by running through Oz Park, South into Old Town and past a...wait for it, Buddhist Temple! Who knew? Over the river and through the woods we ran, bypassing grandma's house for the sheer sake of storytelling: We had a mission, get in the water and stay in! Warmer air and water temperatures, 55 and 48 respectively, meant a few extra strokes could be had while stiff calves and hamstrings cooled in the shallower depths.
We even happened upon one Douglas Baker and Andy Hoffman, the latter who had dog sitting duties for a colleague. Alas, my Frisbee chasing, food hoovering, water swimming-self finally came full circle in thinking sometimes I really am part dog.
Sharing this afternoon sun and fresh lakefront breeze was a welcome reminder of simple, present-minded living so often found in Malawi. It's a simple observation and definitive difference in cultures, unconsciously having a more in-the-moment awareness.
This mentality shouldn't be solely connected to cheery, sunset-watching carelessness though; the present minded state rears itself to challenges and struggles alike. We could argue that they poorly prepare for the future, whereas their argument would be we're too far-forward thinking. In my opinion this is the root challenge faced in 3rd world cultures around the world, and a general problem of acceptance in the western world mentality. That sounds harsh, though only to emphasize the vast stereotypes between these two mindsets.
So, how do you find a balance both mutually beneficial and respectful to each side? This was the question that surfaced during my stay in Malawi, and became more poignant upon my return. It was because I had come full-circle in knowing my own environment, seeing the value of RIPPLE Africa's operations, and returning home. Three years later, it is a question still often pondered, hopelessly vexing in its enormity.
I would argue that the basis of this paradigm in culture and development revolves around education: An education that isn't simply classroom antics and pencil-meet-paper exams. Education needs to occur at every age, for every person. It needs to be farming and parenting education: It needs to be trade schools and sex education: And it sure as heck needs our western influenced 'best practices' being added to the mix.
Yet, too many times cultures like Malawi are overrun by a desire to emulate Western world ideology, and then inundated with culture'less containers full of, for lack of a better word, crap. It's cross-border capitalism with flagrant disregard to the people on the ground. It becomes a state awash with an alien culture, and misunderstanding of lives lived elsewhere.
So many people in 3rd world countries will never get that to chance to understand 'our' other side . It is our duty, as observers to both sides, to strike that harmonic balance: A chord strummed amiss. And perhaps what has resonated so deeply with me in this mediation of thought, is that Malawi and other impoverished countries across the globe shine bright in so many walks of life. The adaptation of improved living standards, family values and environmental impact should be shared in all countries. We can learn so much of from each other. Education being the root factor in environmentally conscious, economic- balanced growth. Best of both worlds. It exists.
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In typical Chicago fashion, our weekly Reflections for RIPPLE swim started with a monsoon-style downpour followed by sub-freezing air temperatures. Not a bad way to end a lovely spring-like weekend around these parts. Week 20's fickle rain showers also meant that our swim took place during the evening, adding to the visceral experience of hoping in Lake Michigan's dimly city-lit shoreline.
Reflections for RIPPLE also welcomed a new swimmer, Katie Doehla, to the weekly swim. An avid runner and supporter of our cause, Katie wanted to get a first-hand understanding of our mission to support RIPPLE's charitable work in Malawi. One of the unforeseen joys of these weekly swims has been fellow swimmers appreciation to this endeavor. Despite my often over-detailed accounts of each week, they are a distant second to the actual physical experience of burning off a sweat by way of lake immersion. In that light, a fundamental element present both in Malawi and Chicago of simply sharing moments in person. Fostering that human-to-human connectivity was at the core of each memory I have of my time spent in Malawi.
Prior to departing for our run, the unwelcomed sense of uneasiness and butterflies was very much present. 40'ish degree rain-driven wind meant conditions were doable, but far from ideal. Ironically, sometimes a dry 20-degree day can be more pleasant than throwing rain into the mix: As always, a good hard sweat is priority number one.
Ready to get our run started, Katie and I watched as light rain turned to downpours, tough weather to build up that inner sweat around. However a break in the clouds meant we had limited time to get down to the beach and back before the next big cell broke overhead. Cutting our way through Lincoln Park we made our way to the lakefront to find a strong NE wind and wave action waiting for us, yet the rain had vanished to make way for a distant cloudy and ominous horizon: A dusk reminiscent of a season past.
Our quick swim was tremendous! Neither a chill nor tooth chatter was felt by either Katie or myself. Tough weather for a first swim in my opinion! And of course on our run back, the sky began to open up once more. Reaching our Webster steps, rain quickly consumed the night's air.
Circling back to our point of sharing moments, I would encourage anyone reading this post to consider joining our weekly swim. Reflections for RIPPLE officially ends in Mid-May, and the next month is an excellent time to consider taking the plunge with a bunch of us goofballs. Between my brother Colin, Doug Baker, Gardner Yost, Kyle Sullivan and Katie Doehla, we've all had an opportunity to share one of Chicago's greatest assets (the Lake yo!) at a socially-questionable time of year. And without a shiver among any of us. A redefined comfort level for coping with Chicago's frigid winter weather; but more importantly, a way for us all to connect in a human-to-human capacity. In our tech-laden world, it is this writers humble opinion that we as a society need more emphasis on interaction like this. That opinion wasn't found online or in the app store, but world's away in a community blessed with an abundance of love and interaction with each other.
Our weekly winter swims represent a lovely to way to have a moment in present time. This weekend's swim was especially present-minded, being the first night swim of the season. I know, I know. Night swimming doesn't sound like that good of an idea...but, no matter. Week 19 had a real 'up in the air' feel to it, as Gardner and I both ran in the Chi-Town Half Saturday morning. We had contemplated hoping in after finishing, but we're both battered and already cooled off from our runs. Our choice reflects just how vital a good sweat is before jumping in, and with an already cooled-off body and dehydration setting in, I imagine the swim would've been a real chill'er.
With a Sunday swim out of the picture, Monday night had taken the cake. Getting in after dark seems a pinch daunting at first, but ends up being an enjoyable experience. Less people on the path and the anonymity of the darkness make the whole experience a bit more personal and unique. Temperatures Monday evening were a balmy 48 degrees with a moderate breeze out of the NE. And with the ice finally vacated from the beaches, the only barrier to entry, was the visual darkness and head-on wind.
And oh what a feeling. Taking daylight out of the picture heightens other senses: recognizing the gradient of the beach and its similarity to Mwaya: Or focusing on the distant horizon and the vague line it draws across the sky: Even the air breathes a calmer breathe as the day makes way for night.
In all, a reflection reminiscent of the heightened awareness felt in Malawi, sometimes best left to those on the ground at RIPPLE. In that case, Megan Canning, one of RIPPLE Africa UK employees, presently pursuing her MSc in International Development had these lovely words to share in her recent 2-month stay in Malawi. Below, an excerpt offering insight to said heightened senses and above all else, community: It is this shared community which leads to love, fulfillment and happiness here at Mwaya. Add to this sleeping under the stars, swimming in the lake, rising with the sunshine, listening to the singing of children, giving in completely to the experience; this is happiness.
Read Megan's complete story here
. And as always, donations to RIPPLE Africa can be made below.
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18 weeks of chilly winter swimming, and summer seems to have finally arrived. Our weekly winter swim group welcomed the glorious Sunday afternoon weather, and a new runner/swimmer, fellow Ultimate Frisbee player Kyle Sullivan. We also were able to share the lovely weather with two journalism students from Columbia College, Joanna and Emily. Joanna had contacted us several weeks prior, interested in both RIPPLE's charitable work in Malawi, and interviewing us for a segment on her schools news channel. Having had such a large group supporting RIPPLE Africa's endeavors, along with temperatures that would make an ice cube melt, I figured we spend a moment discussing weather both relative to Malawi and our few months swimming in Chi-beria (there, I said it :)
I remember back in late October last year, testing the waters for this whole 'Reflections for RIPPLE' idea, wondering if this could actually be sustained throughout the entire winter. The season prior I had done similar swims, with little worry about significant ice build-up on the beaches; I knew it would come, but not like it did this winter! Here are some pleasant snow-laden memories that'll make this spring feel that much warmer. Pre-season 'Testing the waters' swim
One of the coldest swims I had happened to be before this whole endeavor even started! In mid-November, when I was contemplating such a commitment, Chicago was the chosen recipient of some 25 degree air off of Lake Michigan, with gnarly swells and a sustained 15-20mph NE wind. In short, wind chill factors of about 10 degrees. With waves crashing on the beach, and a truly frigid air, I ran in and out, and got dressed faster than I had all season long...to date! This was a hair-frozen first and important milestone. I was cold, but hadn't shivered. I had also established a threshold temperature. Anything less than 10 degrees (with wind chill) was off limits. Safety first. I mean it. Nose breakage
Not expecting ice buildup in early December, my week 2 swim turned into a real pickle of a jam. There was simply nowhere to hop in. Even protected beaches near North Ave had frozen over from strong NE winds and waves. I knew this would be a factor at some point, though not until Jan/Feb at the very least. This led to me a less than ideal swim spot...the inner harbor Belmont dog beach. Yep. I was there. I wasn't too concerned with the cleanliness of the water, more so about the long term challenge of finding another spot: I wasn't too keen on going in there again.
To make matters (worse...) interesting, upon arrival, I had a thin layer of ice to break through on the beach shore. Wading into cold sandy water and ninja chopping ice at 5pm on a Saturday? Why not. Making an opening big enough to get in, I fell to my knees and dunked, getting a few strokes in before running out of room. Quite exhilarating, I must say. Just ask the innocent bystander with his dog: "RIPPLE Africa!" I exclaimed. 'Nuckin' Futs' was what I thought I heard retorted back.
The fun didn't stop there, however. Drying off, shiver-less of course, I realized I had gashed the ole' bridge of the nose wide open. Good thing I had a healthy dose of adrenaline to curb the pain. Cool scar, I guess.
It became apparent early on that wind, not water temperature, was the most crucial factor. A 20 degree windless day was a real peach opposed to a gusty near-zero wind chill. Even cloudy snow-ridden swims proved to be utterly delightful! We also used the wind to our advantage; by initially running into the headwind we were able to really battle the head-on breeze, while running back with the wind at our backs enabled a seriously sweaty return.
How about weather in Malawi? Accu'curious!? Having a close relationship with our geographic surroundings, weather in Malawi was as equally awe-inspiring as the lake and mountains themselves. Here's are some tales to help get you through this lingering winter weather!
..in Malawi, are like clockwork. During the rainy season (December- April), weather patterns shift, creating Malawi's 'monsoon'-like season. Thunderheads roll up and down Lake Malawi. You can count on evening thunderstorms, which are both incredibly loud and booming, while also being relaxing and soothing. Talk about a way to get to bed. Beats sirens and Lincoln Park hooligans barfing on sidewalks!
Sweat, all the time
Temperatures also soar in the rainy season; a hot and humid day of sunshine is a certainty. With the sun working to create giant cumulus clouds up and down the lake, an afternoon thunderstorm can also be counted on daily. By about 4pm each day, with the sweltering day coming to an end, a hard is almost certain. Full cycle effects
Unbeknownst to me, these rains and cycles are in danger of their consistency, at the mercy of deforestation by local tribes. It's a great example of how RIPPLE Africa is working to create long-term, sustainable initiatives for the Malawian community. Specifically, RIPPLE Africa has helped to create deforestation bylaws that are governed by local villages. They help reinforce the idea that by mindlessly cutting down trees for firewood, land erosion and evaporation from the humid hills/mountains is affecting rainfall. This is turn leads to less rain for crops, a vicious cycle that some fear is already having effects locally. By raising awareness about this long-term issue, paired with the innovative CCM fuel efficient cookstoves, RIPPLE Africa is not only addressing an issue and educating locals, they're providing a cost-effective solution available to all. The biggest challenge, in my opinion, is changing people’s way of thinking.
Check out some of the bylaw information here.
And as always, donations are greatly appreciated.
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Ah the sweet, sweet return to open'er water. If you've been following these weekly updates for Reflections for RIPPLE, or seen our videos, you'll know we've spent the past few months jumping off a harbor dock to immerse ourselves in the frigid tranquility of Lake Michigan. Far from ideal, the harbor swimming allowed us to cannonball into ice-free water: We can thank trusty under-dock bubblers for this!
Alas, spring’s late arrival welcomed us to a SE-facing beach devoid of ice. Located near the Adler Planetarium, Gardner and I embarked on this exciting 1st of season-like run, leaving his South Loop apartment and getting in a few head-wind driven miles before our plunge. Looping our run back to the South, we followed the break wall rounding the planetarium, and in a summer-like instant found ourselves confronted with an ice-less beach.
Despite it being the 17th week of winter swimming (with warm weather nowhere in sight), the shock and general uneasiness of each week's swim is still present, this week more than ever. You better be at 10 tenths!
The differences between dock cannonballs and sprinting into beachfront water are day-and-night different. Both involve strip downs and sprints, though the beach swims demand real forward momentum; simply wading into the water won't cut it. I find both types gratifying, though beaches much more preferred.
Backs to the wind, face to the sun
Layers saturated of sweat beckon for air
Filmy and thin, your sweat a protective and final barrier to the elements
Quickly evaporating in a moment’s notice
No time to wait then
Your entire run and lead-up challenged by a single moment
A moment of mental inertia
Go and don't look back
Shock therapy meets all ten toes
Wading through the shallows in search of deeper, plunge’able depth
Legs ache and breathing heavied
Focus your breath, one last stand
And dive. Dive deep and hard
Your reward awaits
...resorting to a less structured prose to describe this swim is a testament to my inability to fully describe the sensations of this weekly ritual. Frankly, it's comforting knowing that in 17 weeks and countless efforts to describe and answer peoples' "whys" and "whats", this weekly winter baptism remains an indescribable melting of the senses.
What can be concluded from both my own and other fellow swimmers vantage point is that the swims elicits not a hurried or concerned 'get dressed before your freeze' feeling, but rather an overjoyed and accomplished sense of living at a full-bodied 10 tenths.
To the point of RIPPLE Africa, the sensations felt on these weekly runs though challenging and uncomfortable at times, is reflected upon in a positive and empowering light. Perhaps the best correlation here is not the physical dynamics of Lake Michigan and Malawi, but rather the effect of a glass half full mentality.
Malawi's poverty stricken hardships are worlds away and painful to see first-hand. It makes you want to challenge and question efforts on a governmental level, for the sake of change at the most basic human level. Oh how there seems to be disconnect.
The reality of it all is harsh but the memories, like our swim, elect a real sense of joy and humility. It's humanity and relationships at a core level that recount emotions of laughter, smiles and hope for a better future. We're all in this together. 10 tenths half full.USA DONATIONS UK DONATIONS
Folks, we're pushing up on the $3,000 mark! Thank you to all who have made contributions to Reflections for RIPPLE. Our St. Patrick's Day weekend swim topic revolves around life's constants...Huh?
I wanted to connect the dots between this thought and the enormous plane matrix separating Malawi and the US. No need for graph paper or a calculator, this should make sense by the bottom of the page, whereupon your donations are gladly welcomed!
Our weekly swim took place this past Sunday afternoon. Gardner and I converged on the ole' swimming hole by way of divergent tangent, forcefully being rerouted around the Lake Front Path due to a police standoff. Hello variable numero uno.
The other variable you can count on is weather, especially with Sunday proving to be a quite cold for Mid-March. We watched Saturday's high of 45 deplete to a lowly 24 degree high, with some serious NE winds. Several weeks ago Gardner and I made the plunge with wind chills hovering near Zero. Sunday proved to be similar conditions, though abundant sunshine added to the 'calm' factor after the plunge.
During our run I started to reflect on this idea of constants between Malawi and the States. And as we continue to deal with unpredictable accuweather forecasts (paradoxical by nature :) I was reminded that these weekly swims do involve an element of consistency, that being the lynch-pin of this endeavor: body heat!
With air temperature, wind, sun and precipitation all playing a role in each week's swim, even their sum doesn't equal the power of your own body’s ability to produce heat. I suppose it’s my strongest argument as to why these swims are comfortable in light of extreme cold and questionable rationale. With proper layering and a good hard sweat most anything is possible. I mean, who wants to be cold in the winter? I sure don't!
Transitioning to a Malawian standpoint, these constants exist in both positive and negative measure. The pursuit of happiness and family values speaks to a culture rooted in a positive constant, whereas change afforded by new practices are difficult to grasp, and even harder to apply long term. In our fast paced world, sometimes the benefits of improved standards of living are not measured in days, months or even years, but rather by generation.
Let's take the intangibles of RIPPLE's Environmental Conservation bylaws as our case study. The laws, co-drafted with local village leaders, are intended to help communities protect their land and forests for future generations, while also keeping land productive in present time. What was once constant now faces abrupt change, and though long-term benefits are positive the notion of change is a real jolt. But in time laws like this will become more widely adopted and ingrained into daily life, their benefits becoming recognizable to future generations.
Think of RIPPLE's endeavors as a catalyst of change for the local communities. In respect to beneficial environmental change, constants sometimes need to be up-ended, for the sake of a more long-term perspective. This is the power of change, with the reality of a long uphill battle. Most importantly it’s this change that strives to become constant; it may just take a generation to get there.
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Ah, the age old adage of ‘less is more’…
I’ve wanted to sew this common thread into ‘Reflections for RIPPLE’ for thumb
time now. Now, put that thimble on and get ready for less, cause it’s more!
Puns aside, this is a saying that resonated deeply while I was volunteering in Malawi; and though the applications are different from one country to another its insight is worth sharing with you, the reader.
Keeping this thought in mind our week 15 swim/run started with a ‘less is more’ mentality due to the balmy 40 degree weather: Fewer layers! Gardner and I departed this past Sunday afternoon to find these enjoyable temperatures, sunny skies and welcoming harbor water. Wind chills brought the temp down from 40 to about 25, as a strong and steady SW wind made for some heightened skin cells once the plunge was had.
Fellow swimmers can attest to the enveloping shock of cold water and perhaps even more memorable, the satisfaction afterwards as you reflect on your shiver’less endeavor. For me, the entire weekly event from start to finish culminates in those 5-10 minutes after the swim. It is this present moment that leads me back to Malawi, and an ideal worth living even in infinitesimal daily rigors. Ah the power and simplicity of a single moment. Here are some examples of how more can come from less:
These stoves rock like granite, or like bark on wood! I talk about them all the time so here’s a video
if you’re unfamiliar. By using a smaller amount of wood, oxygen is able to flow-in and exhaust more efficiently. The assumption that cramming wood into these stoves is quickly dismissed by the user once they realize this. Trial by fire baby!
Garbage pick-up/management does not exist in rural Malawi. Imagine not having this in your daily life. For some, small plastic bags are used as fire-starter. Though it may seem counter-intuitive by burning plastic, it’s an excellent example of resourcefulness out of necessity. Full-cycle it is probably quantifiably more effective than the carbon footprint created by waste management. Just sayin’.
Yep. Even a simple soccer ball is a luxury in Malawi. Local children will take an unused condom, blow it up, and wrap it in plastic bags and finally tie it off with strings. And they work. It is this simple example that stuck with me most poignantly.
I find these to be great examples of how less truly is more; especially in a culture where there is no real alternative. For us to even have this option of lifestyle is a blessing.
Ever tried living without paper towel in the kitchen? Instead using cloth towels and water? Or reusing a single cup for your morning jaunts to Starbucks and lunch? The little things all add up. And though these small acts may not directly affect Africans stricken in poverty, it helps bring our standard of living to more reasonable levels. Greater parity on this front is how we’ll solve problems. Macro meets mirco. See you in the middle.USA DONATIONS UK DONATIONS
Selfishly, this week's reflection topic sprouted from the inevitable ice thaw at permafrost ground zero...Soldier Hockey Blackhawks hockey baby! Building up to this Saturday night blizzard of a game, witnessing a historic Toews .v Crosby matchup at Soldier Field in a now confirmed lake-effect snow dump was indescribable. Can you tell!?
Pondering this on a beautiful Saturday morning run with the sun shining, crisp air and a not-so-friendly 15-18 knot NNW wind made for heightened cerebral and contact experience. Saturday was also Mr. Douglas Baker's first plunge into the artic-like temperatures. Doug casually runs sometimes ludicrous 16-mile intervals after work, just like that.
And as stressed prior, these swims are all about process and routine, Doug did what Doug does...an 8-mile blast South, whereupon I would meet him after my 4-mile blast in a specific mile marker window.
If you haven't gathered, you must be hunting for the premise... there are some monumental events occurring!
Though they are my own, monumental events are relative to oneself, different for everyone. What we can distill from this type of elation, whether big or small, here or there, his or hers is that there is a common thread of excitement and satisfaction to be had.
And so what if you could share that excitement. What if you played a part in creating that emotion for someone? Choose whole heartily here, but for me I found this ever-so apparent in Malawi.
To dial it in even further let’s talk about RIPPLE’s staple environmental project, the CCM fuel efficient stoves. I’m not talking Easy Bake Oven here folks! These compact, locally-made stoves reduce wood consumption drastically and are a much safer alternative to 3-stone fires.
A grim reality to life in Malawi is that many children are burned from the larger, more dangerous 3-stone fire setup. Smoke inhalation and lung problems are also a factor worth considering and very real. Collecting wood for these 3-stone fires is also no small task. Forested areas simply cannot recover from over-consumption, having a detrimental effect on rainfall and erosion.
RIPPLE’s CCM stoves are a vivid example of a full-cycle environmental project that has immediate and future effects both in human health and environmental sustainability.
Relative to Malawi, implementing a CCM stove is a game changer for families, a monumental event. To support initiatives like RIPPLE’s CCM project is an opportunity in conservation and safety, but also playing a part in creating a Monumental Event that far exceeds its monetary value.
Be an agent of monumental change, and donate to RIPPLE Africa’s CCM cook stove project. You know the drill.
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