Walking through the Kibera slum outside Nairobi, Kenya — the largest slum in Africa with more than a million people, half of them children, crowded into a space about the size of Central Park — Charles “Carter” Via (’83) was overwhelmed, and inspired.
“I had seen poverty in different parts of the world, but there was something different about Kibera, the density, the utter lack of infrastructure and services, that was just heartbreaking,” he recalled of that 2007 visit. “It broke my heart and inspired me at the same time. As I’m seeing it, smelling it, touching it, I said, ‘here is the next great opportunity to be of service to humanity.’”
After returning home to White Plains, New York, Via launched Cross-Cultural Thresholds, a nonprofit that sponsors service trips and raises funds to build schools in Kibera. In the last seven years, he’s led some 30 trips with hundreds of volunteers who have helped build two elementary schools for about 600 children. Construction of a high school, health center and dining hall is underway.
“The big picture can be so overwhelming that you think there’s nothing you can do. There’s absolutely something you can do."
An ordained Presbyterian minister, Via, 54, serves a small church in Connecticut in addition to serving as director of Cross-Cultural Thresholds. He’s realistic about what he can do, but it’s that realism that drives him. “The big picture can be so overwhelming that you think there’s nothing you can do. There’s absolutely something you can do,” he said. “You can create micro opportunities to deal with the macro problem. I know I can’t put 750,000 kids in school. But if I can put 500 kids, 1,000 kids, 2,000 kids in school and feed them and walk them across the bridge to something potentially better, that is a huge win.”
It’s not the first bridge that he’s helped build. He spent his earliest years in Winston-Salem where his father, the late Dan Via, taught religion at Wake Forest before moving on to the University of Virginia. Carter Via returned to Wake Forest for college and majored in religion, and then attended Princeton Theological Seminary. He was serving a church outside New York City in the early 1990s when a friend invited him to come along on a service trip to “dig wells” in Nicaragua. He found a sense of purpose there and founded Bridges to Community to organize service trips to build homes, schools and clinics in Nicaragua.
For the next 10 years, Via led three or four trips to Nicaragua a year for high school and college students and church groups. “I wasn’t sure preaching was moving people along very quickly,” he said. “(Bridges to Community) took people way out of their comfort zones and dropped them down into the heartbreak of poverty. Now I could move people along, see them shaken up and asking those great existential questions: ‘Who am I? What do I believe?’ I wanted to break people open to think about the gift of life and the responsibilities that go with it.”
"The question will come up every season of your life: What can I do right here, right now, because I love humanity?”
Via left Bridges to Community to settle down in White Plains, New York, as pastor of a Presbyterian church. The tug of international service drew him away again. After meeting the late Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan activist and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, he co-founded Green Belt Safaris, a combination Kenyan safari and service trip. That led Via to the Kibera slum and to found Cross-Cultural Thresholds in 2008.
Since then, he’s worked with community leaders in Kibera on ways to improve children’s education opportunities and health care. Local workers and volunteers have already completed the two elementary schools that also offer health care and two meals a day. Construction on the high school began two years ago and is expected to be completed in 2016. Volunteers from schools, colleges and churches travel to Kibera several times a year to work on construction projects or work directly with children. The trips conclude with a visit to an elephant orphanage and a safari.
This summer, Via is taking his service to new heights. When he asked his daughter how she wanted to celebrate her upcoming 18th birthday, she answered that she wanted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. Sensing an opportunity, Via opened the trip up to anyone who raises at least $2,000 to support Cross-Cultural Thresholds. Twenty-five people have already signed up.
Via is hoping to sign up Wake Forest alumni or students for future service trips to Kenya. “We’re all born to be lovers of humanity,” he said. “In the Greek world it was assumed if you were a citizen, you were a philanthropist. You can’t really opt out of it; that’s like saying ‘I don’t want to be a human being.’ You don’t have to go to Kenya or Nicaragua; wherever you are you can make a commitment to be a philanthropist. The question will come up every season of your life: What can I do right here, right now, because I love humanity?”