A Man for All Countries
Photo via Jonathan H. Lee, ConsciousImpact.org
When a 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Nepal on April 25 last year, Allen Gula and two friends were two days into a nine-day trek from Mount Everest to Kathmandu.
They had avoided death from the avalanche behind them and from the earthquake in front of them. But they were isolated, with no way to let their families know they were unharmed. They also had no idea of the destruction that had been wrought in central Nepal.
Arriving in Kathmandu, they were shocked to see the devastation. Finally able to reassure those here in the States they were fine, Gula and his friends planned to board a plane for home early in May. But a walk farther into villages of rubble and a drive with other volunteers in a pickup truck loaded with supplies convinced Gula otherwise. Once he saw the greater devastation and the human need, Gula and his friends stayed to rebuild, to raise funds and to begin a website encouraging others to join him.
There were few better suited for the job.
“My parents instilled in me that if you have the privilege of education and access to resources, then you must use those to help others,” Gula says. “This played heavily in my decision to stay in Nepal, to get more involved and to restart the work I have been doing my whole life.”
A graduate of St. Mark’s High School and the University of Delaware, Gula had already worked in rural community development projects in Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua and Ghana by the time he was 27. His mother, Suzanne Tierney, was a professor of Spanish and applied linguistics at the university who had long been taking her family on winter session trips to Central and South America. Having spent considerable time abroad, Gula and his brother, Marcus, had often seen how difficult life could be in small towns and villages.
“We lived one to three months of every year in Latin American countries from the time I was in third grade,” Gula says. “Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru and Panama were homes for various stages of my life, each country playing host to a group of 20 or more university students on study abroad.”
Gula was exposed to indigenous communities and material inequality. He saw his mother work with students to help the communities they visited. Back in Newark, he stayed involved in his own community and spent summers teaching local children to swim at his community pool in Fairfield Crest. He also saw his father, Dave Gula, a planner for a regional transit corporation, work with local communities to provide improved transit service. His parents’ work instilled in Gula a sense of duty to his community, which expanded with his travels.
Gula had worked for Global Brigades, an international nonprofit dedicated to helping communities upgrade their health and economic standards. When Gula graduated from the university, Global Brigades offered him a unique opportunity to be involved in its expansion.
“A colleague, Orion Haas, and I traveled to over 10 African countries, writing reports about the feasibility of Global Brigades working in each one of the locations,” he says. “We road-tripped from South Africa to Kenya, then flew to Ghana before making it our home for the next two years. We established Global Brigades Ghana as a project to support more than 15 communities with medical services, microfinance projects and clean water access.” At their peak, Gula and Haas worked in 17 villages, employed over 200 seasonal staff and hosted more than 1,000 foreign volunteers.
“Africa was a new aspect of my professional career,” Gula says. “I cannot say enough about the growth of understanding and sensitization toward doing this type of work that Ghana taught me from 2011 to 2013.”
Gula’s travels in South Asia had begun a year before the quake in Nepal, when he landed in India in quest of a spiritual pathway, seeking a vision of what his future might be, asking higher powers that his talents and spiritual beliefs be entwined to serve people. He found an answer in the earthquake.
“You have to experience Nepal in order to appreciate the process of rebuilding,” Gula says. He notes that most people in the world live in rural areas where they have no electricity, running potable water, Internet or access to health care—places where they must be largely self-sufficient. “That is a pivotal aspect to remember,” Gula says. “The world as we know it, the luxuries and comforts to which we have become accustomed, are not the realities of the majority of citizens on this planet.”
Facing Nepal’s ruined villages and people in desperate need of help, Gula, Haas and their friend Juliette Maas showed up daily to The Yellow House, a hodgepodge of volunteers that met every day to decide where to send supplies. The Yellow House became pivotal in their initial networking and experience, giving them the information about the damage done across the country.
Gula and his colleagues knew more funding was needed for supplies. They began the fundraising website Indiegogo in June 2015 from Kathmandu.
“We raised $18,000 in a few weeks,” says Gula. “We were amazed at the response from our network of friends and family. The most intelligent thing we did with the original donations was to save the money for later use. There was so much confusion and debris still in the air after the earthquake that waiting for the bureaucratic dust to settle was challenging.”
At the same time, Gula and his colleagues started recruiting volunteers through the website Conscious Impact. “It was a website that we had owned for a while, a dream in the back of our minds that someday we would start an organization together that specialized in community development projects,” Gula says. “Who knew it would come to fruition in Nepal after the earthquake?”
Conscious Impact uses locally available materials to rebuild villages affected by the earthquake with help from local and foreign volunteers. Conscious Impact now owns a compressed earth block press in the village of Takure, Sindhupalchowk, Nepal. Gula and his volunteers make bricks from clay, gravel and sand, and they make a small amount of mortar. They have committed to building two schools—30,000 bricks for each—then they will see if people are open to building earthquake-safe homes.
“I no longer doubt where I will go and what I will do every day,” Gula says. “This was a gift that has clarified the next few years of my life.”
To support Gula’s efforts, donate to Bricks for Nepal at www.empowered.org/Conscious-Impact-Help-Nepal-Rebuild, or sign up as a volunteer with Conscious Impact at www.consciousimpact.org/volunteer.