It was the evening of Aug. 10, 2011, and CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 featured Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta reporting from Somalia. Located on the Horn of Africa, with the Indian Ocean to the East and Ethiopia to the West, the Federal Republic of Somalia has had no formal government—and has suffered under intermittent-to-almost-constant warfare—since 1991. Gupta was reporting from a clinic where children on the brink of starvation were either being nursed back to health, or were being made as comfortable as possible.
Gupta interviewed Dr. Humphrey Musyoka of the International Rescue Committee as he cared for a very sick young boy. This boy, with his mother, had just walked for eight days under the merciless, unblinking sun to reach the clinic.
The video is still available online. The child is clearly malnourished; his limbs are thin and fragile-looking. Gupta asks Musyoka what would have happened if the child had not reached the clinic: “In a few weeks, we would have lost this child.”
It’s devastating to watch.
The report continues, and Gupta goes into awful details of what happens when a human being dies of hunger: “Death by starvation is neither quick, not painless. . . . You can hear it, you can smell it.”
The program also noted that as many as 600,000 Somali children faced the prospect of starvation.
Chris Mullally was watching. The businessman, who owns and operates the Mohawk Trading Company here in Albany, was deeply touched, and felt called to do something about it. We’ve all watched news reports like this, but few of us go out and form a 501 (c) (3) not-for-profit corporation. Mullally did.
It took six months to gain official status as a nonprofit, and on Feb. 27, 2012, Mullally launched the Extraordinary Project with the aim to raise a million dollars to ease the suffering of the children of Somalia. What makes Mullally’s idea unique is that he wants to raise the $1 million from one million donors.
All he wants from you is a dollar for his dream.
Listening to Mullally describe the experience, it’s clear that the first six months of fundraising for the Extraordinary Project have been both rewarding, and something of a learning experience. As of Oct. 3, the Extraordinary Project has raised $46,196.
“I’m trying to keep pushing,” Mullally says. “That’s the most important thing: keep pushing.”
“Certainly, in a project like this, it has its ups and its downs,” Mullally says. “I’ve never tried to do anything like this before in my life—which makes it more interesting because everything is new. I’m relying on a lot of other people for help, and for other people to step up and join us.”
Mullally is confident that the Extraordinary Project will succeed, however. It’s a matter of resolve and faith. Out of pocket, he funded the creation of a state-of-the-art website (extraordinaryproject.com) designed by Stephen Hallgren, and an awareness campaign featuring graphics by Jamie Uzzo. He attracted a reasonable amount of media coverage, and worked tirelessly on public outreach.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize how far one dollar can go, if you’re willing to give a dollar,” he says. “The whole campaign of one million people giving one million dollars was always designed to be a people project—a ‘we’ project, because, obviously, by myself I could never accomplish this goal.”
“What I just want people to really understand,” Mullally says, “is that these children, no matter where they’re from, or what religion they are, or what race they are, really need help.”
Has there been any negative pushback?
“One of the biggest things that I hear from people back on the negative side, is ‘Why don’t you do something for the children here,’ which is ironic. Just because I’m trying to do something for children in Somalia, [some people assume that] I’m automatically not doing anything for children here. When in fact, our family is regularly supporting children”—via a variety of charities—“in the Capital Region.”
It’s a crisis and a need, Mullally suggests, that transcends nationality.
“No matter how you feel or what you believe or what you think,” he says, “it’s a dollar for a child, a child without the hope of any other help like children in America have. . . . These children go to bed starving, wondering if tomorrow is going to be their last day.”
Here are a few facts about Somalia, courtesy of the U.S. Department of State, and presented with this official caveat: “There is no official U.S. representation in Somalia. Statistical data on Somalia . . . are subject to dispute and error.”
The capital is Mogadishu. The country is mostly flat. It’s “slightly smaller” than Texas. The infant mortality rate is about 109 deaths for every 1,000 live births, and life expectancy is a few months over 50 years. Sixty percent of the workforce is characterized as “pastoral nomad,” while the remaining 40 percent is described as working in “agriculture, government, trading, fishing, industry, handicrafts and other.”
Somalia has, unsurprisingly, an unpleasant colonial history in which the British and Italians played large roles. After World War II, it became a U.N. “international trusteeship” administered by . . . the Italians and British.
Somalia became an independent nation in 1960. The next three decades saw internal and external “tensions,” with the Soviet Union and the United States having greater and lesser influence—as well as influences exerted by Somalia’s neighbors. (This is also known as the usual Cold War mess.) Long story short? Somalia’s government collapsed in 1991, and civil wars and foreign interventions followed. The effect on civil society—and life expectancy—was crippling. The need that arose in the wake of this tragedy was huge.
“That’s what I’m really trying to get people to understand, and to see,” Mullally says, “that there is a big need. Somalia, not being the most favored place in people’s minds, makes it harder.”
“In Somalia,” Mullally says, “not everyone’s a pirate. There really are people, regular people, like you and me. They’re trying to move forward with their lives, and their circumstances are prohibiting them from doing that.”
This is where, he feels, we need to take action.
“People like us, we’ve just been given so much in this world, we just need to always remember to give back,” Mullally says. “How do people, who’ve been given so much, forget how to give?”
It’s not like we don’t have the means, or the generosity.
“You go anyway to have a beer, and you’re giving a dollar to the bartender almost automatically, right? When you’re in New York City, or in any big city, you get a cab, and you’re always giving the cab driver an extra dollar,” Mullally says, “or the guy at the hotel an extra dollar, for things you could get yourself.”
“It’s a long road to a million people,” he says. “I understand that my cause is not everybody’s cause.”
Still, almost everyday people get involved, and their donations—large or small—give him hope.
“Believe me, we get plenty of dollars. And we get larger amounts, too,” Mullally says. “We recently received a check from the Plumbers and Steamfitters’ Local No. 7. It really says a lot about where their hearts are at, and where their concern for humanity lies. “
A local architecture firm passed the hat among all of their employees. Students at Averill Park Middle School, Shaker High School and Malta Montessori held fundraisers. An anonymous donor gave $20,000 from an inheritance.
“We’ve had all kinds of things like that happen,” Mullally says. “There were three 16-year-old girls who somehow found out about the Extraordinary Project, and they had a joint birthday party together and asked all their guests to give money for the Extraordinary Project instead of themselves. For them to take the focus completely off of themselves . . . that’s the part that blows me away. That’s what keeps me going.”
“There’s been, literally, a hundred stories like that over the last eight months,” he adds.
What’s next? Picking an NGO on the ground in Somalia to partner with.
“We haven’t picked a partner yet, but we will shortly—probably within the month,” Mullally says.
“We’re trying to find a partner, first of all, with minimal administrative costs. My wife and I fully fund this project so that when people do give their dollar, all of that dollar will go to the cause.”
He’s narrowed it down to three possible agencies.
So, soon, Chris Mullally’s Extraordinary Project will be ready and able to start sending money to where it’s needed in Somalia.
Now, he’s just waiting for your dollar.