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Barton Brooks Builds the Global Family

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Barton Brooks calls everyone to help another. You can crisscross the globe, aiding him and his organization Global Colors, build up broken-down communities or simply take out your neighbor’s trash.

by Leigh Bell

It was late morning, and we talked in the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel near the Galleria. Barton Brooks would be giving a speech to schoolchildren later that day. He wore jeans, a black T-shirt, and about three days’ growth of beard. Brooks didn’t seem to notice, but people were turning their heads because he’s that good-looking. When I mentioned this, he demurely lowered his head like a 14-year-old boy.

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Broken and bloody, fainting in pain, Barton Brooks lay on the side of a dirt road near a remote village in sub-Saharan Africa. His motorbike was somewhere nearby. The Land Rover that broadsided his bike was gone. Brooks looked down at his twisted limbs. He could die right there.

The irony, like the Land Rover, was inescapable. Brooks travels the world helping broken-down communities all over the world, and now he was broken-down, left for dead. Minutes ago, he was visiting with the Batwa, a marginalized tribal community in the bowels of Uganda. He had just completed a hut for one man and promised to build another for a struggling woman. The tribe was so thankful; they danced as Brooks puttered away on his motorbike.

Brooks only wanted to better the world, one forgotten person at a time. He’d helped thousands of people through Global Colors, his grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people in very tangible ways. And now, he couldn’t even help himself. He was that forgotten person.

Hours later, a group of locals found Brooks, loaded him into their crowded Toyota Camry, and drove him two hours to the nearest doctor. He wasn’t alone after all.

After more than a year and several surgeries, Brooks, 38, still walked with a limp when I met him in Houston a few months ago. The accident happened last March, and only several months later—limp and all—Brooks rejoined Global Colors to work again in Uganda, and later in post-earthquake Haiti.

Brooks believes work with Guerrilla Aid has aided in the healing of his relationship with his own mother.

Brooks calls what he does Guerilla Aid, which is now a division of Global Colors. It’s simple, really, he says: “Just go somewhere and do something, while teaching others to do the same.”

The accident had lasting physical effects, requiring another surgery last month, but Brooks still sees the collision like he sees most things in life—as a gift. This accident gave Brooks and his mother transforming time together while he convalesced. That time proved to be “one of the sweetest moments” in his life, Brooks says. His mother had previously accepted her son’s homosexuality, but she finally made peace with it as she witnessed the deeply caring support he received from his circle of gay friends.

“She finally just seemed to be able to see my life and my friends as I did—a beautiful network of love and support,” Brooks says. “So she no longer had to fear for her gay son in New York City, which allowed me to feel fully at peace with our relationship.” Brooks and his mother were on good terms after he came out to his family in 1996, but their relationship was slightly fractured. Several broken bones completely healed it.

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In the turmoil that followed his coming out, Brooks found a new home traveling around the world. Foreign countries opened their arms to him while his conservative family in Utah wrestled with the truth that their “golden boy” was gay.

When needs of impoverished people are met, “a wedge of worry becomes a sliver of hope,” Brooks says.

“Holidays, or times I wanted to celebrate, felt less lonely if I was in Thailand or Africa, rather than in uncomfortable silence with family members who didn’t approve of my life,” he says. “After awhile, the world felt like home, and my family became fellow travelers, locals, and people I met along the way.”

That included a group of children, mostly orphans, whom Brooks met about five years ago while traveling through Cambodia. Once home, Brooks kept thinking about those kids and how he might help them. That was the impetus for Global Colors. Brooks partnered with the athletic department at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to provide the children with toys, sports equipment, educational materials, and much more—as well as supplies for a Cambodian children’s hospital.

“When the one project worked so well in Cambodia, and I saw another project and that worked so well, I was like, ‘This is obviously what I should be doing. I don’t want to be a 60-year-old real-estate broker in Manhattan just trying to sell, sell, sell so I can buy, buy, buy, and have this lovely place to show my friends that I’m successful,’” he says. “It just didn’t make sense to me.”

So it was about five years ago that Brooks quit brokering real estate in Manhattan, gave up hot showers, clean water, ironed shirts, and soft beds—beds at all, really—and began traveling the world seeking ways to help others.

That is the essence of Global Colors today, multiplied hundreds of times over. The organization relies on personalized giving to fund an efficient, effective result in impoverished communities. People are more likely to feel good about donating regularly if they know to whom and for what they’re giving, Brooks believes. He facilitates this relationship with donors via a small camera, Internet access (to post videos and blog), and an unassuming charisma that draws people in.

A Land Rover broadsided Brooks’ motorbike on a remote dirt road in sub-Saharan Africa.

Brooks finds out what a community needs by talking to the people in it. He’s not into handouts. He doesn’t think that kind of philanthropy empowers people. He wants to help communities achieve their goals—not his—by working with their own vision and tradition.

“You walk into a community and immediately put yourself on their level—stay in their huts, work with them,” says Brooks. He lugged firewood on his back with Ethiopian women, carried loads of dirt on his head with the Nepalese, did yard work with a monk, and herded some 100 cows to a community in Kenya.

“You spend time with them, and you realize that this is their life. I personally feel the responsibility to raise their life a little bit, to see what they desperately need.” Brooks usually asks the women of a village because he finds that women know what families need to sustain them over time—not simply for a day, a week, or even a month.

He records the experiences, the people, and their needs on video. The shaky footage usually features Brooks with a thickening beard, overgrown hair, and a stained T-shirt. Beside him is a local family, child, man, or woman whom Brooks introduces because they need something. Desperately.

A wheelchair with four working wheels.

A clean water system. Buckets to water the garden from which they eat.

Pencils and paper for school. Schools.

Pots to cook in. Homes. Shoes. Beds.

Gardens to feed AIDS patients. Kites. Soccer balls.

Some children of earthquake-ravaged Haiti have returned to school, thanks to Guerrilla Aid and Brooks.

Via his website and blog, Brooks allows donors to develop a relationship with these individuals in need. His web videos document the broken wheelchair, the dilapidated home, sparse kitchen, or starving children. The deprivation is palpable, the need so simple, but so powerful. If the need is met, then a wedge of worry becomes a sliver of hope, Brooks says.

“And when that worry is taken away from them, they can start to think about how to get more land or a new dress. You raise their hope level from ‘We hope not to die’ to ‘We hope for a little more comfort.’ To me, it’s kinda nice to relieve them of that worry.”

The Batwa settlement in Uganda needed chickens for eggs to feed their children, whose bellies were distended from a lack of protein. So there’s Brooks on his blog, asking for chickens ($10), chicken feed ($35 for six months), and materials to build a chicken coop ($215). Click on the “Donate” button, and a few weeks later donors might find a video of the families who got the chickens and the children who can now eat eggs every day.

Brooks asks for cash to build a school, and six weeks later, there’s the school in a web video showing children pouring through the doors as Brooks adds a personal shout-out to the people who helped.

This is how Brooks sees his role in global aid: small, doable changes with a tenfold effect. And he has such an uplifting humor about it. Regarding larger aid organizations, he says, “I felt like my donation was going into this big black hole, and I could never quite see the result.”

It’s not a comfortable life. Brooks chooses to live below the U.S. poverty level. He travels with a pair of jeans, a few pairs of shorts, four or five T-shirts, water-purifying pills, protein bars, and his camera. Maybe some over-the-counter sleeping pills for jet lag. He gets parasites and stomach viruses. He was once spooned on a bus by a goat herder—or at least a guy who smelled like one. And he doesn’t recognize a lot of the food he eats. But it’s worth the hassle.

He slept in a tent in Haiti shortly after the earthquake, where Global Colors has since rebuilt a school and community center that had been reduced to a pile of rubble. Today children fill the school, their tangerine uniforms and bright smiles contrasting with their dark skin. It was the first school in the country to reopen, emphasized Brooks, “for those of you who have ever doubted the ability of one person, or a small group of people, to change the world.”

Global Colors continues to restore two additional schools in Haiti, and if funding allows, one will reopen in September.

The organization also continues to work with that Batwa settlement back in Uganda, where Brooks thought he might die moments after his motorbike accident. He returned there late last year to thank tribal members for their prayers for his recovery, for their hope-filled eyes, and for the rich relationship he now has with his mother.

Brooks may never see these people again. The Ugandan government is considering a bill to make being gay punishable by death. Last month, after international pressure, a commission created by the Ugandan president recommended that the legislation be withdrawn. As of late May 2010, it had not been withdrawn. If the bill passes, he will not return to Uganda.

But for now, Brooks wants everyone to visit guerrillaaid.com and learn more about what the Ugandan Batwa need: chickens, chicken coops, goats, milking cows…

Leigh Bell is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.

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