By Michelle Jannazo
How long have you lived here?
I’ve lived in the Freeport area since 1995. Went to school here when there was only one traffic light!
What is your work here?
Since 2015, my wife, Kim, and I have owned and operated Arbor Barber Trees, a tree care service. Most recently we purchased a sawmill and started ABTWOODSHOP. Now, when we remove old growth because it is diseased, dying or endangering human life, we bring it to the shop and give it a second life. By milling and repurposing the wood, we are good stewards of the resources available to us.
How are you actively involved in our community?
My wife and I are Rotarians and have also hosted fundraisers for the Freeport Area Youth Sports Association. I’m working to support The Sonder Project.
What is The Sonder Project?
Started in 2015, The Sonder Project is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with eight board members, founded here in the Panhandle with the mission to empower impoverished communities through high-impact, sustainable development. They focus their work in Sub-Saharan Africa, because that is where they can make the greatest impact on the most number of lives at the most efficient cost. Annually, it serves at least 5,000 people directly every year, with an operating budget of approximately $500,000, and likely many more, as the initiatives have a lasting impact for generations. Staff includes one U.S.-based full-time staff member and six international, full-time staff members.
How did you become involved?
After Hurricane Michael, The Sonder Project adapted to support local relief efforts while continuing their work in Sub-Saharan Africa. It organized volunteer days to remove fallen trees and debris, and my wife and I and our Rotary Club supported their effort. Arbor Barber Trees partnered with The Sonder Project to support the Panama City area. It was destiny, because I always dreamed of funding a water project in the developing world, but was never sure how to accomplish it. After connecting with The Sonder Project, the dream became reality, and we haven’t stopped changing lives together ever since.
How have you most recently supported the Sonder Project?
I walk. Specifically, I hike to support The Sonder Project’s efforts to raise awareness and funds for education in impoverished nations. We use a social media platform to attract followers and potential donors who watch me push my comfort levels by rucking on long distance hikes.
Since 2020, I completed the Continental Divide Trail and the Florida Trail. This year, I hiked the 223-mile-long Ouachita National Recreational Trail (ONRT), the longest trail in the Ouachita National Forest. When friend and business owner Aaron Sundstrom of 98 Realty approached me with the proposition of conquering the ONRT together, I jumped at the chance. Although I have hiked longer mileage, pound for pound, this trail was no joke! We began by training and planning for the 34,976.4-foot ascent and the 34,402-foot descent. We began at Pinnacle Mountain State Park in Little Rock, Ark., and ended at Talimena State Park in Oklahoma. Through social media, we give people a glimpse into places that 99 percent of the population never sees. Knowing we were raising funds to sponsor children in need motivated me to extremes.
Wow! What was most challenging about this adventure?
First are the sacrifices my family made so I could leave my home and business for three weeks. Prior to the trip, my wife and I scheduled our workload accordingly to accommodate the time it would take to complete the trail. Support from the Sundstrom family was also critical to our success. Eight lives have been changed for the better because of the sacrifices our families made. Our goal is to have 50 sponsors for the fundraiser by the end of 2023.
The second hardest challenge is the psychological intensity. Negativity sets in when you are cold, hungry, tired and hurting day after day. Severe elevation changes and rocky, wet terrain make for potential knee and ankle injuries. These conditions wear you down. If it weren’t for The Sonder Project, I’d stay home. I believe through educating children we can change a nation. If sacrificing my comforts means a chance to help change a nation, a community, and even just one life, then I’m willing to do that.
What programs does The Sonder Project offer?
It drills deep-water wells affixed to provide clean water any time, any day to benefit communities of at least 300 people. It distributes water filters for families living too remotely to benefit from a well. It also distributes handheld Sawyer water filters to provide clean drinking water. It constructs elementary school blocks with separate latrine facilities for schools lacking adequate and safe structures. It has one 11-acre solar-irrigated community farm that it’s been developing for a few years with the goal of providing year-round food security and an economic engine for a community living in extreme poverty. And it sponsors students who have been selected into secondary school (the equivalent of high school) with the school fees, exam fees, boarding fees, uniforms and materials necessary to help students coming from extreme poverty to stay in school. Unlike in the U.S., high school in our partner countries is not compulsory, which means students attend at a cost. Less than 50 percent of the students ever reach the ninth grade, and this has a major impact on education levels throughout the country.
Does The Sonder Project have volunteer opportunities?
Opportunities are limited since its work is conducted overseas. With that said, it is always seeking volunteers interested in hosting an event or helping spread awareness about our work. Interested volunteers can reach out to email@example.com. Engaged Sonder Project community members also participate in a Sonder Immersion and see the impact of our work firsthand. This experience brings participants to one of their partner communities to experience life in a rural African village while volunteering.
Who are some of the business and community sponsors?
The largest community sponsors include: 360 Blue, Corcoran Reverie, YOLO and 20/30north Studios. We also partner with The 30A Company, Tribe Kelley Surf Post, Vacayzen, Key Data Dashboard, VIE Magazine, Destin Jeep Rentals, Swiftly Catered, Reel 30A, Pecan Jacks, Santa Rosa Golf & Beach Club, Beach Sand Sculptures, Eva Chauvin Photography, The Spa at Silver Shells and The Hub. Any business interested in sponsoring a project or offering an in-kind donation that can be included in a silent auction, should reach out to Chad at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What are the future plans of The Sonder Project?
There is no shortage of communities in need of clean water sources, adequate school facilities, student sponsorship and increased food security in our partner countries. As a result, it is committed to continuing our current project initiatives. It also plans more mentorship opportunities in our Student Sponsorship program by increasing staff capacity and conducting workshops related to career development, reproductive health, leadership and other relevant youth development offerings. In the water program, it continues to build sustainability by empowering local area mechanics and community leaders with the tools necessary to maintain drinking wells and support water filter troubleshooting, while also expanding sanitation training around clean water.
How can people contact you if they’d like to donate or be involved?
Follow The Sonder Project on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. Visit the website at thesonderproject.org or email us at email@example.com. To support my mission, please visit https://support.thesonderproject.org/MOAM.
Of course, I have to ask: What’s the next challenge you’d like to take on?
I’m working on something that combines The Sonder Project and my love of Jiu Jitsu. This fall, I aim to hike The Pinhoti Trail. More immediately, we are featuring woodworking products at venues along 30A and donating a portion of proceeds to The Sonder Project and all its good works.
20 Questions on The Coast is an interview series highlighting servant leadership in our area.