Rye Barcott Is a Doer
The author, former Marine, social entrepreneur, and adviser to Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers thinks we can all do better. And he’s living proof
While Rye Barcott was serving on battlefields in the Middle East as a Marine, he was helping launch a nonprofit in Kenya. Now, he wants to inspire youth here.
Tucked in the middle of one of Charlotte’s oldest shopping centers, Park Road Books is not a large place. On this late spring Saturday afternoon, more than seventy-five people are crowded into the back of one of Charlotte’s only remaining indie bookstores. Myers Park High School students lean on one row of bookshelves. A Marine and his two young sons stand across the way. Three generations of women from one family have managed to nab some of the few available seats.
They have all come to see a man with a charming smile and great head of hair—so good-looking he could be mistaken for a movie star. Rye Barcott, thirty-three, is celebrating the softcover launch of his book, It Happened on the Way to War. It is his account of the creation of Carolina for Kibera (CFK), the charity he cofounded as a twenty-one-year-old in one far-off land while serving as a Marine in another. A celebrated humanitarian (Bono and President Obama are fans), Barcott is now focusing his efforts on local youth. He wants them to believe that they really can change the world for the better.
“I thought I’d start off with a quick reading here,” he says. “This is one of my favorite excerpts,” he says, opening the book. Lowering his voice, he reads, “My lips worked in a quick sly smile and I slid into the booth …” His voice trails off, and he breaks into a laugh. “Oh wait, we have all ages here.” He shows the crowd the book he’s been reading from, the popular erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey.
Barcott knows how to get people’s attention. He works full time as an executive on the staff of Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers, and he is still heavily involved in CFK’s work. He helped found the organization eleven years ago. The original concept used sports to bring people together, establishing a soccer league made up of teams of kids from five ethnic groups in Kibera (a slum in Nairobi, Kenya) often involved in violent conflict with each other. That idea evolved into what Barcott calls “participatory development”—get resources to the people who need them and teach them how to improve their own lives. Already, the group has achieved impressive results. The Tabitha Medical Clinic serves 40,000 patients a year.
A group called Daughters United empowers young women to deal with issues such as pregnancy and childbirth and education. CFK has a Kenyan staff of sixty, a $700,000 annual operating budget, and close ties to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Bill Clinton Global Initiative.
Barcott started the nonprofit after spending five weeks in Kibera during his junior year at UNC Chapel Hill. He was at school on an ROTC scholarship and assumed that after graduation he would be on a peacekeeping mission in a part of the world riddled with ethnic violence. Born in Rhode Island and the son of a sociologist, he wanted to get a first-hand preview of that type of infighting before he lived within it. A Chapel Hill adviser and anthropology teacher suggested Kibera.
He rented a ten-by-ten shack and quickly formed a bond with two locals, nurse Tabitha Festo and a young community activist, Salim Mohamed. Together, they came up with the idea for CFK. “The goal was really simple. We wanted to get the resources into the hands of the local leaders on the ground. We wanted to connect talent with opportunity.”
With a promise to get CFK up and running, Barcott left to go back to school. Just before leaving he gave Festo, a thirty-four-year-old mother of three, a small donation. “I hadn’t made a habit of giving out money, but she had this idea to sell vegetables to neighboring villages and she had a conviction in her voice.” He gave her $26. She hoped to make enough money to start a small health care practice.
Barcott finished his senior year and, with a three-month leave from the Marines, returned to Kibera to get the nonprofit up and running. It was not something he’d even thought about when he first visited Kenya. “But while I was there … you just realize that by the luck of birth what many of us are blessed to have, and that shook me up at a time when I was still formulating my views on the world.”
He was amazed to see what Festo had done with the money he’d given her. “She had converted this ten-by-ten into a twenty-four-hour medical clinic.” It was September 2001 and Barcott planned to stay in constant contact with Festo and Mohamed as they worked to build CFK. But instead of the peacekeeping missions he assumed would define his Marine duties, Barcott ended up communicating with his Kibera partners while on the battlefield in places like Bosnia and Iraq. “It was difficult to mentally wrap my head around. I was simultaneously working to prevent violence in Kibera and be a constructive force while I was serving with the military, which can often be seen as a destructive force. What I realized is that some skills are easily transferable. At the end of the day they are both about service.”
Barcott hopes the story of his service will spur others in the back of Park Road Books to want to make change. NC State has selected It Happened on the Way to War as summer reading for all incoming freshmen. Myers Park High students will also spend some of their time off learning Barcott’s story. “Kibera is just a metaphor. This story is just a metaphor,” he says. “My hope is that young people will take this story and apply it to the things they care about and make an impact and be doers.”