Trips to Brazil. Trips to the South. It sounds like the start of a pretty nice vacation.
That is, until you realize these are not pleasure trips but relief efforts, organized by one woman.
Morristown resident Berit Ollestad, a Seattle transplant, via Brazil, via several other places, has made it a point to take advantage of her good fortune by helping others. She has had several opportunities, having moved around several times due to her husband's work.
Luis Conde, while working for Kraft Foods, moved to Brazil in 2002, where the couple stayed for two years. There, Ollestad learned about favelas.
Literally translating to "little ranch," the favelas of Brazil are essentially the slums of the cities in Brazil, where the "have-nots"–of which there are many–live. "In Brazil, there is no middle class," Ollestad said. "Most, unfortunately, live in poverty."
There's such a sense of hopelessness of the people living there, that there is really only one avenue to look into, and that's [selling] drugs," she said. "The income ... it's way too tempting."
Having moved often with her husband–and now with daughter Annika, 4, and son Mateo, 5–Ollestad said these different cultures, with all their beauties and faults, have been brought into her awareness.
Since leaving Brazil about seven years ago, Ollestad has maintained contact there, which led her to Rocinha, in Rio de Janeiro, a favela of about 300,000 people. "I make trips to Brazil loaded down with a variety of items such as clothes, shoes, stuffed animals, toothbrushes," she said.
As the largest slum in South America, Rocinha has a reputation for being the most violent as well, Ollestad said. "I started corresponding with an individual living there about six months ago," she said. "He was instrumental in getting me to the places that were in the most dire need of support. I also had the rare opportunity to stay there in the favela for the duration of my stay. Initially, I was apprehensive until I arrived there and had a chance to get a feel for the place. The opportunity to stay where most Brazilians won't even set foot was quite the experience."
During her stay, Ollestad was able to identify "a couple of different entities that are doing good things and need continued support in order to survive," she said. "I found a pre-school that had close to 35 children in the basement of a house that oftentimes had no running water and no paper or coloring supplies for the children. But ... the children are happy and well loved."
The other place Ollestad found during her time in Rocinha was an art studio run by an individual that offers the children an alternative to running the streets before and after school. "I am in the beginning stages of bringing paintings, handbags, jewelry up here to sell and raise money to buy art supplies for Tio Lino's art studio," she said.
Back in Morristown, Ollestad has yet to slow down. In addition to working locally on projects, such as a clothing drive in February coordinated with the Milk Money children's consignment shop (now known as "Sugar & Spice & Everything Twice," on Morris Street) at , she has continued to want to offer help wherever it's needed most.
Following the catastrophic tornadoes that devastated much of the south, she has sought ways to help there, as well. To that end, . Everything collected that day will be delivered to the United Way of West Alabama, where it will then be distributed to over two dozen service organizations in need of help.
Ollestad is quick to point to others that have helped make her ambitious projects possible including, locally, the Town of Morristown, , Sugar & Spice & Everything Twice and the Morristown Rotary, as well as many individuals.
"I moved into the area just about a year ago now and I am continually surprised on a daily basis on the kindness that I experience within the community," she said. "In addition to the community donating items, I started searching Craigslist for either free or reasonably priced items and would go all over Northern Jersey to retrieve these items. I started to see a pattern emerge. Each person that I would speak with would either reduce the price of the items, include additional items at no charge or more often than not ask me to come back after they had a chance to talk with friends and family. I would return and there generally would be multiple bags of clothing waiting for me to collect."
Once I got into it and realized, it just makes me cry," Ollestad said. "It's so easy to make such a difference for these guys ... I don't have to speak the language fluently. I just go down and do it because it seems the right thing to do."
For more information on how you can help, email Berit Ollestad at firstname.lastname@example.org.