Saving Up to Give Back: Joanna Rist’s volunteer journey

Posted on Jun 20th, 2016 | Entrepreneurship

Exhausted from working every shift possible for four straight months, Rist barely managed a smile. But yes, despite the fact that working so much "basically killed her social life," the Alberta, Canada native had worked those countless holiday shifts.

"I had decided the end goal was worth the temporary pain," Rist said.

That end goal was to help families in Africa stay together.

As the current communications director for Abide Family Center in Jinja, Uganda, located in East Africa, Rist is aware that more than four out of five children in orphanages worldwide have living family members.

"The families I work with are at risk of leaving their children in orphanages because they don’t have the means to provide for their children," Rist said. "So obviously, they are not in good places financially."

Rist, 21, first discovered the need for family preservation while visiting Uganda as a teenager. She met one of the co-founders of Abide and decided to intern with the organization in 2014. The organization’s main goal is keeping children out of orphanages by equipping families with the tools necessary to succeed financially.

During her intern experience, Rist had to learn to live on about $400 a month. Luckily, she had gained some extreme saving skills as a teenager.

"All through my teenage years I saved money like crazy," she said. "I was very frugal and didn’t spend money on non-essentials." That meant no eating out, going to the movies or purchasing clothes that didn’t come secondhand.

She loved her internship so much that she moved to Uganda full time in January 2015. As Abide’s communications director, Rist oversees the organization’s social media pages and family sponsorship program.

Before making her big move to Uganda, Rist was working toward a degree in early childhood education in Canada, but her heart was still in Jinja.

"Our families and success stories are the only reason I do what I do; they make everything worth it," she said.

Rist had to count her pennies in order to live out her dream to live and work abroad. She calculated that between the costs of plane tickets, insurance and living expenses, she would need around $9,300 per year. Since her job is volunteer-based, she used her savings, money from tax returns and personal donations to meet her budget goal.

"I’m not rich by Canadian standards and I do ‘without’ when it comes to many things, but, compared to Ugandans, I am very wealthy," she said.

As a smart money-saver, the young volunteer will eventually have to move back to Canada to replenish her bank account — she calls this "following your heart but not leaving your brain behind."

Rist’s combination of financial intelligence and passion has led her to both fiscal and social success. Through her experiences, Rist has watched a young mother go from nearly giving her daughter to an orphanage to becoming a trained tailor and businesswoman who can now provide for her "active, sassy little girl."

"Keeping families together is why I am here and work so hard," Rist said, "because I believe that poverty should never be the reason a family is separated."