In a majority world, Australia is part of the minority. With 80 per cent of humanity living on less than $10 a day, most trying to survive on much less, many struggle for the basics we take for granted. Caitlin Ganter spoke to CEO and philanthropist Anthony Ryan who has witnessed the effects of absolute poverty and is on a mission for change.
Not many of us would volunteer to wade through a dumpster, but to Anthony Ryan, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
At 24 years old, Anthony was no stranger to the plight of the less fortunate. His mother had instilled in him compassion for others from a young age, and so he travelled to Washington DC to volunteer with the homeless.
“My brother was based in Washington as part of the Catholic Workers Movement. I went over to work with them to help feed the homeless,” said Anthony.
“It appealed to me because it was providing a context for a Catholic person to do something gritty and real, to get involved with the people we were trying to support. At one point, I was digging through a dumpster because we heard a market was throwing away decent food – it was an eye opening experience, something that fascinated and inspired me to pursue something with greater meaning.”
It was experiences like these Anthony said helped shape him. Twenty years later, Anthony is now the Chief Executive Officer of the Edmund Rice Foundation (Australia), a nongovernment organisation which supports sustainable development projects in developing countries.
“After visiting Washington, I quit the stockbroking degree I was studying and enrolled in education at ACU.
“To be honest, I was a terrible stockbroking student. I was scraping by in my degree, but because I had good contacts in the industry I had a fantastic traineeship lined up. I didn’t deserve it, I was just well connected. After working with my brother in Washington and having conversations with the homeless, I decided I wanted to do something different.”
After becoming a teacher, Anthony continued to remain involved in community engagement. It was in 2005, during an immersion trip in South Africa leading a class of private Brisbane school students, he was exposed to a new level of poverty.
It was in a South African shanty town Anthony met a six-year-old girl named Mimiki. She was bed-ridden, in agony, and her head was swollen five times its normal size. She suffered from a manageable neurological disease her parents were too poor to have treated. Without treatment, Mimiki would die.
As Anthony watched her father sit at her bedside, lovingly massaging her feet, a seed was planted in his mind that would be the beginning of great things to come.
“Mimiki and her family were completely disempowered; her disease was treatable but there was nothing they could do to help her.
“The anger and confusion of a father whose daughter was dying needlessly was something that really stayed with me… how could it not?
The situation was awful, but at that time there was nothing I could do. I didn’t know how I could help – I just knew that I wanted to.”
After meeting Mimiki, Anthony returned home and went back to his life as a teacher. It was at a bar in Brisbane while telling friends about his trip that the image of the little girl brought him to tears.
“I was catching up with my mates' telling them about my trip to Africa. When I started to talk about Mimiki, tears came to my eyes – something that is very unlike me. To my mate’s credit, they didn’t tell me to toughen up or forget about it, they asked more questions and we started to discuss what we could do.”
It was that day Anthony, along with his two friends Sean Ryan and Mark Thompson, established the Mimiki Foundation, which provides aid and support to those people living on the margins of society. The foundation provides a strong link between the business community and advocacy groups in order to help realise a more just and compassionate world.
“Mimiki was a catalyst for us to offer something to the 25- to 45-year age group who were looking for a bit more meaning in their lives. When you think back to high school, you remember promises you made and dreams you had about how you’re going to change the world. But you get caught up in your ambition, your study, your job, your finances, and everything else goes on the back burner.
“It’s good to want these things, but I also wanted greater meaning in my life, and I knew I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. So my mates and I started the Mimiki Foundation – a small foundation that provided an outlet for people to reconnect with those old dreams from school.
“Unfortunately, Mimiki died from her illness. After we found out she had passed away we went back to visit her family and organised to have them relocated to a better living situation. We weren’t able to save the little girl, but we were able to honour her memory.”
Anthony continues to evolve and create new projects. After becoming CEO of the Edmund Rice Foundation in 2012, he began Gone Fishing, an East-African immersion program aimed at connecting decision makers in corporate Australia with the people of Africa.
The program centres upon a 12-day immersion visiting a variety of projects supported by the Edmund Rice Foundation. It aims to provide a unique opportunity for individuals who are looking to attend a meaningful and challenging international professional development program, and seeks to harness and further develop the leadership, management and interpersonal skills of each attendee whilst at the same time presenting the human face of Africa with all its vibrancy and complexity.