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I have this theory that the American Dream is evolving.
That the days of working all your life just so you can own a home with a white picket fence, have 2.5 children and a dog are fading. That people in the United States have finally been traumatized enough by the recession, and the resulting realization that wealth can be quite fleeting, that they have been prompted to reconsider their goals and life ambitions.
That maybe we’ve finally seen enough foreclosures and enough repossession and enough “Going Out of Business” signs to understand that there’s more to life than stuff and that working for a higher purpose is as important as working for a higher salary.
Yes, I have this theory that the American Dream is finally, slowly, patiently evolving.
Or, at least I hope it is.
And when I talk to someone like Shawn Askinosie, that hope gets just a little bit stronger.
Askinosie is the founder of Springfield, Mo.-based Askinosie Chocolate. Before he started his company, he was following a very American career path — criminal defense attorney.
However, he had a revelation, completely changed his life path, and in May 2007 started selling chocolate instead. In the spirit of life transforming moments, he also simultaneously started a program that could help his community — “Chocolate University.”
So, while he’s constantly trying to create the best tasting chocolate ever, his company is also coordinating with area schools to help students see the chocolate-making process first-hand. For fourth and fifth graders, that means factory tours. For middle schoolers, that means partnering with a school in the Philippines that’s in the same community as some of Askinosie’s suppliers.
And, for a select group of high school students, it’s meant an “international business trip.”
For the second time since 2010, Askinosie took a group of high school students to Tanzania this past summer. The experience gives the students — all of whom are going into their senior years — a front row seat to things like profit sharing with farmers, buying cocoa beans, helping an underfunded school in Africa and experiencing Tanzanian culture.
“It’s interesting, especially for students who have never traveled before,” he says. “We had one student who had never been on an airplane before. To kind of sit back and observe their reactions... just watching them in this experience, it’s kind of amazing. You can literally see before your eyes them process in their minds this experience that they’re having.”
His goal is to give them a chance to see the world beyond Missouri, and understand the importance of things like profit sharing with cocoa farmers and helping others.
Of course, first-hand accounts are better, and there are plenty to choose from.
|Students test cocoa beans while on a trip in Tanzania with Askinosie Chocolate. Photo provided.|
“A week ago I would have never expected to like the food, or to like living in Africa, because I’m used to my TV and my iPod and my computer all the time and I’m just pretty much a spoiled American kid,” explains Tianna Thomas in a video about the journey. “But now, it’s like this is so much easier. [It’s] a simple life and I love it here.”
And then there’s Audrey Luehrs.
“I know that this was going to change me, but the people here are so much more beautiful than you could have imagined,” she says. “That really surprised me and really shocked me and just really confirmed what I wanted to do.”
There’ s also the student from the 2010 trip who took a year off after high school to go live in Tanzania.
It’s truly great stuff.
Like all things American though, the American Dream hasn’t completely lost its roots. And so, running a successful business is still an important component to achieving it — and Askinosie knows that.
At his company, they have a saying, “It’s not about the chocolate. It’s about the chocolate.”
“It isn’t about the chocolate, it’s about way more than that. It’s, ‘How can we help people and be part of the solution and really, really, really be involved in a small way?’” he explains. “But, it’s also about the chocolate. If we don’t make the best possible chocolate that we can, then we can’t do any of the other stuff.”
Of course, I’m admittedly bias about the work Askinosie is doing with local teens. Although I’m a candy reporter by day, I actually serve as the youth leader at my church by weekend and I’ve lead three mission trips, most recently one during the summer to Denver.
I have seen what can happen when you pull a child out of their home, out of their city and out of their state and show them a different culture, a different way to live and a different way to understand the people they meet.
All I can say is that’s the most rewarding thing in the world.
Not everyone has a heart for teens, of course, but they aren’t the only ones out there who could use some help. There are countless ways for every kind of company to get involved, make a connection and complete service projects.
So, maybe I’m naive, maybe I’m an idealist and maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but I really do hope the American dream is evolving.
Because as Askinosie seems to understand instinctively, when you truly change someone’s life, even a global recession can’t dampen the good that’s been achieved.