My daughter and I walked the rugged, uneven path back toward camp in complete shock over what we had just seen. I knew the remote village we were visiting in northern Togo had a very limited water supply, but I had no idea that the spot we’d just visited was the only water source available to the small village of Gbentchal during rainy season. This overflowing mud hole was no bigger than a small pond — a pond that would dry up soon, forcing the village women to walk another 15 kilometers daily just for water.
That day, the “water” was muddy and green and not something I could ever imagine thousands of human beings actually drinking. During our visit, a woman from the village approached carrying two “jerry cans” that weigh more than forty pounds once filled. She first washed a few items of clothing, careful not to drop the baby she had strapped to her back, and then began to fill her water cans. As she did, two cows entered the watering hole behind her to cool off and drink.
I’d heard stories about places like this all my life, but seeing it first hand is hard to describe. It changes you. During our stay, we also witnessed the amazing results of what a child sponsorship program can provide a village that previously had no school, no medical clinic, no place of worship and not a single clean water well. Every day around noon, we watched as hundreds of children not yet sponsored fought each other to catch just a glimpse of their sponsored peers, who sat inside the recently built Hope Center eating lunch and enjoying a cup of clean well water.
What if, when you travel, you could stay in a hotel that would sponsor a child like one of these, providing that child with food, medical care, an education and clean water to drink? What if paying the extra fee for the high speed internet helped battle human trafficking? What if the soap, the shampoo, the linens you sleep on and the art you enjoy was all made by people in far away places who work for partners that are making a real difference in the world by giving them a hand up out of poverty? What if, by choosing this particular hotel, you could literally change hundreds of lives with a single night’s stay? Would you do it?
The idea came to Cowart in 2012, when he stayed the night in an L.A.-based hotel and noticed a room number plaque that read “Hello, my name is 121.” He began to imagine a hotel chain in which every room tells a story, and every story has a name and every stay there has a purpose and the results reach far beyond what the average person alone could do.
“I’ve traveled the world for the past decade as a photographer,” says Cowart, “and every time I stay at a hotel, I can’t help but think, ‘What if everything in this hotel was connected to a cause or a need? Could a simple shift like that change the world?’”
Cowart asks would-be backers to imagine booking a night not in just any hotel, but a global chain of “Purpose” hotels, where every time you book a room you sponsor a child, fight human trafficking and use products purchased from partners who are making a difference.
“In the lobby,” Cowart continues, “a clean water well symbolizes the flow of hope and life to everyone and everything connected to the hotel. By choosing this hotel, you [would] touch a hundred lives or more, locally and internationally. You [could] literally change the world in your sleep.” He hopes his Kickstarter will give the project the funds they need to begin the first year of what will likely be a two to three year studio phase until a finished product appears, with the first hotel located in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee.
Cowart is no stranger to changing lives. He frequently uses the gift of photography to give to the less fortunate and encourages photographers worldwide to follow in his footsteps.
“Don’t just aim for greatness,” he tells them. “Aim to use greatness to serve a greater purpose.”
In 2010, he launched the “Voices of Haiti” project after a massive earthquake left the country devastated. Instead of just going to the impoverished island and taking photos of the destruction, Cowart felt he had to do more. He wanted to reach out to the Haitian people who were living through this devastation, so he took art supplies and encouraged them to create their own art and express their feelings as he took photos and video. What happened as he began to document their response was something beautiful.
In 2011, Cowart travelled to Rwanda with filmmaker Laura Waters Hinson to document the stories of those on both sides of the genocide that nearly destroyed the country. The series was featured on CNN and is a powerful story of forgiveness in the face of incredible tragedy.
Knowing the value of photography and the impact a simple photograph can have on a life, Cowart teamed with his friend Kyle Chowning in 2008 and started the Help-Portrait project. Since its inception, 73,241 photographers in 67 countries have taken more than 370,000 portraits. The point isn’t really about the taking of the photograph, or about making a single dime from the images. Instead, it’s about giving the gift of photography to people who otherwise could not afford the luxury of having their photo taken or a memory captured. Many have never even seen a reflection of themselves.
Whether it was his painting or his photography, Cowart learned early in life to work hard and keep trying, no matter what. He struggled in school, and failed in pretty much anything he tried to do growing up, but his father instilled in him an “I can do all things through Christ…” attitude and it worked. Today, he’s one of the nation’s most influential photographers, with a clientele list that most photographers only dream of having.
But what Cowart most wants to be remembered for is the mark he leaves on the world. He describes this latest project as something he’s been absolutely terrified of the last three years. “It’s my Mt. Everest…my Goliath,” said Cowart, who took his first step by publishing a video and telling the world about his dream of the Purpose Hotel chain. His second step was to launch the Kickstarter with a goal of raising enough funds to see his dream become a reality.
There’s no doubt, regardless of how, Cowart will climb his Mt. Everest. Claiming Philippians 4:13 as his inspiration, he hopes we’ll all learn that we can “do all things through Christ” and join him in making this dream a reality so that together, we can change the world.
This article was written by me and published by Opportunity Lives on September 14, 2016. Photo credit: Jeremy Cowart, Facebook