Brandon Clifton spent two weeks driving up the east coast staying with Couchsurfing hosts. His goal: Interview, photograph and get to know them in order to tell their stories.
And then there was Bill… a kind-hearted war veteran, CEO of multiple companies, Vice President of United Healthcare and long time volunteer for the Red Cross. And when I say long time, I mean he once volunteered for a consecutive 13 months abroad during a major hurricane that completely wiped out an entire community. Being abroad is nothing new to Bill. He lived in Africa for 14 years. Originally from Baycity, Michigan, Bill found his way across the world eventually settling and making Charleston, South Carolina his home. If being in the military, running a few companies and volunteering for the Red Cross isn’t enough, he also spent years of his life hosting exchange students from all over the world, most of which he still stays in contact with today. While chatting over dinner, I noticed he had tons of flags lying around and asked him why he had so many flags in his home. His response was heartwarming.
“When I had an exchange student from Barcelona, he used to get homesick, and on certain holidays I would fly a US flag, but then I got a second flag and started flying the Spanish flag to help him. Now he was from Barcelona, which means he’s Catalon, so he didn’t really like the Spanish flag as much as the Catalon flag, but it worked out. Now to make the future exchange students feel welcome, I started buying their country’s flag and now have over 45 flags. So whoever comes to visit, I will fly their national flag.”
This led into conversations about his time hosting exchange students and what he loved most about it. He mentioned, ”I learned about the world through the exchange students.” Eventually deciding to stop living vicariously through his exchange students, he embarked on his own journey across the world. He was 45 when he first set out to find a job abroad. He eventually settled in Liberia working as the speech writer for the President of Liberia and then as the Lutheran Missionary for Phebe Hospital.
“I was in Liberia for 15 years. 9 years as the Senior Adviser to the Minister of Health and then 5.5 years as the Lutheran Missionary at the Phebe Hospital. This was a country that when I arrived, it was in the 12th year of a 14 year civil war. During the 5.5 years I was at the hospital, we evacuated 3 times. The hospital was overrun. It was a 200 bed hospital. We averaged a census of about 250 people a night in the hospital, so people sort of stuck two in a bed, even under the beds. The pediatric ward had children in it and we had regular beds that we would lay 3 kids sideways in, but they were so malnourished. We never turned anyone away. We would always serve them, but it was tough. It was really tough. We had a malnutrition ward where we would take the kids. They were only skin over bones, there was no muscle, there was nothing. And so I think it was like January or February, we had an outbreak of measles that went through that ward and I think we lost about 10 or 11 kids a night. It was terrible. I had mass graves dug, so that we could bury people on a daily basis.”
The stories he shared of his time in Africa were heartbreaking, yet captivating and showed the strength of humanity. The conversation then turned from his time in Africa to his time volunteering for the American Red Cross.
“The most rewarding event that I ever participated in with the Red Cross was the day I got a call and they wanted a Red Cross relocation officer, which was what I was doing, and they said, ‘we have a family photo album with wedding pictures and all this other stuff for this woman. We assume she left it on the bus when she was evacuated from New Orleans.’ But they didn’t know where she was. So the Red Cross has a family reunification unit. I worked with that and I found this woman, got a phone number and called her. I said who I was and said, ‘they have found a photo album that has your name in it, do you know about the photo album?’ The woman started crying and said that was the only thing she had left other than the clothes on her back when she evacuated New Orleans and somehow it got left on the bus.”
We decided to take a stroll along the beach and while doing so, I learned of more stories from his travels abroad.
“One of the most enjoyable meals I’ve ever had in my life was just north of Sicily, on the island of Vulcano. It was a small restaurant across from the place I was staying in. It probably had 8 or 9 tables and 6 of the tables were pushed together for a family that was eating. I was alone at a single table and before my food came, they waved me over to join them at their table. I spoke no Italian, they spoke no English. But it was one of the most enjoyable conversations I’ve ever had and what I found was, the reason for meals in Italy is for family and friends and good food is just expected. I probably laughed more during that meal than any other meal but it was great.”
“I like to talk, but I have learned that you’ve got to listen. It is so important. Even if you want to influence a situation in which you assume you know what is best, you must listen first or else no one’s going to be influenced by you.”
Staying with strangers may seem daunting at first, but after arriving at Bill’s home, I knew this was going to be an eye opening experience. There was a difference in age of about 50 years or so, but after a few minutes of conversation our age differences suddenly melted away as we exchanged stories about life. If there’s any lesson you should take away from Bill’s story, it’s this. It’s not too late to pursue your dreams and live the life you’ve always dreamed of. Bill was 45 when he first started traveling the world and to this day he’s still going strong. He loves planning trips and meeting new people, something I found out when he took me in with such kindness and treated me as a five star guest in his home. Keep in mind, these people don’t know me, but welcomed me with such hospitality, going out of their way to accommodate a total stranger. If that doesn’t reflect the couchsurfing community, I don’t know what does.