Rachel von Niederhausern has always had a passion for humanitarian work, but she wasn’t sure what she would do with an MBA until she realized she was meant to be a social entrepreneur. “I care about social change and I love serving people,” explains Rachel. She has co-founded two non-profit organizations and is now on the board of Family Humanitarian Experience, which empowers communities of developing countries through village-driven, sustainable projects. Rachel talks here about how she’s managed to meld her education, talents, and interests with her family life, including how she encourages her four children to discover joy in service, and how her own life of service helps her find peace of mind.
How did you first get started with humanitarian work?
It’s definitely always been something that’s been in my heart and that I’ve been aware of from a very young age. I remember that even as a child, I would notice the person at a party or somewhere who might not have the most friends. Then when I was around fifteen years old, I read the book Les Miserables. The story of freedom and how someone comes to freedom through love and God’s love for them had such a profound impact on me. Ever since then, I knew that my purpose was to serve people.
I continued to notice people in my neighborhood or different places and strived to help as much as possible. But then I started volunteering in more specific ways. About ten years ago, my husband Steve and I went and served a meal at a homeless shelter in Salt Lake when our oldest was just a baby. Going there for the first time opened my eyes to a bigger community of need. I realized that where we lived, in northern Utah, there wasn’t something like that going on, providing an atmosphere of love where people could come if they didn’t have enough money to buy food, or a place where they could go to feel friends or community support. That experience led me into some other projects.
You’ve helped start two non-profit humanitarian organizations. Tell us about those.
After serving at the homeless shelter in Salt Lake, my brother and I looked into doing something similar in Cache Valley [Utah]. At the time, there was a meal for the homeless at a restaurant on Thanksgiving, but nothing at Christmas. For me, family dinner time is the best! My cherished memories. When people gather around the table and eat and laugh and share love, it’s heaven on earth. We wanted to provide that, so we put together a Christmas meal. The response was overwhelming. Over 200 volunteers came and sacrificed their Christmas Day to serve at this meal.
My brother knew my desire to do humanitarian work and to have a non-profit. So for my birthday in 2008 he gave me papers saying that he had started a non-profit for us. That was the best birthday ever! I couldn’t believe that he had made my dream a reality. The funny thing is, we had no clue what to do with a non-profit from there.
Our eyes and our ears started to perk up to different things going on around us. After the first Christmas meal with our non-profit, the pastor at the First Presbyterian Church approached us and said, “Where I lived back East, there were community meals like this once or twice a month or more. Maybe we should consider doing something like that here in Cache Valley.” So we started looking into it, and the program turned into Loaves & Fishes. The meal is served twice a month now, feeding over 200 people each time. I’m one of eight people who sit on the board of directors and oversee things. It’s amazing, all the civic and religious groups who volunteer to organize meals. Students from Utah State University; local businesses; the Presbyterian, Catholic, Lutheran, and Episcopal churches; LDS wards; the Buddhist sanga; Bahá’í groups.
Each group coordinates and gathers volunteers, then people from our board help them plan the menu, give suggestions, gather food, and take it to the kitchen so it’s ready for the volunteers to prep. I don’t live in Cache Valley anymore, so I go up when I can, take part in meetings through Skype, and help do computer work from home. I can’t say enough how God’s hand is apparent. He put the right people with the right strengths and ideas together to make that project go and keep it together. It’s really God’s work.
Now you’re also on the board of Family Humanitarian Experience (FHe) and have taken your kids on trips to Guatemala to do service work. How did you get involved with that and what are your responsibilities as an executive director?
After we started our non-profit, I saw a trip to Guatemala through Choice Humanitarian. The volunteers utilize professional skills and do a lot of education and knowledge transfer on these trips. My brother had served his mission in Guatemala, and so we decided to go on one of these trips with a sister of ours. While we were there, I taught a business economic workshop to 30 women. During the trip I felt like, “This is what I am meant to do!” But the only thing I needed for my joy to be complete was to have my husband and children there with me. So I told the founder, “If they ever do this for families, I hoped to be involved.” Six months later, he called and said they were ready to start family expeditions. Did Steve and I want to be a part of it? Of course I jumped at that chance. That’s how Family Humanitarian begin. We strive to help create prosperity in first- and third-world countries. It’s so beautiful, taking people from here to help there and then seeing how the people there change our lives.
As leaders of FHe we coordinate the expeditioners into groups for our medical team, our education committee, our agriculture committee, or our building project. We also handle phone calls and emails back and forth to coordinate logistics with our in-country director, as well as working with the expeditioners here by doing orientation calls to prepare them for the trips.
What type of work is done on FHe expeditions?
We want to do projects that are driven by the villages. We started by looking into what and where the needs were and what work we could help with. We had a connection in Guatemala and he turned into our in-country director. He is a native Guatemalan who was an architect for the LDS Church for a long time, and saw many rural villages that have basic needs like decent living shelters or good sanitation. Because government-run schooling there is so poor, children end formal schooling at an early age or don’t have opportunities for education. So that is a blessing to have someone there on the ground, knowing the people, asking the questions.
Like I said, the projects are driven by the local people so they’re telling us what they want to learn about and what projects would benefit their community. That usually involves a lot of teaching. We set up medical and dental clinics to train rural health care workers. We have doctors and dentists from our expedition see people, make assessments, take blood pressures, and work on teeth extractions, but also train the Guatemalans so that they’re learning along the way. There are also education workshops with teachers from our group teaching their teachers professional development and classroom management. We do business and economic training too. Right now it’s teaching a lot about budgeting and saving, and how to help them learn how to spread their money out evenly over twelve months, because they get paid only a few specific times of the year after harvesting their coffee, cardamom, and corn. Finally, we do building projects. Last time we worked on a secondary school, because there aren’t a lot of them there. There are primary schools, which end at about sixth grade.
I coordinated the teacher education and business workshops. I helped teach and made sure that our teachers on the expedition knew where to go and that they had the supplies they needed. I also worked with the locals to make sure the workshops were set up.
For the upcoming expedition this summer we’re talking about a project to help people get wood-burning stoves in their homes. Now they just cook on open fires, which is really harsh on their health. Also, more building projects. There’s a medical clinic there and they’re working on adding on a wing for infant and child care.
How are children involved in the expeditions? How did you prepare yours to go?
The children work on the building projects. The older youth also got to work in the medical clinic and helped a lot with triage, crowd control, and handing out medication. With the dentists they got to pull teeth. We also set up a youth program so they had a lot of cultural experiences and got to see women weaving, making tortillas, and different things like that. Also, just the simple opportunities for the kids to interact with the village children—to laugh, play soccer, and have fun.
We took three of our kids on our most recent trip over Christmas. They were [ages] four, seven, and nine. To prepare, we would take all of our kids to the homeless shelter and serve people on the streets with volunteers from K2 Church. We also went around the neighborhood to do some fundraising. We took around letters and a little treat, and our oldest explained what she was doing and asked the neighbors if they had any work she could do to earn some money. She also held a few cooking camps at our house, which was fun. With the younger ones, we prepared a lot by talking with them, explaining what we would be doing, looking at pictures, talking about how this was our Christmas, and explaining the meaning and joy of service.
What changes have you seen in the villages since the first time you went?
To be honest, the change is very gradual. This time we were working in the Senahú area. I noticed that some high-quality learning is taking place with the youth in that secondary school. It was also really exciting on one trip to see a woman who I taught on my first trip come and tell us that she had worked on what she had learned and it had really impacted her life. She was able to save money to send her kids to school and have a more stable year by spreading her money out evenly.
You have a background in public relations and an MBA. How have you used your education to pursue your goals and interests?
I’m so grateful for my education and for all the opportunities we have to be educated here in the U.S. It’s helped me so much. I’ve always loved people and I’ve always loved business. When I first went into PR I didn’t have a full idea of what it entailed. The skills of writing, being familiar with a computer, are very handy, as well as knowing how to give a presentation. My MBA honed those skills even more, with numbers, accounting, spreadsheets, assessments, and how to organize groups. What’s always fascinated me about business is how large groups of people create things, wealth or health or whatever they want to create, through marketing and other channels. But because my ultimate goal was being a mother, I didn’t know how that was all going to come together. I didn’t really ever plan on using my MBA for a career. But then after the very first expedition to Guatemala with my brother, I read an amazing book about microlending by Muhammad Yunus, called Banker to the Poor. The story is of him noticing need, what he did, how that helped inspire so many, and the programs that have been created that changed so many lives and communities. He talked about this term called “social entrepreneurship.” When I read that I thought, “This is why I got an MBA! That is me! I care about social change and I love serving people. I am a social entrepreneur.”
How do you find opportunities in your everyday life for you and your children to be involved in humanitarian work or community service?
I love the quote by Mother Teresa, when asked at her Nobel Prize ceremony, about how to create world peace. She said you start by going home and loving your family. I think that’s so right on. I would even take it one more step and say start by loving yourself and then those things just open up. There’s no scientific approach to it, really. When I was newly married with my first baby, I wanted service opportunities, so I prayed for them. I used my car as a service mobile. If I saw someone hauling groceries, or someone elderly walking along, if I felt inspired to do so, I would roll down my window and ask, “Do you need a ride?” I’ve met so many amazing people that way. That’s a perfect thing since my kids are usually in the car and they notice it. Now that they’re older, they say, “Hey, let’s stop!” I’m so glad God’s helped me to do that.
There are always neighbors who need meals. I love to cook, so I take meals and have my kids help me deliver them. Church also provides so many service opportunities. Beyond that, there are volunteer centers in most communities, or big organizations like the Red Cross or the Mormon Helping Hands. Just call and ask about volunteer opportunities. It’s been amazing living near Salt Lake now and going down to the shelters more, making friends, getting more involved in the homeless population. Even just going down, walking around and exposing the kids to something different than our little happy bubble. There are always opportunities right by us. That’s the beautiful thing. If you put it out there and you start thinking about it and praying about it, God will open up the way for you to do it. It’s not to say there aren’t times when you wonder how it will happen when you are totally out of your comfort zone. I’ve had some sleepless nights wondering how a project would come together or how the funding would come through. But God always assures me it’s in His hands and that I just need to trust and listen.
What barriers do you see that prevent people from being more involved in their communities?
I think we’re content—which isn’t necessarily bad, but we’re often content to live our life and have fear of reaching out to someone we don’t know. Maybe not knowing where to look, or not really looking. Because if you’re looking, you’ll find chances to serve. Money is also something people have mentioned to us. “We could never do that because of the cost.” Money is nothing to God. God will provide the way. You can do fundraising and people in your own community want to support you in that. Some people can donate money, some people can donate their time, and some people want to donate both. You just never know where someone’s at. People in our neighborhood are so happy to help my children have those experiences. God will provide the money in miraculous ways.
What do you hope that your children gain from these experiences, whether close to home or far away?
My ultimate desire and dream is to have freedom in the world, and to have everyone have the joy of being free. To have good health, good educational opportunities, and to be able to live their own truth. I hope by me living my passion, that my children are inspired and motivated to also live their truth. It doesn’t matter what that is. Each person has their own unique gift to give to the world, and I hope that they are empowered to do that. Especially as they see other cultures and people who have different life experiences. That’s the second thing: I want them to see people who have many different life experiences so that they know that they’re okay, no matter what. You are loveable and you can be loved no matter what has happened to you or where you live. God loves us all equally and wants the same blessings for all of us.
How do you balance your time between motherhood, helping manage organizations, volunteer work, and your other responsibilities?
It’s just all messy! I don’t know much these days about balance. I have learned, however, about priorities. Serving my family is my top priority, and my life’s work of serving humanity as a disciple of Jesus Christ is my priority as well. And there’s time to do both. But at different times I might be spending more actual physical time with one or the other. Loaves & Fishes doesn’t take too much time now because it’s running well and I’m good at delegating. With Family Humanitarian, if there’s an expedition coming up, a few months beforehand I’ll spend five to ten hours per week. It’s not overboard because the work is spread out over many people.
I’ve learned over the past few years that you have to stay in the present moment. When you’re with your children and doing your family work, there can be such joy. And then when we’re coordinating these projects, that can be also joyful. But there are also times, of course, when I wonder where I left my brain. I’ve got spit-up running down my shirt and my house isn’t spotless. But it’s all good and real.
I’ve let go. I lived a lot of my life trying to be perfect, and that caused a lot pain. Now I don’t worry. That’s the main thing, I think, about finding balance. Don’t worry, just trust. Because each day God will show you what is needful. I strive to stay as close to God possible. That’s how I find peace. I will go by myself in the car and just sit—by the temple, or overlooking the valley. Or I’ll sleep sometimes on my porch underneath a tree there. I take little mini-retreats to be with myself and with God.
What changes have you seen in yourself as a result of these experiences over the years?
The biggest one is more peace of mind. These projects have helped still the demons in my head and keep them at bay a majority of the time. In the Mormon culture, we grapple with the need or want to be perfect. I think a lot of people worry about what they’re doing or not doing, if they’ve made mistakes, or if they’ve done enough. My perfectionistic tendencies caused me a lot of pain—living in the past or living in the future, just the worry. My mind would constantly beat me up. It was painful and there were some pretty rough years. Then one day I just realized I needed to rely fully on God and his mind, his ways. Every day is a new day to God. You could have been the lowest of low, done the vilest of things, and if you are willing and wanting to repent and turn to him, he will be there with open arms, ready.
This work has gotten me to let go of perfection. Seeing people and places that are so far out of my comfort zone have helped me to stretch and grow and realize my capabilities, and with God’s help, what is possible. I let go of control and I’ve been so much happier since. God has showed me that my dreams and my passion and my family are all one beautiful circle.
People are made for love and light. God is so mindful. He loves all his children, no matter where you are, and if you tap into that love then you can’t help but start seeing others who need love. But it has to start with yourself, and then with your family, and it’s all one circle of love. Let it be messy, and let it be real, and just don’t worry. Don’t even try to be perfect! It’s no fun! Rely on the Atonement and on Heavenly Father’s perfect plan and then love and joy will flow so much better.
Rachel von Niederhausern
Marital status: Married
Occupation: Mother/social entrepreneur
Schools Attended: Utah State University
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “Amazing Grace”
On The Web: Global Neighbors
Interview by Nollie Haws. Photos used with permission.