Marius Van Der Colff is in the business of connecting people. Right now, he’s working to forge connections between Summit County and South Africa.
Van Der Colff’s method of connection is a little different — and quite a bit larger — than most. He uses shipping containers.
The containers are the calling card of Cargo of Dreams, a national nonprofit founded by Van Der Colff and several friends. Communities within the United States fix up 20- and 40-foot containers, fill them with building materials and school supplies and send them to needy locations in third-world countries across the globe. That’s exactly what Van Der Colff plans to do in Summit County.
Cargo of Dreams
Initially, Van Der Colff’s plan was to help out preschools abroad by sending shoeboxes filled with supplies and goodies. But that wasn’t quite enough. Then, while traveling through South Africa, he saw a school made out of a converted shipping container and gained a flash of inspiration.
“I think I’ll just upsize their box a little bit,” he said with a laugh.
Upsize is definitely the right word. Instead of sending over boxes filled with supplies, Van Der Colff decided to send a box that could be used to house those supplies as well.
Cargo of Dreams projects typically have five steps. First, the shipping container is delivered to its U.S. location. Once it arrives, it is fixed up and filled up. Crews work to clean it inside and out, remodeling the interior to include things like cabinets, lights and toilets. The outside of the container is sanded, whitewashed and then painted with bright colors and designs by volunteers. The container is then filled with supplies, including building materials for the final construction.
Once full, the container is shipped to its destination, where a concrete foundation has been poured. After unloading, the container steps into its new role as preschool or clinic, with the addition of roof and brick walls.
While Cargo of Dreams provides the container and everything within it, the recipients’ local community has its own responsibilities and must raise funds to provide the concrete foundation, walls and labor for the roof.
“It’s not a handout, it’s a kick start,” Van Der Colff said. “We’re not going to do everything for them.”
The purpose of this, he added, is to give the local community a sense of responsibility and accountability in regards to the new structure.
Since its inception, Cargo of Dreams has sent containers to South Africa, Malawi, Rwanda, Nepal, India and Paraguay, among others.
While the end result of a preschool or medical clinic is important, Van Der Colff is sure to stress that the act of coming together and creating the container is really the essence of the project.
“The container is simply a tool and it’s a common denominator that connects two worlds together,” he explained. “When a community works to put together one of the Cargo of Dreams shipping containers, they’re working together.”
There are two ways to help with a Cargo of Dreams container — off-site and on-site. Off-site, people can help with the school supplies that will go inside. The Cargo of Dreams website gives a list of do-it-yourself projects, such as creating a weekly schedule board for the classroom. Van Der Colff encourages putting personal work into it. Rather than buying something, make it yourself, he suggests. Choose something you enjoy doing and add a personal touch.
Van Der Colff said that he hopes involvement in a project like Cargo of Dreams will act as a catalyst, sparking participants’ interest in further volunteer work with other organizations.
“In the process, hopefully you’ll light a fire,” he said.
The best part about working on the shipping containers, particularly painting the outside, he said, is being able to see and recognize that work once the container reaches its location.
“You want to see you make a difference,” he said. “Paint the tree and you’ll see it on the other side. You’ll see where the items go. When people see it here and they see it there later, that’s really powerful.”
Van Der Colff has lived in Summit County for two years now and said he is excited to finally be starting another Cargo of Dreams project.
The container, which was just delivered Monday, is headed for the town of Potchefstroom, South Africa. It’s in the northern part of the country, near Johannesburg.
Local businesses have already signed on to help out, from painting supplies to construction help.
“It’s not something you get to do every day,” said Brett Confer, a local architect who is helping with the interior refurbishment.
Working with shipping containers is new for Confer and a challenge at first, but one he’s enjoyed.
“It’s about giving back,” he added. “That’s the interesting part.”
Anyone can help on the project, from donating supplies to painting the exterior, which will likely happen sometime in July. More information will be found on the organization’s Facebook page.
Van Der Colff is looking forward to seeing what Summit County can accomplish.
“Summit County is such an active community and there’s such a good heart for community activities,” he said.