Near-death sparks climate project

Corrina Grace has turned her back on the corporate world to set up a college in Guatemala where she hopes to teach Central American communities to adapt to climate change. This inspiring and energetic 27-year-old woman was working in her dream job, an adviser on sustainability and climate change issues to Macquarie Bank, but a near-death experience brought on by complications from a blood clot forced her to reassess her life.

“What happened for me was a clarity. Before this happened I could never see where I was going to be six months ahead... Managers told me I was one of the hardest people to manage because I didn't have that (career path) vision. That kind of pervaded my whole life... (While I was recovering) I had this clarity of vision that I wanted to give back in a bigger way. I'm privileged enough to have all this knowledge, how do I start to give that back?”

Corrina grew up at Jiggi and attended Richmond River High School before going to Sydney to study mechanical engineering. She quickly found she was eminently employable in the corporate sector and ended up working for Macquarie Bank as an engineering projects manager, which meant designing new offices all around the world for them. She was earning more than all her friends and was regularly travelling to Johannesburg, the USA, Asia and New Zealand. But it wasn't satisfying her soul.

“I felt incredibly privileged to be where I was... but, for me, it was no more than I was born in the right place at the right time and lucky enough to be Australian. I decided that I wanted to volunteer and that was the first time I found Guatemala. I tried to go away for three months, thinking I would get it out of my system, feel good about myself and come back. But that didn't really happen. I ended up there for about a year that first time... Getting three months leave without pay wasn't really the done thing (at Macquarie). It was all about everyone being there in the millionaires' factory, churning away. Resigning was an even stranger thing to do. People couldn't understand why you would leave to go and work for nothing.”

But that's exactly what she did do, working with an organisation called the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group.

“Their mission is about bringing infrastructure to the rural poor through ways that are environmentally sound. Appropriate technology is really about using locally available materials, is economically affordable for the market for which it is intended and is environmentally friendly. We were designing different types of systems and teaching a local business how to build them so that they could then sell that on... After a couple of months I ended up taking over the running of operations in Guatemala and stayed there for 11 months.

“Coming from a corporate world, there were a lot of things I saw that didn't make sense. One being the relatively inefficient ways a lot of not-for-profit organisations run. They are like these black holes of money. I think there is something psychological in these organisations calling themselves non-profit, and as soon as they do that, they start to operate that way, whereas they should be operating leaner and more efficiently than any other business. The other problem I saw was projects that give things away to villages... It's very much like 'we have the solution and this is what you need'. If somebody's going to give you something you'll take it, but there's no buy-in and there's no ownership and if it breaks you can throw it in the back corner and not worry about it.”

Corrina was working in a bar at nights in order to support her volunteer work. After nearly a year away, two things brought her back to Australia. First, there was a call from Macquarie offering to fly her back to work on climate change and sustainability projects, and then there was the fact that her arm was turning blue and spongy.

“I'd started taking aspirin to thin the blood and was planning to come home,” she said. “When I saw a doctor (in Australia) they put me straight in to get an ultrasound and I was booked into hospital the next day.”

Corrina had called in to work to say she was going to have a local anaesthetic operation and should be back in two days. But the operation didn't go well and she had to undergo another operation to have half a rib removed to make room for a blood clot. It seemed to go okay, but after a few days in hospital she got up to go to the bathroom and saw her sheets were covered in blood. Doctors were called in the middle of the night and Corrina described how a tingling sensation in her fingers developed into a swelling that moved up her arm, across her chest and into her neck in about 45 seconds.

“I looked up at the doctor and said, 'Am I going to die?' and he looked at me and said, 'I don't know'.”

When she got out of hospital she slipped a disc in her back and was unable to walk. She was put on an overnight train to Lismore so her parents could look after her. Then, after recovering and finally getting back to work, she had a reaction to the blood thinning drug she was on and her housemate found her throwing up blood in the bathroom.

“That whole time when I was supposed to be going back to work at Macquarie, I kept thinking, 'I'll give it one more try'. But something was stopping me and there was that North Coast attitude of 'it's not meant to be'. But I wasn't listening.

“That work meant a lot to me... Environment had been a bit of a dirty word in the department where I worked before I left. It was like, 'We don't do that. We are dirty and we don't want to look like hypocrites'.”

The brief for her new job was greening up their operations, looking at their carbon footprint and developing long-term strategies.

“Everybody was starting to talk about those things. I think Westpac had announced their carbon neutral commitment and all of a sudden Macquarie was saying 'we can't even speak this language'. So it was 'come and help us and tell us what to do' because they didn't really know... If we are going to take our society in the right direction towards addressing climate change, money makes the world go around. We need to make sure the people who have the money are on board.”

During that traumatic three-month period when she was in and out of hospital and feeling very emotional Corinna booked herself a one-way ticket to the USA and developed a plan to go back to Central America.

She said she was driven by a sense of privilege in her own life.

“Through this whole process the thing that stuck out for me was although I had been overseas for 11 months and I didn't have any money, I had medical treatment when I needed it. I had a place to stay, I had everything I needed... imagine someone who was born in a much poorer country who wouldn't get that.”

She also realised how important family was and believed she could spend more time with her family working in the non-profit sector than she could in the corporate world.

“I was so healthy when I was in Guatemala. When I came back here life was just crazy and all about popping pills... In my head I knew I was making the right decision. My parents were very nervous, but I just said I know it's going to be fine... and the day I arrived all the pain and complications were gone. For me it has been a very personal journey. I suddenly did the right thing, I listened to my body.”

She bought a car in San Francisco and headed south without any clear plan in mind. The region was experiencing the worst drought in recorded history and she said as she drove from the USA through the less affluent areas of Central America, she could see climate change was starting to really affect people's lives. By the time she reached Antigua in Guatemala her vague ideas had crystallised into a pretty clear idea of what she wanted to do, which was to build a centre for climate change education and be an example of sustainable development.

“How do we address the fact that climate change is a social injustice and it's affecting the poorest of the poor now? And affecting them in a way that means the loss of lives, the loss of livelihood and the loss of future? I know ways that can build resilience that are environmentally friendly and ecologically sustainable, but how do we transfer that knowledge. The first stage is education.

“The people being affected by climate change now have spent thousands of years adapting to their land. A lot are indigenous people who have always lived on the land and they don't realise that what is happening to their land is happening a bit faster than they'd be used to. So how do we give them a go? How do we at least tell them that climate change is coming? (Project Seres) will showcase a range of appropriate technologies, natural building methods, different types of agriculture like agro-forestry, permaculture, things like that, so people discover inside themselves a need rather than being told what they need. Then they can see a solution and drive that project... I didn't want to re-invent the wheel and there is a lot of non-profits out there who are working in various areas... People doing water filters or solar or whatever, so it was more about how do we make more effective use of the existing networks. I see the college as being like a hub.”

In about eight months Corinna has been able to partner with a Canadian organisation, Project Somos, which plans to build a village for orphaned and abandoned children in Guatemala. Together they have made an offer on a 135-acre site and launched a capital fundraising campaign. So confident are they of the site and the synergy between the two organisations that there are plans for coffee, cocoa and vanilla crops being hatched already, along with plans for getting international visitors to come and pay to stay and volunteer and learn.

“For the first time in my life I know I'm going to be here for at least 15 to 20 years and I'm happy to plant the seed now.”

For more information about Project Seres and to follow their progress, go to www.projectse

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