Sloane Berrent knows she’s no Mother Teresa or Dalai Lama. Still, the humanitarian title suits her just fine.
“To be a humanitarian means giving other people back a piece of their humanity,” said the 30-year-old Pittsburgh native, who just returned to her hometown after a year of world travel, and an unconventional birthday party.
Make that, parties.
Berrent and her friend Doug Campbell, who also turned 30 this year, decided to embark on a seven-day, seven-city, seven-party birthday extravaganza, extending from coast to coast.
The aim of the celebrations reached far beyond fun and festivities, though. They were out to raise funds to fight malaria in the West African nation of Ghana.
Berrent and Campbell partnered with the nonprofit Netting Nations to raise $20,000 from their parties, 100 percent of which will be used to purchase mosquito nets to fight malaria.
Malaria continues to be one of the worst killers in the world, although the disease is virtually nonexistent in the United States and Europe. It is estimated that between 1 million and 3 million people die from malaria each year, 90 percent of those deaths occurring in sub-Saharan Africa.
Because the mosquitoes that carry malaria only bite at night, sleeping under a net drastically decreases the rate of the disease.
Although the journey led Berrent to become a soldier in the war against malaria, it wasn’t something she planned to do when she left her California home last year.
She was working at a tech start-up in Santa Monica, using the Internet to raise funds for nonprofits, when the economy crashed last fall, downsizing her out of a job.
Unsure of her next move, she gave up her rent-controlled apartment, sold most of her possessions and decided to explore the world and “try to give back, and just see where it would lead.”
By mid-December, she found herself driving cross-country back to Pittsburgh to spend the winter holidays with her mother, Barbara Mistick of Squirrel Hill — the president and director of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh — and her three older sisters.
On Dec. 27, 2008, she left for South America.
“I had a one-way ticket to Buenos Aires,” she recalled. “I was in such a tough place (emotionally), so I asked myself, where is a place I always wanted to go?”
Despite the fact that she does not speak Spanish, and did not know a soul in the country, the answer was Argentina.
She spent her time in South America on an “adrenaline rush,” she said, running several miles a day, and “jumping off bridges” (bungee jumping, to be precise). After two months, she had made a decision.
“I realized I wanted to give back and to be in the field,” she said.
She headed to New Orleans, where she volunteered to tutor children and worked in a homeless shelter.
Berrent then applied for, and was awarded, a Kiva fellowship that took her to Manila to work with various microfinance institutions, providing financial services to the poor.
“In Manila, I lived in poverty,” she said, recalling the base conditions she experienced, including bucket showers.
After three months in the Philippines, Berrent traveled alone to Cambodia, Thailand and Burma, all the while pondering what was next.
“I knew my 30th birthday was coming up, and I decided I wanted to inspire other people to give back,” she said. “I wanted to make my birthday a platform for social change, and to let people know that it’s about giving, not getting.”
She came up with the seven cities, seven parties, one cause idea, and pitched it to Campbell, who immediately said, “I’m in.”
The two enlisted the help of friends and acquaintances in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Orleans, Chicago, Miami and Seattle to host the parties, spreading the word by mouth, and by social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.
Attendance at the bashes, which ran from Oct. 3 to 9, varied, but ranged from about 35 people in Miami to more than 200 in Los Angeles.
After raising the $20,000, which will purchase about 5000 mosquito nets, Berrent is now, again, in the process in deciding what’s next. Although, she suspects she may be headed back to New Orleans.
“I am transitioning from this amazing year where I rediscovered humanity,” she said. “A friend recently introduced me as ‘my friend the humanitarian. That’s what I’m working toward.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com or 412-687-1263.