Next stop: Malawi

After completing his master’s degree this spring, Kentwood grad Tyler Weinbrecht is headed to Malawi for six months with Construction for Change

When Tyler Weinbrecht thinks about his family’s reaction to the news that he is moving to Malawi for six months to work for a nonprofit, he can’t help but laugh.

He told his mom — who thought he said Mali — over the phone  and she soon after sent him an email with travel warnings that have been issued for the country across the continent from Malawi.

After he told her that it was in fact Malawi, not Mali, she did some more research and said that maybe she would come visit him after all.

“I think that sums up the whole thing when you tell people you’re moving to Malawi for six months,” he said.

Generally, he said, people have one of two reactions: enthusiasm or caution.

He has also found that when he tells people they often don’t know how to spell it, let alone know where it is.

Weinbrecht, who graduated from Kentwood High School in 2008, is headed to the small South African nation that is bordered by Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique, as a Change Fellow with Construction for Change, a Kirkland based nonprofit.

Three engineering students at the University of Washington started the organization with the goal of building much needed infrastructure in the developing world.

According to the Construction for Change website, “Core to our mission is training and employing local workers, as well as using native materials, ensuring that every project supports the regional economy.”

The group builds schools, hospitals and community centers, among other structures, then hands them over to partners who run the facilities. In six years Construction for Change built 10 facilities on four continents.

CfC’s next batch of projects will be completed in conjunction with the 30/30 Project, which is a partnership between Ryan Lewis, his mother Julie Lewis and Macklemore.

Julie Lewis founded the 30/30 Project as a way to give back and raise awareness of HIV/AIDS in light of her 30th anniversary of living with HIV.

Julie Lewis was infected by a blood transfusion after giving birth to her oldest daughter. She wasn’t diagnosed until many years later, and at the time the prognosis for long-term survival was grim.

“To honor the thirty years Julie has been a survivor, the Lewis family is raising funds to build medical centers worldwide that will stand strong for at least thirty years,” the 30/30 Project section of the CfC website says.

A fundraising campaign to officially launch the project and raise the funds for the first health center, to be located in Neno District, Malawi, raised over $150,000 — enough for the Malawi project and approximately half of what is needed for the next project in Kenya.

The Malawi project is where Weinbrecht comes in. He saw a posting for fellowships with Construction for Change back in December. At the time he was working on finishing his Master of Science in structural engineering at Stanford — he graduated this spring — and decided to apply.

He originally heard about CfC from a friend on Facebook who was interning for the organization and invited their friends to like the page if they wanted to know more.

“I was like, ‘yeah, I am interested,’” Weinbrecht said.

Weinbrecht’s interest in construction started at an early age — his dad works in construction and Weinbrecht worked summer construction jobs as a teen.

“It always intrigued me: how things went together,” Weinbrecht said.

That gelled with his interests in math and science, a penchant for asking questions and — this latest project in particular — with his desire to help people.

Weinbrecht is already working on learning the local language, Chichewa, and in June he’ll participate in a week of training before heading to Malawi to work as a project manager on the health center project.

Two other Change Fellows will be going to Malawi, although they won’t all be working on the same project.

As graduation approached, Weinbrecht said he was looking for a chance to help people, to travel, and something that wouldn’t require a long term commitment.

“I saw this and everything kind of fit,” Weinbrecht said.

His work in Malawi will include hiring local foremen and overseeing the construction process, quality control and also ensuring that funds are used judiciously and efficiently.

“I’ve always enjoyed helping people,” Weinbrecht said.

Life has been a whirlwind of traveling for Weinbrecht since he graduated in March with trips to Mexico and Indonesia, and the reality of his upcoming move to the other side of the world is just starting to sink in.

“It was in the back of my head: I’m going to Malawi…but I haven’t had time to think about it,” Weinbrecht said.

Weinbrecht said he is most looking forward to seeing the country and meeting the people.

“I think that’s one of the coolest things about traveling — getting to meet people,” Weinbrecht said.