Rye M. Barcott 01

Distinguished Young Alumni Award

Rye M. Barcott ’01

Like many Marines on active duty in Fallujah, Capt. Rye Barcott ’01 would write home whenever he got the chance. He wrote to his parents; he wrote to his girlfriend. But unlike his fellow Marines, he also used his precious downtime to stay actively involved in the nonprofit organization he’d founded as a UNC senior.

From Iraq, Rye would handwrite postcards to donors, keeping them up to date on Carolina for Kibera’s youth sports program, its health clinic, its girls’ center, its community cleanup projects—all its efforts to forestall ethnic violence in Kibera, a slum of Nairobi. He’d stay on top of fundraising efforts. He’d make phone calls back to Chapel Hill, where volunteers run an office that supports the work in Kenya.

“I would get a call from an unknown number and, sure enough, it would be Rye calling on a satellite phone. I think it helped him take his mind off his surroundings when he served in Iraq to focus so much time and energy when he had free time on Carolina for Kibera,” said Kim Chapman ’00, a master’s degree candidate in UNC’s School of Public Health who leads the nonprofit’s board of directors.

A welcome distraction it may have been, but using his off hours this way—especially when he saw life and death situations on a daily basis—also speaks volumes about Rye’s work ethic and dedication to duty. Chapman says those characteristics are rooted in his upbringing and his military training. She explained that his parents, both Carolina graduates, always encouraged him to ask difficult, thoughtful questions about what’s going on in the world around us; that he took from that an intense curiosity to understand, to probe and to question, especially issues having to do with injustice.

Rye also wanted an opportunity to demonstrate that military personnel are not just out there in combat but are committed to working in the communities in which they serve.

His counterterrorism mission in Iraq increased his belief that Carolina for Kibera was essential work, that it was imperative to find innovative ways to prevent violence and to help communities develop and improve themselves. He came back from Iraq determined to raise a $2 million endowment for Carolina for Kibera.

Imagine taking on such a significant fund raising campaign while pursuing two graduate degrees at Harvard, one in public policy, one in business administration. This is the guy Kim Chapman remembers seeing at 1:30 in the morning with a bandana on his head, shirtless, jogging down the street carrying a cinderblock; the guy whom anthropology professor Jim Peacock remembers heading out not long ago to meet potential donors in two North Carolina cities and then drive to New York City to meet with a third; the guy who came back from his first, Burch Fellowship-funded trip to Kibera with malaria and went straight into officer training boot camp.

“He goes to Kibera, one of the worst slums in the world with thieves and horrible poverty and open sewers to learn about it for an honors thesis,” Peacock recalls. “Two months later, he comes home and not only has he learned about it but he has organized a youth soccer league and cleanup teams and basically created hope. He comes out at the end of the summer with the seeds of an organization. Then the next thing, it’s a foundation, he has a board, and he’s made contact with influential mentors and backers and supporters from around the country, including at UNC.”

By its fifth anniversary, the community-led Carolina for Kibera was serving ten thousand people.

Giving Carolina students the opportunity to volunteer in Kibera is one of Rye’s ongoing goals. With their participation—and the initiative of Kibera’s residents—the youth center now has a computer lab, a community band, theatre performances, a newsletter, a community library. Rye hopes that Carolina for Kibera will continue to grow, include more residents, and serve as a model of youth-led, community-led development.

Others think it’s already a model. Last November, Carolina for Kibera was honored as one of 10 “heroes of global health” at the Time magazine Global Health Summit in New York. In August, U.S. Senator Barack Obama visited Carolina for Kibera while he was in Kenya. Such programs, he said, are seeds that can grow into something important for Kibera’s residents.

“You start seeing program like the one we saw today expand, and over time you see more pathways out of Kibera,” Obama told the Associated Press. “More people are able to grow businesses. More young people are able to take advantage of education.”

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