1. How did you get connected to Sustainable Cambodia?
My wife, Susan Mastin, and I were co-founders, but our involvement included some serendipity. We were college-age during the Vietnam War era and aware of the Khmer Rouge genocide. So when a Gainesville friend started a small village school in Cambodia, we wanted to help. After a couple of years, it became clear that the families couldn’t keep their kids in school because of dysentery, malnutrition and the need for them to carry water and work in the fields. So we formally started the nonprofit and established our founding policy that we would have no international staff or overhead, relying solely on Cambodians to do the onsite work. We expanded the program to include village development, wells, latrines and sustainable
agriculture. Then we got Rotary involved, and it grew from our Gainesville club to more than 100 Rotary clubs around the world. And now, 19 years later, more than 10,000 Cambodian families have changed their lives, creating a sustainable quality of life for their children and neighbors. It’s been quite a ride.
2. When did you know you were in the right place?
I’d say that happens every time we’re onsite, where we’re surrounded by hundreds of enthusiastic, smiling children in our schools, all eager to learn. It doesn’t get any better than that.
3. Do you have a mentor?
Maybe not what others would call a typical mentor. But my wife has boundlessly sweet and loving energy, which has helped guide my life. And the Rotary 4-Way Test has been a guide for both of us. It goes like this: Of everything we think, say or do... 1) Is it the truth? 2) Is it fair to all concerned? 3) Will it build goodwill and better friendships? and 4) Will it be beneficial to all
concerned? That guide has been instrumental every day, both in Sustainable Cambodia and in my business and personal life.
4. How has Rotary impacted you?
Of course, that 4-Way Test has been impactful. But being connected to all the Rotarians in our community, and so many thousands of Rotarians around the world, all of them focused on helping to create a better world for all… that’s been quite an inspiration.
5. Do you have a saying or inspirational quote that you lead your life/organization/self with?
I've always loved Ben Franklin’s guidance that “Well done is better than well said.” And Martin Luther King Jr’s “Life’s most urgent question: What are you doing for others?”
6. Insights for others that want to serve others or do more in our community and around the world?
Our Rotary logo is “Service Above Self”. But that doesn’t mean “selfless service”. What I've learned is that once you get engaged in helping others, you get as much or more out of it as do those you are helping. It’s easy to think, “I don’t have time for that right now. I’ll do it later.” But I would say don’t delay. Start now. The benefits far outweigh the investment of your time.
1. How did you get connected to the Southern Sudan Healthcare Organization (SSHCO)?
I am a “lost boy” from South Sudan. I was orphaned at 6 years old and spent 10 years in a refugee camp in Kenya. I had no formal education and lived my life off survival skills. In 2001, the Samaritas sponsored me and over 3,889 other Sudanese refugees to come to the United States. Me and two other “lost boys” landed in Michigan and in foster care.
It was a new beginning for me. Once I settled in America, I started questioning myself. I had a home to stay at and ate 3 times a day, what is my purpose? I decided to educate myself, so then I could go back to South Sudan and help those who didn’t get a chance to come to the United States. I graduated high school and went to college. In 2008, while in college, I and a childhood friend and another “lost boy”, Lual Deng Awan formed the Southern Sudan Healthcare Organization (SSHCO).
2. When did you know you were in the right place?
The moment I stepped off the plane in America.
3. Have you had mentors?
I have had so many mentors. Getting my Ph.D. in Environmental & Global Health at the University of Florida (UF) really taught me the importance of mentors. My foster mom, Jane White, is a great mentor. She was always there for me, supporting my goals, and providing a sense of connection. Other mentors, I feel, came into my life at different times and different seasons and helped me all along my path.
4. Do you have a quote that directs your life?
Mathew 6: 33: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”
5. What impact has Rotary had in your life?
In 2020 a member of the Gainesville Rotary Club anonymously paid for my membership. I had a chance to see the impact of what they do, not only in our community but around the world. I then had an opportunity to go to the Rotary International Conference, in Houston, TX in 2022. I also had a chance to meet the President of Rotary International and I immediately knew my values aligned with Rotary’s 4 Way Test. In May 2023, I will be one of the keynote speakers at the Rotary District 6970 Conference & Training in St Augustine, Florida.
6. Any insights for others who want to make a difference in their community and the world?
Know your calling, your purpose, your skill set. There are so many needs locally and globally, and if you can, travel and go somewhere, I promise when you do, you will never come back the same.
Dr. Jacob Atem, CEO and Co-Founder of SSHCO, leads an organization that takes a comprehensive approach to addressing the challenges faced by South Sudan. SSHCO's six pillars, which encompass health, education, food security, economic development, community, and emergency response, form the basis of its holistic approach. If you are interested in learning more about SSHCO or becoming involved with its efforts, you can visit its website at https://sshco.org/.