What's better than a bag of toys? For Jon Levy, it's working with We and leading a trip to visit villagers in Kenya.
Mr. Levy is co-founder, with his brother Andy, of Mastermind Toys, Canada's largest privately owned toy and children's book retailer. From a modest start in 1984, Toronto-based Mastermind now has more than 50 stores across Canada and a busy online site.
With all that success, Mr. Levy always figured that he and Mastermind could do more. This has led to a successful partnership with We and the villages and schools We works with, and teamwork with Mastermind's store managers and staff.
"We've always been active in community engagement. We [Mastermind] supported different programs every year, and enjoyed that," Mr. Levy says.
The company was looking for ways to build and evolve Mastermind's giving side. "About three or four years ago we looked at what we could do differently that would work – something that would be meaningful to our customers and our employees."
That led the Levy brothers to We. Mastermind stores began selling We merchandise to help raise funds for the organization's work, and then the company set up a program that enables employees across the country to earn trips to Kenya to honour and support their community service and fundraising for the We Villages program in that country.
Mr. Levy and his family recently led a trip to Kenya along with top-selling Mastermind managers and their families, such as Jo-Anna Christensen of Langley, B.C., and Chad Endo of Sylvan Lake, Alta.
"When you land in Nairobi's Kenyatta Airport and hit the ground running and get to work, there's nothing like it," Mr. Levy says. "When we got there, Jo-Anna looked at me and said, 'This changes my life.' It really does," Mr. Levy says.
The work in We Villages in Kenya also helps change the lives of Kenyans. Mastermind-raised donations have already gone toward building three classrooms in Irkaat, a Maasai and Kipsigis village of just less than 2,000 people, as well as additional educational programming there.
Funding has also gone to support two classrooms in Kipsongol, another village of about 2,000 people, with 800 school-going children.
Mr. Levy is a strong proponent of the idea that those who give something of themselves also gain something in return.
"We thought that if we had something ongoing to help people, our store community would become a tighter community ourselves. We're doing more than just transacting commerce; we're understanding and caring about the world," he says.
In addition to encouraging store managers and associates to compete to raise funds for We and We Villages, Mr. Levy and Mastermind also provide ways for customers to participate. Mastermind stores have a gift-wrapping program in which purchasers can "tie on goodness" to their gifts, with a portion of the wrapping costs going to support We projects.
Employees earn the opportunity to participate on trips to Kenya by competing for points, based on their involvement in Mastermind's We initiatives.
What was most gratifying about Mr. Levy's and his Mastermind group's trip to Kenya was that the programs they support were making a difference.
"We saw programs that bring education to kids there at a higher level than there would be if the programs weren't in place. The We organization has ways to excite the community and think about opportunities," he says.
For example, in many villages, girls don't get to attend school as often as boys because they are traditionally the ones who have to walk to wells and bring home water. Rather than try to upend local culture, We helped build wells close to the school.
"The girls could get educations and still come home with water, contributing to the economic well-being of the family. It's a simple concept, and it empowers girls and women," Mr. Levy says.
Being helpful and respectful to villagers goes hand in hand, Mr. Levy says. Once the ice has been broken with village families, for instance, We helped women in the villages start their own craft businesses, selling handmade items.
"The women then earn money and help make their families stronger. Eventually you have boys and girls both being educated and moms and dads working and being productive. It increases the opportunity for families to be successful," he says.
The Mastermind We group also tried to empathize with villagers by attempting, for example, to carry the 15-litre jugs of water over the same long distances that the girls had to walk.
"You try doing what nine-year-old girls were doing instead of going to school and you realize how hard it is," Mr. Levy says.
One aspect he likes best about working with We is that there is a two-way flow of ideas between his company and the organization. "It works from both sides – it's fantastic," Mr. Levy says.