Our Neighbors in Need

It’s a beautiful thing to walk through the front door at Operation Give Back in full swing. Volunteers breeze through the hallways with a smile, kids of all ages laugh and joke as they unpack their homework, the owner of Buckabee Brownies shows up with a surprise treat, and the facility is buzzing with warmth and energy. This inviting place is home to a food pantry, library, and gathering spaces – and it’s all for the students and families in our Blue Ash neighborhood who need a little extra.

Upstream had been involved with Operation Give Back for some time before the Executive Director approached us with a challenge. Their year-end ask was approaching, and they wanted to capture the attention of donors in a special way. Her vision was to create a video showing a day in the life of OGB – a clear depiction of the many different facets of their operation and why each one is essential. Could we help? 

Unique Challenges

Operation Give Back had unique challenges to overcome as a non-profit with limited resources. It’s difficult to dedicate time communicating your “wow” moments when you’re already busy doing the good work. They simply didn’t have the means or expertise to put together the kind of video they wanted to drum up much-needed support.

Helping Our Neighbors

Our team, however, was up to the task. We took a step back from our ideation sessions and product demos to tell a story that could make a difference to the people in our neighborhood. We came together to capture and share what a day in the life of Operation Give Back really meant for the students and families they serve. We didn’t need a big budget to work efficiently and with purpose, and we knew what we were doing would be instrumental to their cause.

A Newfound Partnership

When all was said and done, the result was invaluable for both of us – a newfound sense of partnership, founded on mutual appreciation of one another and the work we do. The video we delivered for OGB was shared extensively, which dramatically increased their reach while allowing those who are unfamiliar with their mission to instantly understand what they need and what they do. Upstream was able to tap into its community, forming new relationships and connecting with our city in a way we couldn’t possibly have planned.

Adapting to COVID-19

Speaking of things you can’t plan…a day in the life of Operation Give Back is exceedingly different since the COVID-19. No more buses dropping off students after school, snacks to share, or volunteers swarming the halls – but that isn’t stopping OGB from stepping up to the plate for the community they love so much. 

The food pantry is in full swing, but instead of parents shopping the shelves, volunteers pre-pack bags and set them on the curb to minimize contact. Restaurants are stepping up with food donations. Local organizations (including the police department) have made themselves available to deliver meals to the homes of students and families who need them now more than ever. 

It’s incredible to witness Operation Give Back fighting the good fight, pivoting so they can continue to serve our community in a drastically changed environment. What a reminder that no matter what unexpected obstacles we face, it’s always possible to adapt our approach to a problem and tackle it head-on. Both in business and in personal life, we are all finding creative ways to charge forward without losing sight of what’s really important.

Operation Give Back has certainly inspired me to realize my full potential as a friend, neighbor, and advocate. I hope during these uncertain times, each of us can find a way to offer a helping hand to those who need it most.

*If you have interest in supporting Operation Give Back, here are some ways you can help:

  • Donate monetarily here – this is their biggest ask right now as donating actual goods increases the risk of spreading germs. 
  • Link your Kroger Plus Card or Amazon Smile account so a percentage of every purchase you make is automatically donated at no extra cost to you.
  • Follow them on Facebook to find out what specific needs they have each day.
  • Share their video so others can learn about their mission.

A Goal Should Challenge You

As a former athlete, you never truly lose your competitive side. You can ask my fiancé and friends…even game night gets a little out of control every once in a while. 

Setting Concrete Goals

As I advanced in athletics growing up, setting concrete goals became vital to success. Dedicating so much time at a young age to training, my ultimate goal was to play college sports. Turns out, that wasn’t in the cards. A season ending injury made that goal unachievable. 

Pivoting

Over the years, I pivoted and set new goals: to graduate from the University of Dayton, move to Cincinnati, start my career. I felt a major sense of accomplishment as I continued to cross these off of my list. 

At the start of 2019, I decided I wanted to challenge myself in a different way. A way that tapped into my competitive side and settle on a goal that seemed nearly impossible. I want to preface this by saying, heights aren’t my thing… 

The Climbing Gym

One night I joined my fiancé and friends at a local climbing gym, with equipment (and lots of band aids) in hand. When we walked into the space, I remember desperately wanting to bail. After much hesitation, I approached the shortest wall. Let’s just say it didn’t end well. I was confident this would be the last time I would ever step foot in a climbing gym. I was defeated before I started. “On to the next goal”, I thought. Little did I know, this was a key moment in my adult life. After many failed attempts, I completed the easiest route in the gym that night. And much to my surprise… I went back the next day. 

It’s been over a year since that first day on the wall, and now I climb regularly. Since that day, I’ve gained not only physical strength but immense mental strength… and a confidence I didn’t know I had. All it took was persistence. 

A Sense Of Accomplishment

Climbing a wall is a very literal sense of accomplishment. You start at the bottom, anxious, excited, potentially apprehensive. Navigate the wall using focus and trust, encountering problem after problem. One movement at a time, you’re pushed to make quick decisions and be methodical in your approach. If the climb is successful, you reach the peak. This process is not unlike real life.

A way to start any meaningful endeavor is to envision the end result. What is the big idea? How can we make this a reality? How can we become better storytellers? At Upstream, we take on the challenge of setting BIG goals, allowing curiosity and creativity to drive forward thinking. In the words of professional climber, Tommy Caldwell, “The goal is to find something that looks absurd and figure out how to do it.” In the words of the Upstream team, “our goal is to make the unreal real.” 

7 Ways to Facilitate a Successful Brainstorm

It’s 8:30am. Smells of coffee and catered breakfast fill the room as the team files into the Think Tank for another ideation session at Upstream. There is a lot of chatter (dogs included) as excitement builds for the day ahead. Conversations vary from breakfast reviews, to current bingeworthy TV series, to strategy for the upcoming session. Some have worked together for years; others are meeting for the first time. The goal? Bring product benefits to life through visualization, creativity and curiosity. 

Let’s be honest with ourselves – not all of us have that overwhelming feeling of excitement when we see the words “Ideation Session” on our calendars. It can be daunting, knowing the consequences of a poorly executed session. Varying personalities and distractions can alter the progression of brainstorming in its entirety.  Schedules are tight and output is vital to success. Plus, not all attendees are extroverts, so contributing might not be easy for them.

The question then becomes: “How do you set the tone for the day, and what rules can help maximize effectiveness throughout the session?” “How can we illuminate the unseen?” 

Our team of creatives, strategists and scientists weigh in.

Inspiration is Key. 
Innovation is challenging. These workshops are meant to bring cross-functional teams together in a unique learning space. To promote creative dialogue, we encourage inspiration at the beginning. What’s an example of something that sparks your creative thought process? How do you get your creative juices flowing? Whether this is homework that participants are bringing into the session, or inspiring work relative to the project, it’s important to bring the group together at the start of the session to gather focus. Those conversations and thoughts not related to the project should shift at the start so that the team goes into the workshop with the right mindset. 


Positive Vibes Only.  
It’s important to create an environment where all ideas are welcomed. Negativity deters the creative thought process and may hinder participants from expressing ideas, thus affecting output. Showing excitement as others share their thoughts encourages everyone to keep the creative juices flowing! A solution? Music! Pop. Coffeehouse. Chill Hits. You name it. It’s just one thing we do to keep up the energy in the room. 


Wild & Agile Ideas.
Remember, the team’s ultimate goal here is to make the unreal real! No idea is a bad idea in these types of exercises.  Our team is there to drive those conversations and provide input from all angles of the product development experience. Who knows? That crazy idea might be a breakthrough concept. And remember – quantity over quality here. Our default speed is fast. 


Engage the Entire Entourage.
It’s easy to be distracted by texts, calls, emails. These sessions take time, so it’s fair if someone needs to step out to tend to other business. The key here is to maximize involvement as much as possible to boost output. With various talents in the room, each individual brings a unique perspective. More brainpower! Less phones/computers! 


Builds, Builds, Builds.
At Upstream, the foundation of our work is in story integration. As the team learns more about the product and ideation is in full swing, we encourage further builds to transform insight to full concept. 


Put it on Paper.
Sketching, illustrating, notetaking. All important steps to bring visions to life. By adding a dedicated Upstream illustrator and other members of our creative team to each group, we are able to efficiently bring ideas from conversation to visualization. We pride ourselves in bringing possibilities to life!  


Time is of the Essence.
Typically, these sessions are planned out with little time to waste. Use your break times and brainstorming time effectively. If you need to make a call, try to wait until the next break so no ideation time is wasted. Encourage table leaders to keep everyone on track and respect the schedule for the day! Tess, our amazing Office Manager, always makes sure to have snacks and coffee readily available throughout our sessions so no one goes hungry! These breaks are perfect chances to refuel and reset. Not a coffee person? Grab an iced tea, LaCroix, Diet Coke, you name it, we have it all. 


So, the next time you are challenged with planning or attending a session, keep these in mind! And remember, everyone has the same goal! Bring clearer understanding to a complex world.

The End of Skywalker. The Rise of Baby Yoda.

The end of the Skywalker Saga.  A story that has been a massive part of my life since the earliest days of my childhood came to an end last night.  As I sat in a theater packed with three generations of family and friends, we travelled one more time to a galaxy far, far away and immersed ourselves in the action, adventure, and nostalgia of the Star Wars universe.  It is a story that we as a family, as a society, and as a culture have shared over these past 42 years, and it has been a magical ride.

But that ride has not been perfect.  After the success of the original trilogy in the late 70s and early 80s, fans were overwhelmed with excitement when the production of a new prequel trilogy was announced and ultimately launched in 1999.  For me personally, where the original movies hit theaters at the beginning of my life, this new trilogy hit at the beginning of my life after college. George Lucas, the mastermind of this cultural empire, set out to not only delight the current mega-fans of the franchise, but to also introduce Star Wars to a new generation of kids around the world.  And while the movies made a fortune and had a ton of great moments, many of the hardcore fans were not pleased.  Too childish. Too silly.  Too far from the “canon” they expected.  Kids and casual fans generally loved the movies and enjoyed the ride.  These super fans did not.  It did not meet their dreams and expectations, and they very vocally voiced their displeasure. Thus began some toxic fandom in the Star Wars universe.  And this was before social media.

Fast-forward to 2012 when it was announced that Disney purchased the Star Wars franchise and were launching a new sequel trilogy that would start in 2015.  Again… expectations were through the roof.  Now those same hardcore fans from the 70s were looking for movies that would right the wrongs of the prequels.  The kids who grew up with the prequels were excited to revisit their own childhoods, and Disney also hoped to introduce a new group of kids to the wonder (and merchandise) of Star Wars.  And for me… now it was a chance to see the newness of Star Wars through the eyes of my own children.

And again, the result was polarizing.  The first movie, The Force Awakens, was a huge box office success, but criticized for being too predictable and too much of a rehash of the originals.  The second movie, The Last Jedi, saw the rise of toxic fandom rise to a whole new level.  Paralleling the political landscape of these turbulent times, this movie, which set out to “subvert expectation,” divided the fandom and gave rise to a very vocal minority of haters and trolls.  Too much “forced diversity.”  The mishandling of Luke Skywalker’s character arc.  A plot that didn’t follow the first movie.  The destruction of childhoods.  The world of social media, as too often happens, became a darker place for the Star Wars universe. 

So for this final movie, I have been beyond curious for how J.J. Abrams and the good folks at Disney would pull this off.  Would they try to please everyone and, if so, could they do it?  Well they certainly gave it a valiant effort.  Without giving any spoilers, they did successfully bring a definitive conclusion to the stories of each character in all three trilogies.  They packed in a ton of action sequences and brought back nostalgia from each generation. And most importantly, they brought out the feels.  This movie truly does tug on some heartstrings, creates a few tears, and allows you to leave the theater feeling the magic of Star Wars.  Whoever you are. The movie was fun.  It was far from perfect.  It didn’t ruin my childhood.  You should watch it.  And I will see it again.

All of this begs the question… is it possible for something like Star Wars… a powerful story and a brand that spans 40+ years to create a product that delights all of its fans?  2 months ago, when I first thought to write this blog, I was prepared to say that it was next to impossible.  And then everything changed.  

Baby Yoda happened.

In November, Disney launched its streaming service, with its hero offering being “The Mandalorian,” the first live action Star Wars TV show.  This series, positioned as a “western” featuring a badass bounty hunter surprised everyone by introducing the most fascinating and surprising Star Wars character in almost 40 years.  The Child, lovingly known as “Baby Yoda” in countless memes, tweets, and articles, is a new character shrouded in mystery.  He is rich with mythology but has no backstory.  He is pure and innocent but immensely powerful. He is overwhelmingly cute but with a not-so-subtle air of danger.  He is everything Star Wars fans (and non-fans) have needed but didn’t know they wanted.  “Baby Yoda” has united the Star Wars fandom, balancing the rich air of nostalgia, the delight and excitement of the moment, and the anticipation of what is to come. “Baby Yoda,” out of nowhere, has become the future of Star Wars.

How did they do it? Instead of trying to please everyone in the movie world of “Skywalker,” where fans had so many and such differing expectations of what should change and what should stay the same, they created something new.  That something was still wrapped in the mythology and the spirit of Star Wars, but unburdened with the expectations of the past.  They literally gave a rebirth to the Force of Star Wars and found a way to create a character, a story, and a future that new and old fans could support.

So can a brand like Star Wars, which has been a cultural phenomenon for 40 years, adapt and evolve to tell new stories into the future?  It can.  Not through trying to change what is already powerful and loved, but by creating something new and fresh that evokes those old and new feelings of the magic that originally created the power and love.  While it is time for the Skywalker story that started “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” to finally end, the universe is infinite for new stories that evoke a Force of familiar feelings.

May the Force be with You. 

Designers, I’m calling you out.

As we approach 2020, it’s clear that large creative agencies are struggling to be agile in our rapidly changing consumer markets. Organizational hierarchies are flattening and restructuring in hopes of improving speed of performance.

Upstream’s advantage is that it was created 19 years ago to be nimble and respond quickly to any ask, so we’re already ahead of that curve.

Everybody here works and communicates directly with each other and we all have the opportunity to be leaders. It helps that each of us offers more than a singular skillset.  But the best part is, our ideas are valued more than our titles. 

This is especially true for our creative team members. 

Historically, graphic designers were considered work horses, hired to make things “look pretty” and told to “go do,” but at Upstream, the collaboration between designer and creative director is critical, so both navigate and communicate fluidly together within the creative process. Designers have to consider business objectives, marketing strategy and creative execution, then articulate it all back to the team and/or client.

To survive in this industry, designers need to be creative strategists.

I’m calling you out, if you’re a designer reading this and thinking:

“Sh*t. They didn’t teach me this in design school.”

“Sh*t. I don’t know anything about creative strategy.” 

“Sh*t. I don’t know how to talk about my ideas very well.”

“Sh*t. I lost my confidence and forgot how to push back.”

If you desire to be a better, more respected creative, you can be. Just take the time to learn about the business of design and power of strategy with the same care you took to learn the Adobe Creative Suite. 

And if you continue to improve your knowledge base, your confidence will grow too. 

So, to get you moving in the right direction, I recommend a book that I found invaluable in my efforts to contribute more as a designer; Creative Strategy and the Business of Design by Douglas Davis.

It’s a great book that will have a real impact on how you think about your creative work. Douglas Davis is a designer that also studied business, so he understands our strengths and deficits as creatives and speaks to them. He breaks down complex business concepts into bite-sized pieces. 

If you’re ready to step up your game, this book is the perfect first step on that journey.

The Years Are Short

Over the past six months, my wife and I went through the daunting process of selling our home while raising two young boys. We have a 1-year-old who loves throwing anything he can get his hands on (often at his older brother), and a 6-year-old who plays five minutes with a toy before moving on to the next one. 

Of course, this led to many nights of counting the minutes until bedtime just to get the opportunity to make sure the house was presentable for potential showings the next day.  Enjoying the moment was replaced with an exhausted exhale once the boys were down for the night.  

During that stressful summer stretch, I happened across a saying that described the situation perfectly:

The days are long, but the years are short.

While those long days were seemingly crawling by, my wife and I celebrated our 9thwedding anniversary, our sons’ first and sixth birthdays, and a full ten years of living in our first home together…not to mention my 3rdyear anniversary of working at Upstream 360. 

On each of those occasions, my wife and I would reflect on how far we’ve come – and wefound ourselves saying “there’s no way it’s been that long!” Each of those painstakingly slow days somehow added up to a total whirlwind of a decade. Only the happy endings seemed to matter; we eventually sold the house, and the boys are still alive and well (with only a few minor bumps and bruises to show for their troubles).

I’m doing my best to remind myself of this phrase when we get extremely busy here at Upstream.  For example, a commercial we produced popped up recently on my cell phone as YouTube pre-roll.  It had been well over a year since we shot and edited the spot. I was eager to bring it up to a few fellow Upstreamers who immediately reminded me about the tedious process we went through in order to get final approval.  

They weren’t wrong – while in the midst of post-production, this project seemed like an unending string of alts and revisions. Now, over a year later, I had completely forgotten about that repetitive sequence of events. The long days in the edit suite had given way to the short years of having an awesome finished product.

When it comes down to it, the impossibly long rough patches blur into background noise over time. The polished final results are all that remains in focus, whether it’s a fantastic new sizzle reel,or an adorable toddler with a big smile.

HINDSIGHT IS 2023

Well, I managed to survive “Move In Day” at Elon University in North Carolina.  My daughter is a newly-minted member of the Freshman Class.  Her graduation in 2023 seems a long way off.  Until it seems like it’s almost here.  Welcome to the life of a College Dad.

Elon gave every new College Parent an interesting task to do during the move in; write a letter to your daughter that will not be opened until half-way through the First Semester.  By the University’s calculations, this is typically the time when the novelty of College begins to wear off, stress becomes elevated, and bouts of homesickness can occur.

That’s a lot to assuage in a short letter – but hey – we’re storytellers here at Upstream, so bring it on!  I didn’t want to use any of the “talking points” I was saving for the “Big Good-Bye” later that day, though. 

The first sentence was easy: “Remember me?

Okay, I bet that will at least earn a small chuckle.  But if she wants laughs, she has Netflix.

Then I decided to apply a little innovative thinking.  Instead of guessing what content might be relevant to her nine weeks from now, try a different angle.  I thought: “What letter would I write today to my 18-year-old self?”

Had to ask for extra paper.

You don’t know everything.  So show humility when you compete. Win with grace and lose with dignity. When you fall down, get up. When you fall down again, get up again. 

Have you figured out yet that it isn’t those with the most talent who become successful, but those with the most resiliency and the strongest character when faced with disappointment?

Take care of your teeth. They were pricey.

I hope you haven’t missed a class. Be on time. Be reliable. Make your best choices when no one is looking, because that’s when they really count. And by the way, you have to know that someone isprobably looking.  Privacy is an illusion on a college campus.

Be focused, be present, be your best self. Be grateful. Arrogance sucks. Realize how fortunate you are.  Help other people by giving back.

Listen at least as much as you talk.  Respect yourself and dump anyone who doesn’t respect you.  Say no when you don’t want to do something. It’s okay if everyone doesn’t like you.  

Embrace change.  Keep an open mind – your only limitation will be a lack of imagination.

Given her graduation year, I’m hoping hindsight is 2023.

Mark Smith is the Chief Creative Officer and Chief Storyteller for Upstream 360, as well as the father of a teenage daughter.  He stays motivated by the twin powers of doubt and insecurity, while his approach to the work is making it legitimately interesting, shareable, and something people can connect with. 

Mark is also an author of the book Innovation Myths and Mythstakes, available in hardcover, paperback, Kindle and coming soon on Audible.  

Our Differences Make Us The Same

Once upon a time…

In a galaxy not so far away, our galaxy, our planet, there are seeds for change.  

This obvious riff on two pop culture tropes leads us into the arena of storytelling – that is the foundation of all that we consume – from film to tv shows, from books to music, and from news to the advertisements that seem to infest most content.   

What I’m not going to do is explain storytelling to you – that would be an entirely different story!

This is a story of how my family and I got to see “A Conversation with SCOTUS Justice Sonia Sotomayor” at Walnut Hills High School.  Sonia Sotomayor is an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.  She is only the third woman and the first Hispanic and Latina Justice out of 114 people who have served during the Supreme Court’s 230-year lifespan.  

Justice Sotomayor is not shy about her life story and has written several books, for both adults and children, that share her history, her influences and her love of Law.  At the age of 7, she was diagnosed with diabetes and because of being in a single-parent household due to the untimely death of her father, she began giving herself life-saving insulin injections at that same age.  This condition created a distance between her and her classmates – bridging this divide became the central theme of Sotomayor’s new book “Just ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You!”

Sotomayor’s storytelling, takes two different approaches: one for children and one as a learning tool for adults.  Both teach us all a better way of interacting with people that appear different from ourselves.  Her analogy of people being like different flowers in a garden helps establish this landscape before delving into the stories of 10 or so children and their unique qualities – which, as we all grow and blossom, know are not that unusual.

The importance of this book (and its thoughtfulness), quickly became very personal, as I reflected upon the challenges my own friends and family face – from Autism to Speech Impediments.

At Upstream, we’ve had the opportunity to help tell the stories of others that if you bumped into them on the street or sat next to them on a park bench – you may have found yourself staring – whether you meant to or not.  From children with Ocular implants to those with nearly full paralysis – each story helps prove the old axiom that you can’t always judge a book by its cover, or as Justice Sonia Sotomayor remarked when, as a teenager, someone saw her injecting herself in a public restroom “Don’t think the worst in people.” 

This is a children’s book that is set out to challenge the misconceptions of adults.  

So everyone, and yes that means all of us– Just ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You!

What Creatively Inspires You?

“You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” – Robin Williams

What creatively inspires you? That’s the question today. Working in media, it’s common to find ourselves constantly creating to a point where we may feel like our creative “tank” is running low.  Have you ever found yourself just staring at a screen, hoping that something miraculous and perfect comes to mind?  

As creatives, we not only have to take the time to invest in the projects we’re working on, but we have to make a conscious effort to invest in ourselves as well. It can be extremely healthy and productive to shut off for a while and experience things that will kick that imaginative side of our brains back into gear.

Fortunately, there are countless places to go to look for creative inspiration. We live in a world where Internet is king and the ability to share content with anyone at any time is instantaneous. Everyone is inspired differently – each of us has a unique blend of preferences and interests. 

With all this in mind, we started to get curious about what inspires our coworkers here at Upstream. To find out, we did what we do best in this industry – we asked our group to brainstorm. What keeps the gears going? How do we pump out content that not only our clients love, but that we ourselves are proud of?  

Our results were incredible – we sifted through all different types of content (videos, music, sports, nature, you name it) that really proved how diverse our group of creatives are at Upstream. Go ahead and scroll through our “melting pot” of inspiration…it just might have an effect on you!

WEBSITES TO VISIT:

THINGS TO WATCH:

TED Talks are great source to hear from professionals across all disciplines!
VISIT HERE

YOUTUBE CHANNELS:

Instagram Accounts to Follow:

Places to Walk Around:

Books To Read:

Music To Listen To:

Video Games To Play:

I’M GOING ON AN ADVENTURE

How did I end up crammed in the back of a pickup truck with fourteen other people, traversing the mountainous Guatemalan countryside?  Or miles deep in the forest, following locals to a natural spring?  Or how about the market of Momostenango – overwhelmed by vibrant colors, food, and aromas? 

Last February, the team and I found ourselves on a wild adventure with just one goal in mind: to capture a story.  All we had was the gear on our backs and the attitude to “get sh*t done.”  

I have to tell you…it’s a journey I never imagined experiencing.  

So – why exactly did we go to Guatemala?  

Since it was founded, Upstream has thrived on a constant influx of creative projects requested by our clients. Last year, however, Upstream was inspired to do something different – to give back to both to the community at large and to its employees. Each of us was given the opportunity to nominate a non-profit that we believed was deserving of a pro-bono video project. 

This really hit home for me – it’s amazing that we were encouraged to shine a light on our individual passions while coming together to help an organization that would benefit from our work. Needless to say, I was thrilled when Upstream narrowed down the list of prospects to ultimately choose my nominee: First Things Foundation.

FTF is a non-profit organization with a simple mission to support local visionaries in their quest for a better life. Here’s how it works: field workers are sent overseas for a year of “immersionship.” This is a time to learn the language, work in the fields, and get to know this new culture intimately. The following year, the field workers get together with local visionaries, called “Impresarios”, to identify the projects to move forward with. Together, they work to bring the Impresario’s vision to life, without the locals ever once feeling like they have been told what to do by an outsider.

Learn more about FTF here.  

Before we know it, the team and I are on a plane heading to Guatemala.  Our specific assignment is to capture the essence of a “Keipi Journey”- a weeklong excursion funded by donors that takes you to incredible places filled with incredible people.  This shared value donation is a major source of FTF’s funding.

After a 7-hour flight, we finally land in Guatemala City. We’re greeted by my old college roommate, Andrew Schwark, who works for FTF.  We immediately hop on a bus with FTF leader John, two other field workers, and seven high school students embarking on their Keipi Journey.  Our first destination is Lake Atitlán, which, according to the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt, is the “most beautiful lake in the world.” 

It better be. We add six hours to our travel time – an unpleasant trip thanks to countless speed bumps, pot holes, wrong turns, and our bus driver’s lead foot. We arrive late at night, exhausted and famished, but the FTF staff doesn’t skip a beat. They spring into action to cook a delicious meal consisting of steak, vegetables and fresh guacamole. They even have to add small amounts of bleach to the water to kill dangerous bacteria. 

The next morning, we wake up to discover that this beautiful lake absolutely does live up to its reputation. We spend the day boating, eating lunch, and boarding the bus once again to travel to our destination for the rest of the week – Momostenango.

The Keipi Journey we’re here to document is centered here, and it’s the village that FTF primarily works in.  Situated in the North-West of Totonicapán, in the Western highlands of Guatemala, Momostenango is extremely impoverished and seems forgotten by the rest of the world.  Before we even hop off the bus, I take note of some striking images: droves of homeless dogs treated like rodents, overrunning the streets; piles of trash in the forests due to lack of waste removal services; hitchhikers jumping into the back of pick-up trucks; women who walk countless miles on mountain roads carrying heavy baskets on their heads.

Our time in Momostenango is educational, exhausting, and eye-opening. Every day, we visit various parts of the village to meet different people. The key individuals we are there to see are a handful of amazing Impresarios that FTF works with closely. Abraham is a teacher who runs a free school for the local kids. Dario is a local baker who has his own storefront after humble beginnings selling bread out of his carIxim is a company run by two men and a woman who provide accountable, fair loans to the surrounding villages. These individuals make an incredibly positive impact on the community, and the stories they share with us illustrate the profound importance of FTF.  

We also meet the folks at Health&Help, a Russian medical clinic that FTF helped build to supply free medical care to the surrounding community. Located thirty minutes outside the city, we bounce around in the back of a pick-up truck to get there. Our tour of the facility gives us first-hand confirmation of its level of care – people often travel up to an hour just to come here because they trust it more than the clinics closer to home. 

There’s a school next door – with only two classrooms – where FTF field workers spend time teaching children English. School is in session, and giggling children swarm around us as we enter the building, goofing around and trying to converse with us “gringos”.  They’re particularly excited to see our drone in action, and are awestruck when I show them aerial shots of their school in real time.

Our last stop is to a village 45 minutes away from Momostenango. Piled in the back of yet another pickup truck, we wind through the mountains and forests to meet with a group of people who have been trying to get the green light for a project for over a decade. Their mission: to pipe running water twelve miles from a natural spring to a village. We hike two miles through dense forest to find the spring, and we watch them perform a ritual over the water. They’re eager to describe the project and ask for FTF’s assistance. I realize that we’re witnessing the potential beginning of a new Impresario project.  Afterwards, we return to the village where they cook a delicious lunch for our group.  It’s mind-blowing to witness the generosity of our new friends that have very little, but still find so much joy in serving a meal to others.  This is the type of humility you don’t get to witness every day.

Above everything, my favorite experience in Guatemala is the traditional “Keipi Dinner” – a tradition from the Georgia Republic centering around a feast that involves toasts and deep conversation. Our crew joins twenty locals, workers from the Russian clinic, and other travelers on top of our hotel. I look around at this melting pot of American, Guatemalan, Russian, Chinese, and Portuguese people coming together. Our language barriers don’t matter; we connect using broken English, Spanish, and even charades. This is truly the essence of a Keipi Dinner – go to a foreign place, share new experiences, and form new relationships despite our cultural differences.

After a long week of documenting, we put our cameras away to simply enjoy our last night with our new friends in Antigua. I reflect on the culture shock I feel from being in Guatemala and the overwhelming sights, sounds, and smells I’ve experienced here. After everything, however, I realize that I wasn’t just learning about the city and its people – I learned how the industry I work in can have a profound effect on the world around me. My team has the ability to produce a pro-bono project that makes a positive impact on a non-profit, a village of incredible people, and ourselves as Upstream employees.  I am grateful to see creative freedom used for this purpose.

Now we’re home, and the hours of interviews and footage await us in the edit suite.  We’re all very excited to finish this project – one that we chose to put our hard work in and that captures the essence of First Things Foundation.  

Be on the lookout for the video soon. Look below to see more pictures!