Last week, a medical team traveled deep into the Haitian mountains to a town that hadn’t seen a doctor in decades. Across the world in Uganda, a woman mailed a batch of hand-sewn purses, which she hopes will earn her enough money to grow vegetables for her family.
And in Garner, a group of students is preparing to spend spring break setting up a recycling program in a Guatemalan village.
Philip Dail is at the center of each of these activities. Known by most as “P-Dail,” the retired chemistry professor and counselor has woven a web of connections across the globe in his travels over three decades.
That web now connects his former students, friends made on 50-plus international trips, members of his church and others, along with local artisans and activists in at least six countries.
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The nonprofit he runs, Together We Can, helps connect volunteers with needed projects and donations. It has no paid staff and no established fundraising events. Still, last year, the group raised about $500,000, up from $40,000 in 2009, when it was founded.
Dail also runs a website that helps local craftspeople in several countries connect with Western markets. He was instrumental in establishing the state’s Science Olympiad program for high school students and regularly volunteers locally at the New Bern House, a home for seniors.
He is also a frequent mentor to people afflicted by Guillain-Barre syndrome, which he himself suffered in 2002. Dail was paralyzed for three months and told he would never walk again. But he did walk and shares that story of perseverance.
“He is involved in so many things, connected to so many people, and has a positive impact on everyone with whom he comes in contact,” says Mike Giancola, who serves on the board of Together We Can. “His main purpose in life is making connections among people to facilitate serving others.”
Dail grew up in rural Edgecombe County, part of a family of sharecroppers that scratched out a meager living raising hogs, tobacco and vegetables.
“There’s no sugarcoating it,” he says. “We were dirt poor.”
Later in life, the family they worked for helped his father buy the farmland he had tended for decades.
By then, Dail had gone to college at East Carolina University, where he majored in biochemistry. He went back to the farm for a year, but found the work didn’t suit him. So he turned the farm over to his younger brother and became a teacher.
Dail says his education career was a romantic accident; his first wife was an education major, and he started signing up for her classes when he was courting her.
By the time he graduated, he had enough credits to earn a teaching credential. He found it to be a natural fit, and would go on to be the statewide teacher of the year for 1985.
For many years, he taught chemistry part time at N.C. State University while still working full time teaching high school science and handling the Science Olympiad.
In 1994, he got a full-time job at N.C. State as an adviser. He then ran the program for first-year students at the N.C. State College of Textiles.
He credits 4H and the Future Farmers of America club for teaching him public speaking skills. But his real gift was making the kind of personal connections with students that made them want to succeed.
His students in turn got him into traveling. His first trip abroad was to the USSR in 1984 with a group of high school students.
His former N.C. State students and their families would also invite him to visit, trips that took him to El Salvador, India and South Africa.
During this travels, he collected a room full of artwork, textiles and other items made by local craftspeople.
In 2006, he met a Brazilian woman who had spent years teaching widows and single mothers to weave and knit. He bought a box with 77 separate items, and realized he was starting a business. A former student working with the Peace Corps in Madagascar found another artisan who wove scarves from silk cocoons.
The store he opened at Cameron Village, called Beleza, sold fair-trade items, mainly women’s accessories, from around the globe. He and his wife ran the store until last year. They closed it and now use an online store to sell similar items at craftedbyfriends.com.
Making connections count
Throughout his travels, on each trip, he met more people with whom he would form lasting connections. And those connections would grow into the business and the nonprofit he now runs.
In 2009, he decided to take a trip to Haiti, and a few students were interested in going with him.
They wanted to do a small service project, and Dail had a surprisingly hard time connecting them to a local nonprofit that could help them make the trip.
“It was like I was asking for a block of gold out of Fort Knox, it was so challenging to do something small and simple,” he says.
He helped the students raise some money to make the trip, and found a vocational school where they could help by building shelving – something constantly in short supply there.
While they were there, they found other projects, but they weren’t sure how to go about returning.
Another friend was struggling with the same problem, and the pair reluctantly decided to start their own nonprofit. While it seemed there were already so many nonprofit groups, Dail saw that there was a need to help young people who were interested in doing service abroad.
“Young people are vital not only to what we’re doing around the world but to everything I believe in,” he says. “And being able to provide them with the connections and support and mentoring or whatever they need pushed me and my friend to do this.”
They pulled together a board and started taking on projects proposed by local groups.
In Haiti, Dail has worked with partners to build a school in a small town called Montroius; they are working now on creating a water system and several agricultural projects. In Uganda, he partnered with a local man who is trying to rehabilitate child soldiers.
He frequently speaks to student groups at N.C. State and elsewhere about sustainable community development, and many of them sign on to his cause. A group of 14 will come with him to Haiti in a few weeks during their spring break.
“I tell them, ‘I guarantee you just met someone who can do something better than you can,’ ” he says. “But no one can do anything better than all of us together.”
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