Nathan Thomas wants to bring light to schools in Uganda.
Three years ago, Thomas, 24, founded a nonprofit that works to bring sustainable and cost-efficient projects to schools around the world. He moved to Raleigh last year, and he now serves as president of the Midtown Rotary Club.
He also continues to run his nonprofit, All We Are.
“We want to provide Uganda’s youth with the tools they need to change the country,” Thomas said.
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Last year, All We Are launched Solarize Uganda Now in an effort to install solar lighting systems in schools in the African nation of about 39 million people.
It costs between $2,000 and $10,000 to light a school, Thomas said. The nonprofit’s goal is to provide lighting for 50 schools by 2025.
As part of the group’s first project, completed in 2014, workers installed a rain catchment system to provide clean water at a Ugandan school. In 2017, it hopes to provide clean water for 500 people using the same system.
Some organizations drill wells to provide clean water, which can be expensive and time-consuming, Thomas said. He wanted a faster, cheaper alternative.
Many of All We Are’s projects have an engineering component. Thomas, who graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2015, leverages his skills and expertise to come up with creative solutions.
“The most important part of this is a needs assessment,” he said. “Figuring out, ‘These are the needs of the community and this is the best way to solve it.’ ”
For every project, All We Are partners with local companies and businesses in Uganda, hiring local laborers to build projects and keep them running.
“Locals can go on to change the country, because they know it best,” Thomas said.
All We Are works with Rotary clubs throughout the United States and abroad and has received grants from the Rotary Foundation. A Rotary club even sparked Thomas’s idea to start the nonprofit.
Thomas worked with his local Rotary club as a high school student in Findlay, Ohio. He began collecting computers in his community, fixing them and sending them to schools overseas.
“I wanted to do something that was service, but meaningful,” Thomas said. “I wanted to use my talents to benefit people.”
The summer after his freshman year in college, he traveled to Uganda, supported by the Findlay Rotary Club, to teach computer classes.
He planned to teach the basics of Microsoft Office Word, but his students didn’t know how to turn on their computers or use a mouse.
“It really taught me a lesson about how necessary it was to do things on a smaller scale, touching issues that are more necessary to one’s existence than having a computer,” Thomas said.
When he started the work that would become All We Are in 2009, he brought several of his classmates and fellow Rotarians on board.
Mike Harris, former president of the Midtown Rotary Club in Raleigh, said he was “immediately drawn” to All We Are’s story when Thomas spoke during a club meeting several months ago.
“This is a charitable organization that really doesn’t have overhead,” Harris said. “It’s obvious how beneficial and cost-efficient it is.”
Through a grant, All We Are is working with five clubs in North Carolina, including the Midtown Rotary Club, as well as other clubs in Florida, Oklahoma, Ohio and Kentucky to light the next five schools in Uganda.
Every year, Thomas flies to Uganda to check on the status of All We Are’s projects.
“This has become so embedded in my life and who I am,” Thomas said. “I can’t imagine life without All We Are.”
Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; @madisoniszler