by Angela Woon
It was a decision springing solely from the adventurousness of youth.
Jumping on a plane, Che Pangborn was headed to Croatia for a few weeks of vacation in 1998. Or so he thought.
Little did Pangborn know that his first trip outside the United States would turn out to be the stepping stone for his journey into volunteerism with WiRED International, one that would last for several years.
Originally from Detroit, MI, Pangborn had been working for a radio station in Houston, TX, when he was laid off. Half-heartedly looking for a job, he had met a few people on the Internet and, on a whim, decided to forgo the job search and travel to Croatia for the adventure.
“This assignment made clear that Che isn’t only a top-notch technician but he’s a natural born teacher.”
— Gary Selnow
“If I was faced with a similar decision today, I’m not so sure I would do the same thing, but I’m glad I did it,” said Pangborn, who recalls feeling queasy on the plane ride to Europe. “A million thoughts were rushing through my head: I was unemployed, didn't have all that much money, and was heading to vacation in a country that had recently been at war!” said Pangborn, describing this as the time period when NATO had started bombing Serbia. “During that 14-hour flight, my mind was flooded with memories of my parents telling me throughout my life ‘to make good decisions’ and ‘think before you do.’”
While Pangborn was waiting in line for his connecting flight to Zagreb, a couple told him his bag was buzzing, greatly adding to the stress of his inaugural trip to a foreign land. “I swear I could feel the sweat forming on my brow as I removed myself from the line to investigate. People in the line stepped away as well,” said Pangborn. “It turned out that my electric razor had somehow turned on and was making a loud noise. The small crowd around me erupted in laughter. I felt foolish, but breathed a sigh of relief. I often wonder what might have happened if it had been post 9/11.”
“The unbelievable feeling of helping people is something I can't explain with words.”
Upon his arrival in Zagreb, Pangborn adapted quickly. “I was amazed at how everything looked and how many people spoke fluent English,” said Pangborn. “I had some friends who would translate for me when needed but if I was on my own, I managed to get my point across by speaking very slowly and looking up words in my pocket dictionary. One of the first culture shocks was actually having to pay for ketchup packets at McDonald’s!”
With the help of his friends in Zagreb, Pangborn obtained a three-month contract with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Prishtina, Kosova. While working with IOM, Pangborn often saw WiRED’s name pop up when updating information for the Kosova Information Assistance Initiative. A few months later, Pangborn was coordinating in-country visits for project partners when he met Gary Selnow, the executive director of WiRED. Pangborn escorted him throughout the province visiting the centers WiRED had helped set up.
“During one of Gary’s visits to Kosova, WiRED had set up a video conference call between some Kosovar children who had been sent to Italy for medical treatment and their parents back at home in Kosova,” said Pangborn. “Still with IOM, I was tasked to assist WiRED for the video conference. The first few video conferencing attempts failed, but eventually the connection worked, and there was a child on the screen. I remember thinking the picture was bad and that we could have tweaked things better. But at that moment, a Kosovar man with tears in his eyes stood up and spoke softly, ‘Hello, son.’ This man, who probably never in his life needed to know what a computer or the Internet could do, was speaking to his son thousands of miles away in Italy. Magic! It was a memorable experience, to say the least…not a dry eye in the house.” (Read a story about this event.)
In 2001, Pangborn finished his contract in Kosova, and all the while had corresponded via e-mail with Selnow on equipment and set-ups. During one of those e-mail exchanges, Selnow offered Pangborn a position to network a classroom in Bosnia. He accepted. Pangborn’s relationship with WiRED solidified and continued over several years, witnessing the evolution of technology across several countries including Kenya, Iraq, Croatia, and Kosova.
According to Pangborn, up until that point, WiRED had been focused on the free exchange of information via Internet centers, cafes, and classrooms. But WiRED progressed by merging information technology with medical information and delivering it in an easy-to-setup package. By the time Pangborn went to Kenya, the WiRED concept had broadened. In Nairobi, basic computer classes were held with volunteers from nearly two dozen community centers around the country. “We taught them how to set up computers, network them, and use a medical CD database provided by WiRED…and it all worked!” said Pangborn. “I was amazed at how quickly the students picked up on everything. Especially the networking! Since that successful run in Kenya, the whole concept was rolled out in several locations in Iraq and many more in the Balkans.”
According to Selnow, Pangborn has done the most work abroad of any of the U.S. WiRED volunteers. But Pangborn not only helped WiRED with his services. WiRED had a huge positive impact on him as well, said Pangborn.
For example, the video conference in Kosova gave him a firsthand look at affecting peoples’ lives by doing small deeds he’d otherwise taken for granted. “The fact that we could bring some level of change to the quality of life for these people was just an amazing feeling,” said Pangborn. “I remember the second time we went to Kenya to train a new batch of people from different community centers around the country. A lady from one of the first groups we had trained talked about the progress made since that first visit. People were coming into her center to check symptoms they or their loved ones were experiencing. Traditional healers who were using the database to check out the medicinal properties of plants and herbs also embraced the new technology. It had such an amazing impact.”
“I have lived and worked in several different countries...and each place has its own spot in my heart...”
“All throughout my childhood I would hear older people say, ‘It’s better to give than receive,’” said Pangborn. “These words would always be quickly forgotten. I never quite understood that message until I started working with WiRED. The unbelievable feeling of helping people is something that I can’t explain with words. It’s something you have to live and experience. It took me a long time…but I finally got it!”
Pangborn lived out of a suitcase for seven years, and although he enjoyed being abroad and working with WiRED, he did also feel the need to have a home. “I used to go through various stages of loneliness whenever I left a place where I’d been for awhile. I have lived and worked in several different countries for extended periods of time and each place has its own spot in my heart where I nurture and hold a special love for it,” said Pangborn.
After being on the road for so many years, Pangborn decided it was time to take an extended vacation and return to the United States. Now based in Arizona, Pangborn is living the stateside dream, having recently purchased a home with his fiancée, and rediscovering professional hockey. And although he isn’t currently volunteering, Pangborn says, “My services will always be available to WiRED.”
WiRED thanks Pangborn for all his years of hard work and service, and wishes him joy in his future endeavors.
Edited by Annie Stuart and Kate Mayer; layout by Brian Colombe.
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