With no electricity, no internet, and no running water, New Year’s Eve in Mali is the African opposite of New Year’s Eve in Manhattan. Here, in the remote village of Dagabo, villagers sit quietly by an open fire, sharing cup after cup of the local tea. And yet John Alex seems content in this foreign land. Back home in New York City, he’s a successful financial adviser, but his passion is the United Aid Foundation, an international disaster relief organization that he founded in 2005. After watching Alex for a week at the dawn of 2020, I have no doubt that he prefers a dusty village with chickens wandering in and out of huts to a stuffy cocktail party with Park Avenue elites.
“I get anxious when life isn’t being lived,” he tells me later. So about 15 minutes before midnight, Alex changes the mojo, as he puts it. American volunteers have been sitting on one side of the fire, with Malians on the other. Alex now switches sides, sitting on a log and handing a cigarette to a new friend.
“How you doin’, brother,” he says.
A villager gives him tobacco to chew. They chat. When midnight strikes, we all smile and shake hands. It’s a John Alex moment. If the world ever holds an election for global mayor, Alex will win. Easily. People are drawn to this guy, and I’ve seen it at every stop in Mali. Shopkeepers, teachers, children — they all flock to the burly, charismatic dude in the camouflage pants, camouflage bandana, and gray shirt with his unofficial UAF motto: “Do good, don’t die.”
The second part of that motto is no joke. Mali earns the same U.S. government travel warnings as countries like Syria and Iraq. UAF came to Dagabo to assist a school after being invited to the region by Alex’s longtime friend Abigail Hayo, who leads an organization called One Global Village. The village is primitive by Western standards, but compared to UAF’s usual locations, Dagabo is the French Riviera. In 2005, Alex and his new organization rebuilt three Sri Lankan villages following a tsunami. After Hurricane Katrina, it provided much-needed medical supplies and water to local doctors in Louisiana. UAF performed surgeries and rebuilt homes after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, brought food and supplies to Nepal following the 2015 earthquake, and sent three teams to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017, distributing items such as water filters, food, and solar lights. The organization also rebuilt homes in Houston following Hurricane Harvey in 2018 and provided tents for the homeless and thousands of meals in the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian in 2019.
“The Bahamas was like the pictures of Hiroshima or Nagasaki after World War II,” Alex says. “Everything was just lying on its side. And then there’s random people wandering through the wreckage. I’d never seen anything like it.”
UAF is nimble, which is a key to its success. Run by Alex and a small core of trusted volunteers, there’s minimal overhead and no bureaucracy. UAF connects with local people, learns what’s needed, then quickly takes action, often in communities that haven’t received aid. That speed was particularly important in Haiti. “We started out three days after the earthquake hauling food in from the Dominican Republic,” he says. “Nobody was there. The U.N. couldn’t get their act together. The first year, somebody from our team was down there pretty much every month, and we ran a tent city for about 800 people.”
“I get anxious when life isn’t being lived.”
The obstacles can be maddening. In Haiti, UAF had three flatbed trucks carrying rice, beans, and oil for communities desperate for food, yet it couldn’t get protection from U.N. troops. “The commander told us they were having a soccer game,” a still-dismayed Alex says. “He basically ran us out at the end of his gun.”
Post-earthquake Haiti was particularly dangerous. “Death was everywhere, and you know, I’m not in the military. I’m not a cop or a firefighter, so I’ve never seen anything like that,” he says. “I definitely had some PTSD that I had to address.”
The tough conditions have built deep bonds between Alex and his volunteers. They’re like the Rolling Stones of international aid: hard-drinking, lots of swagger, relentless energy. They also share a zeal for trash talk. All week, the group teased a fellow volunteer about his plans for a Disney cruise.
“John has this tough, don’t-mess-with-me persona, but underneath all of that, he’s the kindest, most caring, most giving person,” says Hayo, who’s also a UAF board member. “I said to him, ‘Will you put together a team for us,’ and he did it. He went and got the people, he got the funding for all those guys to come, all these supplies. I’d go anywhere with him. He’s a get-it-done kind of guy.”
Alex expresses amazement that a “Midwestern knucklehead” like himself has traveled to such far-flung places. After growing up in Overland Park, Kansas, he attended Columbia University on a football scholarship, playing linebacker and serving as team captain. The team endured a 44-game losing streak until a rainy October day in 1988 when Alex and his teammates beat Princeton, 16-13.
He was always interested in serving others. In college, Alex volunteered with a YMCA after-school program in Spanish Harlem. After starting his own financial firm, he volunteered with the Red Cross (and continues to do so). Alex later journeyed to post-tsunami Sri Lanka and Indonesia with his sister — a volunteer with aid organization Heart to Heart International — which led him to create UAF. In 2010, Alex’s humanitarian work earned him a volunteer service award from President Barack Obama. It has also changed him on a personal level.
“When you’re with a family and we just took all your possessions and threw them in the street, and took your house down to the studs; when you see people going through wet, moldy pictures or just in tears … I cry all the time,” he says. “I don’t think I was much of a crier before I started doing this.”
Over four days in Mali, Alex and his team built a long, covered lunch area for the students, who previously ate on the ground under the harsh African sun, along with nine large tables and 54 benches. UAF also used excess building supplies to build an awning and table for the school’s cooking hut, as well as two soccer goals for an adjacent field. As part of the project, volunteers taught young villagers how to build benches themselves.
“We do this because it’s what we’re good at,” Alex says. “I feel like what I’m doing isn’t any different than somebody who’s going down the street and reading to old people. I don’t think my good is better than your good. I’m just wired for this type of good.”
He’s also wired to lead. Remember that local tea he was drinking by the fire? When we arrived in Dagabo, Hayo warned us: Don’t drink the tea. A previous volunteer got sick, she said. Alex scoffed. He was not going to say no when a villager offered him tea, which is a social ritual in Dagabo. Sure enough, a man soon stood before Alex with a small glass on a tray. The custom is to drink the tea quickly, almost like a shot.
Alex pounded the first of many glasses and smiled.
“That’s good,” he said, nodding with satisfaction. Soon we all were drinking the tea, because we all follow John Alex’s lead, brother. (And no, none of us got sick.)
Ken Budd is the author of The Voluntourist and the host of 650,000 Hours, an upcoming web series and podcast on travel and real-life American heroes.
This article is featured in the July/August 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Featured image: He came, he sawed… John Alex (right) is more at home in a small dusty village, like this one in Mali, than at a stuffy Manhattan cocktail party. (courtesy United Aid Foundation)
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