Written by The Business Journal Staff
Chris Collins, Executive Director
West African Vocational Schools (WAVS)
What we do: West African Vocational Schools is a Christian nonprofit based in Fresno that works hand-in-hand with local leaders in Guinea-Bissau, one of the world’s smallest and poorest countries. We equip young women and men with life-changing job skills so that they can transform their communities. Find out more at www.WAVSchools.org.
Education: B.A., Journalism; B.A., Political Science, Whitworth University, 2005
Family: Wife of three years, Holly Collins, a pediatric physical therapist at Valley Children’s Hospital.
Can you tell us a little about the connection between Fresno and Guinea-Bissau?
The Valley has a unique connection with the little-known country of Guinea-Bissau. In 1994, a Bissau-Guinean named Domingos Pereira graduated from Fresno State with a master’s degree in civil engineering. In 2014, he became the prime minister of Guinea-Bissau and implemented several important government reform efforts. He is the first Fresno State alum to become the head of any country in the world.
Also, Guinea-Bissau and the Valley share an agriculture-based economy. Ag is the lifeblood of Guinea-Bissau and accounts for more than 90 percent of its exports.
How did you become involved with WAVS?
I was a reporter for The Fresno Bee from 2006 to 2010. While at The Bee, I took a two-week trip to Guinea-Bissau and saw for myself the impact the WAVS School had in the community of Canchungo, a rural town with no paved roads and no electricity that is home to 20,000 people. The school had been open for less than two years but was already considered a critical part of the community. It was — and still is — the only vocational school in the area.
After volunteering with WAVS for several years, I left The Bee in 2011 and became the executive director of WAVS. I was the nonprofit’s first-ever hire. Needless to say, it was a risky move for my career. But I’ve never regretted it. I’ve been amazed to see how the Valley has come together to invest in the lives of young women and men in Guinea-Bissau to transform an entire country.
What has the vocational school meant for the more than 700 young men and women in Guinea-Bissau who have attended, Chris Collins?
Because fewer than one out of four students in Guinea-Bissau even graduate from high school — and because the education system is so poor — young people have few options. The WAVS School gives them something we in the states take for granted: an opportunity to succeed.
The school, which is attended by more than 200 students each year and is run by an all-Guinean staff, offers courses in computer basics, auto mechanics, welding, English and French — classes that equip young women and men with marketable job skills so that they and their families can thrive.
The school creates opportunities for young people like João, a 22-year-old who graduated from the school’s 9-month welding program in 2015 and now has his own rudimentary workshop on a patch of dirt by the side of the road. Though João has few tools and no electricity, he uses a blowtorch and his welding skills to patch up rusted-out cars and earns an income so he can provide for himself and his aging parents. Read his full story here: http://africaschools.tumblr.com/post/147670113163/this-is-his-story-now-its-yours
WAVS just recently had its annual banquet. How did it go, Chris Collins?
It was incredible. With the help of 50 volunteers and many business sponsors, we held our fourth annual Dine & Discover West Africa Dinner Banquet on Oct. 7 at Engelmann Cellars. It featured complimentary wine-tasting, authentic West African cuisine, live entertainment, and an exciting live auction. About 480 people attended.
Each year, the banquet has doubled the amount of funds raised. This year, we exceeded our goal and raised $111,000. We’re hosting this exciting and unique event again in the fall of 2017. Business sponsors can reserve their tables now by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information, photos and video are available at www.wavschools.org/2016banquet.
How can local residents contribute to the mission of WAVS, Chris Collins?
There are three simple ways to get involved.
1. Sponsor a teacher: You can help sponsor a WAVS School teacher with a monthly commitment of $30, $50 or $100 per month. You will get regular updates from your sponsored teacher about the impact of your investment in the lives of young people in Guinea-Bissau. Find out more at www.wavschools.org/teachers.
2. Get the updates: Sign up today for news, stories and updates from WAVS via email at www.wavschools.org/joinus.
3. Spread the word: Host a presentation in your living room or connect us to your service group or church. Email me at email@example.com to get started.
Before becoming executive director of WAVS, you worked for several years as a newspaper reporter for the Merced Sun-Star and Fresno Bee. Tell us a little bit about that transition.
I fully enjoyed my five years as a newspaper reporter, but when the opportunity to join WAVS opened up, I knew the timing was right and that an even more exciting job awaited. I’m glad I stepped through that door. The big lesson I learned is that change is often good, even if it’s not easy. Every 5 to 15 years in life, it’s good to change things up.
What was your very first job and what did you learn from it, Chris Collins?
I had a weekly newspaper route when I was a teenager. I was paid 100% by tips. Many didn’t tip at all; others gave me $20 each month just for tossing a newspaper at their door once a week. I learned that you can never tell who will be generous and who will be stingy. You’ll always be surprised. The same has been true with the job I have today.
What are your roots in the Central Valley, Chris Collins?
I moved here from Seattle right after college in 2005. I lived in Merced for one year and have lived in Fresno for 10 years. My wife and I own a home in the Tower District.
What do you like to do in your spare time, Chris Collins?
Snowboard, travel, read.