By John Lanphere, manager, Business Transformation, Xerox

John Lanphere is one of five Xerox employees granted a fully-paid leave of absence this year through the Xerox Social Service Leave program. He is currently in his eighth month of the program, working with Save The Children in Westport, CT, and will continue through December 2013.

At one point in my Xerox career I spent a lot of time with several amazing imaging scientists. I learned (perhaps in a bit too much detail) how sensitive our perception is to visual differences. Contrast, or how we visually perceive our world, is determined by the differences in brightness and color of the objects we see. As it turns out, people are pretty good at seeing subtle differences.

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Ethiopia and see the great work that Save the Children is doing there. It was also a real-world study in contrast.

As a first time traveler to any developing country, and to Africa in particular, I had some expectations. Sights, sounds, and smells were unfamiliar,  but mostly different in the ways I anticipated. This might have been the extent of it had I simply been visiting as a tourist. However, I had the opportunity to go beyond the hotel compound and learn more about this wonderful country and the Ethiopian people.Xerox Social Service Leave Taker: Volunteering For Save The Children In Ethiopia

The group I worked with go where they are most needed. Once there, they work to transform or build schools for children that otherwise have very limited access to education. They make sure there is access to clean drinking water. They build toilets separated for boys and girls. They build classrooms, hire teachers, and deliver programs in early childhood education, literacy, adolescent development, and health and nutrition. They teach the children and the entire community.  Above all, they make a difference in the lives of their fellow Ethiopians.

The schools in Ethiopia are still much different than the schools most people are used to. There are no school buses. Children walk a long way for the chance to learn. The location is remote. There is a single slate for every student rather than lockers stuffed with notebooks.

But in the bigger picture, the difference is not so great. While there, I sat in on a PTA meeting.  I witnessed the local people and communities working together because they know the value education provides to their children. I met teachers that have become part of the community where they teach. These teachers care about their students and know how to help them learn vital skills. And as I saw kids walking to take their year-end tests, the excitement to learn was as easy to see as their smiling faces.

By the end of the week, I had spoken with many people, and had a chance to introduce more than 50 people in the field office to QwikSolver, a problem solving method we use at Xerox that is focused on continuous improvement. What wasn’t new was their desire to learn, improve, and offer even more to the children they serve.

With apologies to the imaging science field, visual contrast really doesn’t let you see the whole picture. Sometimes you have to see and experience the world. And no matter where you go, people are always looking for new and better ways to improve their lives and the lives of those around them.