Steve Diamond’s adventure in volunteering

Posted on Wed, 03/01/2023 - 11:30am

By Tracy Poyser

Some kids are lucky enough from early childhood to set their inner compass for a life where borders don’t exist, and no place is too far to explore. Our neighbor Steve Diamond not only followed that compass but decided early on that he wanted to immerse himself in other cultures and live in far-flung places long enough to become a true citizen of the world. So, when he saw the item in the December 2022 Dialogue asking for volunteer experiences, he responded right away – and we couldn’t have found a more compelling story. Our hour-long interview last month prompted me to pull out my National Geographic Atlas, and I hope you’ll do the same.

Steve was born in Long Island, New York, and raised in South Florida. His stepfather was a world traveler who took young Steve on imaginary trips on a big world map where he had pinned all the countries he had visited. While attending the University of Florida, Steve continued to be fascinated by the idea of global travel and switched majors from business to geography, then studied abroad in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where he stayed for two years, which began more than a decade of travel, working and volunteering.

In 2003, a couple of years after completing his master’s degree in information technology in America and spending two years teaching IT as an adjunct faculty member, Steve combined idealism with adventure and joined the Peace Corps at age 27. He had learned about the Peace Corps (an independent agency under the U.S. State Department) in high school as a great way to gain international experience and challenge yourself. Requirements included a job interview, and the State Department-trained interviewers were quite rigorous, with questions often focused on his leadership abilities, problem-solving skills and making sure he wasn’t affiliated with any intelligence agencies.

Peace Corps tour in Kenya

Without requesting a specific part of the world, Steve one day received a letter stating he was being sent to Kenya, an East African country on the Indian Ocean and now the third-largest economy in Africa. After decades of violence and blatant corruption, Kenya was a bit more stable in 2003 under its new president, Mwai Kibaki. The country was still facing major challenges with crime, poverty, HIV and high illiteracy.

Steve’s main assignment in Kenya was to bring solar panel technology to remote villages where the indigenous Maasai lived, in and around Lake Magadi. Located in the Rift Valley about 75 miles southwest of Nairobi, Lake Magadi is a soda ash lake then owned by the UK-based Magadi Soda Company, which had processed soda ash since 1911 for the purposes of producing soap, paper, glass and other products. Soda ash is exported mainly to Asian countries and is a major industrial earner for Kenya. Many of the mining company’s contractors came from Nairobi and other parts of the country to do grueling work for high pay.

The Maasai are nomadic pastoralists whose lives center around tending their cattle and goats while seeking out fresh pastures to graze. The weather conditions in and around Magadi are extremely harsh, with temperatures reaching 128 degrees in daytime and 98 at night. Where there’s water, the Maasai will grow crops, especially greens, but their main food source comes from trading or selling their animals for dried beans, flour, vegetable oil and other staples.

Maasai housing is built with tree branches and several layers of soil and cow dung in a circular layout surrounded by thorned shrubbery to keep out the wild animals who try to eat their livestock at night. More modern construction materials, when available, consists mostly of corrugated steel panels nailed to wood planks, which bakes a person who stays inside during the day.

Most Maasai speak the official languages of Kenya,English – so Steve learned Swahili, and often used a translator to communicate with elders who spoke only their native Maa.

Building ‘libraries’ for the Maasai

Illiteracy was more prevalent than what Steve had expected, and there seemed to be a substantial lack of reading material. Most families have 4-6 children, and villages had one-room schools with almost no access to books. That led to Steve’s most rewarding experience in his two years in Kenya: building village “libraries,” which were effectively small spaces with sturdy walls, a sealed roof and a door with a lock on it. With a $5,000 donation from Safaricom, Kenya’s leading telecommunications company, he put his plan into action.

First, he contacted a nonprofit in the U.S., which collected a container full of books, maps, magazines and educational posters, and they were delivered to the Port of Mombasa on the Indian Ocean some 400 miles away. He negotiated a free ride for the container on the Magadi Soda Company’s own train line, which normally transported soda ash to the Port of Mombasa and came back empty. He paid a local carpenter to build bookshelves and provided librarian training to the local people, and the new libraries were an instant success. One of his best memories just before he left Kenya was seeing a student walking down a remote street with a book under his arm, the colors of the book cover standing out.

Steve’s eyes still light up when he talks about his time in Kenya and how much he learned from the Maasai. They have so much less in terms of material possessions, but an unmatched spirit of community and people caring for each other, especially their elders.

What advice would he give for anyone wanting to join the Peace Corps today? “Do it before you have kids, or after you’ve raised a family and are retired,” he recommends. If you want to stay in the U.S., he suggests volunteering for AmeriCorps – its members and AmeriCorps Seniors serve with nonprofit organizations to strengthen communities across our nation (check

A true citizen of the world, Steve lived overseas for another seven years after leaving Kenya in 2005, teaching English as a second language in South Korea, China and The Republic of Georgia. He moved back to the U.S. in 2012, initially to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, landing a job in technology, and finally to Chicago in 2015.

New challenge: Big Brothers Big Sisters

He and his wife, Sarah, and their dog, Doris, have been living happily in Malibu East since 2019. He’s still traveling as an IT consultant, but in 2018, he found another pivotal volunteering opportunity. He joined Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Chicago, an organization that provides high quality one-to-one mentoring services to over 2,000 children and their families in Metro Chicago across four counties: Cook, DuPage and Lake in Illinois and Lake in Indiana. Children and youngsters in the program range from age seven through high school graduation and ideally have the same mentor until they age out of the program.

Steve tells us that the need for mentors in Chicago is much greater than the available volunteers. Many of the children come from single-parent homes with challenging financial situations. As with the Peace Corps, Steve went through a thorough screening process, including a criminal background check. Parents apply for their children, and a Big Brothers Big Sisters representative meets with the family to develop a profile, including any issues affecting the life of the child. When a match is made, the organization’s rep introduces the mentor to his/her little brother or sister in the family’s home. The expected commitment is to spend at least two hours with a child every couple of weeks for a year.

In 2018, Steve was matched with Ben, a bright 12-year-old from Rogers Park with a mother from Ghana and a father from the Chicago area. As a rule, he tried to spend at least four hours with Ben every other week, focusing about 50% of that time on fun and outings like the Willis Tower Skydeck, arcades, batting cages, going out to eat and so on, 25% on personal development and 25% just being there for whatever his “little brother” needed. Once every three months, Ben would visit Steve and Sarah’s home and they would cook a meal together and converse about school, personal interests and working.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 and the lockdown hit just when Ben finished eighth grade, so his first 1½ years of high school were online only. Steve called and texted Ben, and they went for long walks along the lakefront and around different neighborhoods. Ben has aged out of the program now and is a junior at a Chicago-area high school. Steve left Big Brothers Big Sisters in 2022, but he’s still in Ben’s life as a personal mentor and friend, encouraging him to “be smart and make good decisions.”

Which of his life experiences were most helpful for being a Big Brother? “Probably my experiences with my nieces and nephews,” he says. “And the most important thing is to listen.” Asking open-ended questions, doing 80% listening and 20% talking, and not being judgmental goes a long way toward gaining lasting trust.

Any last thoughts for our readers?

Volunteering allows you to be part of a community,” he says. He wishes we’d live in a more collectivist society, but failing that, it isn’t that difficult to carve out a small niche of giving back. It can be as little as helping your neighbor with grocery shopping or packing groceries at one of our local food banks like Care for Real, a few blocks south of us on Sheridan. And, if you want to go further afield, check out the additional information below.

Peace Corps

Changing lives the world over”

The Peace Corps is a service opportunity for motivated change-makers to immerse themselves in a community abroad, working side by side with local leaders to tackle the most pressing challenges of our generation.

Becoming a Peace Corps volunteer is a unique opportunity to serve abroad:

  • 60+ host countries around the world welcome volunteers to tackle locally identified projects alongside the community.
  • While most volunteers serve two years, Peace Corps Response (PCR) offers 3- to 12-month options.
  • Both two-year and PCR volunteers receive training, housing, travel, a living stipend, medical support, a readjustment allowance, career support and other benefits.

Big Brothers Big Sisters – Chicago

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Chicago is an affiliate of the oldest, most respected mentoring organization in the U.S.“We are a mission driven, performance-based organization that is professionally managed and provides high quality 1:1 mentoring services to over 2,000 children and their families in Metro Chicago across four counties: Cook, DuPage and Lake Counties in Illinois and Indiana.”

  • Its mission is to create and support one-to-one mentoring relationships that ignite the power and promise of youth.
  • Its vision is that all youth achieve their full potential.