Cal Poly graduate Steph Fellows was watching a group of kids play soccer in Rwanda in 2012 when a rainstorm struck.
The children bustled into a cramped building in their village of Sunzu to grab a book, she recalled this week. But the dingy, cramped conditions weren’t well-suited for a good reading environment. Since then, Fellows, 26, has played a role in bringing a new library and preschool to the village of 3,000 through her work with Journeyman International, a San Luis Obispo-based nonprofit that coordinates humanitarian projects using an unusual model.
Journeyman International was started in 2009 by Daniel Wiens, a 27-year-old Cal Poly graduate in construction management, who helped build a dental clinic in Belize for his senior project.
The nonprofit has completed designs on 18 international humanitarian projects by connecting Cal Poly students in architecture, engineering and other majors with organizations that can fund building costs.
Their completed work has included an orphanage in Mexico and the dental clinic in Belize, including its second phase finished this spring.
Projects awaiting construction include a medical clinic in Ethiopia, a business training center in Uganda, and a rescue home in Cameroon for children recovering from human trafficking.
Fellows, a Cal Poly graduate in recreation, parks and tourism administration, relishes her work with students and agencies to line up projects.
“These projects completely change the lives of the people in these communities,” Fellows said. “And for the Cal Poly students, they realize the impact they can have, without yet being a licensed architect, to change the world.”
The approach helps keep costs down as nonprofits receive the benefit of design and project management expertise from skilled students — often as part of a senior project — for minimal cost.
Journeyman International typically charges no more than $1,500 for design, engineering, and project management costs — far less than the fees professionals would bill — while ensuring professional oversight for student work.
So far, Journeyman International has worked with 33 university students and traveled more than 76,000 miles with students to scout the project sites and acquaint themselves with the community.
The organization estimates the students have conducted the equivalent of $680,000 in design work.
Students travel abroad first to get to know the culture, economy and way of life before designing their projects. The organization helps pay for these trips through funds raised. The journeys help inform them on how to create a project that will ultimately be used and successful.
“I tell all the students we work with, you have to play soccer with the kids, cook with the moms, and sit down with the businessman before you do anything else,” Wiens said.
Locals often conduct the construction work, which encourages upkeep and use of the facilities thereafter.
For her senior project this year at Cal Poly, recent architecture graduate Jessica Labac worked with Journeyman International to design a business center in the rural village of Engeye, Uganda.
Labac, who spent 60 to 80 hours a week on the work, said it helped her begin to understand what it means to build in Uganda.
“For the most part, projects in school are theoretical and have minimal constraints, no budget and unlimited resources,” Labac said. “Taking on a project with a very small budget, numerous design constraints, and a very limited material palette was challenging.”
Journeyman International plans to expand its operation to architecture programs at other universities but wants to establish a successful program first by working with Cal Poly students.
“There are so many nonprofits that need help in developing countries, and JI has found an innovative way to bridge the gap between what people can afford and what they deserve as a service,” said San Luis Obispo architect Andrew Goodwin, who oversees student work for the nonprofit.
Currently the organization shares office space with iFixit on Monterey Street, a company that creates do-it-yourself repair kits that was started by Kyle Wiens, Daniel’s brother.
Journeyman International operates with an annual budget of about $250,000, with a handful of fundraising drives, and Wiens and Fellows are full-time employees.
Rudy Bachmann, owner of Specialty Construction in San Luis Obispo, a company Daniel Wiens worked for after graduation until transitioning into working on his nonprofit full-time, has been a major donor to Journeyman, giving thousands of dollars over the years.
“It’s great to see somebody on track for a career in a corporate environment like Daniel (Wiens) go that alternative, altruistic route,” Bachman said. “Daniel has a deeper calling, and this has a deeper meaning for him as a person.”