June 14, 2010
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Instead of wondering what he could do for himself, Darius Coulibaly would rather ask what he could do for others. At 7'1", the former Vanderbilt center has not just stood out because of his height, he has also stood out because of his generosity.
Raised in poverty in the Ivory Coast, Coulibaly grew up with very little. He had no electricity and was without running water. He witnessed people dying at a young age because of the spread of disease and the lack of health care. At age 12, Coulibaly lost a friend who fell ill after eating a mango. Seeing this, he vowed to do something about the struggles of everyday life of those around him.
“I thought about being a doctor, but as I got older I thought about if there is a different way,” Coulibaly said. “I really wanted to help poor people.”
For Coulibaly, there was a different way. In December 2005, Coulibaly founded Empowering the Poor Inc., a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization based in Fredericksburg, Va., with a mission to empower poor communities.
Instead of giving handouts, the focus of Empowering the Poor is to empower poor communities to self-reliance through education, health care and micro-loan programs. The organization works with villages in sub-Saharan Africa as well as citizens in the U.S.
“I knew from day one that giving handouts was not the solution,” Coulibaly said. “I know how much money Africa receives in foreign aid, but yet we can’t get clean water for the people. The poor must realize that they are the solution and they have to do it themselves, and they have to do it through knowledge. They do not need to rely on handouts because handouts don’t solve poverty.”
Among the main areas Empowering the Poor focuses on assisting the less fortunate are by enhancing literacy and academic abilities and providing disease education to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Through disease education, Coulibaly hopes to equip poor communities with prevention and treatment methods to combat diseases such as AIDS and malaria. Furthermore, the organization helps build local health centers, distributes bed nets and delivers medical supplies to those in need.
Coulibaly came to the U.S. at age 17 and graduated from Greensboro Day High School in Greensboro, N.C. before coming to Vanderbilt. At Vanderbilt, Coulibaly was a four-year letterwinner and averaged a shade under 10 minutes per game over his career. Coulibaly left Vanderbilt with a master’s degree in economics.
Coulibaly credits his time at Vanderbilt for helping to get the organization up and running.
“My time at Vanderbilt was a tremendous resource,” Coulibaly said. “I didn’t have to have a lawyer to do all the paperwork when I was setting up the organization. The knowledge I gained in graduate school was great. You learn so many skills in college, and my time at Vanderbilt was huge.”
Coulibaly’s passion for bettering the community carries over to his career, where he is a high school special education teacher in Fredericksburg, Va.
“Teaching gives me a lot of flexibility,” Coulibaly said. “In the summer times that is when I go to Africa. It’s not a lot of money, but it gives me the flexibility to do what I like to do which is empowering poor people. To me, I will never change that.”
As an economics major, teaching was not what Coulibaly was thinking about after graduation. Instead, he had his eye on finding a job with a non profit organization. After having no luck in Nashville, he moved to the Washington, D.C., area and worked at a medical center, working specifically with drug rehabilitation and emotional and behavioral disorders, before going into teaching.
Even when Coulibaly isn’t working directly with Empowering the Poor or teaching, he can’t keep himself from helping others in need. After the earthquake in Haiti, Coulibaly and his wife, Sophonie Beauvais, who was born in Haiti, spent 10 days in the country helping the natives get back on their feet. The two hope to raise enough money to bring 500 tents to Haiti.
Some people are driven by money and some are driven by their careers. Coulibaly is driven by neither. Instead, he is driven to help others. He has projects lined up to assist others for years to come, but no matter how large the project, there has never been one too large to conquer for Coulibaly.
“When I was young, I told myself that when I grow up, I’m going to do something about it,” Coulibaly said.