It’s no easy feat to make lasting change, especially in a foreign country where, culturally, everything is different. Still, Pam Graves, an agent with Summer House Realty in Fernandina Beach, Fla., knew that’s exactly what she was called to do after returning from a 2015 mission trip to Uganda. “The trip was life-changing, and I knew right then and there that I wanted to do something to make a difference,” Graves says. “Some of the people we met on the trip—I mean, we were giving them their first-ever pair of shoes.”
She says that even though she faced struggles in life, she lived in a privileged position with access to everything she needed. She returned home with a desire to do something big, but she wasn’t able to at the time. “We were in a lot of debt and had small children, and I just thought there was no way,” Graves recalls. “So, I put it on the backburner, but the desire never left me.”
During the pandemic, though, things changed quickly for Graves. The rollercoaster market turned out to be a boon for her business, and she had what she says were the two best years of her real estate career. “We were able to get out of debt, and my kids were older. I just thought to myself, ‘Now is the time.’”
Graves says she approached the idea of philanthropic work in Africa with a careful lens. She was cognizant of the stigma around mission work and didn’t want to potentially cause more harm through performative actions. She sought to empower and create lasting change.
Graves reached out to her network in Africa to reconnect with a cook she met there named Mary Apio, whom Graves describes as having a “strong inner light.” That’s when Graves learned more about Apio’s story: Completely self-taught, Apio took up cooking to care for herself. She’d been married off as a child bride after being assaulted, and a local pastor helped her to escape. However, with no education and no skills, navigating the region alone as a woman was dangerous. Apio took to cooking after borrowing a neighbor’s well-used rolling pin to make tortillas that could sell in local markets.
Before her career in real estate, Graves spent years in the restaurant business and loved the culinary arts as well. “After Mary told me her story and we figured out we had cooking in common, I realized that this is where the lasting change comes in,” Graves says.
She and Apio discussed building a culinary school to help other survivors of assault and forced child marriage build a life for themselves. Within months, the Sonrisa School of Culinary Arts and Bakery came to life in Uganda. The school officially opened to students in February 2021. “We’ve given God all the glory for everything that’s happening over there,” Graves says, noting that she and Apio faced almost no obstacles when setting up the school. They were able to find a building, supplies and put scholarships together for students.
The one thing that makes the endeavor work, Graves says, is that Apio, a Uganda native, runs the show. Apio knows how best to serve her community, so she’s front and center in every aspect of running the school. Graves says her role is to help coordinate the services that Apio needs to make legacy-level change. “Together, it’s a beautiful combination. I provide the funding, and I let Mary tell me how it needs to be used to serve the community in the best way,” Graves says.
Right now, Sonrisa is fully supported by Graves, who gives personal donations and organizes fundraisers. But she’s hoping that will change. “I want Sonrisa to be around for all of the survivors that need it, and so, I’m hoping to grow fundraising efforts into recurring donations, matching gifts from companies and things like that.”After all, she says, the endeavor has changed her from the inside out, providing her with an inner calm and contentment she’s never experienced before. She wants other people to know that feeling. “Sometimes, it feels like—in real estate, at least—you’re always kind of chasing the next thing to fill you up,” Graves says. “But this school and Mary and the people we’re helping have showed me that, truly, I don’t need anything material to fill some hole. I have a beautiful family and a beautiful marriage. This has made me very grateful for what I have.”