By Barrie Brett
“I didn’t know what I would do, but I knew I had to do something.” Dick Young
Dick Young’s career as a film and television producer/director has spanned four decades. Over the years, he has been awarded many honors, including three Academy Award nominations for his documentaries and a National Emmy award for cinematography. Many of his sponsored projects for large multi-national corporations have been produced in his signature documentary style.
In the last few years, the majority of Dick’s work has been in producing humanitarian film and video projects for non-profit organizations. While working on one of these films, Dick met a group of people whose plight gave him a purpose that would change the shape of his career and his life.
One morning, I happened to walk by Dick Young’s edit session while he was supervising and producing a video project. The visuals and story on the monitor were so compelling that I stood outside the door transfixed. The video project documented lives turned around as rural famers in remote African villages were given a chance at a new livelihood. I interviewed Dick a short time later; his ‘helping hand’ moment will touch your heart.
(Note from The Denan Project: Since this book’s publication in 2009, The Denan Project has grown substantially. Today we work with communities in five different locations: Denan, Ethiopia; Ouadaradouo, Burkina Faso; Tariat, Mongolia; Uratari, Peru; and the Navajo Nation in Arizona, USA. Since our founding in 2004, we have provided free medical care to more than 400,000 people around the world. All of this work stems from Dick’s initial commitment to “do something to help.”)
The Denan Project: A Helping Hand
Dick Young’s Story
After I graduated from high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.
Instead of heading off to college like many of my friends, I ended up serving in the Air Force for three years. There, I was placed in a division that made training films. I went out with various commercial crews, and also volunteered to direct military crews to produce a monthly newsreel seen by everyone in the Air Force. It was on-the-job training for the film industry.
After my three years, I was able to land a freelance job with Life Magazine. Traveling around the world with the Life reporters, I was responsible for sound. Every once in a while I would be asked to shoot a newsreel, even though at that point I barely knew the front of a camera from the back. When that happened, I would run to the nearest equipment rental store and ask them to show me how to load and shoot.
Then, I was asked to shoot and edit a film about paper making. Again, I’d been asked to do a job that was totally new to me, a job at which I had no experience whatsoever. I’d never edited anything before, and I had to learn as I went along. Apparently I did okay, because the publisher of Life Magazine asked if I would help to put together a film chronicling his career, to accompany the announcement of his retirement. The film was well-received, and I was put under contract with the idea of helping to start a film/television division where the famous Life photographers could work, since we knew that Life Magazine would soon be closing its doors.
Two years later, I decided to strike out on my own. Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to make films and videos for major corporations and non-profit entities, including various United Nations organizations, the Ford Foundation, IBM, Exxon, Motorola, Mercedes Benz and the Chrysler Corporation. It’s humbling to think that in the past forty years my work has been seen by people in over one hundred countries.
Several years ago, I became involved with charitable organizations that produce films and television shows documenting world humanitarian issues, including poverty, health crises, sanitation issues and hunger. While traveling on assignment for Heifer International, I learned firsthand of the problems caused by drought and famine in the Horn of Africa.
In the course of that assignment, I decided to take a few days off and do some filming of my own. I thought I might produce a little piece about what I saw. Although there were several areas I could have selected, I chose Denan, Ethiopia. I don’t think, looking back, that this was simply by chance.
My crew and I were devastated by what we saw there. Several thousand men, women and children had come to this particular area, hoping to find shelter and fresh water, but there was none. People were sick and dying all around us. They had walked for miles and miles, watching friends and family members die of starvation, dehydration, and illness along the way. For weeks, they’d had barely enough food and water to keep themselves alive.
We were shooting with tears running down our faces. My sound man was sobbing aloud. It was so hard to stand by, just watching and filming, while people suffered in these appalling conditions.
When it was time for us to leave, the district administrator came up to me, and said seven words that changed my life forever. He said: “Please do something to help my people.”
I didn’t know what I could do, but I knew I had to do something.
I put together a video from the footage, and showed it to various friends. Again, I wasn’t sure of the goal: maybe just to raise some money, or hire a doctor for a year. Soon, there were eight of us collecting donations. Sometimes those donations were only $100, sometimes $500. Then, one day, a friend gave us $15,000, and I knew we were on our way.
The eight of us knew that we had to keep our goals reasonable. We couldn’t solve the world hunger crisis by ourselves, but we could try to offer some medical care to the people of Denan. And that’s what we did, opening a two-room facility in an abandoned building.
Now, only a few years later, we’re operating a twenty nine room hospital with a paid, caring staff of over thirty people. We have a lab for sophisticated tests, a pre-natal care center, and vaccination and medical outreach programs. We also sponsor agricultural and cottage industry programs, and we’re building a water pipeline. Best of all, we have served over forty-five thousand Ethiopians so far, and none of them have had to pay a cent. Thousands of people come to us from across the desert, sometimes walking over a hundred miles with little food and water through areas where there are no roads. The area around Denan is prone to drought and famine, and there are dangerous rebel insurgencies, but at least we have been able to provide a safe haven for those who need medical help.
When I heard the Denan district administrator say “Please do something to help my people,” my life changed. I have a new focus. If I had never heard that plea, I probably would have made a small film about the effects of drought on the displaced people of Ethiopia; maybe I would have taken it to a film festival. But those words, spoken in that moment, were a miracle to me, and they inspired in me a drive to make a difference to the people of Denan and to people around the world. Ever since that moment, my life and future are dedicated to the Denan Project.