Sonder Project: The Vivid Honor of Service

Sonder Project: The Vivid Honor of Service
Words by Anna Grace Usery
Photos provided by The Sonder Project

All people have a story. Some might be crafted into novels or poems, and some might be single words or phrases.

The word “sonder” may not show up in any dusty Webster’s straining the shelves of your bookcases, but to The Sonder Project, the word means everything. Not to be confused with Sounder, the beloved dog of literature, sonder, a noun, is the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.

The Sonder Project is a nonprofit in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, focusing on global-sustainability projects. So far, the effort has produced more than six hundred volunteers who brought clean water to more than seven thousand people, education to more than thirteen hundred people, and deworming medicine to more than two million people. Along with these momentous accomplishments, the organization spearheaded a food project that has garnered a whopping seventy-five hundred pounds of food.

As for the food project, The Sonder Project partnered with 360 Blue—a luxury rental home company along Scenic Highway 30-A—to provide donation bags in each of more than three hundred vacation rental homes. Visitors can put unopened food in bags after their vacation is over, and these items will be donated to local food banks. The non-profit isn’t alone; there are more than seventy-five companies nationwide following suit.

The Sonder Project sprouted from passions deeply rooted within two people—Ashley Hamm, CEO at 360 Blue, and Sarah Hockett, Executive Director of The Sonder Project. They pooled ideas, sought other nonprofits for partnerships, and formed a bond with game-changers who make differences in lives daily.  

“We’ve always been passionate about international travel in terms of poverty and awareness,” Ashley said. “We wanted to take our little bubbles we live in and share them with other people around the world.”

After seeing less-than-fortunate parts of the world, Sarah concluded she wanted to provide essentials to native people that we Americans take for granted. Sarah and the group poured over nonprofit research to see where they could not only fit in, but stand out at the same time. The Sonder Project chose an area—Burkina Faso, Africa—to “bombard” the locations with any sustainability project they could build, produce, or otherwise get their hands on. They partnered with buildOn, a nonprofit dedicated to building in several countries around the world. Though buildOn’s mission is to construct schools in some of the poorest places in the world, a higher focus is building a better future for everyone involved. Burkina Faso now has three working schools and another slated for 2017, thanks to efforts by The Sonder Project. Plans are to continue along the education route, potentially building more schools in Nicaragua, Nepal, and other countries in 2017. And above all, The Sonder Project is actively looking to source clean water by constructing wells in each location.   

Expressing her exuberance for the project, Ashley said the start-to-finish process for The Sonder Project is amazing.

“Part of our nonprofit model is for us to presently be there to break ground with them,” she said. “Whenever the locals see us pulling up a couple of miles out from their village, they’ll show up and run alongside us. They let us know how incredibly grateful they are.”

Burkina Faso produced many lasting relationships, both professional and personal, for all involved with The Sonder Project. Longtime friend Ahmed Kere became the organization’s translator during ongoing projects in 2015, and he took a group of 12 Sonder Project workers to build the first school in Burkina Faso. Helpful, attentive, and hard-working, Ahmed made the members of The Sonder Project realize what a great asset he was to the team, so they keep in constant contact. They even invited him and Martin, another translator, to Santa Rosa Beach to visit for a week. The visit gave them an opportunity to learn still more about his overwhelming love for others and to see his personality shine with innate spirit and charm. Sarah and Ashley both considered him a dear friend, saying his heart was made of gold.  

Ahmed and Martin returned to Burkina Faso to continue helping others through service. When a group from The Sonder Project was set to journey to Burkina Faso in the following two days, turmoil ensued. A military coup targeting Westerners broke out in the capital city of Ouagadougou. There were attacks and car bombs near downtown restaurants and hotels. Reluctantly, Sarah and Ashley canceled the planned trip. Parts of the city lay in ruin. Among the rubble was dear friend to The Sonder Project and the people of Burkina Faso, Ahmed. Later it was discovered Ahmed died pleading for the lives of those dining in the restaurant.

“He’s the hand I would’ve grabbed in the restaurant,” Ashley said.

Needless to say, Ahmed wasn’t afraid to defend anything, including education. Just like the legendary phoenix, The Sonder Project rose from the ashes of sadness and destruction to follow in Ahmed’s inimitable footsteps. Acts of service returned with a vengeance, and The Sonder Project named their newly constructed school after their fallen friend.  

“Hearing stories, goals, and admiration from those affected by The Sonder Project's sustainability efforts are what keep the organization going,” Ashley said. The main office doubles as a gallery, displaying large photos of Burkina Faso natives interacting with volunteers as they put smiles on faces and passion in hearts. The Sonder Project invites members of the community to accompany them on trips abroad, and making a donation is as easy as hopping on their website.  

“We appreciate all the donations and fundraising efforts we receive, but we also encourage community members to join us on treks,” Sarah said. “It’s a completely different experience to meet the person to whom you’re donating and hear his or her future dreams.”

For more information, or to learn how you can help, visit