Carrying her own backpack: daughter of global activist, Stella Young joins On the Ground


Photo: Stella Young joined On the Ground’s Run Across Ethiopia delegation in 2011.

By Jacob Wheeler

Sun editor

On the Ground co-founder Timothy Young visited his daughter Stella in Rome where she studied abroad.

The message from Timothy Young to his six-year-old daughter Stella was clear: you’ll carry your own backpack, throughout the trip. About that he was adamant.

The trip was to Chiapas, Mexico, in 2007 to meet rural coffee-growing communities which Higher Grounds Trading Co. (now based in Traverse City) supported through the Chiapas Water Project. The delegation of 10 people spent two weeks hanging in the highland colonial town San Cristòbal de las Casas, meeting farmers in mountain villages, touring coffee warehouses, and even rubbing elbows with mask-wearing Zapatista rebels.

Stella, who had never before flown on an airplane and “didn’t know what I was getting into,” managed the trip fairly well. She suffered only one meltdown, as six-year-olds do. They were walking down a dirt path toward a Chiapas Water Project-funded well, and Stella refused to jump over a puddle. Timothy told his daughter, “OK,” and kept on walking—though he could still see her from the well.

That journey has now come full circle. A year after she graduated from Kalamazoo College, the 2018 Glen Lake School graduate who was forced to carry her own her backpack 16 years ago recently became director of development for On the Ground, the international nonprofit co-founded in 2010 by her father and Higher Grounds owner Chris Treter. The organization has supported coffee farmers in Chiapas, Ethiopia and the Congo, and olive farmers in the Palestinian West Bank. Between 2011 and 2015, On the Ground held three different ultramarathon runs to support farmers in war-torn and impoverished regions, and to raise awareness back home about the daily hurdles they face. The nonprofit’s mission is to create sustainable solutions in coffee-growing communities by improving farmers’ standard of living through community development initiatives. “Sustainability starts where inequality ends,” the organization’s website states.

After a brief hibernation, On the Ground will host a party and fundraiser on Thursday, Oct. 12, at The Alluvion at Commongrounds in Traverse City. Stella, Timothy, Treter, and Palestine Fair Trade Association founder Nasser Abufarha will speak about the nonprofit’s impact and its current projects, which include funding gender equity work and supporting war orphans and promoting literacy in the Congo, as well as school projects for farming communities in Chiapas. Musical performers at the event will include Jordan Hamilton, Amber Hasan and Charlie Millard. The doors open at 6 p.m. Guests are asked to make a suggested donation of $10.


Activism in the family

Stella’s first trip to Chiapas in 2007 was a formative experience, as were the many lessons she learned from her parents, Timothy and Kathy Young, who acted locally and thought globally. Lessons about seeing the world as one community, about raising awareness around just and sustainable food, and recognizing the connection between ourselves and those who produce the foods we eat—be they a county away or a continent away.

After studying international relations at Schiller International University in England and Spain, and while getting his master’s degree in Latin American Studies from the University of Arizona, Timothy Young traveled to Nicaragua in the 1980s to work with a Quaker organization that built homes for war widows. He also did relief work in Guatemala, transporting food and supplies to villages in the western highlands just after the country’s right-wing military (trained and funded by the Reagan administration) committed massacres against the Mayan indigenous population. Timothy wanted to do his small part to counterattack the harm inflicted by his government. He also researched and traveled to Cuba. Along the way he developed an appreciation for agricultural communities who grow the food or harvest the coffee we take for granted in the global north. In 1995 Timothy launched Food for Thought, a manufacturer of organic, wild-crafted, Fair Trade specialty jams, salsas and sauces near his home on Oviatt Road south of Empire.

The idea for On the Ground and the first ultramarathon run to support farmers came while Timothy and Chris Treter sat at a bar near the harbor in Havana in 2010. “I remember thinking the idea was insane,” said Stella, who learned of their plan for a Run Across Ethiopia soon after her dad returned from Cuba. “I was used to my dad traveling around the world. But the running part seemed insane.”

Stella leads the runners in Ethiopia.

Less than a year later, in January 2011, 10 American runners (six from Traverse City and Leelanau County) arrived in Addis Ababa to run 250 miles over 12 days through rural Ethiopia to the Yirgacheffe region where coffee was first harvested during the 10th century. They ran first in the Entoto Mountains north of Addis Ababa, famous for its high elevation and thin air, which makes it an ideal training ground for elite distance runners. Six Ethiopian harriers joined the Americans on the journey, and on some days entire classes of schoolchildren would run with them. Running is as omnipresent in Ethiopia as coffee.

Stella, her mom Kathy, and brother Connor joined the delegation midway through the run. They stayed with the runners, and musical ambassadors Seth Bernard and May Erlewine, in bamboo woven huts at the Aragesh Mountain Lodge, where the groundskeeper threw food scraps down a hillside to giant vultures and hyenas; these powerful animals are the reasons why Ethiopian runners never train alone or before sunrise. At Lake Hawassa they saw hippos from the safety of a boat. And in the hamlet of Hase Gola, where the run ended, they met thousands of giddy villagers who waited down a rutted dirt road, clapping their hands, singing in choirs, and dancing with sugar cane sticks as the harriers arrived.

The welcome in Hase Gola, where On the Ground was building the first of four rural schools, was beautiful, teary-eyed, triumphant and humbling. Timothy and others in the delegation had traveled extensively to developing countries before, but they had never experienced a greeting quite like this. During the ensuing celebration, Stella performed cartwheels in the grass as hundreds of Ethiopian children and villagers looked on. Some runners ate raw meat, a symbolic offering from a local cow butchered that morning.

The following year, in 2012, On the Ground held a Run Across Palestine, which featured six runners traversing the West Bank over six days—from a village in the Hebron Hills surrounded by radical Jewish settlers who have tried to choke off the community’s ability to farm olive trees, through Jerusalem, and further north to the Jenin refugee camp and the headquarters of Canaan Fair Trade. This trip supported olive farmers, and attempted to shed a light on the persecution of Palestinian farmers by the Israeli military and radical settlers. As such, its message was more political than the Run Across Ethiopia. On the run’s first day the military harassed the runners and arrested On the Ground supporter Nasser Abufarha, who founded Canaan Fair Trade and the Palestine Fair Trade Association. Traverse City filmmaker Aaron Dennis and I made a documentary about the Run Across Palestine called The People and the Olive (2012).


Her own project

Stella and her mom Kathy Young.

Stella remembered feeling jealous that she wasn’t able to join the Palestine trip or the Run Across Congo, which followed in 2015, and supported coffee farmers emerging from a brutal civil war.

“I was also worried about Palestine because I knew the political situation,” she said. “When we read (after the first day) that some of the team had been arrested, but we didn’t know who, I was convinced that my dad was among them. We knew he would be the one to jump up and try to intervene if he knew something was going wrong. We know him.”

A student at Glen Lake High School, Stella studied for one semester of her junior year at Conserve School, a boarding school in Wisconsin geared for environmentally and outdoor-minded students. While there, Stella needed to adopt a community outreach program, so she raised funds to cover school tuition for 20 children in the Congo. She continued the project for three years and ultimately helped fund the education for 40 students.

Stella matriculated at Kalamazoo College, where most undergraduates also study abroad. She chose Rome for a semester of her senior year and also trekked through other Western European countries. Timothy’s humanitarian activism had rubbed off on her.

“My parents always wanted us to see other cultures and meet people,” said Stella. “When I travel somewhere, I like to go one step beyond the touristy attractions. I like to figure out how to really get to know a place.”

Meanwhile, Stella has worked, off and on, for eight years at Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate, the fair-trade company in Empire that sources from cacao farmers in Ecuador who are paid a living wage.

“Coffee and chocolate and jam have been my fields of work,” she laughed. “I always knew if there was an opportunity to work for On the Ground, I would jump at that chance. It seemed like the obvious next step.”