ALL EARS

Radios are a source of information and comfort to the world’s underserved

By MAGGIE TOBIAS

Thomas Witherspoon ’96, founder and director of Ears To Our
World, explains a radio’s operation to a teenager whose parents
run the Unity Presbyterian Primary School in Belize City, Belize.

Cameroon, Uganda, Belize, Haiti, Kenya: Those are just a few countries whose residents can now tune in to information from around the globe thanks to the efforts of Thomas Witherspoon ’96, founder of Ears To Our World, a nonprofit organization that supplies windup radios to teachers in developing countries. “Our mission is to support anyone who doesn’t have access to information,” Witherspoon said.

The idea for Ears To Our World was born in 2007, along with twins girls delivered prematurely by Witherspoon’s wife, Heather Pittillo ’90. Witherspoon gave up a position with a statewide community development bank to join his wife in caring for the girls full time. “I decided I wanted to stay home and help take care of the twins,” he said. “I wasn’t working anymore, and for the first time, I could actually think, and I had all these ideas bubble up.”

Witherspoon conceived ETOW after reading an article about an organization that raised money to install solar panels on a school in Thailand. He had loved radio since childhood, and the article influenced him to combine that love with aid work. He told his plan to his wife, who said she initially wasn’t sure he was serious. “First I thought it was a joke, so I was prepared mentally for the punch line, but it never came,” Pittillo said. “But after he described his concept for a charity, I said, ‘That’s the best idea you’ve ever had. We’re going to be poor forever, but let’s do it.’”

Witherspoon contacted his friend Fred Osterman, owner of radio retailer Universal Radio, who was immediately ready to lend a hand. Also with the help of Nyaga Mwaniki, a WCU associate professor of anthropology doing research in Kenya, Witherspoon sent two self-powered, shortwave radios to Kenya, giving the first one to a teacher in Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa. Since then, they’ve sent several more radios to Kenya and continue to serve rural schools there.

After the maiden voyage of ETOW, the project expanded quickly. ETOW began partnering with other U.S. aid organizations already working in places they wanted to reach. In Mozambique, it joined with Books for Kids to give radios to young teachers in rural areas. It started similar programs in Uganda, Sudan and Cameroon.

A homebound child with disabilities, cared for by
his grandmother, background, also received a radio
during Witherspoon’s recent trip to Belize.

As the scope of its aid grew, so did their need for supplies. “I called Fred one day and said we needed more radios,” Witherspoon said. They decided to contact the radio manufacturer, Esmail Amid-Hozour, CEO of Eton Corp. “Next thing I know, a truck’s coming with 500 radios to fuel us. He got right on board,” Witherspoon said.

Since then, he has had no trouble attracting publicity and volunteer service. “I think people in the media understand the power of news and information and the importance of getting access for people who don’t have it,” said Witherspoon, whose ETOW was featured this spring in the Magazine from the Wall Street Journal.

ETOW’s radios have three main purposes: educating, informing and providing disaster relief. Witherspoon said a teacher in Romania is learning French through her radio. She also plays news broadcasts for her students to give them a taste of the larger world. “The kids clamor to get the radio to be the one to wind it for the day,” he said.

In addition to hearing programs such as BBC World Service, recipients of radios will soon be able to listen to original broadcasts Witherspoon is developing that will cover topics such as family planning and hygiene.

Although it wasn’t his original purpose, Witherspoon’s radios became vital tools in disaster relief for Haiti. After the Jan. 12 earthquake, ETOW sent about 600 radios to Haiti. Cullowhee United Methodist Church helped organize, test and package the radios, which were used by Haitians to find sources of food and water and to clear up misinformation about aftershocks. “Radio is super, super important there,” he said. “There were people saying they’d rather have information than food. It gives them a sense of control in an out-of-control situation.”

Witherspoon has plans to continue disaster relief in Haiti and possibly start partnerships in Tanzania and Malawi. He also hopes the organization can raise enough money to be able to pay some staff members. He is considering a pen-pal program between U.S. and foreign students. Lately, Witherspoon has been working to bring radios to blind children in Belize.

“It’s world-opening to them,” Witherspoon said. “When I was in Belize, there was a blind child who had a hard time communicating. This child, although bright, recently had multiple strokes and was nonresponsive. I was worried that he might not benefit from the radio. I turned on the radio for the first time, and there was this music, and he just lit up.”

Experiences like this are what keep Witherspoon passionate about ETOW. It isn’t easy managing a nonprofit while raising twins and building a new home in Swannanoa, doing much of the work himself. But Witherspoon has a strong support group. “The family support has made all this possible. Heather’s intimately involved with all the operations,” Witherspoon said. “Our kids, I think their first multisyllable word was radio.”

Pittillo helps behind the scenes by answering e-mail, editing material for the organization website and writing occasional articles. “It is a little bit of a family enterprise,” she said. “I’m moral support for a husband who’s out on a limb doing his own thing. Tommy and I, we have this pact that we’ll live this frugal life to do what we love to do.”

For information about Ears To Our World, visit www.etow.org.

Reprinted in edited form with permission of The Sylva Herald.