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Can philanthropy make good television? | Deseret News National
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Starkey Hearing Foundation
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Can philanthropy make good television?

Steven Sawalich's family has been known to travel the world 340 days a year. That's a lot of passport stamps.

His stepfather, Bill Austin, and his mother, Tani Austin, founders of the Starkey hearing-aid company, started the Starkey Hearing Foundation in 1984 to bring hearing aids to 160,000 children and adults per year around the globe.

Not many people get to see that much of the world, and Sawalich got talking to his stepfather one night about how many of the poverty-stricken places they visit are perceived negatively, but are filled with hope, inspiration and local heroes.

How to share that with the 60 percent of Americans who don't have a passport or the means to travel? The natural solution for Sawalich, who has a background in entertainment and his own production company, was to form a crew and bring cameras along. That's the concept behind "Operation Change," a 10-part series created by Sawalich that premiered Monday on OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network.

If hearing aids doesn't sound sexy enough to carry a reality show, that shouldn't be a problem — each segment takes the viewer to a different location around the world, from Haiti to Tanzania. And as media director for Starkey, Sawalich has partnered over the years with high-profile philanthropists like Bill Clinton and Richard Branson, who bring some significant starpower to the show. Clinton appears to help build a shelter for refugees in Colombia, Elton John is featured in Malaysia and the team meets with the Dalai Lama while trying to protect children from sex trafficking in India.

Executive producer Steven Sawalich talked to the Deseret News last week about topics ranging from philanthropy as entertainment to what Elton John wears in the jungle.

Deseret News: "Operation Change" has some gritty material — from sex trafficking to disfiguring disease. How do you keep the material real without making it dark or depressing for a television audience?

Sawalich: Being in philanthropy you see a lot of dire needs every day, and the stories that come across are heartbreaking, but they are also incredibly uplifting. These places we visit are perceived negatively, but there are great stories of hope and inspiration and possibility. We go into these areas that very few people have seen and meet people that are incredible.

DN: One of the criticisms of philanthropy has been that would-be do-gooders parachute into a community, assume they have the right answers and leave without having done much other than making the parachuters feel good about themselves. How do you address this in a show like this where you are dropping in on these communities?

Sawalich: There's no easy way to explain how to help somebody, but it's figuring out what you're able to do and using local partners to do it. In every country we have established a network with local organizations, and listening to locals, and that's the key to success. Where a lot of NGOs fail is they don't trust the community and locals to take ownership of the project. We do an 80/20 split with the locals to keep them going and keep them sustainable.

DN: What's an example of that from the show?

Sawalich: In Tanzania, we were working with the Maasai warriors, and they don't have any schools. So education appeared to be a big problem. But when we talked to them, they explained that the reason they don't have schools is because they have to walk four hours a day to get fresh water, so what they really need isn't schools, it's a well. So we talked to partners to bring a well there so that they can walk 10 minutes, and after that worry about building schools.

DN: Your team worked with a lot of celebrities on this project. What's it like working with Elton John? And what does he wear in the jungle?

Sawalich: In the Philippines we were outfitting people with hearing devices, and a lot of them had never heard sound before. We were fitting one girl with a hearing aid for the first time, and Elton John started singing to her. He sang "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," and her eyes were so wide. She had never experienced sound before, so to hear a song from Elton John, that was an incredible experience.

And yes, he was in his casual attire — he does have that. He’s a genuine and heartwarming guy.

DN: Most viewers are not celebrities with deep pockets, and they can't make this a lifestyle like you have. What would you like them to take away from the series?

Sawalich: I would like to show that there are small things we can do that make a difference. It's about paying respect and caring for the life of another person. We are trying to get people inspired to do their own small acts of philanthropy, their own acts of kindness where they can. If you find your passion you'll be able to create your own projects.

I also think that you can look at people in Tanzania and Ethiopia, and say they don't have anything, and assume that they are not happy. One thing we are showing is that wealth comes in different forms, and they get a lot of happiness from their communities and their families. There's a lesson for us in that.

There's not a big difference between a mother in Kansas and a mother in Namibia. We want so many of the same things. President Clinton likes to say that people are 99.5 percent the same, but it's the .5 percent that we focus on. We would like to show how we are the same all around the world.

See related story: Religion and reality TV: Is it a match made in heaven?

Email: laneanderson@deseretnews.com