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Woodworker tries to follow in Jesus’ footsteps

Gainesville man builds benches, chairs for a good cause

POSTED: August 10, 2014 1:35 a.m.
/Photos courtesy of Austin White

Gainesville resident Austin White, 23, embraces the people he came to call his family during a recent trip to Sierra Leone. During his time in the West African country, White grew particularly close to his bodyguard-turned-best-friend, A.K., who presented White with a solid gold necklace shaped like Africa as a farewell gift.

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Like his father and grandfather before him, Austin White loves woodworking. But when it comes to emulating carpenters, he peers past his own parentage and tries to mirror the most famous of all.

“I want to follow in Jesus’ footsteps,” he said.

Thus far, his hobby has included crafting chairs and other furniture, but the activity has allowed him to broaden his horizons. His woodworking has led the Lakeview Academy alumnus to visit new continents, save a family from homelessness, narrowly escape being jailed by militants and slaughter a goat.

“I decided to make woodworking mean something,” the 23-year-old Gainesville resident said. “Helping people takes many different forms, and I’m still figuring out exactly how God intends on using me,”

While he waits for a final answer, White doesn’t intend to sit stagnant. Such is the reason he recently created his own nonproift, RAWHOPE, which uses the money raised from his handcrafted furniture — including benches, arbors and hanging beds — to support the people he met while on a recent mission trip to Sierra Leone, a nation now devastated by the deadly Ebola outbreak.

“This all started last year,” he said. “I was lost, in college, and I didn’t know what to do. I went to college because you’re supposed to, not because I wanted to. Needless to say, I didn’t do too well.”

He sought a purpose but found only more questions.

“I felt like I was missing something,” White said.

Clicking into place

Then he found himself in church, watching a promotional video about a fundraising effort to buy a sonogram for a village in Sierra Leone, and something clicked. He knew nothing about the place, but he knew it was where he belonged.

“I didn’t know what language they spoke, what food they ate, if they were a Third World country,” he said. “As far as I knew, it was in France.”

With the encouragement of his parents, David and Connie White, the then-22-year-old found himself alone on a plane for a 24-hour trip.

“At first, I was worried,” White said. “I had never been out of the South, never been alone (and) never been the only white person. But once you fall in love with a place and its people, the fear goes away.”

For a solid month, spanning parts of this past December and January, he donated his time to Fire Tabernacle Outreach Ministries, helping to establish a microloan program and scholarship plan to assist Sierra Leone students aiming to attend college.

“It started off as missions work, but then it became a passion,” he said. “I felt at home there.”

Yet his visit had to end, and he found himself back in Gainesville, separated from his new family. White especially missed his bodyguard-turned-best-friend, A.K., who accompanied him throughout the trip.

“He became a brother to me,” White said.

In fact, he is convinced A.K. saved his life.

During one road trip, police officers detained White for not wearing a seat belt. When enforcement tried to haul him to prison for the infraction, A.K. intervened, eventually persuading the would-be jailers to release the American missionary. On another occasion, A.K. helped White kill a goat to provide food for their group.

Perhaps the most touching moment, however, was White’s departure. As he prepared to board the plane, White and A.K. exchanged farewells. Then A.K. presented White with a solid-gold necklace shaped like Africa.

“I learned later from A.K.’s brother that he (A.K.) had spent almost his entire life savings on this present for me,” White said. “It just blew me away. This was a man who didn’t even have enough food, but he never asked for anything, and then he did such a generous thing for me. But it just wasn’t A.K. Everybody there was like that. They would give you anything. It’s just incredible. That’s why they came to mean so much to me.”

Which made one phone call this spring especially devastating.

“He told me that he and his family were about to become homeless,” White said.

Building a nonprofit

At a loss as to how to help, White retreated into his hobby.

“I’m a guy. I like building things,” he said. “So, one day, I decided to go to Lowe’s. I got some wood, brought it home and planned on making a bench. My dad told me to take the wood back. Here I was thinking that I could just go ahead and build this bench just like that, but Dad suggested that I find an actual plan for building a bench before winging it. So, I returned the wood, found a plan, got the right wood and then I started building that bench.”

As he worked, White kept thinking about A.K. He tinkered, toiled and trusted God to give him a means to help.

“It hit me that I could make woodworking be something more than just a hobby,” he said.

When White completed the bench, he found a buyer shortly after.

“My philosophy is that most people want to be part of something good,” White said. “When given the chance to make a difference, most people will. Not everybody can go to Sierra Leone and do something, but they can make just as big of a difference as the people there by helping here at home.”

White sold the bench and used the money to help A.K. find housing.

“And that’s how RAWHOPE started,” White said. “I found my way of helping people by making things and donating money to Sierra Leone. At first, it was for A.K. and his family, but then I realized that I could do more.”

So, he kept woodworking and selling benches and chairs. He continued sending money overseas, hoping to make a dent.

Helping Sierra Leone

Thus far, White has created and sold about 20 projects. His business model is as unique as his mission. Instead of asking for a set price, he tells the customer how much money he has invested in materials, how much labor has been involved and then he asks the customer how much they want to pay. He also requests buyers specify how much they want to be sent to Sierra Leone and how much they would like him to keep. In the meantime, he supports himself with a full-time landscaping job.

While he works at creating projects, raising funds and maintaining a living, White works on patience, as he dreams of returning to the country. He especially longs to visit the place as the World Health Organization reported the deadly Ebola virus outbreak has killed nearly 900 people, three of whom White met and befriended during his time in West Africa.

“You know how when somebody in your family gets sick, you want to visit them, to help them in their time of need?” he said. “That’s how I feel. My family is sick.”

He plans on returning this October, and his intent to do so makes one person in particular quite pleased.

“Clearly, it is gratifying for me to see Austin attempting to live his life in a way that is impactful,” said his father, David White. “It is a joyful thing to see him involved in things that bring meaning to his life. As parents, that’s what we all want our children to do.”

However, the pastor at John’s Creek Baptist Church said Austin is not the only child making his or her parents proud. David said he sees Austin’s willingness to help as a fundamental paradigm shift in the way people envision the word global. While he said his generation was taught to conquer the world, his son’s generation is being taught to change it. Instead of pursuing the ultimate goals of accumulation and more material items, the desire has shifted to that of wanting to matter.

“He’s a microcosm of what’s going on, on a much bigger level,” David said. “For my generation, global meant being able to connect technologically, but global to Austin and his generation is something altogether different. I think their point is that we are all in this together, that we are one world, we’re not American or Sierra Leonean , but we’re all one human race. That gives me great hope.”


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