By Gretchen Schisla
Like many of you, I’ve followed Bill Gates over the past 25 years with curiosity and awe — as he built the Microsoft empire, his high-tech, high-art home on Lake Washington and his thoughtful legacy. When he retired in 2008, at age 52, to focus on his philanthropic passions with wife Melinda, I was more intrigued, particularly with their global vaccination, immunization and AIDS work. Noted as one of the world’s most generous philanthropists, Bill Gates has donated $28 billion to his foundation, with its current endowment of $38.3 billion. Rest assured, the foundation is putting every dollar to good use.
Arrive Curious. Leave Inspired.
While I was visiting Seattle in August, a friend recommended the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center, a new landmark located under the Space Needle, as a must-see. She was right — it was the highlight of my vacation and a truly inspiring experience.
Outdoors, the sidewalk features oversized sculptures of stacks of books, and seed bags inviting you to sit. On the window appears the message: “Treating disease isn’t just possible, it’s happening.” Your eyes scan up to read larger-than-life letters above the entrance “Every person deserves the chance to live a healthy productive life.” Once inside the museum, hundreds of pictures of the foundation’s family members cover huge walls in a grid pattern.
The Our Northwest Home panel and video with William H. Gates, Sr. chronicles how the Gates family became involved with philanthropy and the idea of giving back. I was aware that Bill’s father was active in the foundation and ran across this quote from him on the website:
“I love Father’s Day because it is a reminder of how much being a father has shaped my life. One of those defining moments happened about 20 years ago. After reading an article that explained that millions of children were dying in poor countries from preventable diseases, my son, Bill, sent me a copy of it with a note that said: ‘Dad, maybe we can do something about this.’”
Since that day, Bill, Sr. has worked closely with his son, daughter-in-law and a network of people and organizations to address global issues, such as eradicating polio in India.
Taking It All In
The museum has an interactive timeline that chronicles the foundation’s history — from peak Microsoft years to now. Working in four program areas (Global Health, Global Development, Global Policy & Advocacy, and the United States) covering education, healthcare, agriculture and ending poverty, the initiatives and networks are massive. The exhibit sets out to break it down into bite-site pieces, engaging audiences of all ages.
Share Your Cause
One section of the exhibit asks the visitor to explore ideas of how he/she can each get involved and make a difference. I loved the creativity in this section — from a touch screen encouraging visitors to design a caused-focused poster, to a screen showcasing ideas like food trucking, soup kitchens and apps. The most compelling and moving display was the Share Your Cause tree, where you can share information with others about causes you support. Visitors complete a card, add it to the tree, and then are free to select a card that someone else wrote if the message speaks to them. Reading what other people had shared was an emotional experience.
Clean and Safe Bathrooms
Even the restrooms are part of the experience. As you walk in, a row of stalls greet you with full-size photos of huts and dirt floor rooms, depicting what it’s like to use a latrine in Durban, South Africa or a Macau Village in Mozambique, Africa. A sign inside the stall reads “A clean, safe bathroom, aren’t you relieved? A toilet that flushes into a working sewer is nothing to take for granted. Especially when you hear 2.5 billion people worldwide that don’t have toilets or latrines. They go to the bathroom outdoors, which can contaminate their fields, water and food. People need toilets — and a safe way to dispose of sewage — to live healthy lives.” The Gates Foundation is working towards making that a reality.
To learn more about the Gates Foundation, visit gatesfoundation.org.