Striving To Be A Good Neighbor Through Humanitarian Aid

Matthew Ellingson (’96) never saw himself as wealthy. His parents served as missionaries in South America, he wore hand-me-down clothes, and lived a modest life. But he had an encounter when he was thirteen that changed his life forever.

While walking down a muddy path with some friends, Ellingson heard the voice of a British talk show host. Curious, he followed the sound to a little hut, where a local family sat huddled around a TV. They didn’t likely speak any English, yet they intently watched The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous by using a bootlegged connection.

“Up to that point, I felt like an average, lower-middle-class kid,” says Ellingson. “But at that moment, I realized that I was wealthy by comparison.”

This moment of extreme contrast left a profound impact on him. As Ellingson grew older, he realized that he wanted to dedicate his life to using whatever wealth or privilege he had to make a positive difference in the world for others.

The First International Studies Graduate

Ellingson knew he wanted to help people, but didn’t want to follow in his parent’s footsteps and become a traditional missionary. Instead, he wanted to engage with poverty on a global level. But when he enrolled at Trinity Western, he struggled to find a major that matched his passion.

He started in Business, but quickly realized this wasn’t for him. He switched to Communications, but that didn’t connect with him either.

“I was at a bit of a loss,” says Ellingson. “I knew I enjoyed philosophy and political science stuff, but there wasn’t a major for it back then.”

Feeling uncertain how to proceed, Ellingson met with his advisor Dr. Charleton and asked for help.

“Dr. Charleton started putting things together that would work for me,” says Ellingson. By the end of his second semester, the first International Studies interdisciplinary program was born.

In the beginning, there were just two students enrolled in this program—Matthew Ellingson and Daphne MacDonald (’96). But the experience proved to be exactly what he needed. Before long, he was thriving in his new major and eating up as much knowledge as he could. By the time he graduated, he was ready to get out there and make a difference.

Conflict Transformation and Analysis

Eventually, Ellingson found an opportunity working abroad in Japan and Bosnia. He then decided to take some time to get his Master’s degree in Conflict Transformation and Analysis from Eastern Mennonite University. His focus was on bringing resources to help those in need when governments collapse and states fail. He had seen first-hand in Bosnia how the vulnerability of some was used to prop up the power of others.

“Every time you engage with the community or a person in crisis, there’s moments of great resilience and moments of deep despair,” says Ellingson. “You see the absolute best in people in crisis as well as the worst scoundrels.”

Ellingson says that sometimes when crisis hits, those in power emerge to try to keep poor people poor while using the situation to increase their own wealth. He wanted to understand how this worked in order to stop it.

Working In Humanitarian Aid

Ellingson was hired by Food for the Hungry and has been working for them and Samaritan’s Purse ever since. He got into this work with one of his good friends from Trinity Western, Shawn Plummer (’96). Plummer is currently President of FH Canada (part of the global Food for the Hungry network). The two friends have worked together in humanitarian aid for almost 20 years.

“This is an amazing life,” says Ellingson, who is now Director of Humanitarian Affairs at Food for the Hungry. Over the years, he has had the opportunity to travel to many different countries, working with incredible people who are trying to use what gifts they’ve been given to make the world a better place.

Ellingson says the work and industry has changed a lot since he first got involved, but that it’s still just as important for people to step up and commit their time.

“To anyone who wants to get into this line of work, I recommend doing a gap analysis,” says Ellingson. “Find where the gaps are and be willing to fill the need, regardless of what it is.”

A lot of times, humanitarian aid work might not seem to line up with the desire of someone’s heart, but Ellingson believes everyone has the potential to make a difference. He likens this work to building a bridge over a gap. Each stone is important in supporting the whole structure, even those stones that are unground and not so visible.

“Keeping it light, cause the work can be heavy.” Matt Ellingson and colleagues in Mozambique.

Redefining Success

Although this work can be very rewarding, Ellingson admits it there can be days where it’s incredibly discouraging.

“You also have to define what success in this work means in your own mind,” says Ellingson. “You might work with a hundred people, and ninety-nine of them continue to struggle, with only one that makes it. You have to be able to hold on to that little glimmer of hope and that person’s achievement, and not be weighed down by all the other things that don’t work out.”

“When conditions are horribly corrupt, even the best plans get shot,” adds Ellingson.

But despite the corruption and sometimes less-than-ideal circumstances, Ellingson is thankful for the work he’s been given to do. Every day, he’s able to contribute his knowledge, skills, and passion toward making the world a better place. For Ellingson, there is no better life than this.