Profugo’s Jenny Koleth holds a treasured portrait of a Wayanad villager//Photo by Tessa Marie Images.
Jenny Koleth was never going to be one of the cool kids. Immigrating to the United States in 1988, she quickly realized that she was wildly out of sync with American teen culture. She didn’t watch MTV and was only vaguely aware of Madonna and Tom Cruise.
Born in Korea and raised in Sweden, Koleth spent her childhood in an off-the-grid, nature-loving, inherently European suburb of Stockholm. When her family moved to South Florida, Koleth was abruptly uprooted from her idyllic life. “It was extreme culture shock for me,” she recalls of the crime, homelessness and poverty she experienced in her new home. “I was almost paralyzed. I didn’t know what to make of the world.”
She was most struck and saddened by families torn apart by immigration. “If a child could make it across, they’d send him over to live with whatever family members were here,” she says. “That created many broken nuclear families and kids who were displaced and marginalized.”
Koleth related to their displacement—and she would again when her family moved to Michigan, then Seattle. Her parents were Christian missionaries, so moving was part of their work. “I became numb to what was going on in my life, because it always seemed to be in turmoil,” she says.
Ultimately, though, Koleth’s outsider status led to her life’s mission. She had taken a break from college to trek through the Himalayas, traveling to remote areas of China and India that were inhabited by poverty-stricken and socially marginalized families. “My heart broke when I saw the difficulty of their daily survival,” she says. “I wanted to help—and as soon as I had that thought, I also had a sense of purpose. It was one of those, ‘This is why I’m on the planet’ moments.”
Koleth continued to travel and volunteer with nonprofit organizations before several more pieces of the puzzle fell into place. In 2005, she married Ashwin Koleth. A year later, they had the first of their three children. Her husband grew up in India and Zimbabwe; his father was a physician who traveled to isolated spots to offer healthcare to underserved villages. “Ashwin and I are of the same mindset,” Koleth says.
Chief among them was Profugo, the Ardmore-based nonprofit they established in 2008. Originally founded to bring skilled American volunteers to impoverished areas of the world, Profugo soon focused its efforts on Wayanad, a rural district in southern India that was devoid of educational and employment opportunities. Aiming to create a healthy and economically viable community, Koleth established a three-pronged strategy centered on physical and psychological wellness, human development and social capital.
After Profugo adopted Wayanad in 2010, Koleth enlisted 40 of its families to collaborate with more than 100 American volunteers. Now, over 400 families are involved in projects that include sustainable agriculture, water sanitation, alternative energy and English language classes. Another program teaches needle arts to women, who produce scarves, totes, cross-body bags, coin purses and laptop cases, which Profugo sells on its website. All profits are funneled back into Wayanad’s community-development projects.
The interns who staff the Ardmore office come from local universities like Villanova and Saint Joseph’s. Field fellows are recent college grads or young professionals coming from all over the world to spend six to 12 months in Wayanad. “It’s a long-term commitment because our field fellows become part of the community,” says Koleth. “We want people to be changed while they’re bringing about change.”
As for Koleth, she considers Profugo her fourth child. She’s raising her three kids while managing Profugo and working as COO at Cyrus-XP, a health information technology company she formed with her husband. The only downside is she doesn’t get to travel to Wayanad as much as she’d like. But the people who live there have a place in her heart. “I needed to make sense out of the struggles I went through and turn them into something positive,” Koleth says. “When you take away the layers of complication of the modern world, what remains is the human spirit and the values of family, education and wellness that unify all of us.”