July 27, 2010— -- When Lisa Shannon started running five years ago, it wasn't to slim down or to tone up. It was to bring about change.
"I couldn't believe that the deadliest war since World War II was going on and I had never heard of it," Shannon said. "I needed to find some simple way to say they matter to me."
At the time, Shannon was planning her wedding and running a stock photo business with her fiancé. But she couldn't get the Congo out of her mind.
"Millions of people have died and effectively they haven't been missed," she said. "So I felt like I needed to find some simple way to send the opposite message."
So, Shannon signed up to sponsor two survivors or "sisters" as she referred to them, through Women for Women International, which offers Congolese women job training and education. She started off sending $27 a month to each of them, but soon realized a check was not enough.
Instead, she decided to run thirty miles, the entire length of Portland's wilderness trail, to raise money to sponsor more women. After four months of training, the day of the race finally came, and not even the rain could stop all her friends and relatives from waiting at the finish line.
"The whole time I was running that day, with eighty people being sponsored, every half mile represented another woman," Shannon said. With that victory, she was able to raise $28,000 for her "sisters" in the Congo.
American Runs For Joy; Congolese Women Rejoice
Soon, Shannon was spending more time on the Congo and less time at home, with her business and relationship eventually becoming less of a priority.
"Look at what I've gained from it," she said. "I don't have a fiancé but I have more than 1,000 women in Congo who consider me their sister and I consider them my sister. I'm so much happier now."
Two years after she first learned about the conflict in the Congo, Shannon decided to finally visit her "sisters."
"I was definitely nervous before going into the Congo, but very excited as well," she said. "When I arrived there was a big group of women singing and dancing. I mean I would smile so hard, so long, I would get this headache from it. It was just so much joy."
Although she admitted there was a sense of awkwardness being the only white woman among dozens of African nationals, she said she never lost that strong connection with them.
"They would carry around the letters we had sent them in pouches around their necks, hung under their shirts, right next to their hearts--like it was their most prized possession," Shannon said.
One of her "sisters," a woman named Generose, wrote a letter to Shannon, which read: "Dear Sister: I was very happy to get your letter and to realize there is someone caring for me so I can keep on living. We've been at war for eight years now. Robbers dropped in the night to our home and killed my husband and cut off my leg."
"The first time I met Generose, and she showed me her prosthetic leg, I saw that she had actually painted the toe nails on her prosthetic leg," Shannon said. "That's Generose. That's one thing about Congolese women. It doesn't matter what they've lived through. When you meet them, they dress to the nines. They look gorgeous. There's an enormous amount of dignity and pride in these women."
Shannon soon began organizing runs across America, and even the world, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars and doubling the number of sponsors in Congo from 6,000 to 12,000.
This past February, she decided to do her first run in the Congo itself. Running alongside Generose, Shannon noticed that her "sister's" shoe started to slip off, inevitably kicking it out of the way. So, Shannon decided to lose her shoes as well and run barefoot.
"When I asked Generose to do the run she didn't hesitate in accepting to do it," Shannon said. "It was such a powerful statement, not only that she showed up, but after everything the militia had taken from her, she showed up in a red suit and pearls. To me, it just says so much about pieces of the human spirit that can't be touched if you don't let them."
On that same day, women across America, including this reporter, joined in on the run, trekking through a snowy Central Park, altogether raising $50,000.
"I have to say I felt like it was the best day of my life," she said.
To Learn more about Lisa Shannon's book, A Thousand Sisters, click HERE.