There aren’t many organizations that can claim to have rescued four Syrian refugee families living in encampments in Lebanon. And there are even fewer organizations that can claim to have done that in addition to setting the Guinness World Record for Largest Gathering of People Dressed as French Maids. That’s the spectrum on which GISH (Greatest International Scavenger Hunt) operates — bringing people together to have fun while also changing lives.
GISH is the passion project of Supernatural star Misha Collins. The event invites people from all over the world to participate in a scavenger hunt that has, over the years, asked folks to wrap a person in a cocoon of cotton candy, paint a watercolor portrait of Jensen Ackles out of melted Skittles, and perform a concert for a local children’s hospital. And out of those tasks, the hunt affects real change. For example, this year’s hunt, which came to a close on August 4, had incredibly successful results: GISH raised $264,596 to help 250 women in Rwanda.
Collins first heard learned about the women from photographer Giles Duley, who travels the world documenting people’s stories. When Duley was working on a series about genocide around the world, he met a woman named Olive. “Olive is a potato farmer in a village in Rwanda,” Collins says. “She had been in the hospital giving birth to her third child when the Rwandan 100 day genocide started. Tens of thousands of people were killed the first night, and ultimately 800,000 people were killed over the course of 100 days, and while she was in the hospital, Olive got word that her husband and her other two children and her parents and her grandparents and her siblings had all been killed. Then the militants came and ordered everyone out of the hospital. She hid her child under a blanket and then went out herself, and the militias took her and 1200 other people to an open-air market and slaughtered everybody. Olive managed to hide under bodies and play dead for three days until she didn’t hear any voices anymore, and then she went back to the hospital, found her son and he was still alive.”
But that was only the beginning of Olive’s story. Once the genocide came to an end, Olive returned to her village, where she had to live among the very men who had killed her family. “They were still her neighbors,” Collins says. “She had to see the people who had killed her family every day.” And after a couple years, Olive decided it was time to forgive. “She went door to door to all of the men that she knew had participated and told them that she forgave them,” Collins says. “And over time, those men ended up helping Olive rebuild her life. They helped her build her garden plot and her shack.”
Additionally, Olive adopted six children who had lost their parents in the genocide, leaving her to feed seven children with her one garden plot. That’s where GISH came in. But when they delivered the news that they were going to help raise money for her and the 25 other women in her farming collective to build a bigger farm, Olive didn’t seem happy. In her village, there are four farming collectives, meaning 100 women that need help. “She said, ‘I wouldn’t feel right taking it just for our collective so if it means we have to share what we get, I would rather have less than having everything and leaving those other women without,'” Collins says. “That threw down the gauntlet for us, and we put it to GISHers to raise enough to buy one large farm that was big enough to support all 100 women. And not only did we pull it off, but we ended up raising enough to buy farmland for the women in an adjacent village as well. We bought enough farmland for 250 women and the tools that they need and market stalls for them to sell their vegetables. They’ll be able to support themselves with that in perpetuity.”
And it all came about through a scavenger hunt that has also asked participants to tie helium balloons to a fully decorated Christmas tree until it floats away. “I can’t tell you how gratifying it is that we managed to play this strange game that can actually have that kind of an impact on people,” Collins says. “I feel proud of everybody who participated in GISH this year, and I feel honored to know Giles and honored to be able to help people like Olive who, in the face of such suffering, can be kind and forgiving and generous.”
But the strange game isn’t over yet. GISH will now be doing year-round challenges, in addition to the annual hunt. So if you want to join in on the fun, early registration for both the year-round activities and next year’s hunt opens Monday, August 13. It turns out a scavenger hunt can make a real difference.