“We're off the grid, not out of society!" laughs Mollie Busby.
After stalking Mollie and her husband Sean, and their unique lifestyle on the Internet for a few days, I had to ask: How does a wanderlust-struck couple living off the grid, in a yurt, in Northwest Montana manage to keep up an incredible blog of their experiences,The Busby Hive, and run the nonprofit organization, Riding On Insulin?
Turns out, the pair is used to these types of questions. “Yes, we get cell phone service. We use Internet through our phones," Mollie says. "A lot of people don't realize that off the grid means not using city services - like the water and electric lines. It doesn't have to mean living in the middle of nowhere with no access to cell towers."
While Mollie spends her days as the Executive Director of Riding On Insulin (more on that in a minute), Sean is a professional snowboarder. From our short chat, I can tell he's one of those individuals who's always willing to find the lesson in anything painful. As a professional snowboarder, risks and physical pain just come with the gig. It's how you learn. It's how to get good enough to go pro.
He was also diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes (T1D) at age 19, and the painful truth taught him to appreciate others like him, who fight this autoimmune disorder that has no cure. Sean was especially inspired by children with T1D, who have to grow up with an intimate awareness of their bodies' limitations and needs. To celebrate those brave boys and girls who inspired him, Sean started Riding On Insulin in 2004 to host ski and snowboard day camps focused on one thing: Letting kids with T1D have an awesome day on the slopes together with those that understand them.
By February 2010, Sean had given the camp program a rest, as the immense amount of work required to make each event a success wasn't possible for him to maintain. When his friend Michelle Alswager lost her son, Jesse, at age 13 to T1D, Sean found the lesson in that pain as well. While eulogizing his young friend, Sean swore to get Riding On Insulin started up again, as that's what Jesse would have wanted.
There at the funeral, his words deeply resonated with Mollie, also a friend of Michelle's. Together, they began a partnership that would see them married, living in a yurt in the Montana wilderness, and turning Riding On Insulin into a vibrant nonprofit with camps in the US, Canada and New Zealand.
Mollie Busby has now taken on the full time role of Executive Director of Riding On Insulin, which has two other full time employees, and 2 part time, in addition to herself. It serves over 500 kids with T1D around the world each year. She chatted with me from the office, as Sean sat nearby, only chiming in to remind Mollie that it's snowboard AND ski camps. (“We don't discriminate," Sean shared.) And grab Mollie's technical skills as he worked on their website. Quite adept at multi-tasking, Mollie handled his questions and gave me an awesome glimpse into the day-to-day responsibilities and challenges of turning your passion for helping others into a full time job.
Mollie's first year on the job, they executed 4 camps. The second year, they had 8. She and Sean knew the program needed to grow. It needed to be a fully-fledged non-profit organization with a staff. However, the truth of the matter was that setting up expensive ski and snowboard camps at a cost that most families could afford was becoming consuming. A lack of funds was about to shut the project down.
Enter the Hemsley Charitable Trust. Mollie and Sean had found a foundation donor that not only understood the importance of the camps, but also wanted to see the program flourish.
“They took a chance on us, and kept us going. But they also hooked us up with a business mentor who taught me how to keep this program growing," said Mollie.
The next step was to find the staff members who would be the founding team. “Toward the end of 2011, Michelle (Jesse's mother) kept saying to me, 'You need another you.' I seriously did. Then one night Michelle called me and said, 'I think it's me. I think the other you is me.' And it totally was. I got really lucky by bringing on a friend. And now Michelle is our Development Director."
The next hires were selected based on lessons Mollie had learned from the business advisor Hemsley assigned to her. The first being to watch who goes above and beyond the basics in anything; a presentation, a volunteer role, interviews. The next being to identify the work that needs to be done, and then search out the person who can perform it. This brought on Julie De Vos as a part time International Program Director & Leadership Coordinator, and Dustin Askim as the full time Program Coordinator.
By carefully investing in the right team members, Mollie now has the time to strategically plan ahead for the future of Riding On Insulin. This is a challenge that Mollie is deeply realistic about.
“It's all about economies of scale. We have to focus on sustainability. You want to serve the world and meet the needs of the community. But you have to be able to take care of yourself too so that you can sustain the work. It's still a business structure, you need to have a model and have a plan."
“I'm working on refining the camps to make sure we're aligning ourselves with generous partners. Ski and snowboard camps are expensive, and we can't charge people the full price. We need to find partners who are willing to be part of the cause. Our mission is to serve the T1D community now. Obviously we're passionate about cures and treatment, but Riding On Insulin is about helping these kids right now."
She also has fantastic (and surprising) advice for anyone thinking of starting a non-profit business.
“It's so much more than just filling out paperwork. Don't jump to start a nonprofit. Do your homework. Look for fiscal sponsorship. Your idea needs to be very specific and unique. You can also take your energy to an established charity that's craving your skills."
But if you really think you're ready for it: “The best thing you can do is find a mentor, or a coach, or anyone to share knowledge with. And this goes for starting a business or dealing with a disease diagnosis. Hang out with others. Share ideas. Be around others who are already dealing with it. That's the whole mission of the camps."
If you'd like to help out Riding On Insulin, donations are a fantastic way to directly help facilitate a camp. If you have a connection to T1D, Mollie also welcomes you to volunteer at a camp near you.
“It's seriously so much fun. Riding On Insulin has led to an amazing community all over the world. We don't even book accommodations in New Zealand anymore because families there are so willing to take us all in."
You can hear the emotion in Mollie's voice when she talks about the rewards of running the camps. “I'm so grateful to be a part of this community. There's nothing more rewarding than seeing these kids and families enjoying themselves."
Sean has recently been diagnosed with Lupus, an autoimmune disease, in just this past year. It's another challenge the couple is taking in stride, pushing them to learn more from those around them. Mollie and Sean are tried and true examples of what's possible when you take a passion for helping others, and combine it with a willingness to learn, take advice, and open your mind to others. What cause are you dedicated to? Tell us in the comments below!