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A Search for Purpose

Peace Corps veteran David Nadelman, MBA’12, with his Cape Verde host family

Peace Corps veteran David Nadelman, MBA’12, with his Cape Verde host family and (below) with children at a child services agency.
Photos courtesy of David Nadelman

David Nadelman with children at a child services agency

At first, David Nadelman, MBA’12, tried film. Having majored in film production at the University of New Orleans, he worked in the Crescent City on the sets of rap videos, commercials, and movies such as Ray and Monster’s Ball.

Unfortunately, the world of film proved unfulfilling. Nadelman’s job as a production assistant, or essentially a gofer, didn’t help. If stars needed a drink of water, he would grab them one, and dealing with those stars meant dealing with their egos. During the shoot for Runaway Jury, the crew was told not to look actor Gene Hackman in the eye.

Nadelman knew he needed a change after working 72 hours on a soda ad. “It was a 30-second commercial targeting kids to drink Mountain Dew,” he says. “I realized that what I put out into the world had to be more meaningful.” Wanting to help people in some way, Nadelman began a search for a new path for his life, a search that eventually took him far from his home.

Nadelman first joined AmeriCorps, becoming a volunteer coordinator in 2003 at the Boston Rescue Mission, an organization caring for the poor and homeless. He next shipped out with the Peace Corps in 2005 and was stationed in Cape Verde, an island country off the west coast of Africa. He worked there for the Institute of Cape Verdean Children and Adolescents, or ICCA, an agency caring for abandoned, neglected, and abused children.

These were children in horrific situations. “There were a lot of difficult days,” says Nadelman. A child once came to ICCA whose father, an alcoholic electrician, had burned him with electrical wires. “That will never leave my mind,” Nadelman says. Funding also was a problem. The ICCA often ran out of basic supplies like diapers or faced days without lights because it couldn’t pay the electrical bill. “There was a lack of resources,” he says. “When I first got there, I was shocked.”

Despite the challenges, Nadelman found the Peace Corps slogan, “The toughest job you’ll ever love,” to be true for him. When his two-year tour was over, he didn’t leave. “I care about Cape Verde,” he says. “It sunk deep into me.” Realizing that tourism was a growing industry, he founded an English-language school for those who interact with tourists.

Then in 2008, Nadelman finally decided to return home. His mother, Patricia, was suffering from breast cancer. When he sold his share of the business, though, he made a promise to himself: “One day, I will find a way to bring American resources back to Cape Verde.” In the meantime, he landed a job, admittedly one he didn’t care much about, in the insurance industry.

As his mother battled cancer, she and Nadelman shared deep conversations about life and the choices she made. Like many people, she had worked hard and looked forward to retirement as a time when, finally, she would have the freedom to do what she wanted. But then came cancer and the hard lessons it teaches, so she told Nadelman to live life to the fullest. Don’t wait to chase your dreams.

Patricia passed away in 2010. She was 64. “That shook me,” Nadelman says. Taking her message to heart, he promptly quit his job in insurance. “I would never have been successful doing something I didn’t care about,” he says. Enrolled at Babson since 2009, Nadelman returned his attention to Cape Verde. He developed a business plan for raising the level of care for children at ICCA and searched for a partner organization to help make that plan a reality. He ultimately convinced four staff members of Needham’s Justice Resource Institute, a wide-ranging human services organization, to fly with him to the country and see conditions on the ground. He felt so strongly about their involvement that he paid their travel expenses. “They fell in love with the place,” he says.

The end result is the Cape Verde Children’s Coalition, a partnership between the institute and the ICCA that will perform various projects, including renovating a center for abused boys, building a similar center for girls, expanding educational programming, and establishing a training program for adults who care for the children. Nadelman also started an initiative with Babson’s Bernon Center for Public Service that will allow students to travel to Cape Verde and assist with the coalition. As the new coalition’s program director, Nadelman returns to Cape Verde in early 2013.

Looking back on his English-language venture, Nadelman admits he lacked adequate business skills. That’s changed with his MBA. To help others coming out of the Peace Corps, he worked with Babson staff to make the school a participant in the Paul D. Coverdell Fellows Program, which gives scholarships to Peace Corps veterans attending graduate school. “My MBA was a ticket to doing new things in my life,” he says. —John Crawford