By Gina Stafford
John Sellers has seen the world, and he wants to change it.
Early on, his world was mostly confined to West Tennessee— Henderson, Lexington, Jackson and Brownsville—within which his parents, Chad and Sandy Sellers, periodically relocated in their work with the Baptist Church. Then, at the age of 19, Sellers joined his parents after the family moved to Nepal to work as Christian missionaries.
After spending a year getting to know Nepal, Sellers, now 24, returned to West Tennessee and enrolled at Jackson State Community College. Having been home schooled up to that point, college classes brought him into a classroom for the first time, but his heart was still in Nepal. By the time he arrived at the University of Tennessee at Martin, Sellers had a dream and a plan to engage his fellow students in fulfilling it.
Video by Adam Brimer
“I grew up always thinking about making a difference in Nepal,” Sellers says. “When I lived there, I fell in love with the people and (my heart) became very burdened for them. When I moved back to the States for college, I wanted to open the eyes of the students around me. I wanted to communicate my great burden for the orphans in Nepal with my peers.”
Nepal—an impoverished country and home to the Himalayan Mountains, including the world’s tallest peak, Mount Everest—wasn’t a random choice.
Sellers’ family has a long and deep connection to Nepal that began with his uncle and aunt, Joe and Tanna Collins. As missionaries with Baptist International Mission Inc. in July 1990, the Collinses established an orphanage in a small, Christian church in Boudha, Nepal, a town of 50,000 not far from the capital, Kathmandu. Two years later, Tanna Collins was diagnosed with typhoid fever. She, her husband and their five children traveled by plane to Thailand for her treatment. On the return trip to Nepal, their Thai Airways plane crashed into the Himalayas, killing all 113 on board.
To make sure the family’s work continued, Sellers’ grandparents moved to Nepal and took up the cause. They spent the rest of their lives there—more than 20 years—expanding the orphanage, growing a Christian church into a congregation of more than 500 people, and planting and nurturing several other congregations. In 2002, Sellers’ parents moved to Nepal and joined the mission.
Back in the U.S. and on the UT Martin campus, John Sellers says he wanted to open the eyes of fellow students to the plight of the world’s orphans and help the work his parents were doing. That’s when he started Letters in Motion—yes, a college senior founded a nonprofit organization—with a goal of connecting students across the country in a common purpose.
“I wanted someone to understand,” Sellers says. “That’s when Letters in Motion began to first take shape. The key is to instill a passion in students. Once a college student sees the needs of the world, they will tell their friends, family, roommates and organizations. They will do everything in their power to help meet the need and make a difference. This has been proven again and again.”
He founded the group specifically to encourage outreach to orphaned children through letter writing: To encourage them and show them “what love looks like,” Sellers says.
Sellers began with his fellow students at UT Martin. He made his pitch to the Student Government Association, and SGA members asked him to pitch to their clubs or social organizations. He wanted to deliver 3,000 handwritten letters in person to orphans. As a handful of other students took on roles as organizers, they helped spread the word and planned to travel to Nepal as a group to deliver the letters. Eventually, the campaign involved students from 12 universities and five countries.
“Once our Letters in Motion supporters realized our goal of collecting 3,000 letters before our trip, people from all over helped any way they could to spread the news and get events going all over the country,” Sellers says.
STUDENTS ON THE NEPAL TRIP
From UT Martin: John Sellers, Courtney Pearson, Hunter Ralston, Hannah Morton, Kathy Fellman and Cal Crenshaw.
From Union University: Emily Goette and Larissa Ziolo.
From Bethel University: Zach Richardson.
3,000 letters written by students from: University of Kentucky, UT Knoxville, University of Alabama, Columbia University, Texas A&M, Pace University, Texas Christian University, Sacred Heart University, Union University, Bethel University, UT Martin and more.
Letter writers from: USA, France, Philippines, Guam, Portugal
“We wanted to make it easy for students to make a difference, and once they took that first step of writing a letter, we found they wanted to get more involved. That’s when we set up a shirt company called Motion Outfitters, where we were able to sell T-shirts online to raise money for special projects to help improve life for orphans in Nepal.”
Letters were being written. T-shirts were selling. More than $15,000 was being raised.
Then, just as Sellers was organizing the June trip to Nepal, there was an earthquake. Perched atop two shifting geologic plates, Nepal has long been vulnerable to earthquakes, and the one that struck on April 25 was massive. With a magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter scale, the quake was felt for 500 miles from its epicenter. It triggered an avalanche 140 miles away on Mount Everest, produced aftershocks well into May and eventually killed more than 9,000 people.
It was the worst earthquake in Nepal in 80 years, and it made news around the world. Sellers used that awareness to help Letters In Motion do more. The Sellers family in Nepal wasn’t hurt, but when they were able to communicate via email, they reported the need was great for clean water and structures to provide housing.
In June 2015, Sellers and the group—five from UT Martin, two from Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and one from Bethel University in McKenzie, Tenn., —traveled to Nepal for three weeks. They worked wherever they could and helped build six temporary structures. And they visited eight orphanages, where they handed out letters and hugs to Nepali children.
“We wanted each letter to be hand delivered by students to the orphans. Some students were able to hand out letters written by people they knew,” Sellers says. “We were just spending time with the kids, encouraging them and showing them that people love them.”
Video by John Sellers for Letters in Motion
Letters are short, and the writer usually offers a thought from his or her day and some encouragement to the child. Most Nepali children are taught English, so they were able to read the letters. If they couldn’t, a translator helped.
Funds raised by Motion Outfitters helped with basic needs at several orphanages and to build a well to provide clean water. Sellers also knows his way around a camera and has made use of that knowledge to tell the story of Letters in Motion in photos and video.
By fall 2015, Letters in Motion was an official campus club at UT Martin. The nonprofit organization has set goals of improving living conditions for orphans by supplying clean water and funding to build wells, improving education by supplying textbooks and building schools, and ending hopelessness and despair by hand delivering 3,000 letters of encouragement every year.
Sellers plans to add one country a year to the letter-writing campaign. He wants to add African countries and is traveling to Kenya in January 2016 to research that possibility. Meanwhile, he’s also founded Venture for Change, a nonprofit he says is to inspire students “to make a global impact by connecting them to a cause through international travel.”
Sellers expects to graduate from UT Martin in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and relationships to facilitate his humanitarian dreams.
“UT Martin is preparing me to succeed and giving me the network I need to advance my nonprofit. It’s given me a model where I can run my pilot campus organization, and without the students, we would be nothing but an idea without action,” he says. “I truly believe my purpose in life is not only to provide hope to orphans but to connect people to making a difference in a global way.
“I’ve been blessed with all the opportunities that come with living in America, so the least I can do is give of myself to providing others some of the same opportunities I have.”
Upon graduating, Sellers plans to work full time with his nonprofit. And make an impact.