5 Minutes with Byron Ross

Byron and Val Ross have joined the Good Work Foundation (GWF) team and will be based in Hazyview, Mpumalanga. Byron comes on board as the Operations Manager in Mpumalanga and Val will be launching “Future Nature” (GWF’s Free State based volunteer arm) in Mpumalanga.


The Ross family arrives at Hazyview Digital Learning Centre

For the last seven years, Byron, Val and their two sons, Nicholas and Duncan, have been based at Phinda Game Reserve in Kwa-Zulu Natal where Byron headed up travel group &Beyond’s ranger training school and Val worked at Federal Air.

During their first week at Good Work Foundation, Ryan took the opportunity to get Kate Groch (Good Work Foundation CEO) and Byron, into the same room to ask about their shared journey and the path forward.

Ryan: Byron, how does your path cross with Good Work Foundation?

Byron: I first met Kate in 1996 when I returned to Londolozi to work as a professional guide. I was appointed Head Ranger at Londolozi in 1997 and remained in that role until 2000, when I moved to Botswana to spend a couple of years working in the Okavango Delta. In 2002, I met Kate again in the Free State town of Philippolis. Kate was setting up Future Nature, the volunteer organisation that would eventually birth GWF, and Val and I had been recruited to assist in setting up the first ever free-roaming tiger project in Africa.

Kate: Byron and Val were in Philippolis when it all began. I was going to be based in Phili for a while and I thought that while I was there I would spend as much time in the community as possible – teaching, helping women to setup businesses and working on small building projects. The mission grew and soon we had a business called “Future Nature” and regular groups of volunteers. Byron and Val helped to organise the first ever group of volunteer students for Future Nature, from coordinating the daily projects to setting up hiking trails. Their help in those early days was invaluable.

Ryan: Byron, you have obviously loved the past seven years at Phinda. How did you make the decision to join the GWF team?

Byron: That’s a tough one. In my final letter to my colleagues at Phinda, I wrote: “Faced with a fork in the road, I have had to take the hardest decision of my life for me and my family’s future. Through courage and determination, we have taken a leap of faith and for once in my life, decided to take the left fork, away from the known comfort and security of what we have.”

You know, a man named Pete Laburn often talks about the buffalo thorn tree and I think it’s something we can all relate to. A buffalo thorn has two thorns at the node, one facing backward and the other facing forward. Those thorns remind us to look back to where we come from and forward to where we are going, but all of us sometimes get stuck on the node in-between the two thorns. Without losing sight of our incredible journey so far, Val and I were ready to get onto that forward-facing thorn. We are ready for the challenge. We are ready to give back and make a difference.


Byron, Val, Nicholas and Duncan under the Digital Tree of Knowledge

Ryan: When did you realise that you were an educator?

Byron: Most guides are storytellers, and most of the time, that’s what teaching is. I remember presenting to my first group of Future Nature volunteers in Philippolis. It was about snakes and managing snake bites. Dave Varty was watching my presentation and afterwards he pulled me aside and said to me “you’re a teacher you know.” A couple of weeks later, I connected with Gogo Mo, a lifelong teacher, and we discussed a book I was reading, The Courage to Teach. Those experiences set the course for the next stage of my life and I am thrilled to be in a space of education innovation.

Ryan: Kate, tell us more about Byron and Val’s roles at GWF.

Kate: GWF has grown very quickly and successfully over the last two years. It’s gone from me and a handful of volunteers to 30 staff members in four Digital Learning Centres. We now have a footprint in three provinces. Our biggest footprint though, and the area of immediate growth is Mpumalanga. Three of our Digital Learning Centres are located in Mpumalanga and we plan to increase our influence into local schools, through our high-impact learning curriculums. With so much activity in Mpumalanga it was agreed that we needed an operational person here to steady the ship, and Byron was the obvious choice. GWF’s culture – one of excellence, nurturing and fun – is vital to its success and I knew that Byron was the right person to safeguard that culture in a time of accelerated growth.

At the same time, increasingly we are getting requests from individuals who would like to volunteer and work with us and to that end we will be launching Future Nature (GWF’s volunteer arm) in Mpumalanga this year – and that’s where Val’s role will come in. Byron and Val are already part of the family having been in Philippolis when it all began and we are happy to welcome them HOME!


Celebrating with GWF team after completing Pipedream

Ryan: Byron, is there anything else that you would like to add?

Byron: Yes, in 2013, Boyd Varty said to me: “Byron, you can stay where you are or you can change the world.” Val and I are inspired by the energy and vision of GWF. We are here to guide an energy of care and focus, but most importantly, we are here to be part of a mission to change education in rural Africa. We’re here to change the world!


Byron Ross: GWF Mpumalanga’s new Operations Manager