Today’s post features an info-graphic that visually displays the amazing impact your service today will make in communities around the nation! To learn more check out our blog post: “Serve for a Cause.”
Posts Tagged ‘Inspire’
This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post on November 30, 2011. Today’s guest post was written by Uma Viswanathan who is the program director of Nouvelle Vie Haiti, International Association for Human Values. She has lead many youth and adult workshops ranging from stress management to trauma-relief. She received her M.A. in History of Science from Harvard University.
It’s early November, and I’m sitting in the vast auditorium at UniNorte University in Barranquilla, Colombia, listening to Accion Social present on Colombia’s extreme poor at the International Association for Volunteer Empowerment (IAVE)’s World Youth Summit. Lesly sits across the aisle from me, now a leadership and empowerment trainer through Nouvelle Vie. His back is straight as he leans forward, staring intently at the PowerPoint presentation, listening carefully to the English translation on his headphones. “Imagine living in a small one-room house with no running water, no electricity, struggling to eat every single day,” says the speaker. This exercise is not much of a stretch for Lesly’s imagination.
Lesly and I have been invited to the conference to speak on sustainable development through personal transformation. It is the first time Lesly, age 29, has ever left Haiti. It is the first time he has experienced an environment that has smooth clean roads, shiny university buildings, and steady access to electricity and internet. Putting myself in his shoes, I can understand why the vast majority of young adults from developing countries escape to wealthier countries, never to return home.
“What did you think of the presentation?” I ask him as we leave the auditorium.
“I never knew that poverty existed outside of Haiti,” he says.
He sounds uplifted, somehow.
“People everywhere are suffering, but people everywhere are also helping. I’m not alone. We’re all in this together, helping each other rise above this.”
“How do feel when you come to a country and interact with people who have so much?” I ask him later that evening. We are walking around the pool at the Hotel del Prado, a beautiful sprawling 18th century colonial hotel.
Lesly pauses thoughtfully. “Every country has its strengths. Some are material. Some are not. I don’t worry about it. What I do know is that my real strength lies in my own mind. There are people all over the world who are unhappy and who feel powerless to do something about it. But I know that if my mind is on what I don’t have, I am powerless. When I volunteer, when I think about what I can give to others, I realize how much I do have.”
It’s easy for someone like me to volunteer. I grew up in Westchester, an affluent suburb of New York, went to a great university, and live in a warm, comfortable house with a steady supply of healthy food, clean water and electricity. But what does it mean for Lesly to volunteer? What does it mean when some of the world’s poorest people volunteer?
Volunteering or selfless service is a frame of mind. It is an attitude of continually working to improve lives and the environment around you, without demanding or expecting reward.
Most people don’t expect the poor to volunteer. How can people who don’t have their basic needs taken care of think beyond their own survival? How can they have the frame of mind to care about the needs of those around them? The burden of responsibility for taking care of one’s neighbor typically falls onto civic, humanitarian or religious institutions. But what happens when these systems fail, as they usually do, due to corruption or poor planning or lack of funds? Blame. Frustration. Powerlessness. Hopelessness. Revolt.
Unless the communities that typically receive services begin to serve, to stretch more than just their hands but their own hearts, they cannot experience the power they have to transform their own lives and own communities.
Being a volunteer, serving selflessly, is a position of power. It moves you from being a victim to being an agent of change. It makes you unshakable. Because your actions are driven by inspiration, not external motivation, you do not wait for someone to guide you or reward you. The moment you stop waiting, stop complaining, stop blaming, and start taking responsibility for the life and people around you, you begin to grow. And the seed for innovation and creative problem-solving is planted in local leaders.
Jobs aren’t available in Haiti, like in many countries with struggling economies. But that doesn’t mean that communities have to wait for a job in order to address their own needs. Like Lesly, they can grow their own food from saved seeds and compost on their rooftops. They don’t have to wait for an international health worker to run a workshop for them on the use of condoms. Like Lesly, they can develop peer sexuality workshops to explore the reasons why they are escaping their lives through sex, which leads to rampant AIDS and unwanted pregnancy. And when the resources come from the outside and are created from within, when more training and opportunities come, the community will know who should be in charge. The new leaders will already be in place to use these resources wisely, to expand and grow what has already started.
Selfless service is a practice that reinforces a set of human values that transcend culture, religion, and nationality. It builds leaders who will find a way to serve their community whether we invest in them or not. Educational background, technical skills or knowledge, though necessary, are not enough to create successful local leadership. They must be coupled with the nurturing of human values and an ethic of service.
If we are waiting for leaders and entrepreneurs to rise up out of communities, we need to raise the bar and support programs that train and support individuals to serve their own communities, not just because they may create jobs for themselves and others. We need to support people who feel so much responsibility for their communities that they must serve, and solve problems in integrated, holistic ways.
“When will we stop asking for money from the World Bank and asking for aid from NGOs and foreigners?” asked Samson, one of Lesly’s fellow Nouvelle Vie youth leaders, at the World Bank Summit on youth leadership with the Haitian government last fall. “When will we do this on our own?”
This is the attitude with which, in concert with the growing global networks of financial and support, leaders will pave their own communities’ way out of poverty.
On the way to the airport, I ask Lesly how he feels about returning back to Haiti. He responds: “I was born where I was born so that I could serve Haiti. I can now give to Haiti a vision of something bigger.”
“I haven’t said this out loud before, but the enormity of his need actually frightens me,” she confessed.
While we waited for the curtain to come up, my girlfriend Elaina told me about a ten year old boy named Ty who is a friend to her son Graham.
“Ty lives in our city’s housing projects with his mother who is raising him on her own. She suffers from severe diabetes and is frequently hospitalized for extended periods of time with life threatening illnesses.”
“Graham and Ty have been close friends since kindergarten,” Elaina told me. “When Graham recently sprained his ankle playing basketball, Ty was the only one of his teammates who rushed over to see if Graham was all right. It was Ty and the coach that helped Graham limp off the court.”
She paused, but soon continued.
“I went to pick Ty up for a play date this morning and, in front of him, his mother told me she was worried because he was becoming such a fat pig. She actually used the words fat pig! And then she handed him a pop tart for breakfast.”
Elaina shook her head sadly.
“He’s a fabulous kid, really he is, but his needs are so enormous.”
“Every day when I pick Graham up from the after-school program, Ty asks to come home with us.”
“This is irrational,” she said, “but I worry that all the negative things that Ty’s been exposed to and forced to live with will somehow rub off on Graham.”
“None of Ty’s circumstances are his fault,” I offered. “He probably doesn’t like them any more than you do.”
“I know,” she sighed.
We were quiet for a moment.
“What do you think would it cost you and your family to become wide open to Ty, to commit to him? What is the worst thing that could happen?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess I’m afraid that his enormous need would completely consume our family life.”
There was another pause in the conversation.
“What would you like Graham to learn from the choices you make about Ty?” I asked.
The lights dimmed over the audience and the show we were waiting to see began.
We didn’t return to our conversation about Ty, but he stayed on my mind.
Elaina’s struggle seemed immensely important to me, but I couldn’t put my finger on why I felt so triggered by it.
Then, in the car this morning my husband and I discussed something I’ve been grappling with at work.
For most of my career I have advocated for people to be active, engaged citizens.
Last week, I initiated an online conversation by asking “If you could direct the full force of the American volunteer spirit to effect change on a single social issue, what would you ask people to do?”
One respondent said that while he believed that volunteers alleviated suffering, he didn’t believe they were capable of making systemic change.
I told my husband that even after twenty years of this work, I found myself worrying about what he said, worrying about the possibility of him being right.
My husband smiled at me.
“I think individual action might be all there is,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“There are so many huge, international NGO’s set up to end poverty,” he said, “but what really works?”
There was a pause.
“In the end, it boils down to individual, human relationships,” he said.
I nodded, finally understanding why my friend’s story seemed so urgent.
It’s possible that breaking the cycle of poverty boils down to the choice Elaina makes about Ty and the choices the rest of us make about the Tys we find in our lives.
Many of you have seen in the news that Millard Fuller died unexpectedly Monday night. In the midst of our work and the day-to-day business, this passing marks an opportunity to reflect upon a service giant who changed our world through will, determination, vision, passion and faith. Millard not only lifted our sights and created new pathways for addressing poverty housing, but he also transformed how people are engaged in solving this problem. Habitat has been unparalleled in its growth as a nonprofit in the last thirty-plus years. In the process, the Habitat organization and movement has changed the expectations and possibilities for how people serve.
Points of Light had a number of points of intersection with Millard and Habitat. Ray Chambers wrote to me today and said that Millard was one of the founding board members of Points of Light Foundation. He and his wife Linda are also recognized heroes of the Extra Mile. About five years ago, all of our Hands On staff went down to Americus for a retreat and visited with Millard and his team in a visioning session.
I also had the privilege of knowing and meeting with Millard on a number of occasions and was profoundly impressed by his unyielding and visionary commitment. (I loved questioning him about how he set his goals: a mixture of faith and a really keen marketing mind- 2,000 houses by the year 2000 or 20,000 houses for our twentieth anniversary- you could be sure that the numbers rhymed even if they were not analytically gleaned and you could also be sure that somehow Millard would reach them!) He made the impossible- possible. And with all that big thinking, he managed to write touching and sweet personal notes to thousands of people like me who he encouraged and promoted over many years.
I know that others of you have personal stories of Millard, and I encourage you to share them with our staff- virtually and in real time with your colleagues. Millard’s passing is an opportunity to celebrate social entrepreneurship and service and the power of individuals to change the world.
Let’s take note and inspiration. Millard would have liked that.
CEO, Points of Light Institute
Co-founder, HandsOn Network