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Homelessness and Hunger

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One For All

“Believe with all your heart that how you live your life makes a difference.”

Colin Brown

I have always believed in angels among us and the conversation I had earlier this week with nonprofit founder, Mari Rodriguez was proof to me that angels are here on earth. My dear friends have been involved with supporting Mari and her work to provide the most underserved children and families in her neighborhood of Inglewood. Mari came to the United States at age 19 and taught herself English. She became a citizen and a nurse. She raised a family and people in the neighborhood were coming to her for help with their children. First, it was a few and then a few more and then a hundred and now hundreds. Mari, is living proof that one person can change the world and one of the most amazing humans I have had the priveledge of talking too.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what One For All does?

Mari Rodriguez: One For All encourages students to stay in school, graduate from high school and we give these students and families the supplies and guidance they need to accomplish that.  Our mission is to help build the character of our children through social programs that emphasize the importance of personal growth as well as develop the community as a whole.

We do back to school backpacks and supply drives, toy drives for winter, we have students bring their report cards and if they are getting a 3.0 GPA or higher they are rewarded for good grades and if not we get them tutoring, we do prom dress giveaways and whatever students need, sometimes its as basic as a pair of shoes for school, we find it and help. The biggest thing we do is give $500 scholarships for those students with good grades who are going to college.

We currently serve over 500 students a year between the ages of 5 and 18.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start One For All?

Mari Rodriguez: I lived in Inglewood and saw that the children in my neighborhood didn’t have guidance. So, in 2001 I talked to the pastor at our church on the corner and asked if we could use the church parking lot to help children and families. Then we started an event on our street to gather everyone together but our neighbors were so impacted and the neighborhood couldn’t accommodate everyone. I wasn’t sure what to do because I was still working full time as a nurse during the day and raising my children and helping all the neighborhood children at night and after work.

In 2007, I had a patient that kept telling me I needed my 501c3 and I had no idea what these numbers meant or what that was. While I was working in the doctor’s office a patient asked me about what I do in my free time and I told him. He said I needed my 501c3 and his wife would help me. She did and in 2007  One For All became an official nonprofit organization. 

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Mari Rodriguez: Donors. The hardest part is raising funds.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Mari Rodriguez: (Tears) The love of people. The love of people fuels me. Sometimes I want to quit and think I cannot go on and then people hug me and thank me for helping them. When families need me. This is my purpose in life to help others.

Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?

Mari Rodriguez: I think of all the people whose lives I have touched. From a five year old girl who died of cancer and whose funeral I did because her mother just couldn’t, to the young boys who were becoming gang members and we were able to get them to change direction, to the young man who was gay and thinking about suicide for fear his parents wouldn’t accept him.   I got involved and this boy is now a wonderful and happy young man in college with his family’s support.

When I close my eyes I see myself on a journey helping, going forward, helping, helping and not looking back just keep going and helping. I see the hugs, the smiles of all these people and that is my reward. I love this country with all my heart. I came to this country at 19 with nothing but dreams. I dreamed I was going to do something big.

I taught myself English and with the help of two angels went to nursing school. It was such hard work and my life has been so good. I have to give everything I have received. I am so grateful.

Charity Matters: Tell us what success you have had?

Mari Rodriguez:We started with 25 kids in 2001 from my home. Then we had 100 and then 200 kids and we would close down our street to do our events. Our neighbors asked us to take our events off of our street and we moved our programs to the church in Inglewood. Today we help more than 500 children and families. This year we will distribute over thirty $500 scholarships for our students who are going to college.

Charity Matters: If you could dream any dream for One For All, what would that be?

Mari Rodriguez: The dream I have is to find more supporters. We need more school supplies. I dream of finding someone who can donate backpacks. To me, the most important thing is to keep giving more scholarships to motivate these kids to stay in school and to help us really help them.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Mari Rodriguez: It hasn’t changed me, I continue being humble and treat everyone equally. I really do not like to talk about me. I would rather just help others. 

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?

Mari Rodriguez: I have learned that anybody can help somebody. Nothing is too little to help another. Each individual can help somebody. If you can not give money you can give love or conversation to someone who is lonely. Anybody can make a difference in the world. To start a nonprofit with an intention to help others is enough. I am just happy to help these families.

 

Charity Matters.

Copyright © 2019 Charity Matters. This article may not be reproduced without explicit written permission; if you are not reading this in your newsreader, the site you are viewing is illegally infringing our copyright. We would be grateful if you contact us.

Family Promise

Every one of us has passed a homeless person on the street but not every one of us stops, especially when we are in a hurry. That is exactly what happened to Karen Olson in 1985 on her way to a meeting in New York City.  On an impulse Karen not only stopped but she bought the woman, named Millie a sandwich. Karen began speaking with Millie, who explained to her that homelessness brought about profound feelings of disconnection from society and a lack of self-worth.  That moment changed everything for Karen Olson and from that meeting, she began to look at a new way to try to help connect those in need to those who wanted to help. Little did she know that this encounter would become the birth of Family Promise.

Earlier this week I had a fantastic conversation with Claas Ehlers who is now the Executive Director of Family Promise, as Karen stepped down a few years ago after almost twenty-eight years at the helm. Claas not only has a personal connection to this mission but has been working at Family Promise since 2002. I can’t wait to share the rest of this story and enlightening conversation with you. It is remarkable what one sandwich did and continues to do for thousands of homeless families across our country.

Charity Matters:  Tell me a little about what happened to Karen after the sandwich and The beginning of Family Promise?

Claas Ehlers: So, in 1985 the number one reason the State of New Jersey was placing children in foster care was not because of abuse or neglect but because their mothers had become homeless. At that point, homelessness was a relatively new phenomenon and family homelessness was totally unheard of concept. In 1985, you thought it was an urban problem of single homeless people but not of families out in the suburbs. Karen had worked in the city with individual homeless people but when she discovered the statistic about children and families she got motivated to do something.

Karen decided to arrange a conference and was smart enough to recognize that the faith community would be engaged in this. There were over 80 congregations represented by over 200 people at that initial meeting, in late 1985. She simply asked the question, “What can we do about this problem of family homelessness?”

Congregations said we want to do something more meaningful than writing checks. The initial thought was to get a church or synagogue building and turn it into a shelter. Then these congregations realized that they had space and they had volunteers who already wanted to help. The YMCA offered space, Autoland gave them a discounted passenger van so they could offer transportation. So out of that meeting in an ad hoc way the program started. 

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what Family Promise does?

Claas Ehlers: We are a national organization, somewhat like the headquarters of McDonald’s but we don’t actually make hamburgers here. What we do facilitate is to empower families towards success and we mobilize volunteers and we cross those over so that each one is stronger as a result of the other. When we look at empowering families, we are looking specifically at families that are experiencing homelessness, which is not a sharp line….there is a lot of blurring, people that are at risk of homelessness, people who are nearly homeless and people that are experiencing homelessness.

Overall what Family Promise does is provide more than just shelter for families but a holistic solution that includes the prevention of family homelessness and the stabilization of families at risk. What we do here is to try to maximize our affiliates so that they can serve as many families as possible and engage the community in ways that bring in many more resources than one might expect to address the issue.

Charity Matters: How did Family Promise Grow so quickly?

Claas Ehlers: After that first meeting it took about a year and a half before we were operational and in October 1986 we officially started serving families. Neighboring communities began to see what we were doing and the program took off organically and kept spreading to Philadelphia and Ohio.  In addition to shelter, meals, housing and job support our affiliates began developing programs for transitional housing, childcare, and homeless prevention. In 1988, Karen said,” we should make this a national organization.”  As a result, we renamed our national organization Family Promise. Karen had a vision from the beginning. We are so lucky to have incredible engagement with communities across the country who are innovative with how to solve their communities problems. 

Charity Matters: What are the biggest challenges in your work?

Claas Ehlers: One big challenge is that people do not understand family homelessness. People view homelessness as chronic singles homelessness and the bigger issue is housing and stability. Another challenge is to ensure that we have resources to meet our mission and overall awareness of our work. We recently had a piece on the Today Show that did a wonderful job telling the story of our work in a very compelling way. (click above to watch)

The terrain is changing too with artificial intelligence and how is that going to affect jobs and homelessness?  We are thinking about these things. We do have a goal to increase the number of people we serve but at the same time, we think about how are we going to push the bell curve to the right. We are always trying to find out ways to help our affiliates do their jobs better.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Claas Ehlers: Certainly there are always lots of challenges and obstacles but I wake up every morning feeling like I am the luckiest person in the world. I have the most amazing team, they are mission-driven, talented, and work well together. I go out into the field and I work with a group of volunteers who are so committed to having an impact on homelessness in their community and that is just SO inspiring.

The other side of that is the alumni of our program, the people who serve on our guest advisory council. I work with these people who have faced adversity they have been homeless and come through our program and are now committed to helping others be successful by paying it forward. They are working, have families and are dedicating all their time and energy to help others in any way they can. I have my own personal stories and have been in Foster Care but that is nothing compared to what a lot of these stories are. These are people that say that this community supported me and now I am going to give back.

When I see the children who leave our programs and see the future they have that they didn’t have before that keeps me going.

Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?

Claas Ehlers: It is a tough question for me to answer because I am self-critical. I always see what I haven’t done. There are so many moments. Recently, when the Today Show piece came out, I emailed it to a number of our partners to share. The responses I received from current partners and potential partners saying, ” I am just so proud that our firm partners with Family Promise.” Those moments remind me of the work we are doing.

This morning, I was talking about the weekend with our relatively new Chief Operating Officer, she told me that she took her children to volunteer for Family Promise. She told me she couldn’t believe that her 14-year-old son was so compassionate working with a 4-year-old at one of their shelters. There are so many moments that show me the impact. Every statistic is a human, a person whose life we touched. There is magic everywhere. There is just magic.

Charity Matters: Tell us what success you have had? What has your impact at Family Promise been?

Claas Ehlers: We always really try to look at how we are successful and how that can drive innovation. First of all, we serve over 90,000 people a year in all different ways and 60% of those people are children. What is really important is that we have our core Shelter Program that is about 18% of the people that we serve. In that program, 88% of those people move into long term housing (traditional, permanent, or shared) after 57 days. We are not about getting people into housing, we are about getting them into housing they can sustain. That is critical that we get them into sustainable housing.

We have 200 affiliates (chapters around the country) that have over 1,700 distinct programs that address some element of prevention, shelter or stabilization that are run by 200,000 volunteers. We are launching a new program at our National Convention this week that trains volunteers to understand the grief and trauma that happens when you lose your home.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Claas Ehlers: I always had a connection with helping children who were under-resourced. My children have been raised with this work. Now that they are grown, I get to watch their service. All of my three children serve and this work has helped define our values. We have always prioritized helping those that are not as fortunate as we are. If we can all just incrementally be better people each day then that is what really matters.

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?

Claas Ehlers: What I have learned is that things are rivers and you have to understand that things are rivers. And that when you are at the river the water at the river is the way it is now but might not be the way it is next time. The water that you see at the river today will be entirely different than the water you see next month. It is higher or lower or not as clean. You have to realize that everything is fluid and that things are never the same at any one time. That every time something changes it is a new opportunity.

CHARITY MATTERS

 

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Copyright © 2019 Charity Matters. This article may not be reproduced without explicit written permission; if you are not reading this in your newsreader, the site you are viewing is illegally infringing our copyright. We would be grateful if you contact us.

 

The struggle is real…

 

This isn’t my usual post. I am even hesitating as I write this. To be honest I am really struggling with this and don’t know what to do? As most of you know I live in Los Angeles. We happen to have the largest homeless population in the country, with an estimated 58,000 people living on the streets. Many say that the number is much higher. I have spent time on Skid Row, I have fed the homeless and interviewed a number of people who run shelters and nonprofits that support homelessness.  I have a confession to make; not even my teenage sons can make me feel as many human emotions in a flash as someone that is homeless.

When I walk by and see someone who is barefoot, cold, suffering and hungry my immediate reaction is empathy, sadness, then guilt at why do I have so much when someone has so little? Anger, helplessness and most of all frustrated. I have been advised by the Executive Directors of many of these nonprofits that the best way to help the homeless is to help the organizations that support homelessness and not to give money or food…both of which I used to do.

I went to the bank yesterday, where we have a regular homeless man who hangs out by the ATM. I walked by him on my way to the ATM and he says, “Oh good, here is someone who can help.” I smiled and said hello, went to the ATM, looked at him again and told him to have a nice day. His reply, “Look Mrs. big shot can’t share.” I got into my car and started to cry. Tears of frustration, tears of sadness, anger and a host of emotions surged through me. I thought about rolling down the window and giving him money and or an earful about how I serve but what good would that have done? Nothing,  but this encounter really made me think.

I drove away feeling dejected and helpless. I really have no answers just a million questions. How do we as a society address mental illness and help those suffering that can not help themselves? How do we get those suffering from addiction to the places that can treat them? How do we support families or individuals who live paycheck to paycheck that had one bad moment that spiraled into homelessness?

I honestly do not have the answers but watching people suffer is difficult. I want to help. I want to make a difference but the struggle with all these feelings is real. This is honest, not so politically correct but how I feel. Am I the only one? Do you feel the same way? Maybe I am the only one crazy enough to say it out loud and in writing…

I write this from the comfort of my warm home. I have never been hungry or without a pillow, a warm and safe placed to lay my head at night. I have never been without love, family or a job. I am blessed, aware of how fortunate and full of gratitude. I also know that we must do better for those who so desperately need our help. But how? Again, no answers but so many questions. I would love to hear how you feel?

Charity Matters.

 

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Copyright © 2019 Charity Matters. This article may not be reproduced without explicit written permission; if you are not reading this in your newsreader, the site you are viewing is illegally infringing our copyright. We would be grateful if you contact us.

 

Tracy’s Dogs

“A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.”

Josh Billings

There are 1.7 million nonprofit organizations in the United States and not enough days in the year to cover them all. Years ago when I began telling the stories of these incredible humans making our world better, I decided I would only tell stories of people helping people. As much as I love green causes and animals I needed to create some perimeters. When a friend of mine at HooplaHa reached out to tell me about Tracy and the work she and her husband Scott are doing to rescue dogs in kill shelters, I knew these were very special humans. When you see what Tracy and Scott Whyatt do, you will realize that this is people helping people and thousands of dogs in the process.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what Tracy’s Dogs Does?

Tracy Voss Whyatt: We initially thought we were going to be an online platform to connect people with dogs that we rescued from kill shelters that were going to be euthanized. We never thought we were going to have five acres, care for up to 100 dogs a day, with some in our homes or have a nonprofit. 

Scott Whyatt: We never expected to start a nonprofit and really had no idea what had started out as Tracy’s passion for these dogs would become what it is today. We really intended to be an online virtual rescue and then Tracy had another idea…

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start Tracy’s Dogs?

Tracy Voss Whyatt: In 2010, I was a single mom of three girls and had been working in human pharmaceutical sales for years and was laid off. I really depressed, so I started going down to the local animal shelter taking pictures and videos of these dogs that were on the euthanasia list and sending them to local animal rescue groups. What I didn’t realize that the dogs I was sending photos of were getting adopted and the images were going viral. Four to six weeks later my company hired me back but I just continued. On my lunch hour, after work going to these kennels. Scott and I started fostering some dogs and it just kept growing.

Scott Whyatt: I had just moved to Texas and had come from a media back round having worked in branding, marketing and television. I told Tracy, I think I have an idea to help you with your online presence we can create a platform to help shelters across the country promote the dogs that are not getting adopted. We are going to name this Tracy’s Dogs. The following year, in 2011 we became an official nonprofit.

Tracy Voss Whyatt: The plans changed when a local woman heard what we were doing and believed in our work. She offered to lease us her 5 acre property with buildings on it for $1.00 a year. So we started housing dogs there. It has grown. I am still in pharmaceutical sales but now I am work in animal health.

Scott Whyatt: Early on we decided that I would get out of what I was doing to run Tracy’s Dogs and Tracy could keep her corporate job. I came on board full time to take care of 85-105 dogs a day for 16 hours a day. The payoff for this work is huge.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Tracy Voss Whyatt: I think our biggest challenge is not having enough space for all the dogs I want to save. I could save so many more dogs if I had a place to put them. There is an endless supply of dogs, but there is nothing worse than walking into a kill facilities seeing a beautiful dog and knowing I can’t take him because there is no space left. The other challenge is finding people who love our dogs and want to do this for the right reason. You have to love dogs to your core.

Scott Whyatt: My biggest challenge is that Tracy’s heart is so big that it is hard to keep the operation, the engine and everything else running at the level of her passion. She is truly the heart of this. I am simply the steering wheel and and the breaks. I am just trying to keep up with her. We have fifty-eight volunteers across the country who handle the adoption process and seven on staff full time who care for the animals. These dogs bring out a level of emotion in all of our staff and volunteers and sometimes that is more challenging than managing all of our dogs.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Scott Whyatt: Honestly, I get so much from the transport day. The day we actually get to connect the dog and their new forever family. I have the honor of shaking every person’s hand. There is something indescribable in that moment. Those dogs mean so much more than an adoption. It is remarkable every time.  It is a privilege and an event to connect these dogs and their new families. I worked for free until 2017. I get so much out of meeting these people. We work all month finding the dogs, connecting them to the right family, caring for them and then once a month we get this amazing payoff. I will give up everything but that moment, there is nothing better.

Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?

Scott Whyatt: We are doing so much than caring for, rescuing and saving dogs. We are filling needs for people that we often do not even know about. Last year, I was in New Jersey handing off a Boston Terrier to a man in his sixties. He began to cry when he got his dog. He could not contain his emotion. His previous Boston Terrier had died, he had lost his wife and this dog filled an enormous void in his life. 

Tracy Voss Whyatt: We get letters and emails all the time from families. One of them was from a family who contacted us and sent a picture of their daughters favorite stuffed animal. Their daughter was having open heart surgery. We found a puppy that literally looked exactly like this stuffed animal. We heard that the little girl loved her dog and pulled through surgery. A year later we heard from the family that the little girl now had leukemia and during her treatments she would show the doctors photos of her dog at home and say, ” I can’t stay here overnight because I need to get home and take care of my dog.” They are literally best friends. We realize that these dogs have a purpose and that these connections are not by chance.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about your impact? The successes you have had?

Scott Whyatt: What I’ve learned is that our successes is really about the service we do for people. We have rescued 4800 dogs but more than that we do it right. We want to know how connected our customers are to us and their dog. Forty percent of people end up with a different dog than they initially wanted because our screeners have matched them. Less than 1.8% of the dogs don’t work out and we take them back. We have created a family across 44 states of 4800 people. This isn’t a transaction, it is so much more. We mean something to these families. This is bigger than just dogs.

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned since beginning Tracy’s Dogs?

Scott Whyatt: I used to play college football and I get more out of this work than playing football in front of 40,000 people. I had a big life but you realize the focus on yourself doesn’t matter. It is not about you but about what you are doing and who you are doing it for that matters. I work for rewards that matter. It is a privilege to connect these dogs and families.

Tracy Voss Whyatt: I’ve spent many years angry towards people for the abuse and neglect I see everyday towards defenseless animals.   What the dogs have taught me after years of trying is that love and forgiveness  is much stronger than anger or hate.

Dogs have the ability to see only the good in people and are very forgiving creatures.  Qualities I admire and strive to live by every day. Making the world a better place isn’t going to happen with anger or hate.   We have a much better chance of making the world a better place with love and forgiveness.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Scott Whyatt: I am very different. I am far more driven than I was eight years ago. We pull 700 dogs a year and that is 700 lives. I know in the grand scheme of things that number is small but it is 700 lives that I get to touch. I know that this life we save is going to make another life happy. I feel the responsibility to our volunteers, our dogs and our families to all be a part of something so much bigger than we are.

Tracy Voss Whyatt: Tracy’s Dogs has made me a better person and more understanding towards people.    My passion is helping animals but through this work, I’ve developed a better understanding and love for people thanks to the dogs.I finally realized after 8 years in rescue, love and forgiveness can change the world.    There are more good people out there than bad.

We are changing the lives of dogs and people one person at a time.

Charity Matters

 

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Copyright © 2019 Charity Matters. This article may not be reproduced without explicit written permission; if you are not reading this in your newsreader, the site you are viewing is illegally infringing our copyright. We would be grateful if you contact us.

Many Hopes

 

” If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all. And so today I still have a dream.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

There are stories and then there is this story, one of the most remarkable journeys I have encountered in my nonprofit adventures. A beautiful tale of survival, love, goodness, and hope. The setting is Kenya, where there are 2.6 million homeless children and sixty percent of the country survives on less than a dollar a day. Like any great tale, there is a heroine, her name is Gift. The story opens when Gift’s mother died of AIDS. Gift was six years old and was carrying her six-month-old baby brother on her back to find food and medical help for him. A group of street children told Gift that the baby she was carrying was dead. These street children took Gift to meet their friend Anthony.

Anthony Mulongo

Anthony Mulango was a prominent journalist in Kenya and from a well to do family. He was doing a report on the street children in Mombasa and had befriended many of them when young Gift appeared. Anthony brought Gift into his home, hired a woman to take care of her, sent her to school and essentially raised Gift as his daughter.

The story takes a twist in 2007 when Irish journalist Thomas Keown was traveling to Kenya and met Gift and Anthony. He came back to the United States where he had a newspaper column published in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Thomas wrote a column about sacrifice and mentioned Anthony and Gift. The article’s response came with letters and checks which became the start of Many Hopes. I spoke with Thomas this week and I came away from our conversation in awe of what love, dedication, and vision combined can achieve. Here is our conversation:

Gift

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what Many Hopes Does?

Thomas Keown: We rescue, educate and advocate for children. Fundamentally we believe that children who suffer injustice are the most powerful agents of change. We want children to defeat the causes of injustice that they survived. We work for Gift, she is the true founder of Many Hopes. Many Hopes is more than a school it is a long term strategic solution to the corruption and poverty that exploits the most vulnerable children. When the poorest children are educated alongside children with means they help one another to have confidence and to build a network that will make them free to make their own choices and not need charity.

Growing up in Belfast during a time of turmoil. I learned early and was privileged to witness that lessons that seemingly unsolvable problems can and do have solutions if the right ingredients come to bare. If you can transform a generation, you can transform anything.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew that you needed to start Many Hopes?

Thomas Keown: When I met Anthony I was struck by his life of sacrifice and I wondered what I would have done at 28 if I had seen Gift? I wasn’t sure if I would have been able to make the sacrifice that Anthony made. Would I have taken Gift into my home and arranged for the burial of her brother?

I had seen poverty in my travels before going to Kenya in 2007. I came home from my trip and wrote my weekly newspaper column and talked about what people need to do to have a useful and purposeful life. I mentioned Anthony and Gift in the last two paragraphs of the column, as an example of people doing that. I asked people to consider to use their lives and resources for good. I had never thought about a nonprofit organization.

The power of the story kicked in and the reality is that every human being wants to be impactful.  I had never seen letters before like we did from this article. An editor in New York began to forward all the emails she received and reached out to me. People wanted to do good, to meet me and to help Anthony. In the beginning, we were just trying to help Anthony and raise some money. I knew he was very smart and that I had access to resources living in the States so I volunteered to try to raise funds and became part-time and six years ago came on full time for Many Hopes.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Thomas Keown: Most fundamentally I’m a  a Christian, this is what I am on earth to do. My driving motivation is my faith. Growing up in Northern Ireland during a violent time I have always been driven by work that supports justice. I believe the work that we are doing is transformational. I see results in the lives of individual children. I am fueled to keep doing this work when I see students who should be dead are now in college instead. When you get tired you just need to look at the individual milestones.

Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?

Thomas Keown: To be honest, sometimes I don’t know we have made a difference. You don’t always know the love and education that a six year old child receives will do to them, you do know it will do something. We see girls are afraid who become trusting. We see children find faith. We see the worst of what humans can do to one another and the best. Then you see one of our first students like Brenda. Brenda told us from the time she was little that she wanted to be an attorney. She said, ” I hope I can become an attorney to defend someone’s rights because someone defended my rights.” Seeing Brenda graduate with her law degree and then to use her degree to advocate for other children, like herself, that is when I see the work we have done.

I also see the people who support our work. The favorite part of my job is inviting people to partner with us and to feed their souls.I get to help people discover or rediscover the joy of generosity and the pleasure of changing other peoples lives. We get to change these donors lives and our children in Kenya’s lives as well.

Charity Matters: Tell us what successes you have had?

Thomas Keown:We have built girls’ homes, built a school for 900 boys and girls where students of priveledge and poor students are educated together. We are reservoir of aspiration that is narrow but deep. We are not trying to educate millions of people. Rather we are  focusing on love and education on these few, we are creating leaders and influencers who will create great change.

Charity Matters: how has this experience changed you?

Thomas Keown: I have learned to overcomeI am much more committed and persistent than I used to be. I know that I am doing the thing that I am supposed to be doing. I am more optimistic than ever having seen donors and children’s lives changed. I have no unmet needs.

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this journey?

Thomas Keown: Life lessons, I’ve learned so many in the past eleven years. I have learned self care and to rest. This work is so important that often we keep pushing on overdrive but I have learned to rest. I have learned that I don’t need to worry about rejection or failure but to simply overcome. 

I used to need tangible success but have learned that you don’t know the immeasurable lasting impact you have on someone’s life until years later. We don’t always know who we will carry so when in doubt be kind.

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Project Angel Food

“In every community, there is work to be done. In every heart, there is the power to do it.”

Marianne Williamson

As we enter the month of November, it is time to think about food, hunger, and Thanksgiving, sort of the ying and yang that is life. It is a bit bizarre, that as we begin to think about the feast we are about to have, we somehow become acutely aware of those who struggle to have food or make a meal. A few weeks ago, a friend of mine connected me to an amazing organization called Project Angel Food. As someone who has a strong affinity for angels and who believes in signs, I knew I was being sent there for a reason.  I wanted to know more about the cause before taking my field trip to meet Project Angels Food’s Executive Director, Richard Ayoub.

The organization began in 1989 by the famous author and spiritual trail blazer, Marianne Williamson, as an outreach program of the LA Center for Living. The Center for Living was created to help people with life threatening illnesses and provide services and lunch for those who were too ill to leave their homes.  In response to the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic at the time, Project Angel Food moved into the kitchen of the Cresent Heights United Methodist Church.

I went down to see what this organization that really rose up to meet the HIV/AIDS crisis was doing today and have an enlightened tour and visit with their fantastic Executive Director, Richard Ayoub.

Richard Ayoub, Derbeh Vance, a volunteer of 20 years and Chef John

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what Project Angel Food does?

Richard Ayoub: Project Angel Food cooks and delivers over 12,000 nutritious meals each week, free of charge, to the homes of men, women and children affected by life-threatening illnesses. Our vital food and nutrition services, include medically tailored meals, help the underserved people throughout Los Angeles County who are too sick to shop or cook for themselves. We are referred by over 150 agencies and while we were created in response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, we expanded our mission in 2004 to help our neighbors who are struggling with any life threatening illness burdened by hunger and malnutrition.

Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?

Richard Ayoud: I like to go out and deliver meals to our clients and hear from them. Many of them are very sick and are not super sociable but many of them are craving someone just to talk too. We were visiting with an HIV patient in his fifties and he looked at me and said, “Can I give you a hug?” This man was SO grateful for our work, for his meal, and he held me in the longest biggest hug to let me know just how much our work meant to him. The one universal thing we see with all of our clients is gratitude.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Richard Ayoub: I know I was meant to be here and it was a calling. I was in broadcast journalism , I was a newscaster and yet I always wanted to make a difference more than anything. I believe that I was put here to serve these people. They fuel me to keep going.

Charity Matters: Tell us what success you have had at Project Angel Food?

Richard Ayoub: Project Angel Food sometimes feels like LA’s best kept secret and people do not know how deep our commitment is to make made from scratch, healthy nutritious meals. Our favorite phone calls are when our clients call and say they are healthy and no longer need the meals, please give the food to someone else.

We have just entered into a pilot program with the state of California that is proving food is medicine, proving that we can keep people healthier and the results are amazing. We drive all 4,000 miles of LA County everyday. We believe in all forms of equity and we go the distance for our clients. In the last two and half years we have increased the people we feed by 30%. Our goal is always to feed more people. It costs us $2,000 to feed one person for a year. This year alone we will serve over 500,000 meals with over 4,700 volunteers.

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience and how has it changed you?

Richard Ayoub: I think one of my biggest life lessons is to just believe and to turn it over. The theory of just believing truly works with everything in our lives. In this work, one day you have a grant that you are counting on to feed people and you do not receive it. You want to give up and then out of nowhere you receive unsolicited donations that are even more than the grant. We have a supporter here who calls that “Divine Choreography.” These miracles constantly happen in this work.

This journey feels like my calling and everything I have done prior to this moment has prepared me for this. I am doing something to make the world a better place, even in a small way. This journey with Project Angel Food has brought out the essence of who I am and simply amplified it.

Everyday I walk into this building, I am grateful that I can simply come to work. Our clients dream of going to work, they are home bound and often times forgotten.  They are often times the invisible people of LA and we want them to know we remember them. We want everyone to know that, “you are not alone.” I think it is a message that we all need to hear.

Charity Matters

 

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Adopt Together

Amazing and inspiring people are all around us every single day, and yet somehow we don’t know their stories. These stories and people continue to fascinate and inspire me. I seek them out, track them down and want to shout from the roof tops their stories.

This is the incredible story about a guy named Hank Fortner, who grew up in an amazing family made up of biological children, foster children and adopted children. His family fostered 36 children and adopted six children from five different countries while he was growing up. Friends who wanted to adopt a child began coming to him and telling him how expensive adoption can be, often times up to $50,000 to adopt a child.  He thought there must be a better way to help these children and these families. This is his story…

So, in January 2012 Hank decided to create AdoptTogether which is the world’s largest nonprofit crowdfunding platform for adoption. Think of it as a hybrid version of KickStarter or GoFundMe, except for a nonprofit, where every donation is tax deductible. This is how it works:

However, that wasn’t even enough for Hank. He wanted to go one step further and inquired about a World Adoption Day, it turns out that it didn’t exist. It also seemed that the United Nations was in charge of approving and  sanctioning such a day. Hank was not deterred and on November 9th, 2014 he launched the first World Adoption Day campaign.

Today, AdoptTogether has raised over $17 million dollars for more than 4,000 families in just over six years. Their dream of a world with a family for every child continues.  So this Friday, November 9th celebrate family and the incredible humans that bring us together every single day.

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I Am Waters Foundation

You never know what a lunch invitation is going to lead too…..A few weeks ago a friend of mine reached out and invited a handful of girlfriends to connect with a remarkable woman named Elena Davis for lunch. She was coming into town from Houston and had started a nonprofit organization there serving the homeless in 2009. I of course could not wait until lunch to meet and connected with Elena last week via phone to chat and ask about her journey in beginning I Am Waters Foundation.

I have to say, it was one of the most remarkable stories and amazing conversations.  Elena is truly an inspiration and  I am sure you will feel the same way…

what is the i am waters foundation’s mission?

Elena Davis: I Am Water’s mission is to do one perfect and complete thing: to deliver water. Clean drinking water in a bottle with a message of hope, love and faith to remind the person holding and drinking from the bottle that something important lies beyond physical sight.

charity matters:  there is usually a connection between nonprofit founders and their causes, what is yours?

Elena Davis: My life as it stands now is far from where I started. As one of four kids raised by a single mother on less than three thousand dollars a year and food stamps, my life was lived in extreme need and on the margins of society, with struggle as a constant companion. At the age of fourteen, after having attended over a dozen schools, I started dreaming of a better life than the one into which I was born.  I was introduced to a photographer who took the first shots of me and I began to realize my dream of becoming a fashion model. At the age of 16, having signed with the renowned Ford Agency, I set off to Paris to begin what was to become a lucrative and successful career as a print and fashion model.

 

 After 15 years of hard work and a successful career as a model, I was able to contribute to alleviating my family’s financial woes . In 1994, I married into one of the country’s more prominent families. Twelve years of marriage and 3 kids later, I had all that I had dreamed of. Or so I thought.   In 2009, while going to pick my kids up from school a homeless woman knocked on my car window. I reached for money and she shoved it back to me and said, “Please, I am so thirsty can I please have your water?” As I handed her the water and felt a jolt, like an electric current. She said, “Thank you and God Bless you.” And she disappeared.

Charity matters: what was the moment you knew you needed to start your nonprofit?

Elena Davis: After meeting that woman, I couldn’t get her out of my mind and I knew that I was being called to do something. I just wasn’t sure what. Then a series of things happened that kept pointing to water and homelessness. I knew I needed to revisit my past and I was scared to face the deeply buried part of myself, my childhood, that I had kept a secret from my friends and the people I knew. Yet, I knew that if we could heal one crucial aspect of the intense need that a person without a home has to deal with daily, by providing water, we could make an impact and so in 2009 we began the I am Waters Foundation.

charity matters: homelessness has so many layers where do you start?

Elena Davis: Did you know the average age of homeless person is 9 years old? We have more than 3.5 million people that are homeless in this country every night and of the 31 million people living in poverty more than 12 million of them are children. We start by providing the most basic human need, water.

charity matters: what keeps you doing this work when The job is never ending and the need is enormous?

Elena Davis: The work is hard but I really believe that I was called to do this. The short answer is God. What are the chances that I was born into poverty and married into a great family? I think I am a bridge between two worlds and this was God’s way of saving me.  Also, my husband has been incredibly supportive through this entire journey.

charity matters: when do you know you have made a difference?

Elena Davis: On a micro level I think we have been able to track people and follow our progress. On a macro level we have worked tirelessly to help change the systems by working with cities, calling out injustices and simply by not giving up. We are excited to be launching a new program I Am Jobs to continue our mission to serve this underserved  population.

charity matters: Tell us the success you have had and your impact?

Elena Davis: We have distributed over 4.1 million bottles of water to the homeless in six states.  We have partnered with countless homeless agencies and 45 shelter partners that we research. We are now working with cities to begin an I Am Jobs program in addition to supplying water and hope to the population we serve. The water continues to be the tool we use to reach people and connect. Each bottle has a phone number that connects us to the individual in need. We have partnered with incredible organizations to help the next steps in the job process. It all starts with the individual person who is asking for help.

charity matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience and how has this journey changed you?

Elena Davis: Growing up transient I kept to myself. My heart was buried and this journey has cleansed me, given me gratitude and perspective. I have learned that our gifts are tied to our wounds. You need to go down to the core of who we are and face that to move forward to help others.

charity Matters: Thank you for sharing your remarkable story, You truly are an inspiration and more than a super model but a super role model for us all.

 

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The Blessing Box

 

I was in a meeting a few weeks ago and discussing the concept of Charity Matters. More specifically the fact that kindness and goodness can spread quickly once people can see it in action. The gentleman I was talking too asked me if I had heard of The Blessing Box. I said that I had not, but it sounded interesting. His reply was that The Blessing Boxes that are now popping up all over his neighborhood in LA are a perfect example of the concept that goodness is contagious.

Being curious I tried to track down the original roots of The Blessing Box, which are typically home made boxes where people donate food for those in need. Almost like a miniature food pantry filled with everything from laundry soap to canned goods. In turn, those in need do not experience the shame of asking for food or help. The heart of the Blessing Box is that small random acts of kindness and generosity are contagious.

In Watertown, New York, Ramon Espinoza, a 46 year old Army Veteran decided to build a Blessing Box in front of his home and proved that giving is contagious. Watertown now has over 20 Blessing Boxes and even Home Depot has jumped in to help with the project.

Alex Martinez, pictured above, grew up homeless the first five years of his life. Now safely living with his father in Florida, this fourth grader wanted to do something for the homeless and built his Blessing Box two years ago. He has almost 50 homeless visit his box each week and neighbors come from all around to help keep it stocked. While these boxes have popped up everywhere from Texas, to New York, to Florida and everywhere in between….no one seems to know the original designer of this beautiful concept.

Honestly, it doesn’t really matter whose original idea it was. What matters is the fact that people all over the country, young, old, rich, poor and everything in between are simply helping one another. Even more importantly, the idea keeps spreading. Kindness and goodness are contagious and I would like to believe at the core of who we all are. The Blessing Box is just a perfect example of the goodness that exists in each of us.

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The Happiness Projects

A few years back there was a book called The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin that spent over two years on the New York Times bestseller list. The author had an epiphany that she wasn’t happy and didn’t spend enough time doing things that brought her joy. The result was a year long journey exploring her happiness and a bestselling book on the topic.

I have been following an amazing group on Instagram called by the same name but in no relation to the book. A few times a week I come across beautiful images of happy people doing service projects from feeding the homeless on skid row in Los Angeles, bringing brown bag lunches, visiting senior homes with flowers repurposed from other events (even plucked from Rose Parade floats) and the list goes on. So finally, my curiosity got the best of me and I reached out to find out who was behind The Happiness Projects?

The answer, a joy filled young woman named Ivy Luong, whose passion is to bring happiness to others. An event planner by day and philanthropist in every spare moment in between. I talked to Ivy earlier this week about what inspires someone with a full-time job, a full life and tons of friends to create a group that serves others? I think you will find her answers as inspiring as I did.

Charity Matters: What inspired you to start The Happiness Projects?

Ivy Luong: I have always felt grateful for all that I have. I am a first generation American and have watched my parents work so hard for our family. I know that there are so many people in need. Last January, I reached out to a bunch of my friends to see if they wanted to volunteer. I made it easy, fun and we called it The Happiness Project. I never thought a year later what we would accomplish.

Charity Matters: So what has your impact been in just 365 days?

Ivy Luong: We didn’t set out with a goal, we simply wanted to show people (the homeless, the elderly) that someone cares. We just wanted to help empower as many people as possible. I reached out to a few friends and a few nonprofits that I cared about and before I knew it there were more friends and more causes. Last year we completed 18 projects, had over 115 volunteers and delivered happiness to 1, 666 people.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work and when do you know you have made a difference?

Ivy Luong: All the people I meet. Bringing strangers together to do good. The interaction from the people we serve. Our lunch bag project on Skid Row, for example, when you feed someone who hasn’t eaten in days and they smile at you when you give them food. It not only makes you realize that their hurdles in life are bigger than your own but more than that it compels you to move forward to the next project.

Knowing that if I can help just one person, that’s when I know I have made a difference.

Charity Matters: What life lesson have you learned from The Happiness Projects? And how has this year of service changed you?

Ivy Luong: I have learned big lessons. First, is that you never know what someone is going through . More than that, give back whenever you can. Connecting people, opportunities and causes  has been one of the greatest experiences, not only for me but for everyone involved.  Just knowing you have helped one person let alone hundreds is what The Happiness Projects is all about.

Charity Matters.

 

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Katie’s Krops, a seed that grew

After the chaos of last week, I wanted to bring you the incredible story about an amazing young woman who is living a life that matters…….a life of purpose.

Working with students everyday, I truly believe that kids can do anything. Like a garden, they simply need the seed planted, cultivated, fertilized and time for it to grow. The story below is exactly that, about one 9-year-old girl who had an idea to end hunger.

Her name is Katie Stagliano and her story begins with a seed. In 2008, as a third grader Katie received a package of cabbage seeds. She went home excited to plant her seedlings and began taking daily care of her cabbage. Her hard work paid off and her cabbage ended up being over forty pounds! She knew her plant was special and needed to find a special home for it. Katie and her mother reached out to a local program, that served the homeless and hungry. She helped prepare her cabbage and served so many grateful people and now knew she needed to do more.

It was at that moment that Katie began to understand how many people in our country are hungry and she was determined to do more. She went to her school and asked if they could start a school garden and give the produce to the local soup kitchen, which they did. Still her dream expanded, Katie said,”If people (I hope lots of kids too) could grow even one vegetable plant and donate the harvest to a local soup kitchen we could make a huge difference in the fight against hunger.”

Katie is now 18 and this past month she headed off to College of Charleston as a freshman.

In under ten years Katie has created her nonprofit Katie’s Krops and established over 100 gardens in 33 states. She has summer camp where children learn about growing vegetable gardens and her team of young gardeners has grown thousands of pounds of produce, come together to cook and serve thousands meals since 2008…..all because of a seed, an idea and a boundless heart.

Charity Matters.

 

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Hope and Comfort

In the recent weeks following Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma we have watched the citizens of Houston as they struggle with the most basic of needs, food, water, shelter but one thing we often forget about when discussing basic needs is toiletries. Something as simple as a toothbrush, deodorant or a bar of soap and more importantly the huge effect that not having these basic essentials has on our self-esteem and life.

I recently had a fantastic conversation with a remarkable man named Jeff Feingold, who identified this need in 2010. An unlikely nonprofit founder, with an MBA from Harvard business school and over 20 years working as a portfolio manager at Fidelity, yet his huge heart and overwhelming gratitude inspired the nonprofit, Hope and Comfort in 2010. Their mission is to improve the health and self-esteem of school age children and young adults in the Boston area. His story is one of gratitude, inspiration and hope….

Charity Matters:  What was the moment you knew you needed to start a nonprofit?

Jeff Feingold: It started in 2010 when my daughter was having a birthday party, and my wife and I decided she didn’t need anything but so many other children did. We asked people to bring items needed by a local nonprofit.  We were overwhelmed by the toys, toiletries and clothes that  friends brought to donate. In delivering these items, I met a social worker who shared with me a statistic that 58% of low-income families are unable to buy personal care items. She said, if you don’t have a bar soap it is hard to go forward.

We knew then that we needed to do more and began sourcing toiletries out of our garage. In 2011, we applied for our nonprofit status for Hope and Comfort.

Charity Matters: You have a full-time job and run a nonprofit what fuels you to keep doing this work?

Jeff Feingold: I think the realization that life is short and fragile and there is so much need. We have been blessed but there are so many kids who are not. Children who do not go to school because of their hygiene, that are afraid to smile because they haven’t brushed their teeth, students being bullied because their families can’t afford soap or shampoo, who are refusing to go to school.  Knowing that we are able to bring resources together to change this for so many kids is what keeps us going. That and the need seems to keep growing.

Charity Matters: When do you know that you have made a difference?

Jeff Feingold:  I know we have made a difference when we hear that children are going back to school, when they send us notes saying that they are smiling again. I know that we have been able to thrive in a crowded nonprofit landscape by partnering with food pantries, human services, children’s organizations and bringing everyone together in partnerships creating a distribution network to get these toiletries to those who need them.

We have made a difference in inspiring hundreds of volunteers, young families and young children, including our own on teaching them how to give and make a difference.

Charity Matters: Tell us what success you have had? What has your impact been?

Jeff Feingold: In May 2010 we started with a donating a few items from our daughters birthday party and within the first year of working from our garage we distributed over 1,000 toiletries. By 2014 we partnered with the Boys and Girls Clubs and Mass General Hospital to provide products and hygiene lessons, distributing over 50,000 toiletries. Today, only seven years later we have distributed over 375,000 toiletries to close to twenty thousand children in need. 

As Jeff said, Hope and Comfort has gone from soap to hope…..a shinning example of what love and gratitude can do!

 

Charity Matters.

 

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What we can do….

This week was supposed to be about back to school, but somehow it just didn’t feel right when thousands of Texans are suffering from the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. So rather than talk about beginnings, it seems more appropriate to talk about what happens when people come together in times of crisis to help one another and what we can do to help the 6.8 million people affected by these storms.

Texas Monthly, provided this amazing list of ways we can help those in Houston and I thought it was worth sharing here, with a variety of ways to help children, families, the sick, disabled and animals.

The Texas Diaper Bank  Each year The Texas Diaper bank helps change the lives of 15,600 babies, seniors and the disabled. They distribute over 1.1 million diapers every year.

Driscoll Children’s Hospital  The hospital served over 171,000 children last year and is in need of blood donations as well as financial support during this challenging time as the staff works to serve these children and families.

Port Light This nonprofit is a grassroots organization that was established in 1997 to help those affected by disasters, specifically those with medical equipment needs and disabilities. Since that time, the organization has grown and in addition providing disaster emergency services, they spend much of their time educating others how to be prepared.

Direct Relief USA  This organization operates the largest charitable medical program in the United States serving more than 23 million Americans each year. 72% of those served live under the poverty level in the  United States. They are working to provide medicine and medical care to those people evacuated from their homes and in need.

Houston Food Bank In 2016-2017 The Houston food Bank distributed over 83 million meals! That was before Hurricane Harvey. With thousands and thousands of people living in shelters the Houston Food Bank is in desperate need of support to feed so many additional families.

Galveston County Food Bank  was founded in 2012 to provide meals to Houston’s surrounding area and helps to provide food and meals to over 53, 000 people each day who struggle to feed their families. They need your support to help so many more during this crisis.

Global Giving  is the largest global crowdfunding community connecting nonprofitsdonors, and companies in nearly every country. This organization helps nonprofits from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe (and hundreds of places in between) access the tools, training, and support they need to be more effective and make our world a better place. Their goal is to raise over 2 million dollars towards the Hurricane Harvey Relief effort.

SPCA of Texas is overwhelmed with need to rescue, care and support the thousands of animals effected by Hurricane Harvey. They annually help over 50,000 animals each year in addition to the seven thousand they spade/neuter and the other seven thousand animal cruelty investigations each year. The SPCA needs your support to rescue and care for the thousands of pets affected by the storm.

Aesop said, “In union there is strength.” This is the time we need to stop, click a link and help those who need it most, I just did……because together we can really do something.

Charity Matters.

 

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ME to WE

Summer’s end is bittersweet for me. It is not just the long days, the sun, and the inevitable back to school but it is saying goodbye to the remarkable students that we are privileged to work with all summer long through the youth leadership organization I work with. These students are beyond inspiring and we give them the skills to change the world and it is amazing to see what they can do.

The other day I was looking into other organizations that do similar work and I came across the most remarkable story about a young man named Craig Kielburger and his older brother Marc. Craig, at the age of 12 saw a news story about a young man his age, that changed his life, ignited a fire within and sparked a generation of youth to give back.

That moment was the beginning of the nonprofit Free the Children, whose mission was to free children and families of poverty and exploitation but that was simply the beginning of a remarkable journey and story. Free the Children grew and expanded into ME to WE, the WE Movement and a remarkable organization that empowers youth to change the world.

More than twenty years later, their vision and scope has expanded into empowering youth at home, connecting them with global and social causes, partnering with schools, service oriented travel programs for youth and families, along with a social enterprise that provides products that make an impact with their everyday consumer decisions.

These two brothers, used a spark to ignite a flame of service that has inspired hundreds of thousands of youth to be the change. In Craig’s words,” Over the years, we’ve discovered that it’s far more important to reach as many people as possible-especially our youth-empower them with the knowledge that it’s not up to anyone else, it’s up to them to make a difference.” 

Charity Matters.

 

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