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Homelessness and Hunger

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Faces In Between

There has been much conversation about the future of our country and the challenges that many of our young graduates are facing in these uncertain times. If ever there was a bright light that gives us all hope for humanity, it is Danielle Levin, the President, and refounder of Faces In Between. Danielle literally graduated from Columbia with her Masters in Public Health the day before our conversation last week. She is remarkable in what she has accomplished in 25 short years and I know the future is bright with compassionate leaders like Danielle changing our world through her inspiring work serving youth, families, and the homeless.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what Faces In Between does?

Danielle Levin: Faces in Between is a community outreach and support organization. We focus on developing different programs that increase the well being of our community members who are experiencing different forms of economic disadvantage. We primarily work with youth and families as well as youth who are experiencing homelessness. Sometimes there are overlaps between those, sometimes there’s not.

For our homeless outreach, we distribute care packages and we’re in New York City so in the winter that looks like sleeping bags, blankets, hats, gloves, scarves, and things like that. We have a speaker series where we bring individuals who are currently experiencing homelessness into different settings to share their own stories and advocate on behalf of themselves and their community. There’s nothing more powerful than hearing it directly from the source and being able to truly ask the questions that many of us have and don’t really know who to ask or where to go to find the answer.

We also have an after school program called SNACC, which stands versus Stainable Nutrition And Community Connection. It teaches economically disadvantaged youth how to prepare healthily, but affordable meals with items that are available in their local grocery stores. We bring different New York City chefs in to teach students and then we incorporate different social, emotional learning components into each session that we have. However, with COVID, we have not been able to run our programming as we had planned. So we pivoted what we do while keeping our mission exactly the same.

We have developed a COVID relief food program, and we are currently delivering daily meals to over 200 people. We are working with a local farm to table catering company who’s bringing boxes of food directly to the doors, the homes, the shelters of elementary age students and their families. So that’s been our new way of connecting with the community. We are in the process of launching a Chef’s Table page on our website. We’re having chefs send us in video recordings of themselves doing cooking demos for the kids. The chefs are going to show the students and their families how to create healthy and affordable meals with the ingredients provided in the boxes. So we’ve really been creative in our approach and are just trying to meet the community where they are. 

Charity Matters: You are 25 years old and have already accomplished so much, You literally graduated last week with your Master’s Degree in Public Health. have you always been philanthropic?

Danielle Levin:  I’ve always been someone that wanted to be a changemaker; I wanted to be an agent for change. I would spend my summers interning for refugee resettlement organization or running a health clinic and interning  for HIV AIDS facilities abroad. I just always knew that I wanted to do something to increase well being and to help people be able to live their best lives.

Homelessness and economic disadvantage have always been something that’s of particular interest to me. Especially focusing on youth because kids have so much to look forward to and so much potential.  When I moved to New York, I had the opportunity to just really get to know my neighbors who didn’t have homes. There are over 65,000 homeless individuals in New York City on any given night.  I had the opportunity to really understand, and to sit down on the street corners and talk with my neighbors who didn’t have homes, get to know what their needs were, learn their stories, and that’s kind of where the speaker series developed from. Also, all the items that we deliver aren’t because I think that they should be delivered, it’s because I know it from hearing directly from the source.

Charity Matters: Tell us how Faces In Between began?

Danielle Levin: It’s kind of an interesting story and series of events, and it’s all just so meant to be. In 2016, I was moving to New York, graduating undergrad, and I was going to work in a corporate healthcare job and wanted to really do something in my spare time working with homelessness and poverty. I came across this woman who had posted something online about how she started this organization called Faces in Between. Her name is Kendra and she filed the paperwork and set up the organization. She was a psychiatric ER doctor who worked around the clock and didn’t really have the opportunity to actually launch the organization in the way she had planned.

I reached out to her and she brought me onto the team. In 2018, I kinda said, Hey Kendra, nothing’s really happened with the organization in like a year and a half. She said, “Actually, I am going to shut it down. It’s not the right time.”  I said, well if it’s going to shut down now and fail now, why don’t I just take it over? I’ll rework it, I’ll rebuild it, I’ll flip it and keep the general mission exactly the same, but the approach to it will change. I thought it either fails with me, or doesn’t, but let’s see what happens. So she passed it over to me. And so I’m kind of like, the refounder.

 Kendra remains as my incredible mentor and she looks at what we’ve done with such pride. She had no idea that it would then turn into this and she’s watching it from afar and just seeing all the things that we’ve accomplished and the thousands of people that were touching daily. 

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Danielle Levin: I think our biggest challenge is also our biggest strength, the challenge is that we are 100% volunteer-based. Every donor dollar goes directly to the community. I am a full-time volunteer for the organization. I think that it’s our biggest strength but it definitely poses challenges because we make decisions on maximizing community impact versus a business model. I think that it is something so special and I will keep this model for as long as I can. It’s working for us. Upon graduating I’m going to be working full time for another corporation so that I can maintain this model. I think that it’s our strength, but it’s a challenge to figure out how to maximize and how to stretch every dollar to make sure that it’s truly making a difference in the lives of our community. I think it’s also the most beautiful part and it’s what makes us us. 

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

Danielle Levin: I have so much passion for the work that I do that I don’t mind late nights and early mornings and weekends. For me, it doesn’t feel like work, I truly get so much pleasure out of it. Challenging myself to reach the next limit and figure out how many more thousands of people can we feed or how many more meals can we deliver by tomorrow or next week. To me, it’s time well spent.

I think that I have a unique skill– I am really good at creative problem solving when it comes to real-life issues and coming up with effective solutions. I mean, what fuels someone to want to finish a puzzle? There are things that I can contribute, and if I don’t use it, then it’s kind of going to waste. If you have a gift, you might as well share it with the world.

It fuels me to see the recipients, people who are receiving our services, and their reactions to it. When it’s going to be zero degrees out, and someone is handed a sleeping bag, and they know that that’s their lifeline, it fuels me. When kids learn a new recipe and they’re taking home nutritious food to their family, but they might have had pizza for breakfast yesterday, it fuels me. I love learning from other people, strategically collaborating, picking people’s brains, kind of figuring out how to accomplish things that could have at first seemed impossible. But, when you break it down, you realize it’s all within reach. 

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

Danielle Levin: I have two answers. One is in terms of the work we do with homeless outreach. Those moments look like people reaching out who have spoken at our speaker series and saying,” you changed my life, you reminded me that I’m human, you made me feel human again”  and to help someone realize that they are who they’ve always been, is a really powerful moment.

With our youth and families, I think that, honestly, through our COVID relief is how I’ve realized our impact because when you’re teaching kids how to cook, you’re not home with them. You don’t see what they’re doing outside of the program. So you don’t know what type of impact you’ve truly made. But I think that seeing how we can so quickly jump into action  and pivot to support the community because of the infrastructures that are there was powerful for me and the team. Unfortunately, our list of in-need families is growing as the crisis evolves. This week, we officially took every single person off of our waitlist. That’s a really powerful moment to know that every person in this community who’s expressed the need for food, we are able to provide it for them. 

Charity Matters: If you could create a billboard that showed your impact, what would it look like?

Danielle Levin: I think that it would be a picture of our community members, smiling, being part of the community. I think that it would have some kind of message about the individuality of everyone that we serve, and the personal stories– kind of meeting the community where they are. We’re not just providing kids with a meal and saying we changed a life. What we are doing is much more than that.

I think that in all the work we do, it’s important to give people resources and tools, and we can’t expect that they’ll use it in a certain way or receive it in a certain way, or that they even want it but equipping people with resources and tools is so important. I think that meeting people where they are and understanding that one kid might act like they hate our after school program, but we don’t know what’s going on at home. So meeting people really where they are, and letting them participate in the cooking when they want to, let them serve, letting them take extra servings if that’s what they want, or skip out on the servings– I think that it’s really about understanding that we might be serving a community, but within the community, each person has their own story. 

Charity Matters: If you could dream any dream for your organization, what would that be?

Danielle Levin: That there’s no longer a need for us, that we have to go out of business because everyone has the resources that they need to live their day to day lives, and thrive in whatever way that means to them.

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

Danielle Levin: I’ve learned a lot. Every single day I learn something new. I think the biggest one is to take risks because everything I’ve done is a risk. I never knew if any of it would work. I’m 25 years old and I launched an after school program at a New York City public school. We just pitched it. We just went to a school and said we think that we’d be a good fit for your school and we pitched it because we had nothing to lose. If we didn’t take that risk, we would have gained nothing, they would have gained nothing, but we’re now providing their students with these meals during this crisis. I think that one thing is to just take risks and think outside the box.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Danielle Levin: I think that my entire perspective has changed. If you told me something, I would question where you learned that from, where you heard that from because to me, I’ve become so used to going to the source and saying to someone who’s experiencing homelessness, I heard this stigma, how do you feel about it? How does that make you feel? I think that hearing the story from the source and learning the facts from who they come from has definitely changed me and my perspective, rather than kind of just accepting what we as a society tend to believe is true.

I’ve always been someone who loves connecting with others, but my ability to do so has become much more well rounded because you might think you have nothing in common with someone who doesn’t have a home and is sleeping outside on the street for the last 10 years, but learning how to connect with someone who seems different, but then finding commonalities with them really changes you. I have become a lot more flexible in my life because when you’re working with individuals who don’t have as much structure as let’s say you and I might have in our lives, you have to learn how to be flexible and adaptable.

I think the biggest thing is knowing how to push limits and knowing that where I am now isn’t the end. There is so much more to do and so much more I will do. It’s easy to stick to the status quo, but to push the limits and see what happens has only led to success and has changed my perspective on how I live my daily life. 

 

CHARITY MATTERS.

 

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Duet

Duet Team

A few weeks ago I had lunch with Abby Mandell, the Executive Director of USC Marshall School’s Social Enterprise Lab. It is a remarkable undergraduate and graduate program that challenges today’s brightest students to come up with innovative solutions that solve some of humanity’s greatest challenges. Abby told me about some of the inspirational ideas her students have accomplished and one of them resulted in the creation of a nonprofit organization called Duet.

Stephanie Van Sickel in Lesvos, Greece

A team of six students in a USC Viterbi School of Engineering course took on an assignment of how to use human-centered design to create a system or a product around understanding the refugee crisis between Syria and Europe, with the goal to help alleviate at least one facet of the very complex issues facing refugees. Last week I connected with two of the team Co-Founder Michael Cesar and the head of Business Development, Stephanie Van Sickel to learn more about what these incredible students have achieved and where they are going with Duet.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what Duet does?

Michael Cesar: Through a class at USC, as a group of students we tried to create a new system of giving to tackles some of the older problems that have existed in philanthropy for awhile. We have created a new way of giving that is more transparent and more efficient. We did this to help Syrian refugees settling in Greece. We help rebuild their lives by giving them access to some of the key things that we all use every day such as basic necessities to things like a soccer ball that make you feel like yourself. We help them at the moment of resettlement to try to elevate them to a higher role of living.

Stephanie Van Sickel: All these people want to help and there are all these great organizations that let people help. The old model is the money goes to the organization and then items that people need are being shipped overseas or people donate on items that they assume are needed.

We are shifting that model by putting the power in the hands of the recipient. We enable refugees to go to the local store and decide what they need. When a donor decides they want to buy someone in our system diapers for example. The recipient goes to their local store and uses their duet credit to “purchase” the diaper size their child needs and as a result, they help the local economy and store owner’s business. There are two impacts here, it is not just for the refugees it is for the local community and economy.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about how this class at USC works?

Stephanie Van Sickel: The class is about human-centered design and innovation in engineering for global grant challenges. It is an interdisciplinary course so graduate and undergraduate students and for a full year you are broken up into teams to find solutions to improve the lives of refugees. The class is partnered with the refugee camps and those situated outside the camps in Leptos, Greece.

Duet founders Rhys Richmond and Michael Cesar

Charity Matters: When you started this class did you think you were going to start a nonprofit?

Michael Cesar: No, initially but very quickly yes. We started believing quite early on that this was a real possibility. When I initially signed up for the class I thought I was going to probably drop it within the first few weeks.

Stephanie Van Sickel: I think we fell in love with the problem, not necessarily the solution. Then when you realize that you have the possibility to actually make a difference, you have to keep going forward.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start Duet?

Michael Cesar: The first realization was when we visited the camps for the first time and quickly realized the inefficiency of current aid. We saw so much waste, we saw donations that came that didn’t fit or coats coming in the summer, we saw tons of toys donated but no one had underwear or children’s books in the wrong language. We were so frustrated because the outpouring of love was real and yet it wasn’t being funneled the correct way.

We saw the pain of the people being handed things. These refugees have been stripped of the choices they make from the clothes they are wearing, which were not their own and the lack of autonomy over their lives. We walked into a few local stores and asked if they would be interested in a system where refugees could shop and be a part of a new system of support for the refugees and the store owners were excited to be able to help and be a part of a solution.

Stephanie Van Sickel: We realized pretty quickly that locals were wary of nonprofits because since the refugee crisis began in 2015 so many organizations came and left. The store owners were trying to sell a good and then a nonprofit would come in with a million pieces of that item for refugees and the store owner couldn’t survive. So these store owners were cautious initially in trusting us but when we said that we wanted to work with them and the stores are a critical piece of the solution they were excited to partner with us.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Stephanie Van Sickel: We are asking people to look at philanthropy differently as opposed to an organization that tells you what you need. In this case, the refugees know best what they need and it is a shift as to how people look at giving and philanthropy. The refugee crisis is a big complicated issue so getting people to the starting line to understand what we do and why we do it and then going from there. We may feel small but we think big at Duet. Duet can really help people who are being rehoused or rehomed in many different opportunities whether it is because of a fire or coming out of homelessness, there are a lot of different opportunities to use the model we have built.

Michael Cesar: We are trying to focus on the way people think about giving. The challenge comes in shifting the power dynamic from the old model where the donor is the hero. To the new model where the donor is the supporter. It is a shift in belief systems.

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

Stephanie Van Sickel: For me, this is what I have decided to dedicate my life too. It’s why I came to get my MBA. This has been the work I have wanted to be in my entire life. Now knowing the faces on the other side and seeing the true impact of what we are doing. So now when its 1 am and I have one more thing to do, you just push through. This is bigger than you and that’s what helps to drive you.

Michael Cesar:  For me, I really, really want to fix the problem. I’m quite stubborn as a person. The idea that there is a problem that we have all seen that exists, that it could be fixed and that could radically change the way that love, generosity, and kindness is shared around the world, is sort of infuriating to me. The idea of chipping away at the roadblock is what I have become obsessed with. To let the kindness and humanity come out and to let people engage and remove the roadblock has been such a wonderful problem to try and fix.

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

Stephanie Van Sickel: I went back to Greece this past fall to meet with everyone and see how things were going, especially with our store partners. The stores said that the families thank us so much even though we are only part of this, someone else donated the diapers that they got to pick up from our store but we get thanked. The stores asked if we could have the duet families’ names and we asked why. They said that these Duet families who come in to get their things become friends and we would love to be able to make them feel more welcome when we see them by knowing their names. We didn’t set out to integrate the community but to see the shift in the way these two groups are referring to each other as neighbors and friends was so inspiring.

Michael Cesar: When a refugee picks up an item that has been donated at their local store we ask for a photo confirmation to make sure that our donors know that the item they paid for was received by the person they intended it for. What has been unexpected is that when the refugee is taking their picture to confirm they received the item, they ask that we send along with their photo with a thank you message to the donor who bought this item for them. It has been so touching and unexpected. 

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

Stephanie Van Sickel: We like breaking our impact up into different buckets. We say that we have had 320 items put into the lives of refugees to rebuild their lives. Beyond that, we have moved $10,000 of direct profit into small family-owned businesses in towns impacted by the refugee crisis. We have almost 150 unique donors from all over the world.

Michael Cesar:  I think we have one story that best explains what happens when you let people maximize what they receive by letting them choose you can change their lives. We had one guy who was a single father and he only requested diapers for a very long time. We told him he could ask for other items and finally, months later he requested a $400 laptop, which was the highest request we had ever received. We asked why and he explained that he had 200,000 youtube followers in his homeland who watched his phone repair videos and if he could get a laptop he would be able to be paid again by youtube and could support his family. One of our donors bought him his laptop and he is now becoming self-sufficient caring for his child.

This is a group of talented resourceful hard working people and if you give them the basic tools they will succeed beyond your expectations.

Charity Matters: If you could dream any dream for Duet what would that be?

Michael Cesar: I would love the moment where thirty other organizations have adopted our model and the world has moved to this new way of giving. We don’t decide what people need and the receiver does. I would love if this went into other organizations, new nonprofits, even the United Nations could adopt this new mentality. I would love for this app to be something that makes us think about how we are treating those who we are trying to help.

Stephanie Van Sickel: I would like to see Duet grow and become a new philanthropic model being used all over the world and shifting the way people look at philanthropy.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Michael Cesar: My emotions are much closer to the surface now. 

Stephanie Van Sickel: Growing up I thought I wanted to be close to these issues. I got into development because I wanted to make an impact larger than myself. If I couldn’t give a million dollars at least I could raise it to make the impact and move the needle. Duet has opened up my eyes that I want to be closer to the problem and more boots on the ground to continue to make more of a human impact.

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

Stephanie Van Sickel: Being such a small team we realize that if we are not asking on social media the giving comes to a complete stop. If you don’t ask you don’t receive.

Michael Cesar: Dignity isn’t something you can never take away from someone. Everybody has it and it is far more important than I previously thought. You treat people with dignity and you respect the dignity that other people have. I have also learned the difference I can make in other people’s lives. 

CHARITY MATTERS.

YOUR REFERRAL IS THE GREATEST COMPLIMENT,  IF YOU ARE SO MOVED OR INSPIRED, WE WOULD LOVE YOU TO SHARE AND INSPIRE ANOTHER.

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My Friend’s Place

So often in my life, multiple people point me in a singular direction and if I pay close enough attention I get the clue. A girlfriend of mine has been telling me about My Friend’s Place, a youth homeless organization, for years. A girl I work out with at the gym and her husband are very involved and have mentioned My Friend’s Place to me a number of times. Then over the holidays, I met a board member from My Friend’s Place who introduced me recently to the lovely Executive Director, Heather Carmichael. We finally connected and I am so thrilled we did. Heather’s insight and perspective on what is happening to these young people who are experiencing homelessness was so insightful and inspiring. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what My Friend’s Place does?

Heather Carmichael: My Friend’s Place is a 32-year-old organization that is a change maker in young people’s lives who are in the throes of experiencing homelessness. We are about creating a connection so that young people might begin to trust this community of support. We are a safe place to be in their crisis and a place that can help them stay connected to themselves, who they are and who they want to be in their future.

We want them to see that their current situation is hopefully circumstantial and that when their homelessness comes to an end that they are still who they are and want to be. If these young people can survive the trauma, make meaning and find opportunity then what they can contribute to our community is profound.

We try to help these young people to craft a whole identity. Developmentally, at 18 they have little or no training, minimum wage jobs do not resolve their problems. Living on the streets can be a very hostile experience trying to navigate life at age 18, 20, or 24. We do everything that a family or a friend would do to support someone at that age to find their way.

My Friend’s Place Founder Steve LePore and Executive Director, Heather Carmichael

Charity Matters: Tell us about how My Friend’s Place started?

Heather Carmichael:  In 1988 Steve LePore and Craig Scholz saw a rise in youth homelessness in Hollywood. The draw of Hollywood and the entertainment business has always made Hollywood a lure for many. In the mid-1980s Steve and Craig started to address the issue with a very grassroots organization originally called The Lighthouse.

They were scrappy opening up the back of their trunk to give kids something to eat, someone to relate to and listen to them and then eventually a place to stay. Hunger was one of the main issues then. Today we have taken the work that they began and expanded to a staff of thirty that provides legal aid, mental health, a host of outreach programs to create a one-stop community center. 

We now serve 1400 youth a year with about seventy-five to eighty coming in each day to eat, rest, shower, receive clothing and programming. We address both the immediate crisis and their long term goals and needs. Doing what any family would do for one of their children who was trying to get on their feet. We want to help these young people with their pain and find their potential of who they can be.

Charity Matters: How did you get involved with Mt Friend’s Place?

Heather Carmichael:I arrived at My Friend’s Place over twenty years ago, in the mid-1990s. I was working with youth runaways in San Francisco and doing a suicide assessment of programs with Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and saw first hand the work that was being done for youth homeless and how young people responded to different environments. An opportunity surfaced when Steve LePore stepped away and a Clinical Director position opened up at My Friend’s Place in 2000 and I came on board and have been here ever since.  I knew that I loved the way that My Friend’s Place engaged with the young people but what I didn’t understand was that this would become a place where who I am as a human being would match my professionalism in such a deep way.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Heather Carmichael: There are so many. The landscape around addressing homelessness is under such dynamic change. For years, no one spoke about homelessness and now we have an epidemic crisis. Communities are overwhelmed and LA is in such pain about this. How do we continue to engage communities in meaningful ways so that we maintain momentum towards a solution? 

I feel very grateful to be doing the work at My Friend’s Place, where our main priority is to resolve these young people’s homelessness while continuing to create meaningful opportunities to see the impact and to feel involved. How do we scale to that in a meaningful way? A multitude of things got us here and it will take a multitude of things to fix this. We need to create meaningful opportunities to get our community and supporters involved in understanding and being a part of the solution.

There needs to be advocacy to ensure that these young people are not lumped in with adults.  How these young people entered into this horrific situation is hopefully just a moment in time and very different for each person. We have folks with jobs and young intact families but with rent increases can no longer afford a place to live, if you can re-stabilize a family like that they will probably be able to continue on with a healthy stable life. Then you have folks with mental health issues and the intervention is different than with that intact family. Then you have someone experiencing domestic violence and that intervention is different. The Foster Care kids come out ill-prepared for adulthood without family, or any community support to manage their transition into stable adulthood. There are so many issues and what is the right intervention for one person is always different. for another. We really have to be thoughtful about what is the right way to support and help these individuals for their particular crisis and not approach this only as a housing crisis.

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

Heather Carmichael: I think understanding that I can be a part of a community that can create connection and opportunity that can be a game-changer for one young person, a hundred or thousands…it just blows my mind. To be a part of that moment in time when a young person makes a connection. It is like watching your child take their first steps and watching that is what it feels like. The only difference is bringing the community in to watch it and to be a part of it.

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

Heather Carmichael: My primary interaction with our young people is my foundation for this work. I yearn for this work but now I feel that my role is to bring the community in to witness the work we are doing. Recently we had a young woman, in her early twenties, who was in great distress. To be there to witness, the vulnerability, to hold the pain and the possibility of something different. This is really about being a part of a community, keeping us connected to beholding one another. I think this is a role that both faith-based communities and nonprofits share, keeping us connected and beholding one another.

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

Heather Carmichael:  The 1400 youth who come to My Friend’s Place each year are impacted by feeling safe, cared for and by the opportunity to partner with us to change their lives. The thousands of people who come to be a part of a transformational community. Both are super valuable impacts. We are all the same in our desire to feel whole and to contribute. Every day we work to make the ordinary extraordinary.

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

Heather Carmichael: I have had to challenge myself to be seen, to step on stage, to walk that carpet, that goes on the radio or television and to develop an extroverted part of myself. That being seen does not drive me but I have learned to express my love and confidence in what happens at My Friend’s Place. Our mission and our youth. fuel me but being out front does not, I want the spotlight on this mission.

How has this journey changed you?

Heather Carmichael: I am so steeped in this work. Who I am as a person is who I am in all parts of my life. I feel very grateful to be where I am so I can be who I am. My intention was never to be the Executive Director and I stepped into this role with great hesitation but my love for these young people won. 

Charity Matters: If you could dream any dream for My Friend’s Place, what would that be?

Heather Carmichael:  My dream for My Friend’s Place is to be resourced in order to resource the staff and to swiftly resolve the crisis of youth homelessness. My dream for our young people is to achieve their dreams.

 

CHARITY MATTERS.

 

YOUR REFERRAL IS THE GREATEST COMPLIMENT,  IF YOU ARE SO MOVED OR INSPIRED, WE WOULD LOVE YOU TO SHARE AND INSPIRE ANOTHER.

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Dream Kit

The founder of my elementary and high school knew what she was doing over a hundred years ago when she made the school’s motto Actions Not Words. That motto has defined my life along with thousands of alumni over the years. It is always so exciting to meet a fellow alumna and someone who grew up with the same philosophy of using their gifts to make the world better. Earlier this week I sat down with Marina Marmolejo, a recent graduate student from Yale with a Masters in Public Health, who decided to stay in New Haven to start a nonprofit to help homeless youth. An inspiring conversation about the launch of her nonprofit and App, DreamKit and beyond amazing what someone so young can accomplish to impact so many lives in such a beautiful way.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what DreamKit does?

Marina Marmolejo: We are reinventing technology to end youth homelessness. DreamKit is a web-based App for youth homelessness that supports youth professionally, financially and socially. Specifically through two main functions. The first is to motivate homeless youth, ages 12-25 to attend events, classes, and activities that will help them to escalate out of homelessness. We pay them for their efforts in DreamKit points that can, in turn, be used to “purchase ” gift cards. The youth are essentially earning money to meet their basic needs such as food, clothes, hygiene products. This is our short term solution.

The second part of the App is the long term solutions that are created from the profiles and information gathered on their Dream Kit App that will directly reflect the activities that the youth are attending and track their progress. We then share this information with potential employers, with landlords, mentors in the community to show their positive behavior and the steps the youth are taking to move in a positive direction. The third piece is to engage and connect them to society and the community in trying to reduce the stigma associated with homelessness. Dream Kit is a platform to showcase progress transformation and resiliency among a very at-risk and marginalized population.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start  DreamKit?

Marina Marmolejo: Living in Los Angeles homeless is so in your face. People become callus to homelessness because it is so overwhelming and we feel helpless because there are no clear solutions. Living in LA people cannot help to feel guilty. Something inside of me that made me want to use my skills to make a difference and I honestly had no clue how. Then I took a course when I was at Loyola Marymount University on homelessness that spoke to the problem of homelessness from a mental and physical health perspective and public policy perspective.

Part of the class included living homeless for 3 days and 4 nights on the streets of Skid Row and in shelters. I remember the fear, the fear of being so alone, fear of checking our bags and not knowing about our belongings, which was normal shelter protocol. Fear because we were woken up one night and told to leave the shelter because there were too many registered sex offenders in the shelter and the street would be safer. I remember seeing shelter students my age doing their homework and for the first time seeing the juxtaposition between me as a college student, who has been so lucky, and then to witness youth who just were not as lucky as birth. This experience was my tipping point and Ah-Ha moment when the light bulb went off. You don’t really get it until you are in it and I was barely even in it and it was shocking.

So I started doing research at SPY (Safe Place for Youth) in Venice while I finished my undergraduate degree and decided to get my Master’s at Yale in Public Health. When I got to New Haven I got a job at an organization called PAWS (Poverty Alleviation through Washing Soles) where we provided shoes, socks, foot care, hygiene for the homeless. Professor Yusuf read the article about our work and reached out to me. From our conversations, DreamKit was created to track the progress of the homeless much like a Fitbit giving behavioral nudges and creating a points-based economy for homeless youth. We hired a development team and launched our App last week.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Marina Marmolejo: DreamKit is not a consumer-facing product that has one customer like selling t-shirts but more of a linear pipeline. DreamKit is so reliant on multiple different communities for it to be successful which is absolutely the hardest part. The biggest challenge is gaining trust with our youth, our service providers, mobile employers. How do we connect all of these partners later down the road with our youth?

In order to end youth homelessness or even to attempt to it takes all hands on deck just to manage our fifteen person team, our partners, stakeholders and trying to take care of myself and protecting my energy as well.  Working with this population reminds me that my own stresses seem small.

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

Marina Marmolejo: Two of the people on our team, Aaron and Ashley, are formerly homeless. I meet with them multiple times a week and hearing their testimonials is what keeps me going. Last week one of our students said, “I’ve never been around so much positivity before.” The work that I’m doing with Adam and Ashley gives me so many Ah-Ha moments. This mutually beneficial relationship makes me feel that I am in the right place at the right time and watching them grow spiritually and emotionally through their work at DreamKit. They absolutely keep me going.

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

Marina Marmolejo: For me moving the needle has been the incredible support from the New Haven community to support me and this work in this very new opportunity. My Ah-Ha moments happen when someone says they have read about DreamKit and for me moving the needle forward means that we are infiltrating the way that people think about youth homelessness and that we are creating space for DreamKit and shifting mindsets on how we can be creative for solutions on homeless youth. 

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

Marina Marmolejo: First, the way we are treating the homeless top-down through government programs and DreamKit is funding and resourcing from the ground up. The metric is if you do X then you will get Y. We are exploring the bottom-up approach. We are paying the homeless whether we like it or not. If we are paying for the homeless regardless of then introducing interventions when they are young helps us create a new pathway to prevent them from ending up in systems such as prisons or hospitals in the long term.  

We might as well put the money in early to use it as a positive reward-based system as opposed to paying for long term prison stays. It is exhilarating to know that if you give people opportunities for positive behavior then how does that impact larger systems like health care or the criminal justice system. As a society, we are really good at tracking negative behaviors but not the reverse. DreamKit introduces a whole new data set on positive metrics. 

Charity Matters: If you could dream any dream for DreamKit, what would that be?

Marina Marmolejo: I would love to have proof of concept for DreamKit and be able to scale this to other cities. Essentially, I would love to be able to go to other urban markets and have them leverage the App to operate DreamKit in their own cities. Tech makes this scaleable and people do not realize that these youth have phones. Sixty-five percent of our youth have phones and the other thirty-five percent qualify for free phones through government programs.

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

Marina Marmolejo: Overall, being able to code-switch. I find myself moving from marketing to research, from business to grant writing. The lesson has been to be agile and switch really quickly.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Marina Marmolejo: I have been in academic institutions my whole life. You learn, you study and give back. I have learned that if something doesn’t exist you are allowed to create it. I am ok with being ok that they don’t exist. I know I have the ability to create jobs and opportunities. We are allowed to create new ideas for our most vulnerable populations and that is what matters.

Charity Matters.

 

YOUR REFERRAL IS THE GREATEST COMPLIMENT,  IF YOU ARE SO MOVED OR INSPIRED, WE WOULD LOVE YOU TO SHARE AND INSPIRE ANOTHER.

Copyright © 2020 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 heroes of 2019

“Nothing is given to man on earth – struggle is built into the nature of life, and conflict is possible – the hero is the man who lets no obstacle prevent him from pursuing the values he has chosen.”

Andrew Bernstein

There is nothing I love more than meeting new people. To me, each new person that I come across is like unwrapping a gift. I love learning people’s stories and what makes them tick. Meeting someone new is a never-ending source of joy for me. Some people collect certain things, I collect people because to me they are what matter. This past year I am so excited about the people that WE met at Charity Matters. When I meet amazing people so do you. Who wants to open a gift and not share it? So before we look ahead to 2020 I wanted to take a brief moment and look back at some of the extraordinary humans and their organizations that came into our lives this year.

We began 2019 with Tracy’s Dogs. The founders of Tracy’s Dogs, Tracy and Scott Whyatt, a Texas-based nonprofit that rescues thousands of dogs and partners them with new homes said to me, “People don’t find dogs, dogs find people.” Two weeks after that interview a dog from Texas named Lucy found us. An unexpected blessing of 2019 and the gift that keeps on giving. As they say, “Charity starts at home.”

photo credit: Classic Kids

Animals were not the only last legacy from the year. We met amazing women who turned their life challenges into thriving nonprofits. The remarkable Becky Fawcett who learned what it cost to adopt a child and turned it into her life’s mission to help families fund adoption with Help Us Adopt.

Jill Ippolito who showed us the power of love and healing with her inspirational work in juvenile halls with trauma-informed yoga with her nonprofit Uprising Yoga. Teaching and training minors in jail to learn how to process their trauma and break the cycle of pain. Jill used her past experience to help reform prisons across the country and heal generations of children who have experienced trauma and inflicted it on others to learn a new path towards healing. Jill is a truly lovely human and reminded me that whatever gift it is that we have, we need to share it with the world.

Then there was Marcella Johnson who lost a child at birth and used that pain to fuel her nonprofit The Comfort Cub. Marcella and her team provide healing weighted stuffed teddy bears/Cubs to help those mothers who grieve. We had such an incredible conversation that we set up lunch after and a friendship was born, she is a truly special human.

Marcella wasn’t the only new friend made in 2019, Roberta Lombardi the founder of Infinite Strength was so inspiring with her mission to financially assist women going through breast cancer pay for things such as daycare. We talked for over two hours and could have kept going. She is remarkable with her passion for serving and supporting these women and a true girls girl. I adored getting to know Roberta.

This year was not just about the girls, there were amazing men accomplishing unbelievable work, one of them was Seth Maxwell of the Thirst Project. At 19 years old Seth discovered how many people on this planet live without clean drinking water and made it his life’s mission to change that. Now at almost 35, he has. Seth’s organization has actually taken that number from 1.1 billion people without access to clean drinking water to 663 million and he is still going strong. More than that Seth is using his passion to inspire thousands of high school students across the country to join him in his mission.

Speaking of missions we met Colin Baden, the former CEO of Oakley sunglasses turned nonprofit founder, who continues to find ways to use technology to support Veterans with Infinite Hero Foundation. Colin’s humility and commitment to our Veterans left a lasting impression on me and the thousands that he serves. Our conversation left me in awe and reminded me that true heroes serve from a place of humility and Colin is a true hero.

While we met so many incredible and inspiring humans this past year there was one person whose positive attitude, commitment to joy and service left an indelible mark on me. His name is Hal Hargrave and he is the founder of The Be Perfect Foundation. Hal is a paraplegic and his organization works to help provide wheelchairs, cars, physical rehabilitation and a list of services for those with spinal cord injuries. Hal is someone who chooses joy and to live his life in the service of others.

All of these nonprofit founders serve humanity each and every day in so many different ways. I loved every single person I had the privilege of meeting this year and I loved introducing them to you just as much, I wish I could highlight them all here. 2019 was an amazing year and I am excited about what this New Year and decade will bring.

I think the perfect way to wrap up 2019 is with a quote from Hal Hargrave. I think Hal speaks for all the remarkable nonprofit founders and heroes when he said, “I fear not being on this earth more than anything because I know there is more that I have to give to this world and that I have more in the tank. I have an opportunity to either live life for myself or for others. It is an easy decision every day to live my life for others. The most interesting thing about it is that I am always the benefactor, whether it is a smiling face or a new attitude. It makes me a better and more aware person each time this happens. “

Wishing you a Very Happy New Year!

Charity Matters.

 

YOUR REFERRAL IS THE GREATEST COMPLIMENT,  IF YOU ARE SO MOVED OR INSPIRED, WE WOULD LOVE YOU TO SHARE AND INSPIRE ANOTHER.

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.

SPY Safe Place for Youth

“We must all work together to end youth homelessness in America.”

Jewel Kilcher

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what A Safe Place For Youth (SPY) does?

Alison Hurst: Homelessness is our number one crisis in LA County. We created a one-stop-shop where young people who are experiencing homelessness or are at risk of homelessness come and access to a whole array of services to assist them while they are homeless and also assist them getting out of homelessness and into stability.

We provide all of the services one would need including; education, employment, health and wellness services, housing and case management services and of course a sprinkle of fun stuff because young people need fun stuff like our healing arts program which provides music, art,  poetry, meditation all ways to lure our young people into our services because young people need different things. All of this is topped off with really awesome food, access to showers and clothing. Today we have nine comprehensive programs that make up our continuum of care. All of our programs weave together to meet the different needs of the young people we are serving.

Charity Matters: What was the moment that you knew you needed to act and start SPY?

Alison Hurst: There wasn’t one moment but rather a series of moments. The initial moment was in 2008 when I would take my son to the skateboard park in Venice Beach and see all of theses disconnected kids at the beach, which were actually sleeping on the streets.  I’m from London, where we didn’t have a large population of homelessness, but when I came here to  Venice Beach and then Hollywood I realized that we had a massive problem with youth homelessness and we didn’t have many resources here on the Westside of Los Angeles. That was the initial spark.

When I met with other nonprofit organizations that were working with the homeless population, I realized that people just didn’t seem to know what to do with the unhoused youth.  One of the other initial sparks was when I realized that even the other social service providers didn’t know how to meet the needs of the young people and that they didn’t believe that they wanted the same kind of resources. Even the old Federal policies entitled “Runaway homeless youth” which placed blame on the youth. These youth didn’t run away, they were tossed out and thrown away, neglected and abused.

In learning all of this, I immediately began handing out food packs to these kids on Venice Beach with a bunch of volunteers and realized once I got engaged with the youth that there was literally nothing that separated these kids from the kids in my normal everyday life, other than the fact that they had nowhere to live. The system had colossally failed them over and over again. The epiphany was that I became super engaged in the cause and I thought I could impact that cause by handing out food and very quickly realized that was not enough and started to build the program.

In the last eight years, we have become the leading provider for homeless youth on the westside. We now have a staff of 59 and eight years ago we had zero staff and a handful of volunteers and today we have hundreds of volunteers. While our growth is great the fact remains that more young people are falling into homeless than any other demographic and by young we mean ages 12-24. When we started SPY it was literally to meet the needs of hunger and then as our expertise grew so much of this became around policy change. We have worked with local businesses, government, individuals and the community to help us to be a part of the solution.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Alison Hurst: The biggest challenge we currently have is fighting the housing project that we are trying to expand. While having almost 60,000 folks residing on our streets has increased so has the neighborhood opposition to siting any kind of housing program.  Through Measure H and HHH, there are resources provided to build more crisis and critical need housing. The opposition from the community is being slowed down by neighbors’ opposition to all of these projects.

Having access to general housing funding is top of mind always but getting neighborhood buy-in on the two very large projects we are involved in, one is a 54-bed shelter for youth homeless shelter. We have never had a youth shelter ever which will transform the landscape and we continue to face enormous opposition. The second project is a 40 unit development that we will be operating. We have one hundred youth a day currently walking through our doors and we haven’t had any opposition but with these projects, we have had a lot. There is a lot of NIMBY or not in my back yard.

There is a lot of fear and shame. the shamefulness of what we have when there is so much unbelievable wealth all around us. So the shame that comes with recognizing the levels of poverty and drivers of homelessness. Rather than letting that shame motivate you to do something, it becomes a fear of others. I think it is much easier to write people off if we think that they are different from us. The truth is there is very little that separates us and once you come face to face with homelessness you can not deny the commonality between us.

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

Alison Hurst: The young people we serve. I regularly feel that I am pushing a boulder uphill. As you grow your budget gets squeezed and there isn’t always funding. What drives me is that I have to stay connected with the young people we serve. Every member of our team, myself included, spends a portion of their time in direct service with the kids to stay connected to the work. I have to be apart of the work so I don’t make decisions that are not based on reality. 

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

Alison Hurst: When we moved into housing. We had one housing program that we launched last year. We were literally placing young people in the spare bedrooms of community members and we were the first agency in LA to do that. In February of this year, we launched into a transitional housing program and to me, that felt monumental. For years we didn’t have anywhere for these kids to go and nothing to offer but love and connections to resources but now for the first time we at least have 20 young people safely off the streets. We are getting ready to launch a third program for young pregnant homeless youth and families.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what success you have had and the impact you have made with SPY?

Alison Hurst: I think there is a combination of things that make us feel that we have had success. From the number of young people, we have moved safely off the streets, which was 127 last fiscal year and I think the number of young people that we have connected to education and employment. Because the two things are absolutely dependent on each other. Over one hundred youth that were connected to education and employment and the additional 127 who are off the street.  At the same time we served 1,400 youth and we still have a long way to go. The annualized national number of youth homelessness is around 10,00 young people between the ages of 12 and 25. 

Charity Matters: If you could dream any dream for SPY what would that be?

Alison Hurst: I would dream that we would continue to grow our housing resources and add an additional transitional housing program, that we would execute on our Venice Beach bridge housing project. That we can continue to be the first in the class agency that provides a hopeful, safe space for young people to access services and wonderful place that provides employment opportunities for people who want to be a part of the solution as well as a wonderful place to work.

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

Alison Hurst: The learning curve was SO steep and SO challenging, it feels like being in a Master’s program for the past eight years.  I left school at 15 and have never been back. I don’t have a Ph.D. or a fancy degree and never in a million years did I think that I would be here. I learned early to always hire people smarter than you. More than that SPY is all based on relationships, connection, community, and our youth members. Everything we do is about creating connections and community for everyone involved. We would be nothing without all of our community partners. Power in the change happens when you bring everyone to the table.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Alison Hurst: I think this journey has impacted me the most in my level of listening and understanding around poverty. I am a much more serious person than I was before because a huge weight has been put on me.  I am a much more focused person than I ever was which motivates me. This work never ends it is 24/7 but I am fearless, absolutely fearless and I never stop. SPY is all about light and love and I am not afraid to use the word love, it is the underpinning of everything we do.

Charity Matters

 

If you are so inspired feel free to pass this along. Who doesn’t love to hear about all the good in the world?  You will make someone’s day!

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 Birthday Party Project

 

photo via: today.com

We all strive to use our gifts for the greatest good and purpose. We spend a lifetime honing our crafts and talents and usually putting those skills into our careers. For many of the nonprofit founders I have interviewed there is a moment when they realize that their skills and gifts can be used for a bigger purpose, one beyond their job. That is exactly the story of Paige Chenault the Founder of The Birthday Party Project. Paige spent her career as a high end party planner, organizing extravagant weddings and events to create lasting memories for her clients. Last week, I had the opportunity to meet Paige and attend a fantastic party to help support her beautiful mission of bringing joy to children living with homelessness.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what the Birthday Party Project Does?

Paige Chenault: The Birthday Party Project is a nonprofit that throws birthday parties for children who are experiencing homelessness. The Birthday Party Project partners with homeless and transitional living facilities and we host birthday parties for the kids that are staying there.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start  The Birthday Party Project?

Paige Chenault:I was on an airplane reading a magazine article about kid’s birthday parties and for almost a decade I had been in the party planning business, so I was getting excited about my  daughter’s upcoming birthday and the party I was going to throw her. As I flipped through the magazine and saw images of these picture perfect parties thinking that I could totally do this for my daughter Lizzie.

Then I put that magazine down and picked up a Time Magazine with an article about children living in Haiti and the extreme discrepancy between the party that I had envisioned for my daughter and what I saw this child in the article living in every single day. That was the moment that it hit me that I could do more with the gifts and talents I have been given. There were children that were out there that would never know the power of a celebration of people coming together. In that moment I knew that I was the one to do something for these children.

I do believe that we are called into service and absolutely do feel that I was called to this. 

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Paige Chenault: Some of the biggest challenges that we face has everything  to do with the amount of interest we have for people to get involved with our mission and the kids that we are serving and celebrating. Knowing that so many people realize that these children are human beings going through things that are incredibly difficult and traumatic. These are families that are truly experiencing crisis and whether they are in sex trafficking rehabilitation programs or if they are chronically homeless or in a domestic violence agency trying to get help and to stay alive. These families are facing things that we don’t have to face.

In knowing that there are measures in place that allow children and families to feel safe and because of that we have worked really hard on the way we celebrate with kids. Treating people with dignity is our ultimate goal and we have worked very hard with our birthday enthusiasts which is what we call our volunteers to do this. There is a tremendous opportunity for people to get involved with our organization. Yet, we still can’t seem to catch up with the excitement around our mission.   We have scaled incredibly fast in these past eight years and to celebrate in fifteen cities is incredible for us. What we do know is that we do things well and unless we can do them in honoring our agencies and shelters and continue to keep up with the excitement and enthusiasm can be a challenge for us sometimes.

I think as founders I think it is really important that we stay true to our core values and that we let those be our guide post. I can see where it could be very easy if someone wanted us to do this and that moment that we begin to do things that don’t align with our values that is the moment when there are tension points. We have worked very hard to honor our core values, be good stewards of the dollars we have been given and that we are serving our kids and families well. These are hard lessons to learn as a young entrepreneur.

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

Paige Chenault: Our core team of volunteers, our party coordinators, these are volunteers who host parties on our behalf all around the country. For me, those are the people that fuel me the most because when I am so tired and can’t take one more call or email or whatever it is…I have the opportunity to look online and see what they are tackling for us on our behalf and it is so powerful to see the way that they are giving of their time and resources to serve our mission. We are extraordinary in that way because we have 150 party coordinators around the country who show up on our behalf. Some of these people have been doing this work for almost eight years with us.

Our retention rate is really high and we have worked really hard to care for those people because these are the folks on our team who are doing the work. I have a team in Dallas and we call ourselves the support team because we need to support our volunteers/party coordinators.

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

Paige Chenault:I get really energized when my team comes up with great ideas solve a problem, when we get it right and everything goes really well or when I get emails saying that this was the best experience I have ever had volunteering. Those are the moments for me that I am most proud of the work that we do.

 We do have stories of impact and the ways in which our kids are impacted. I would say those moments are extraordinary and incredibly special.  We have immediate impact with our work but the ripple effect takes ages to come back. Recently, I had the opportunity to truly run into someone who she said to me, “Do you know you celebrated my 14th birthday with me when I was living at a shelter?” I had never met her before and I was at a speaking engagement and she came up to me and she was now the youngest intern ever at this company and for me it was incredibly special and this was my moment. It was everything for me.

 For me that was a four year gap before we saw her again and she still spoke so fondly of her party in such detail and to me that speaks volumes to level of work that we are doing making lasting moments that help me over come those hard days of the grass roots building of this organization. We are leaving lasting effects on the children that we are serving and that is what matters. These moments are the greatest gift that have been given.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about some of the successes you have had?

Paige Chenault: We have celebrated 10,000 children’s birthdays in eight years and we have done that alongside 50,000 children. So we have celebrated 10,000 birthdays with 50,000 children there with us celebrating. We have done that with the help of 38,000 volunteers which we call our birthday enthusiasts, which is extraordinary to me. That is a lot of kids reached, a lot of birthday cakes.

We have done that with our agency partners or transitional living facilities or homeless shelters. The Ronald McDonald House is a prime example of a transitional living facility. Covenant House is a teen living facility and there we celebrate children 17-23 and often these kids revert back to their childhood because they never celebrated a birthday before. We partner with domestic violence agencies, sex trafficking rehabilitation programs and then we have homeless shelters and emergency shelters which are typically 24 hour facilities .

Charity Matters: If you could dream any dream for your organization, what would that be?

Paige Chenault: I think there is an opportunity to go big and give people an opportunity to have experiences that they would never otherwise have the opportunity to be a part of. Yes, I want every child in America to feel celebrated and yes I would love to take The Birthday Party Project internationally but in addition to that there is always room for us to do more for others. I want to partner with people who dream really big. Allowing kids to experience Disneyland, or a movie lot or having a larger than life birthday party in the middle of a field. I just want them to see how creativity can bring people alive. 

 

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Paige Chenault: I think I am more sure of who I am as a wife and a mother and a leader. I have always been empathetic, compassionate and a giver and I have always expended most of myself for others. I now realize that I don’t have to do it all or be the hero of the story. So for me, the narrative that has switched since this endeavor. It doesn’t have to be about me but it really can be about more and everyone together and thank goodness for that because there are plenty of others who can share in the joy of this. It is like taking off the cape and the in charge mentality and saying people there is plenty to go around.

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

Paige Chenault:I think for me the biggest lesson for me is that we gain people’s trust when we operate from a place of authenticity and vulnerability. If I were to continue along this journey with all the answers or needed to be the person with the first and last word, we would have crumbled by now. I think for me it was incredibly important as we brought people into the fold that I was incredibly honest from the beginning that there was a lot that I didn’t know but that I knew we needed to it.

By sharing just who I was and what my strengths and weaknesses were and by being able to share that with the people around us we created a movement. People realized that I didn’t have all the answers but maybe they had a piece of the puzzle and by allowing them to do what they do best and to get out of the way, we were able to build this incredible community of these magic makers that I trust and that trust us.

That has probably been the biggest take away from this experience. When we get out of our own way and rely on the expertise of others that is where community is built and that trust exists in those moments and when you are able to do more. I believe strongly in the power of people but allowing others to find out what they are capable of is even more rewarding.

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.

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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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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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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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.

Charity Matters

 

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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.

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