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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.

Kidspace Children’s Museum

 

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

George Bernard Shaw

It is amazing how life always has a way of coming full circle. Over twenty years ago, I was a young mother who was looking to get involved with an organization that would not only connect me to other young moms but also one that my young toddler sons could be a part of.  Lucky for me a hand full of Pasadena women has realized the importance of play and had created a small and innovative children’s museum called Kidspace.

Kidspace quickly became part of my children’s lives and mine. Over the years I volunteered, chaired events, benefits and then lobbied the city to help build the new museum for our community. Who knew that a few women’s idea to provide children an innovative and safe place to play would turn into a nationally recognized premiere Children’s museum? As Kidspace gets ready to celebrate its 40th anniversary, I was thrilled when the museum reached out and asked me to be a part of their celebration and to interview one of the museum’s founders, Cathie Partridge.

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

Cathie Partridge: When we first started out, there was nothing for children in Pasadena. So I thought why don’t we start a children’s museum? We set out to create an exploratory experiential fun place for children to play.  It was more than that because we wanted our kids to be able to choose their activity. We didn’t want an academic learning center but an informal place for children to learn. Children need play to develop emotionally and to grow.  

Charity Matters: What was the moment that you knew you needed to act to make this idea of Kidspace happen?

Cathie Partridge: I had been teaching school and had worked at the old Pasadena Art Museum with children. I was a  member of the Junior League and we had a committee thats job was to dream up ideas for things that we needed in Pasadena. The idea of the children’s museum was chosen from a list of things and I was in charge of this project.

Because I had a back round in education and art, we hired six artist to create some interactive displays for children. We created a show called Making Senses  at Cal Tech and Midred Goldberg, who was the wife of the President of Cal Tech, had started the Princeton Junior Museum at Princeton University. She was very pro children’s museum and there were very few children’s museums in the country at that time. Boston had one but there really wasn’t a prototype at the time.

We really didn’t know if anyone was going to come. Our project was a test to see if this is something that should continue and in the first three weeks we had something like 10,000 children come through this basement at CalTech. We knew then that we had something worth going forward with.

Charity Matters: What happened that first day?

Cathie Partridge: It was 1978 and a lot of kids showed up. That first moment they screamed and we knew had something. They just didn’t want to leave. So we knew there was something magical and unique.

Charity Matters: What were your biggest challenges?

Cathie Partridge: The biggest challenge early on was money and to find a location. We needed someone to give us a location. We went from CalTech to the Rosemont Pavillon for six months, where the Rose Parade Floats are built and from there into McKinley School. I loved the concept that the Exploratorium used that hired one artist to create one exhibit and then they kept adding exhibits and I thought we could do that. and eventually we would have a museum. These kids gave us honest feedback. The concept of what the kids did then is still relevant. There was a maze and a glow in the dark treatment, a half of a fire truck and the kids loved it.

At Kidspace there has always been something for everybody. The other challenge has always been measuring how fast to grow? To balance the facility with the budget and the growing number of children. Good challenges to have.

Charity Matters: In those early days when you were a young mom and you had little ones and were trying to get this going, what fueled you to keep going?

Cathie Partridge: We were lucky that we had a team of people from the Junior League and lots of volunteers. We had a great board that really guided us i the beginning. We had definite highs and lows. I never gave up and I am always learning, the staff just gets better and better.

Charity Matters: When did you realize that you had made a difference?

Cathie Partridge: I don’t know if there was one single moment. What I do know that my children’s friends bring their children and while I’m not a grandparent the fun of it is seeing the next generations come through and seeing it continue. The first year we served 10,000 and this year we are close to 400,000. We have served over five million guests since that first day! I always said it was better to have the grass roots. It has been a gathering of the masses to make this happen.  

Charity Matters: What do you think you have learned from this journey?

Cathie Partridge: I think I have learned to hang in there. I have learned courage and risk taking. I have been involved with many other organizations and I think the courage to think outside of yourself and what you think you can do for the community is what I learned from Kidspace.

I went to the Lilly Foundation years ago and they said that ninety percent of volunteers come from families that volunteered. I come from a long line of women who have done this work. My grandmother started Save the Bay in San Francisco and she would call me regularly and ask me what am I doing to help society? I think I watched both my mother and grandmother  doing this work and that it was modeled for me. For me seeing my own children give back is the greatest legacy.

Charity Matters: When you think about Kidspace celebrating their 40th year which is a huge ACCOMPLISHMENT for any nonprofit, what are you most proud of?

Cathie Partridge: I think I am the most proud of the community we have built. The volunteers, the staff and creating this property into a joyous and fantastic place. We started with a group of seven women called the circle of friends and today we have over a hundred plus women coming together for Kidspace. I’m very proud of the thousands of people that have volunteered and helped to make Kidspace what it is today. Passing this onto the next generation is a great legacy.

Charity Matters: If you had one wish for Kidspace what would that be?

Cathie Partridge: I would like to see us grow internationally where we are sharing exhibits with others from around the world and continue to serve more children. There is always more to do. I am so proud of Kidspace, the staff and the volunteers, I am just a tiny part of this.

Charity Matters

 

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Be Perfect Foundation

“Being perfect is not about that scoreboard out there. It’s not about winning. It’s about you and your relationship with yourself, your family and your friends. Being perfect is about being able to look your friends in the eye and know that you didn’t let them down because you told them the truth. And that truth is you did everything you could. There wasn’t one more thing you could’ve done. Can you live in that moment as best you can, with clear eyes, and love in your heart, with joy in your heart? If you can do that gentleman – you’re perfect!”

Friday Night Lights

Two weeks ago I was in Canada with my husband on a business trip and we grabbed a cab with another couple we didn’t know attending this work event. We began to chat and this amazing couple told us that they had started a nonprofit with their son who is a quadroplegic to support other paraplegic patients with their organization the Be Perfect Foundation. As my husband said, “Heidi only you would share a cab with nonprofit founders.”  We chatted with our new friends, the Hargraves,  exchanged information and then we went on to take our youngest son off to college.

While we were getting our son settled I reached out to the Hargraves and was connected to their son Hal Hargrave Jr. via email. Hal Jr. and I set up a time to talk the morning I returned home from dropping our son. I was devastated and a mess and wondered why I had agreed to the conversation at that time. I will tell you that God sent this remarkable man into the world to lift us all up and I have thought about Hal Jr. a million times since we spoke. He had a profound impact on me with his incredible unflinching optimism and grace. He reminded me that we each choose our attitude everyday and we all have the power to lift others by choosing to be joyful. I hope our conversation is as impactful for you.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what The Be Perfect Foundation does?

Hal Hargrave Jr.:  The Be Perfect Foundation is a nonprofit thats mission is provide direct financial and emotional aid to individuals living with paralysis. 

Twelve years ago I was just graduating from high school and had aspirations of taking over my dad’s business. I was set to go play college baseball at Cal State Long Beach and pursue a business degree and in a wild twist of fate God had bigger plans for me and put me exactly where I was supposed to be. Some might say that I was physically weak but I was more spiritually and emotionally strong and capable to go out and serve others. I had a huge change of perception of what is important in life and that is serving others.

After a roll over car accident took my arms and my legs I recaptured my heart and my mind where it was time to go serve. Although I was deemed a quadriplegic, I had never been so capable and able to light the world on fire. Like everybody in this world you have that AH-Ha moment when you identify with things around you and mine was the realization the lack of support from insurance companies and the inability that many had to fundraise for themselves because of paralysis. That was the need I had identified and I went to my parents and said I think this is what I have been called to do. 

My parents said, if you are going to do this you will not expect a dime from this, you will give out of grace and expect nothing in return and as a family we will support you through this endeavor. The Be Perfect Foundation was kind of born overnight, nine months after my injury in 2007. The mission is to provide direct financial and emotional aid for individuals living with paralysis by providing resources for paying medical expenses, restoring hope and encouraging personal independence through a non-traditional method of exercise based therapy.

The mantra of Be Perfect to me means being the best version of yourself that you can be every single day and that starts with your philanthropic heart. Twelve  years later we have raised over seven million dollars for those living with paralysis for things like medical supplies, wheelchairs, vehicles, handicap accessible homes and keeping people in exercise based therapy programs.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start  The Be Perfect Foundation?

Hal Hargrave Jr.: Post injury in ICU Care there are over 200 people holding a vigil outside of the hospital room and all I can think is what can I possibly do to repay these people? That answer came about day five in ICU. A friend of mine named Katie came into my hospital room and she breaks down sobbing. In that moment I realized that every action I make and every decision I make effects somebody around me. I realized in that moment that I could play the whoa is me card or change my attitude.

I said, Katie what are you crying about? She said, “But your not the same.” I said, But I am the same Hal. I have a heartbeat, I’m here, I can smile, I can laugh, I can communicate with you. Everything is going to be ok. And in that minute  she smiled and hugged me and that was the beginning of me realizing that I and all of us have the ability to have a positive effect on people. My approach to emotional intelligence transcended at that point. I believe we can control two things in life. One is how we feel about ourselves and the other is how we behave.

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

Hal Hargrave Jr.:Let me just start with the most important number which is zero. I think our biggest impact has been that we are a one hundred percent volunteer endeavor and that zero dollars go to administrative costs. You will do this to serve others for the rest of your life  because this is about other people and it is not about you. I want to people to know that this mom and pop organization gives 100 percent of funds to those we serve through program services. We have raised over seven million dollars providing over seventy -five wheel chairs for people in need, we have helped over 400 people stay in our exercise based therapy programs. We meet people in the acute care setting typically within 72 hours of their accident to talk to remind them of the great possibilities that are out there. We also treat people with all types of neurological disorders now outside of spinal cord injuries. Be Perfect is a way of life and we want everyone to try to be a better version of themselves.

In addition my family owns an outpatient recovery center called the Perfect Step. We went into business twelve years ago with a local gym called the Claremont Club. The gym wanted to know how they could be a part of my recovery. The gym built out the racquet ball court and I was the sole client. Now the facility is 7,000 square feet with 100 clients. While my family owns this business 100% of the proceeds go to the Claremont Club. We see 100 clients a week and many of our fundraised dollars go into making it possible for these patients to receive the exercise program. I am the facility director at The Perfect Step and Executive Director of The Be Perfect Foundation.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Hal Hargrave Jr.: I went to the University of LaVerne for my undergraduate degree and then I got my Masters in Leadership. I also met my beautiful wife there as well. We were married last September.  The University President asked me to stay and help them fundraise for their annual giving. Through that experience I realized that our biggest hurdle is from an annual giving perspective of getting those repeat donors. Seeing those dollars and cents in that continuous repetitive transaction to create value in people’s hearts. We are also trying to empower others and give them the platform and the voice in the community to raise funds for us.

Charity Matters: If you could dream any dream for The Be Perfect Foundation, what would that be?

Hal Hargrave Jr.: Our intent is to take the Perfect Step national. We want to provide Perfect Steps in every major region across the country so these patients have access to low cost recovery model.  They are similar to fitness clubs which help our patients with long term sustainability. We would like for The Be Perfect Foundation to grow in tandem with The Perfect Step.  The dream would be to have the nonprofit be able to raise money for local chapters across the country to give patients access to this program. The dream for the Be Perfect Foundation for the next five years is to create an endowment that would sustain the organization for life. I want to have a broader vision to ensure that our work is carried on for years to come.

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

Hal Hargrave Jr.:To be quite frank about it, 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 everyday 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. 

There is a level of excitement for me when I wake up every morning because I don’t always know what is going to be. Sometimes something seems negative because not everything in life is rainbows and unicorns in life. When we try to see the good in everything in life, you can always have a positive outcome with what surrounds you. There is a sense everyday, philanthropically speaking, that if my face is attached to this foundation than it better be the best and be the most  authentic and sincere way as possible. At the end of the day there is one thing that matters to me in life and that is my authenticity and sincerity is what matters. If you are going to be perfect you have to get up and be the best version of yourself everyday. God has great plans for me, I need to listen to him and I need to stop talking about all the problems in the world and I need to be a part of the solution.

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

Hal Hargrave Jr.: Sometimes as simple as it is, getting a thank you note from someone. Having humility is one of the toughest things to have in this world. There are a lot of takers in the world but when someone comes up to me and says, “How can go out and can I pay it forward?” When someone wants to know how they can be there for others. When I can get someone to say how can I be involved, I know that is what the intent of this is for, to not only show people how we can be there for them but how they can get back up on the high horse and start being there for others. When we can create a world where everybody is a giver and not a receiver….can you imagine what this world would be like?

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

Hal Hargrave Jr.: We live a life with underlying intent. We all believe that we are at the center of our own universe and with everything that is going on around us rather than what is going on within us. We act to take of ourselves and not others. We are hard wired to protect ourselves first. I have had to learn to get out of my own way and that it doesn’t start with me but with others. I have to remind myself when I’m stressed to remove myself by one degree and say to myself that A) I can handle anything. Nothing has ever taken me down. B) Find a way to put others before yourself.  C. Always lead with empathy, go to the depth to find out what is below someone’s surface level because sometimes we don’t someone’s whole story. Life is about others. D) Everyone can coexists if we always lead with respect. How you treat one person is how you treat every person.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Hal Hargrave Jr.: On July 26th, 2007  the morning of my accident the person that I was was driven by dollars and cents. It was all about how I was going to school for me, how I was going into the business school to make money for me, how I was going to make money for myself working for the family business, how I was on a baseball scholarship for me. Everything was me, me, me, me. Today that me word or I word is never used. Today I live for others before myself. 

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.

Why?

Why seems to be a word on many people’s minds since the tragic and devastating shootings this past weekend. Why? Such senseless and tragic events. It simply doesn’t make sense, all of the insanity in our world. Most days I can barely get myself to turn on the news.  While the events themselves are beyond heartbreaking, the shock, anger, sadness followed by the blame,  played out like theater in the media, makes it that much more painful for everyone.  It is like watching a car accident over and over, simply horrible.

Rather than focus on all the sadness, I choose to focus on the good. The police officers that arrived in seconds, the kindness of people helping each other in that Walmart. I look for the good everywhere I can. I edit out my news each day and truly search for the good in all things. Luckily for me each week I interview amazing humans that remind me of all the goodness out in the world. I, in turn, make sure that you get to meet them as well.

In the past few weeks alone you have met Sara from the Kula Project who is on a mission to empower the people of Rwanda.  Officer Jason who is working tirelessly in communities to connect the police, students, people in jail and so many more to create a bridge between police and communities.

You were reintroduced to Jenny Hull of Once Upon a Room, one woman and her daughter Josie on a mission to redecorate children’s hospital rooms transforming children’s spirits and lives. And last week you met Mari, a nurse whose gratitude for all this country has given her, has set out to serve the underserved children and families in her community. And these are just a few of the incredible nonprofit founders you have met.

So when people ask me why? My answer is I believe in goodness. I believe that people are innately kind and goodness always wins over evil. I know this because of the people I meet.  I believe that when you choose to focus on the good in this world and when you see the good in people it becomes easier to motivate yourself to be of service to them. When we serve others and give others value we not only make their lives better but over time you tend to get back way more than you ever gave….even if that wasn’t the intention. The result of that is that the people you helped are now inclined to help other people. And so together over time, you create an upward spiral of positive change that grows and grows until it becomes stronger.

So instead of watching the nightly news tonight, I am going to think about those who need our help, our prayers, and our support.  I am going to continue to find these everyday heroes to remind each of us how good the world is and I know that when we all come together to help one another we will create that upward spiral of positive change. That is the why that counts.

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.

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Once Upon a Room

Like all good fairy tales, it begins with once upon a time…there was a beautiful woman named Jennifer Hull and her heart was so huge that she not only adopted one child but created a non-profit to help hundreds more sick children at children’s hospitals around Los Angeles. Jennifer and I have known each other for a while and a few years back I interviewed her about their incredible cause called Once Upon a Room. A non-profit organization that decorates rooms for children who have long stays in the hospital.

Since that time, Jenny’s daughter Josie, Josie’s best friend Sienna, my son and host of amazing high school students have brightened hundreds of children’s hospital rooms with their work. Now that my son is heading to college in Texas he and his buddies are bringing Once Upon a Room to their local Children’s hospital. This week I thought I would share the magical fairy tale once again…because like all good fairy tales we want to read them over and over.

Charity Matters:  Give us a little back round on you and Josie?

Jennifer Hull: A little history about Josie and I…I am the very proud, adoptive mother of Josie. Josie and her sister, Teresa, were born in Guatemala and were conjoined at the head. They came to the US at 9 months old. At 1 year old they underwent surgery done by a 50 person medical team to separate them. After 23 hours in the operating room, our two beautiful girls were rolled out in 2 separate beds.

We were granted a miracle that day and have spent every day since trying to do everything in our power to better the girls’ lives and those around us. As one can imagine our medical journey did not end at separation surgery. There have been countless hospital stays with over 30 surgeries combined and hours upon hours of physical therapy. 

We know from first-hand experience when you are in an environment that makes you happy and calm healing is easier to achieve. It was important to Josie and me to help others in medical situations feel better. The main portion of our program is to decorate hospital rooms for pediatric patients going through active medical treatment.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start your non-profit?

Jennifer Hull:  Once Upon a Room has a tag line…Every child has a story. My sweet daughter, Josie spends so much time in the hospital. Every time we are inpatient, I noticed her spirits were lifted when we would bring in items that were ours and set up a mini “house” like atmosphere. We have had the pleasure of meeting other patients and families over the years and when we would visit them we would bring something to brighten their room we could see the joyous effect it had.

We wanted to expand our reach and really transform the hospital setting into a personalized, happy environment. Josie and I got excited about the possibility of spreading joy to others in the hospital. We knew we needed to do this. We wanted to serve others and this was such a perfect fit for us.

Sienna, Josie and Ford

Charity Matters: Who along the way has helped you make this journey happen?

Jennifer Hull: Siena Dancsecs is a huge contributor to our success and is one of Josie’s best friends and has been through so many ups and downs with Josie medically. Siena’s passion to help others started to light on fire. At 11 years old she called to tell me that the organization should be named Once Upon a Room. She said that our mission should be to serve pediatric patients in and out of the hospital that was inactive medical treatment. 

Siena says, “Through my friendship with Josie I wanted to do more. We do what we do because we can see the long-term impact it makes. I remember getting asked to go to the hospital for the first time. I honestly had no idea what to expect, what I would see or what I would hear. Normally when I think about a hospital I think about all of the needles, medicine and doctors. We get to see a different side of it. When we walk into those rooms we get to brighten this patient’s room with what they like. It becomes all about them in a different way. It’s not all about their disease or injury; it’s about them as a person. That’s what makes it so special. Getting to make these patient’s days just a little bit brighter. And truly it affects not only their environment but also everyone around them. It brings this glow to their surroundings, helping them start fighting a little harder.”

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

Jennifer Hull: This is an easy question…making other people happy!! As Josie says, “We do this to make other kids happy. I know how hard it is to be in the hospital so I want to help them too.”

We can’t change the medical outcome but we can change how they feel when they are going through this journey. You can’t believe how rewarding it feels to know that you put your heart and soul into doing something for someone else that hopefully makes a difference in his or her life. Every room we do we put ourselves into their shoes for a moment. We do our best to anticipate what they would want or what would bring joy to them.

When we get the theme of the room we try to do the best we can to make it perfect for them. You would think after doing over 500 plus rooms it would be redundant but instead, we try to make each room better and more personalized. Making someone else happy fuels us. Hopefully, that person is the patient, but also the family. Being in the hospital is so stressful for the whole family.

We are one of the few people who walk into the room and can concentrate on the person, not the medical diagnosis. We get to recognize them and their interests. The family gets to be reminded of the person, not the condition.

The other part that fuels us is the excitement that it brings to the medical staff. You almost see them invigorated. It is so much fun to watch them and their reactions when they are watching a room reveal for one of their patients that they clearly have compassion for. It is a gift to us to make others feel special.

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

Jennifer Hull: There is an interesting thing that happens in our group. It isn’t only the patients and families that we affect. Many times it is the volunteers or vendors that we see affected by our work. It is so much fun to go into Target and the cashiers are all excited to see what rooms we are shopping for. It is so rewarding to see the change in our volunteers when they come to help. 

Witnessing the love and compassion that kids and teens give to patients is one of the best gifts in my life.  We don’t give them enough freedom or opportunities to give to others in a meaningful way. Giving them a positive experience serving others at a young age while hopefully help them remember that feeling when they are adults and they will find a cause that they can make an impact giving to as adults.

Charity Matters: Last question before we end this fairy tale, tell us what success you have had?

Jennifer Hull: Our success isn’t measurable. Success for us is determined by the about of love and compassion we are able to spread to our patients, families, staff, volunteers, and vendors. It is the ability to spread hope and happiness. Our success is based on helping and serving others.

Now that is happily ever after….if ever I have heard one.

 

Charity Matters.

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The journey eight years later

“The key to realizing a dream is to focus not on success but significance, and then even the small steps and little victories along your path will take on greater meaning.”

Oprah Winfrey

We never really know where life is going to take us, it is a journey and a process. The beauty of writing is that I can stop along the way and reflect at moments that lead me to this one right now. As we all know, life is about the people we meet along our path and the moments that we share together. When you walk far enough down your path you can begin to see that life’s greatest challenges were the road signs that redirected your course. Those roadblocks are actually road signs screaming, “Stop danger ahead, you must make a drastic turn, now!” Of course when we start our journey’s we are convinced that those roadblocks are the end of the path and our world in that moment. The farther we move ahead, the clearer that obstacle becomes the gift that it is.

When my mom died suddenly in 2002, and my father came very close to death it was a roadblock of epic proportions. That roadblock led a group of us to start a nonprofit providing chaplains of all faiths at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. The experience of starting and running an organization that asks for money to survive had me questioning who are these modern-day heroes? All 1.7 million of them! And what the heck happened to them to make them want to do this crazy difficult humanitarian work?

That question burned in my mind and honestly still does today. I sent out on a quest in 2011 to find them, modern-day heroes. I needed to know who these people were, what happened to them and why they do this incredibly hard work every day? To say I was and am obsessed would be an understatement. That quest and question lead me to start Charity Matters, which today celebrates its 8th birthday, the same birthday as my moms.

Next week Charity Matters will celebrate its 1,000th post, so hard to believe? This journey has brought some of the most fascinating people into my life who have taught me so much about empathy, kindness, perseverance,  purpose, faith, love and friendship. So many of the people I have interviewed have become friends along the way. My life is so much richer than I could have ever expected from the roadblocks and the sharp turns that continue to shape this path.

So, thank you for being a part of this with me. I write this because I am looking for goodness and each week that you read this, you are too. I believe that people are good and that we are all looking for examples.  So thank you for validating this quest, for being a part of my journey and for knowing that….

Charity Matters

 

Sharing is caring, if you are so moved or inspired, we would love you to share this to inspire another.

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Why’d you stop me? WYSM Foundation

“Without a sense of caring, there can be no sense of community.”

Anthony D’Angelo

When I tell people that there are amazing humans around us everywhere and most of us don’t even realize it, I mean that. I meet them all the time in the most unlikely of places and this is one of my favorite stories. I was at the StageCoach music festival and got separated from my husband. Standing next to me was a former college football player, a big man with an even bigger smile and heart. This stranger, named Jason Lehman, is a Long Beach Police Officer and nonprofit founder who also found my husband in the large crowd. We recently spoke about his work and journey from law enforcement to nonprofit founder and his mission to bring people together through his amazing work.  Such an inspirational man and story….

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about What WYSM is and does?

Jason Lehman: We are an empowerment educational organization that works to help build and strengthen relationships between the police and the community. We do that in scenario involved training by impacting six different aspects of a community. Not only do we provide education but we provide a three hundred and sixty-degree approach by bringing a police officer and an ex-felon to team teach these incredible messages of peace to police officers, schools and communities.

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

Jason Lehman: I think I had three Ah-Ha moments and two of them are the most valuable. The first one happened in 2009 when I was working undercover in Gang and Violent Crime Suppression Team for the City of Long Beach. Working on this Gang and Violent Crime Suppression Team we did a bunch of things and one of them was we bought drugs from gang members who were selling them. There was an undercover drug deal that went bad. That drug deal ended up with me having to fight for my life and at the end of the fight, only one person walked out alive. Immediately after this happened, I thought to myself something could have been done differently. I didn’t yet know what that meant but I really tried to figure out what that meant. I spent two years trying.

At the end of it, I was found to have used the force necessary in the situation and my name was cleared, but that didn’t completely help. I spent two years seeing psychologists, dealing with family issues, and trying to figure out how or why all of this was happening. I was found to have done the right thing and been fit of mind but this justifiable homicide was a horrible situation for me. That was my first AH-Ha moment. In December 2011,  some informants tipped us off that there was going to be a gang hit on my life. It turns out that the person that died in the drug enforcement situation was a gang leader and the gang had spent two years plotting how they were going to ambush and kill me.

In hearing this situation I walked into a classroom at a local high school knowing that there were students in that classroom that were affiliated with the gang trying to kill me.  I walked in and spent about an hour telling them how scared I was and how much I struggled with power. The kids were listening and they were with me, they knew me as Tiny, the gang cop that worked in their neighborhood.

One kid at the end of the program raised his hand and changed my world forever. He said, “Hey Tiny, you talked about how scared you are but you haven’t said a word about me? Do you remember me? Two years ago you arrested me with a gun in my waistband, you made me crawl through the rain and layout in front of you. Did you ever think about who was standing next to me when you made me do that? My girlfriend. Do you know how it made me feel when you laid me down and put your knee in my back in front of my girlfriend? Did you ever stop to realize that gun wasn’t for you but for a rival gang? Did you understand I was raised never to be disrespected in front of a woman? I have had visions of hurting you for two years but after one hour of listening to you explaining things and what police officers go through. This is the first time I can ever say that I respect you.”

I walked out of the classroom and the principal said, “What’s the name of your program?” and I said, I didn’t have a program, I am going back to being a cop. The principal said, “We have a new website and I want to mention your work on it what do I call it? I said, ” The kids always ask me why did you stop me? So why don’t you call it that, Why’d You Stop Me? That was how we came to be.

The second AH- Ha moment was on August 10th, 2014 when we had our first nonprofit event. We had 200 hundred plus people coming and we had just gotten our 501c3.  I had not been watching the news so I didn’t know that Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, MO by a police officer. We were the first organization of its kind in this country that could unite a police officer and an ex-felon to teach a message of peace. We knew that night that there was really something that WYSM had to offer and that is how we came to be.

Charity Matters: What are the biggest challenges you face at WYSM?

Jason Lehman: The biggest challenge has been funding. The grant process can be very frustrating. It is hard to measure the amount of change that your work is doing and grant funders want to see the measurement. When we first started the organization, I worked with my family to raise over one hundred and fifty thousand dollars to fund this work. I did this because I care enough about this organization to try and grow this message.  The other challenge is scaling the organization. We can’t scale without the funding, those are two biggest challenges.

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

Jason Lehman: I think I have two fuel sources. The first one is the change that you see in the community members after they receive this training. We have a million amazing stories. One of them is about a young girl named Jasmine Simpson, she was placed in the foster care system for years and was dealing with some problems. Jasmine went to school two days in an entire semester and on the second day I had her in class teaching about positive outcomes to situations and in that messaging, I pulled her up on stage to re-enact a scenario to allow her to make some decisions. A few weeks later the school resource officer calls me and said you need to read what Jasmine wrote. She had submitted a poem in her English class that said, “I used to hate you but now I want to be just like you.”

The second fuel source is when we train police officers and talk about being kind for 2 minutes during every stop. Often times as police officers we don’t find time to be kind.  After a law enforcement presentation, I was approached by a Sergeant of 27 years and he told me, ” I just arrested someone a week ago and I vividly remember not saying a word to them. I remember them asking for air and to roll the window down, I remember them trying to talk about their problems but all I could tell them was to shut up. After your speakers came and spoke to us and asked us what it would be like if our own children were arrested and treated this way? How would we want our children to be treated by the police if they were arrested? He said to me after hundreds and hundreds of arrests I have never humanized one and I will never do that again after your training. More than that I will do my best to ensure that everyone I supervise in our department treats every person we arrest as a human being.” Those are the types of stories that fuel me to do the work that I do.

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

Jason Lehman: An individual is affected by our training when an organization brings us in. So a payday for me is when an organization wants to embrace the training. Whether it’s a school district, a police department or one of the county’s probation agencies., that is a payday for us. We want to change behavior and now we know we have an audience, a captive audience. We get on their level if we are talking to a group of prisoners we talk about their mind being free from the walls of a prison. When I talk to police officers I talk to them about being kind to someone to make it easier for the next police officer that pulls someone over. They get that. Being able to see the organizations buy into the message and then being able to see the individuals shift, that’s when we know we are doing good stuff.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about some of the impact you have had at WYSM?

Jason Lehman: We are the only nationally endorsed program by the fraternal order of police. We have 380,000 police officers supporting our organization, we are the only organization in the state that’s been called the best practice organization by Senator Harris. Right now WYSM operates in 19 cities and five states.

More importantly, since we started doing this work that human beings see other human beings differently. When they see other human beings differently they have less opportunity to judge them for something they are not. We are now able to see more of the human being behind the condition in order to allow them to grow and thrive, the power happens when we see kindness in people where kindness didn’t exist before. Our work teaches people to cooperate with the authority to achieve their greatness.

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

Jason Lehman: When starting WYSM I learned about myself. Back in 2008, I made a bad decision in my early years as a cop, that could have had me charged federally for excessive force. I am fortunate not to have been charged and having gone through this was horrible. In creating this movement and mission I have been able to hold myself to the highest accountability I can think of with WYSM. I am now in a position of leadership where I can model positive behavior for others and teach others to model behavior for those that come after them.

Charity Matters: If you had one wish for WYSM what would It be?

Jason Lehman: I have two wishes, one is for the community side and the other is for the police side. On the community side, I would like to replace the 7th grade home economics class with a class called, Cooperating with Authority to Achieve Greatness.

Police Officers take the lives of more approximately 1,000 community members each year is a big deal. Learning how to cooperate with the police and create safer contacts is more important than home economics.  I think the fact a police officer is dying in the line of duty once every 62 hours in this country is also too much.  Learning how to build safer police/community contacts is more important than learning to boil water. Police officers, our protectors, kill themselves at four times the level of a normal individual. If police/community conflict and violence were reduced, I believe we could reduce police trauma and ultimately see a reduction in police suicides.

On the flip side, I would like police officers to see value in what they typically view as hug a thug training. I hope that police officers see value in this training and that this training will spread across the entire country. Those would be my two wishes.

Charity Matters: Is there anything else you want to Share about your work at WYSM?

Jason Lehman: I think one of the most valuable and important assets of this training is that my partner is somebody who is a college graduate, was 2016 Long Beach’s Hero of the Year beating out firefighters and police officers. This man whose name is Rodney Coulter spent 29 years of his life in prison or on parole or on probation. He has been arrested 39 times by the Long Beach Police Department and his cousin is the person whose life I took in that undercover drug deal. Rodney and I are best friends and we stand side by side in unity and team teach. He is incredible. His line is, “I never thought a cop and a Crip could be best friends.”  Rodney teaches gang members why cops are good and I teach the police why people like Rodney are good. The power happens when together we see kindness in people where kindness didn’t exist before.

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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Becoming a leader

” Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple and it is also that difficult.”

Warren Bennis

As many of you know I run a nonprofit that is a youth leadership organization. During the summer we run three separate weeks of leadership camp, where middle school students stay on a college campus for a week away from their parents, learning, having fun and having time to reflect on who they are and where they want to go. This past week we just ended our first session of camp with almost two hundred students transformed by their experience.

Our students do all of the traditional camp activities like talent shows, biathlons, a dance, cheering …you know the drill. What makes us unique is that students also learn a curriculum about becoming a leader. They learn to have a plan, a goal, how to communicate those plans, they learn to be life long mentors to others and most importantly they learn that you can not lead unless you serve. It is truly students teaching students leading by example showing the best of themselves and who they can be.

So often in the nonprofit space, we are running a business like almost any other with budgets, timelines, goals and the list goes on. What makes our work (nonprofit work) different is that unlike a company when your numbers are down, fewer people profit. In the nonprofit world, when you don’t make numbers, someone doesn’t go to camp, get fed, receive medicine and the list goes on. The stakes are real and there is a person affected by each choice, for better or for worse.

The other challenge in the nonprofit space is that you can often feel separated or removed from those you serve.  We work all year (our staff of two and 150 amazing volunteers, who will serve over 3,000 students) to send one-third of our students to camp with scholarships. Then the moment happens, we see their faces, we watch them grow and learn all week and our efforts beyond worthwhile. Children who live in the inner-city, who have never been on a college campus let alone stay on one and then to hear them share their experiences….well there simply are not words with how incredible it feels.

Each volunteer gives of themselves to change the life of another. You can feel the love, the kindness, the joy, the gratitude between our campers and our volunteer staff. Regardless of what is happening in the world, I know that our amazing college and high school volunteers are transforming hundreds of children’s lives for the better….renewing my faith in humanity and inspiring me to strive to serve more.

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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Kula Project

Have you ever heard the expression one thing leads to another?  That expression has never been more fitting than with my introduction to the amazing Sarah Buchanan Sasson. You may remember a few weeks back the fantastic conversation with Cause Bar founder, Kristiana Tarnuzzer?  Well,  Kristiana suggested that I connect with Sarah, who is the founder of KulaProject.org, a nonprofit that focuses on eliminating poverty by developing female entrepreneurs in Rwanda. Sarah’s life is the perfect example of the expression, one thing leads to another. I can’t wait to share her incredible story and journey from suburban Atlanta to Rwanda. Our conversation was as inspirational as she is…..

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

Sarah Buchanan Sasson: We help women in Rwanda build and grow businesses. We do that with both coffee growers and artisans.

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

Sarah Buchanan Sasson: In October 2008, I was living in Atlanta and went to a conference that had an African children’s choir. The first moment they started singing I had a come to Jesus moment. A little girl spoke about her hardships but she had such an inner light that was so outward.  I remember the moment so clearly.  At that moment I knew I had to go to Africa. That day I signed up to go to Kenya through a volunteer program for a mission trip. I didn’t even have a passport.

In April 2009, I was on my way to Kenya. It was my first time out of the country and it was really really hard. I was out of my comfort zone in every way. I went with a dental mission team and had no dental experience. I came back and had expected a transformative experience that didn’t happen. So I just went on with my life. A year later the same volunteer group was going and asked me to join them. I used money as an excuse not to go and shortly thereafter I received a note that an anonymous donor had paid for my trip, so I went back.

One year later, going back to the exact same place and seeing that nothing had changed for these women, I just saw the stagnation of their lives. I realized that poverty was about a lack of opportunity. Growing up in the South you think that people are poor because they don’t work hard.  I realized that poverty is not about being lazy but about a lack of access and lack of opportunity, not about not having money. I came home from the trip changed. 

 After going to Kenya in 2009, I changed my major from pre-law to International Development with a focus on African politics. I never thought about starting a nonprofit but began interning for other nonprofits. So many of the programs I was working with were not engaging the people they were serving. I began looking for organizations that did that and when I couldn’t find one decided that we should start our own. We started Kula in May of 2012.

I originally thought the more places we were in the more legitimate we were so we had programs in downtown Atlanta with homeless communities, Jamacia and in Kenya. Not a single one of those programs worked. I sold my car to fund the program in Jamacia and the program failed. I was working two jobs to try to fund all of these projects across the globe. Two years in and we were ready to quit.  Since we had sold everything and were planning on leaving the continent of Africa forever, I suggested we take one last trip on our way out of Africa to Rwanda. I remember thinking that this was going to be the greatest adventure of my life.

Charity Matters: Why Africa? More specifically, why Rwanda?

Sarah Buchanan Sasson: I had taken a class called Global Issues where we had an entire segment on the Rwandan genocide. It blew my mind about what I was learning about the genocide and how little we discussed it in the United States.   I had always wanted to go to Rwanda and thought we should go since this would probably be our last time on the continent.  I had this image in my mind that it was a place of destruction and then we got there and it was beautiful. It reminds me of Southern California. The food was great, the restaurants were great and I remember being so shocked and then feeling so guilty that I had had this horrible vision of this beautiful place. I honestly couldn’t believe what these people had overcome on their own.

We met with a coffee company that took us out for a few days. We were meeting with all of these incredible women who told us their stories survival and during the genocide.  They had overcome these things that most people can not imagine to be true.  Now all they wanted was to grow more coffee and better coffee to have an opportunity to sell it so they could afford to educate their children. These women believe that if they educate their children there will never be genocide again. That for me was my real moment.  I knew my quitting wasn’t an option. At that moment I knew that if these women can survive what they have been through then I could too.  

That was when we realized we needed to focus on women and to listen to what they needed. From that moment on all of our programs were designed by the women the programs were intended to effect.  That is why our first two years had failed. We went into communities and told them what we thought was best for them.  All those early mistakes we had made are the only reason our programs are working today, those mistakes are what taught us how to be successful. We relocated the Kula Project to Rwanda and now we have a staff of 23 and only three are American and we give all of our success to our Rwandan staff.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Sarah Buchanan Sasson:  I think like all nonprofits, fundraising. It is really hard to compete, it’s hard to stand out and everyday everyone thinks there is a new problem that we need to be addressing. We are constantly trying to find ways to break through all the noise and to become sustainable on our own.  We work with women who make baskets and grow coffee, they already have a product so let’s sell it. We are looking more and more about getting into the coffee space, hoping we can stand out with our story. When we sell our coffee directly to roasters our hope is that one hundred percent of the purchase would go back to Kula and fund the ladies that grew the coffee. Our goal is to be fifty percent sustainable by the year 2021 on our own.

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

Sarah Buchanan Sasson: The work is hard. I have one thousand women and their families who depend on me to send their children to school and to eat. You feel guilty because you’re tired and you are working to support people who survived the genocide.  I’ve learned that I can’t compare my life to theirs.  Burnout is real when you give and give.  I have learned that in order to keep giving I need to find a way to recover and to differentiate myself from the organization.  

We have been doing this work for seven years and I have learned that I need to take solo road trips and love being out by myself inspired by nature. It really refuels me and gives me space to be inspired and feel in awe of nature. That gives me new ideas for our business and I have come up with some of our best campaigns.  

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

Sarah Buchanan Sasson: I feel that most of us in the nonprofit space have a hard time celebrating those moments when all we usually see is what we need to do that is ahead.  I am really working on trying to pause and celebrate our wins. I know we have made a difference when I listen to the women tell stories of their lives. We have very clear goals for everyone in the program. We give these women skills to make a living we also do so much more. We train them, then they complete financial planning, family health and nutrition, gender equality, mentorship, business management, and community leadership classes. After that, the women submit a business plan and we invest in those who have invested in themselves and then measure our impact. 

When the women talk about things that we didn’t set out to change I am always surprised. One unexpected impact was a huge drop in domestic abuse. We do a number of in-home training and one woman told me that the more we come to visit her the more her husband stops beating her. That story created gender equity training for all the men in the households and while we do not set out to change the culture this one we needed to put an emphasis on. Being able to be a part of this changing conversation was something we really didn’t expect.

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

Sarah Buchanan Sasson: We started in Rwanda five years ago, and our first year we planted 5,000 coffee trees. These coffee trees take three years to produce, it is such a long term investment. We planted over 100,000 coffee trees in the first five years.  By the end of this year, it will be 170,000 trees that we have planted.  We have done over 4,000 one on one training and over 3500 hours of one on one trainings. We took all that we had learned and put it into a fifteen-month fellowship program where they learn about coffee farming and artisan training in addition to all their classes, having access to formal banking and a multitude of training and classes. This class is our first official graduating class. 

We launched our first impact analysis and discovered that before the Kula Project of the 474 women we spoke to zero of them had a savings account and now 87% of the women have savings accounts. We conducted pre and post analysis and learned that before Kula  12% of women were afraid to speak their mind and now 93% of these women feel confident enough to speak their mind. It is the biggest compliment. 

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

Sarah Sasson: The biggest life lessons I’ve learned is that what was supposed to be feared is what is supposed to be learned. Travel changes what is true. You think things are the way they are until you see them in person.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Sarah Sasson: I would have never considered myself a tenacious person but when I looked at trying to empower the success of others you look at your ability to not to quit differently. I do not think I am not the same in any way since I started. There is nothing about myself that is the same.  My views have changed. How I see the world, how I see people struggle and how I understand poverty all of that is different from being in it so much.

Charity Matters: What is your Wish for Kula Project?

Sarah Sasson: I want to see a generation of Rwandans doing great things. We want our ladies to know that a better future is possible and we believe in them and we believe that will directly translate to their children. My biggest dream is that in twenty years I am at University graduation with one of our ladies who was able to put her children all the way through university because we empowered her. That we not only helped her build a business but that we helped her create a vision that she even believed that was possible for her family. I think that the ultimate wish is to watch the next generation of Rwandan girls not even have to be told they can do it because they were raised in the very beginning believing that was possible. 

 

Charity Matters

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Traveling with a purpose

“Some travel to see the difference, others travel to make a difference.”

Author Unknown

As we put graduations behind us and begin to prepare for summer vacations many people have asked for suggestions regarding vacations with a purpose. While having sons in college we have not done much international travel these past few years I am looking forward to planning some of these excursions for our family and began the research which I wanted to share with you.

Like any trip the questions of who, what, where are always good places to start. Are you taking young children or elderly parents? What do you want to accomplish through your volunteering and who do you want to serve? There are so many fantastic organizations in need all over the globe but thinking about this helps you narrow down the hardest question which is where should we go and who do we want to serve?

Step one: Research

For me, the starting place was visiting websites like Responsible Travel. Since 2001 they have been planning vacations and have served over 150,000 people in that time. They have a huge team even though they are based in England they have amazing programs that also give back to other organizations when you work with them Their site is great looking and easy to navigate. For sure this should be your first stop in researching your travel with a purpose.

Another great place to continue to explore and research is Volunteerforever. com Since 2015, Volunteerforever.com has compiled some of the best volunteer abroad programs around the globe with over 900 international volunteer abroad programs and thousands of reviews on all of them. Their goal is to take the guesswork out of choosing a program.

You also want to take a look at  International Volunteer HQ if you are searching for another place to begin to vet meaningful volunteer work and experience a life-changing vacation this is a great place to get information about programs and volunteer opportunities abroad. They offer some of the world’s largest volunteer abroad projects in over 40 destinations across Africa, South America, Central America, North America, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Pacific. International Volunteer HQ has helped over 102, 000 volunteers since 2007, so they certainly know what they are doing.

Step Two: Consider an Eco-Tourism Trip

Eco-tourism is another way to make your travel this summer meaningful while also helping the environment. There are so many options whether you want to do a trip like we did a few years to the Galapagos that focuses on endangered ecosystems and habitats or you want to explore endangered wildlife there are a number of organizations that can help you with both.

If you think you want to do something to save our oceans or that focuses on marine habitats then GoVoluntouring.com is a great place to start exploring a way to mix your passion with a great vacation. Their goal is to turn one million travelers into one million volunteers. They offer everything from eco-biology to wildlife volunteer programs for a host of ages and in countries across the globe. Goecocom also helps the vetting process if you are looking for something more environmental, marine and ecology based.  Another option is to go straight to the source of an organization you want to serve like the WorldWildlife.org They are a nonprofit that has been connecting their own supporters and volunteers to their cause and they have a number of ways you can get involved.

Step Three: Set your goal with who you want to serve

Serving people in need can offer so many opportunities to not only learn about other cultures but also ways to teach your children empathy and use your time to truly do something meaningful. Opportunities can be anything from building homes, feeding the hungry, bringing water into areas without fresh water and the list goes on.  Again you can go directly to a nonprofit that you already know and love like Habitat for Humanity, One World, Pencils of Promise or a host of other large nonprofit organizations and have them connect you to a project. You can also look at Projects Abroad and Pack for a Purpose as well for suggestions. So many of these opportunities allow you to really get to meet new people, work with them and learn so much about how others live.

The bottom line is no matter how you choose to spend your summer vacation there is a way to include even a small portion of service into your trip. So consider looking into a few of these resources and let me know if you have any others?  Like all good trips, it takes time, careful planning and getting tips from multiple resources to plan a memorable experience that will enrich your life and someone else’s as well. Just imagine how great your summer travel could be with a fantastic destination, a cause, a purpose and an opportunity to be more compassionate, empathetic and giving. It sounds like a perfect recipe for joy. Happy Summer and safe travels!

Charity Matters

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The Comfort Cub

Have you ever had a friend that keeps telling you, “you need to meet so and so.”  Well, a friend of mine has told me for years that I needed to meet her friend, Marcella Johnson, who is the founder of the nonprofit The Comfort Cub. The stars finally aligned and we had a conversation last week that was supposed to last for forty-five minutes and when I looked at my clock and saw that two hours had passed I was in awe. She was beyond worth the wait and such an inspiration.

In 1999, Marcella’s fourth child, George died shortly after he was born from congenital heart disease. Marcella used her grief as fuel to help others who were suffering from broken heart syndrome and trauma in her creation of the nonprofit the Comfort Cub.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what The Comfort Cub does?

Marcella Johnson:  The Comfort Cub is the world’s very first weighted therapeutic teddy bear.  After I lost my newborn son George in 1999 due to congenital heart disease we developed the Cub to help other mothers who suffered from the loss of their infant. The Comfort Cub is specially weighted and is intended to simulate the weighted comfort of cradling a newborn. While the initial intent of The Comfort Cub was for child loss, research now shows it provides profound relief for any traumatic event. This includes having to leave the hospital while your baby is still in the NICU, the loss of a spouse, parent, loved one or beloved pet. It has also been effective for occupational & autism therapy, adoptions and those experiencing divorce or traumatic loss. Due to deep touch pressure, holding The Comfort Cub triggers the brain to release the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, which causes the body to relax and feel comforted.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to start The Comfort Cub?

Marcella Johnson: Leaving the hospital empty handed, with nothing in my arms was one of the worst parts of the whole experience of losing a child.  It was doubly heartbreaking because when it was time to be discharged my husband took all my things and went to get the car.  I was in the elevator next to a woman both of us had just delivered and she had balloons, flowers, her baby boy and I had nothing to hold, it was so painful. Then when we were both wheeled outside to pick up her husband has the video camera, the balloons, and the joy. I just wanted to die. Then my husband pulled up and to see his pain looking at this happy new family was so hard, watching him suffer. We just drove off in silence.

What happened when we got home was that the emotional pain felt like an open wound. My chest literally hurt and my arms ached and no massage or Tylenol made it go away. There was a dull ache in my heart and I thought I was losing my mind. Twenty years ago people didn’t know about Takotsubo Syndrom, also known as broken heart syndrome, but research eventually proved that I wasn’t alone. 

A week after the funeral I asked my dad if he would meet me at the gravesite and he had this beautiful pot of flowers to leave at the grave. When I held the pot the aching in my heart and arms went away. I was sure I was losing my mind. Then I began doing my own research on grief and discovered women who were grieving would hold sacks of flour or carried a pineapple wrapped in a blanket and realized that the pot was about the weight my child would have been.

I had asked people to donate teddy bears instead of flowers in baby George’s name that we would bring to the local Children’s Hospital. We had a lot of teddy bears and about four months after the funeral I saw a Build a Bear and I went to the manager and told him my story and that I wanted to try to create a comfort bear for other women like me. He told me he would help me after work and to go and buy all the split peas that I could find. We opened up the bears and filled them with 6.7 lbs of lentils (baby George’s weight) until we got the weight just right. The following year we started the organization because I was determined that I am not going through this in vain and if I can help just one other woman than I will be satisfied.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about How you started The Comfort Cub after the prototype?

Marcella Johnson: Helping to me is second nature. I wanted to make sure that no woman in San Diego left the hospital the way that I did. My husband and I started a fund with the money that we would have spent on baby George. So instead of the money to buy diapers and formula, we bought teddy bears, ribbons and spilt peas. A hospice organization asked for ten bears and the Children’s Hospital asked for twelve. I got my girlfriends together and we started an assembly line.

I realized early on that this doesn’t belong to me but I am simply a steward of this. The way people have responded to this bear is so much bigger than me. The reaction from parents and people who have gone through trauma has been so inspiring. Unfortunately, when there has been a tragedy we have sent the bears. My sister lived near Sandy Hook and showed up at the office with the bears. The office manager said they had received 60,000 teddy bears and didn’t need another bear. When she told my story the office manager said she would hand deliver each Comfort Cub to tall of the parents of Sandy Hook victims. Then the parents of the teachers who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary requested the bears. We made three hundred cubs for the grief group of the Vegas tragedy and just this past week we delivered bears here in San Diego for the recent shooting at the temple.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Marcella Johnson: Our biggest challenge is to get people to understand. Twenty years ago people didn’t know about the physical effects of grief and Takotsubo Syndrome. People can sometimes feel overwhelmed by helping women who have lost children and they either get it or they don’t. The Comfort Cub isn’t about sadness but about hope and healing. People are much more interested in talking about trauma than death. Why it is uncomfortable for many of us to try and find the words for people who lost someone we can not turn our backs on those who are suffering. 

There have been times when this work has been hard. When the economy changed and we had the financial crisis in 2008 funding became more challenging. I had three other children, was making the bears, distributing them and it was a lot. We had a Comfort Cub hotline where we offered them for free to anyone in the United States who had a need. The San Diego Hospice group ran the hotline and funded much of the program in the beginning until a few years ago when they closed down. In 2013, I officially started running everything and in 2015 we became our own nonprofit.

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

Marcella Johnson: This work is internal and in my heart. It is in my soul and I feel called to do this work. There are so many people that are grieving out there and we need to help them. I believe that I am supposed to be doing this work. 

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

Marcella Johnson: There are so many ways….I hear from the hospital all the time the comfort and peace the cubs give to so many. The people who write on our Facebook page about what an impact the cub has made.  I find out second hand because I do not directly distribute the comfort cubs. However, a few years ago I received an award and they brought out a woman who had lost a child and she was carrying something that looked like the velveteen rabbit, it was so worn and loved. I realized as she began to speak about what the comfort cub had done for her that she the loved thing she as holding was her comfort cub.  It is just wow to realize the difference we have made and it takes your breath away.

Charity Matters: Tell us what success and impact you have had?

Marcella Johnson: Since we began we have given over 15,000 Comfort Cubs. So often we learn that these cubs are usually passed on to at least three people. People want to give their cub to someone else who is hurting and now needs it. When you do the math that is touching almost 45,000 lives. I have a friend who is a nurse practitioner and she was recently doing a physical exam. The woman undressed and had a comfort cub tattoo. My friend asked about her tattoo and the woman explained that she had lost a child and that the comfort cub literally saved her life and she wanted it tattooed to always have it with her. That was an impact that I never expected. 

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

Marcella Johnson: Before losing a child I always thought it was best not to mention a person who has died’s name. I have learned that you do not want a loved one to be forgotten. I make it a point to always tell people that whoever they lost, mattered. Also, the more you can do to help someone who is grieving the better, it doesn’t have to be anything grand but just to let them know you care.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Marcella Johnson: My son’s passing changed my life forever. I wanted to know when he died where did he go? Where is my child? His death sent me on a quest to know more about my faith. It made me realize that we are not in control of anything. Life is short and we need to enjoy and celebrate all the goodness in our lives. Let’s go to the birthday parties, let’s go to the graduation parties and see our children in their plays.  You need to tell people who are meaningful in your life that you love them and what they mean to you because it is fleeting. This is my journey and this is my life….

 

Charity Matters.

 

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The Cause Bar

Inspiration comes in many forms, as does making a difference. When a girlfriend told me she had just met an amazing human who was approaching philanthropy in a fresh and exciting new way, I knew I needed to know more. A few weeks ago, I had a fantastic conversation with Kristiana Tarnuzzer, the founder of The Cause Bar. In her previous life, Kristiana was involved in mission trips to third world countries,  co-founded a nonprofit in NYC and was the go-to girl for all things philanthropic from events to fashion that gave back. A move to LA from New York inspired Kristiana to look for a one-stop place where she could find ways to make a difference in her new city. Once she realized it didn’t exist she decided to create it…The Cause Bar.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what The Cause Bar does?

Kristiana Tarnuzzer: The Cause Bar is a social media-driven destination for empowering, inspiring and educating on how to live a more cause focused lifestyle. We do that by highlighting for purpose brands, changemakers, people who incorporate charity in a unique way and ways to volunteer. 

People can give through attending an event, some people like to roll up their sleeves and get dirty and others want to drink wine at an event. The Cause Bar is morphing into a community where we give light to people doing great things.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to start The Cause Bar?

Kristiana Tarnuzzer: I think what opened the door for me to do this was a little bit like a force. We moved from NYC to LA in 2018 for my husband’s career and dream job. I have lived in New Jersey and New York my entire life and had been a full time working mom in NYC. My career didn’t exist on the West Coast and I basically had a mid-life crisis leaving my life behind to move to the west coast with my husband and two young children.

Once we moved, the only thing I knew and had was this idea of The Cause Bar.  It wasn’t anything new for me, because it was essentially the way I had always lived my life. I have always been involved with charitable works from a very young age. I had co-founded a nonprofit in my twenties, to going on mission trips in my thirties and people have always asked me how to find volunteer opportunities. 

Once I had children it became, how am I going to lead my life by example for them? How can I raise these two children to be the next generation of philanthropists? How do I  leave the world better than I found it? I saw so much interest in my own personal network from my philanthropy. People kept asking me how to find volunteer opportunities because it is overwhelming. I became a personal resource because of the way I lived my life. So many people want to give but are busy and don’t always know how. So I thought what if I put this concept out to the larger world, maybe there will be others that are interested in this? I initially launched The Cause Bar as an Instagram, I knew no one and immediately started getting traction. I let it ride for six months and knew that if other people are honoring this then I knew I had to commit to The Cause Bar.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Kristiana Tarnuzzer: My biggest challenge is figuring out what the perfect next stage of the model will be. How can I make this the most impactful? How do I get my mission and the work that I do every day and how can we multiply my life exponentially? How can I do more than just do this myself? How can others do this alongside me and how do I bring that to life?

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

Kristiana Tarnuzzer: I couldn’t imagine going back and sitting in an office for something else after really being in this world. Something happened to me in my thirties and forties knowing there is so much more to be done and I want to sit on this side of it. I want this to be more. The move was one of the harder things in my life and it turned out to be the door that opened.

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

Kristiana Tarnuzzer: I call these my green lights. When I realize that we raised thousands of dollars for a nonprofit. When I overhear someone talking about something The Cause Bar has done. When we get online feedback about the products people are buying, the events they are going to, the connections that are being made and the support being given to nonprofits is when I know we are a part of moving the needle. Those moments are my green lights.

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

Kristiana Tarnuzzer: We are 100% self-funded. The humble brags are things like the “the site is beautiful” or “we thought you have been around a long time.” Being an entrepreneur is so different from my old life of getting constant feedback from a team. Our feedback comes online and I know we are successful when we have impacted nonprofits and the way people live their lives.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Kristiana Tarnuzzer: I have always had a tribe. I never had to even think about a support group, people, family or my resources. I have always had a team and been part of a team in life and in my career. In doing this move and The Cause Bar I had to rely on myself, trust my gut and it was just me. 

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

Kristiana Tarnuzzer:   I have learned to try to love myself more and to adapt. I’ve learned to give myself the grace and the space to become and to enjoy the journey.

Charity Matters: What is your wish for The Cause Bar?

Kristiana Tarnuzzer: I wish that giving back becomes more a part of everyone’s lifestyle and that we are a big part of that. There are so many benefits to giving back and it is not just for ourselves but for what we can do for others. 

 

Charity Matters

 

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So many last…..

They said this would happen. Every adult I ever passed in the market with my three toddler sons, told me so. Yep, they all said,” Enjoy these days because they will be gone before you know it.” Now those days are these days and I realize that they were right, these days are done or almost. This next week, I will go to our second son’s college graduation and a few weeks after that I will attend our youngest son’s high school graduation and then it will be done. Three boys gone, poof in a flash.

I have watched as the stack of brown lunch bags dwindles down realizing I will never buy another pack, ever! We had our last mother son brunch recently and people kept saying aren’t you so sad. I lied, smiled and said, “No, I’m so happy for him and this next chapter.” I then went home and cried like a baby. We just attended our 11th and last pre-prom party, never to attend another. Parent night came and went at school and I didn’t go, in part because he is already going to college and truth be told I was afraid I would actually get emotional at one of the most boring nights of the year…simply because it was the last one ever.

Not only am I starting to mourn our youngest son but also the huge group of boys I have been privileged to have in my life and our home for the past decade, his amazing friends. They come into our house like locust and sometimes like a hurricane blowing in and out, like the force of nature they are as a pack. The thought of life without their laughter, joking and asking me what is to eat makes me tear up instantly. It’s as if the pain of our youngest son leaving is multiplied by 8 because each of those boys brings me such joy.

I have loved every minute of all of it. I know my hindsight is perfect. I have loved the empty pizza boxes, late-night phone calls for picks ups, the after-school feeding frenzies that leave my cupboards bare, the loud music and even the college process…ok I am totally lying, I really didn’t like that but I’m so damn nostalgic that somehow even that doesn’t seem as bad.

The next few weeks will be celebratory with Baccalaureates, graduation, graduation parties and fun to distract us all from the quiet and still house that is coming. These next short weeks of summer, the boys will head off to college orientation, see friends, pop in and out and then it will be time. Time to pack for school, time to send him out of state and in August and our twenty-four years of parenting will come to an end, in the physical sense. There will not be a child in our home.  I’m not sure what my life looks like without having a boy underfoot. I’m not sure I’m ready to even think about it.

So, instead, I will joyfully make these next few lunches. Pack for our second son’s college graduation, revel in each moment spent with my boys and realize that we have done a good job. They are ready for these next chapters in their lives but I’m not so sure I’m ready for mine.

Charity Matters

 

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