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Family Promise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charity Matters: How did Family Promise Grow so quickly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

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

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

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

CHARITY MATTERS

 

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Be Our Guest: A legacy of generosity

“Love one another, for that is the whole law; so our fellow men deserve to be loved and encouraged-never to be abandoned to wander alone in poverty and darkness. The practice of charity will bind us-will bind all men in one great brotherhood.”

Conrad N. Hilton

Every week I try to share different stories of people who impact change through their life’s work and the organizations they build to serve others. Most of the time these people are alive to share their journey first hand. However, the other day I had the  privilege of spending the day at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and I came away from the day being inspired and in awe of one hotel magnet ‘s lasting legacy of compassion.

For any of you who have ever stayed at a Hilton Hotel, you know the name, but did you know the man behind it? I didn’t and was beyond inspired by not only what Conrad Hilton accomplished in his life and even more what he is accomplishing posthumously.

His story began on Christmas Day in 1887, born to humble beginnings with a German-American mother and Norwegian immigrant father in territorial New Mexico. His life was rooted in the beliefs of hard work, dreaming big, God and country. He served in New Mexico’s first state legislature before enlisting in World War I and followed his mother’s advice to “find his own frontier.” He set out to Texas hearing of the oil boom in 1919 and thought he would try to buy a bank but bought a hotel instead.

Thirty years after buying his first hotel and many there after he acquired the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. A man who was known for his honesty, optimism, fairness and his belief that, “man with God’s help and personal dedication is capable of anything he can dream.” He was the first to franchise hotels, developed the airport hotel and developed the first hotel chain. As his empire expanded across the country and eventually the globe he was determined to use his belief in the power of travel fostering an understanding among peoples of the world.

Conrad Hilton lived an amazing life and had a genuine and deep passion for serving those in need. He left almost his entire estate to the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation upon his death in 1979 with a goal to  alleviate human suffering throughout the world and created a global legacy of humanitarianism.

The other day as I sat in this fantastic discussion at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation learning more about how his estate is impacting education, homelessness, foster care, HIV AIDS, and access to clean water just to name a few of the Hilton’s initiatives. The foundation has given ten million dollars a year to homeless alone. I witnessed one such moment of his legacy as a local Los Angeles girl, who grew up homeless, received the gift of education. It was a moment of true grace.

I left the day in awe of the impact one life can make on so many and that Hilton’s life continues to make. The foundation’s work is guided by the clear intentions expressed in Conrad’s last will and testament. Since his death the foundation has distributed 1.6 billion dollars in grants around the globe to fulfill the words on Conrad Hilton’s tombstone, which said, “Charity is a supreme virtue, and the great channel through which mercy of God is passed on to mankind. It is the virtue that unites men and inspires their noblest efforts. Christmas is forever.”

Charity Matters

 

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The Giving Tree

Over the years I’ve written a number of posts about helping the helpers, caring for the caregivers and self care. The magical thing about all of these nonprofit founders is that their passion and purpose rules their lives. No matter how many people they help, there is always more who need them. These selfless heroes start an organization out of their core belief that their work and effort will  ensure that the next human will not go through whatever tragic event they went through, cancer, rape, sex trafficking….and the list goes on. And they are right, their work does change the world but the other side of my amazing heroes is their selflessness often comes to the point of burnout. They give and give and give until there is nothing left.

My nonprofit founders remind me of one of my favorite childhood books, The Giving Tree. The tree gives shade to the child, it gives limbs to climb, it gives its fruit to sell, it gives itself for wood to build a home and ultimately it has nothing left to give. This is often the reality of the nonprofit founder, they give until they are empty. The needs of humanity are endless and can truly never be met and yet, they keep on giving and giving.

I understand this because I suffer from the same disease. I am not Mother Teresa nor as saintly as those I love to interview but I confess that I am hardwired for burnout. Like an energizer bunny I go full throttle into projects, meetings, running a nonprofit, writing these post and trying to connect people to causes. I love my work, am passionate about making a difference with my life and am full of gratitude. The downside to these gifts is the burnout. The tank that is suddenly on empty and is so low on gas you are pretty sure that even if you can find a gas station, you will run out of gas long before that tank can possibly be refueled again.

So how do we help the helpers? How do we care for the caregivers or even more importantly care for ourselves more, regardless of our careers? I  think the challenge is that the answer is exactly that, to care for ourselves, to slow down, to walk to win the race and not run. Even typing those words feels like its opposite day. How can we get everything done if we move slowly, thoughtfully and walk through life?

photo via: onstar.com

The reality of this is finally sinking in for me and I am not alone. According to a recent article in Thrive Global, author Stephanie Fairyington states that, “two-thirds of Americans are suffering from burnout.”  The pace of life can often times feel unsustainable. The race ahead appears too big and too long to run. As I look ahead to the future and all that I hope to accomplish, I see that the only hope to keep giving is to start here first. To slowly fill up the tank and not feel guilty while doing so. To set realistic goals and expectations about what can actually be accomplished in a day, a week, a month. The mindset and commitment to that alone is the first step.

Next, the action plan towards self care. First sleep and turning off the devices, with clear time limits set. Second, fuel type, some people put 87 octane in their cars and some like to put 91 and I usually fall in the middle at 89, my diet is exactly the same. I put some great fuel in my body and some not so great fuel, this needs to change. I need to upgrade on the fuel choices more regularly. After those basic maintenance steps, it is carving out time for myself. Giving myself the gifts that fuel me whether a run, coffee with a friend, writing, and the list goes on.

While it feels backwards being selfish will only fuel my ability to be selfless. The more I can care for myself, the more energy I will have to care for others and the causes I am passionate about. So as we are entering a time of spring and renewal, I am committing to myself (you are my witnesses) that this Giving Tree will keep her limbs, branches and fruit so that she can continue to give year after year.

Charity Matters.

 

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Opening Minds Through Art (OMA)

“Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.”

Dr. Seuss

Almost a decade ago I made the most amazing friend through a wonderful happenstance. I was filming a fundraising video for my  alma mater and the filmmaker, Noah Applebaum, was so talented, compassionate and smart that I asked him to help me with another nonprofit project, and then another and then another. Through the years Noah’s heart has shown through in a multitude of nonprofit videos we have worked on together and our friendship has been a wonderful gift. Last week Noah told me about this incredible documentary film that he is now fundraising to make for an Alzheimer’s program called OMA, which stands for Opening Minds Through Art.

Noah’s late grandfather had gone through the program and Noah wanted me to meet the nonprofit’s founder, Dr. Elizabeth Lokon.  We had an incredible conversation and it became abundantly clear why Noah wants the world to know about this remarkable woman and her journey to give the elderly an opportunity to express themselves through art once dementia has left them without a voice. If anyone can tell their story it is Noah. Talking to Dr. Lokon was beyond inspirational and a privilege.

Opening Minds through Art (OMA) from NoahApplebaum.com on Vimeo.

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

Dr. Lokon:  Opening Minds Through Art (OMA) is an intergenerational art making program for people with Alzheimers disease. The program provides opportunities for creative self expression for people with dementia.

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

Dr. Lokon: I had my Master’s Degree in Fine Art and got my PhD in 1997. I had been teaching teachers in Japan from 2000 to 2006 and I had a student club called MICA where we did service for a number of causes. We cleaned beaches, bought toys and were very involved with an organization that prevented sex trafficking of Cambodian children through education. When my husband retired he said to me, “What do you want to do now? Our kids are grown.”  I knew that I wanted to go back to school to make a difference and that my primary goal was to live a life of service.

In education I learned about the first half of life but I knew nothing about the second half, so I decided to study Gerontology. When I came back to the U.S., I moved into a nursing home to learn a new culture, it was like a whole new world and I approached it like an anthropologist. Then I saw people with dementia. They were kept clean, safe and ignored. They were zombies.

 As an educator I knew this was not fair. Children have programs and advocates but with older people there is no one to speak for them. Even with dementia people can have joy. So, I went back to school and worked with a theater program that was for people with dementia. The program used photos to trigger memories to tell imaginary stories. So, in 2007 I asked if I could intern and I moved into a nursing home.

I quickly realized that art was a way of connecting with the patients, like the theater program. Verbal skills may have been impaired but people with dementia could flourish if there wasn’t any language, they could paint. In 2007, I had the idea for OMA.

Charity Matters: Did you grow up in a philanthropic Family?

Dr. Lokon: No! I did not. I am Chinese but grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia. When I grew up there was a large gap between the wealthy and the poor. I had to walk through the slums to get to school and I remember on my way home from school as an 8 year old bringing younger children home from the slums just to be bathed.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Dr. Lokon: Funding. While we are funded under the Scripps Gerontology Center, an Ohio Center of Excellence at Miami University.Scripps Gerontology Center, an Ohio Center of Excellence at Miami University for operations, the biggest challenge is trying to plan our work and the expansion of our work with extreme financial variability . The other challenge is that I know that our program works and we want to expand our work to other medical schools. We want them to be able to have OMA training. I want to give schools the opportunity to train students to be better health care providers. We need to create awareness to fund this work and it takes a lot of time and effort to make this happen.

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

Dr. Lokon: I continue to go to a site each week and I see the magic happen and it keeps me grounded and going.

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

Dr. Lokon: Students realize that it is a privilege to be with someone vulnerable with dementia. Students change and see a shift in themselves. The students begin to see themselves differently and value themselves. I know I have made a difference when I see a student put their arms around their partner with dementia and I see the connection between the two. From a distance you cannot tell that that there is dementia because the old and young person look “normal” and that is the power of human connection.

The patient feels normal and in return the student knows they have made a difference. This is something special. The students write in their journals about their experiences and you know you have made a difference.

Charity Matters: Tell us about your impact at OMA?

Dr. Lokon: We began the program in 2009 and since that time we have  trained over 2,00o students  from Miami Ohio alone. We have 150 locations in the United States and Canada that are using our program and are serving eight retirement programs locally. We are currently working with ten universities and their medical/nursing schools to ensure that their students know how to treat those with dementia and communicate with them. When I think of the ripple effect of just the 2,ooo plus students  who become kinder to people with dementia. People who no longer dismiss the elderly, students who are more respectful. I think the measure of success is a cultural change within the aging world, one student at a time. 

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

Dr. Lokon: I have learned there is value to everyone in any stage of life regardless of age, condition or disability. There is a reward in seeing that value and in making a human connection. I have learned the importance of social connection and seeing everyone as worthy of your time, attention and love. In the end, it is just what it means to be human.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Dr. Lokon: This journey has changed me by making me more aware of the deeper purpose of what it means to be together. What it means to connect and how much is really happening in that connection. We are so busy meditating and going to yoga that we are depriving ourselves of the very substance that makes us whole.

Charity Matters

 

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Infinite Hero Foundation

Mike in front row without shirt

What started as a phone call from my sister last week in hopes of helping a friend turned into an amazing journey. She called to tell me about a friend and Vietnam Veteran named Mike Stirling who is currently undergoing cancer treatment, from an agent orange related cancer. She went onto say that she and my brother-in-law knew Mike and his family and had watched him lovingly restore a M37 truck just like the one he had in Vietnam. Now that Mike’s not well he wanted his beloved truck to go to serve others. My sister and brother-in-law purchased the truck from Mike and are now auctioning this special truck off next weekend for a nonprofit called Infinite Hero Foundation that supports Veterans in amazing ways.

Naturally, I needed to know more about this nonprofit and that lead me to an incredible conversation with Infinite Hero’s founder, Colin Baden. In addition to being a nonprofit founder, he is also the former CEO and President of Oakley but even more impressive is what a remarkable human he is.

Charity Matters: Tell us what Infinite Hero Does?

Colin Baden: Infinite Hero’s mission is to connect our military, veterans and military family members with innovative and effective treatment programs for service related injuries. Our focus is to help our Veterans where the VA leaves off, we support Veterans and organizations that help our Veterans with physical rehabilitation, leadership development, brain health, family support and suicide prevention.

Charity Matters: What was the moment that you knew you needed to start Infinite Hero?

Colin Baden: Oakley has a long history of working with the military in our core eyewear business, so through that work we got to know a lot of people within the military, predominately special forces. When we had been at war for as long as we had, we started to see some of the people we had worked with pretty closely return from war pretty messed up and some not coming back at all. It wore on us.

One day we lost an entire Seal team when their helicopter was shot done and I was really upset. I was 52 at the time and what I tried to do initially was to enroll in the military and I thought if I could just take the place of someone else. I quickly realized that you can’t join the military if you are over 45. Since, I couldn’t join I called our military liaison at Oakley, Eric,  and said we need to do something bigger for our Veterans and that was in 2012. From that we began Infinite Hero.

Charity Matters: What makes Infinite Hero different from some of the other military nonprofit organizations?

Colin Baden: When we started it everyone at Oakley was super passionate about it so we had instant volunteers and help. We had no trouble getting support and because of our connections with the military we able to pull together an incredible board and get to the people we wanted to serve. We kept our mission simple and framed it within the culture of Oakley. Oakley has been successful because of its ability to innovate so we wanted to replicate that for Infinite Hero.

It felt to us that the VA model wasn’t diverse enough to solve the complexity and challenges to solve the problems. So we took the simple approach that if we could find innovative ways to help our Veterans we could probably make an impact unlike any other group. Over the course of the last five years we have found some exciting ways to have real impact.

Charity Matters: What are some of your biggest challenges?

Colin Baden:  You would not think that giving the money away is truly our biggest challenge but it is. Identifying a cause that aligns with our mission and being able to use that innovative filter  isn’t easy. We receive over 200 grant applications each year and we struggle to get it down to a handful of organizations that are going to have a real impact. We take the fact that we are stewards of this money very seriously and want to make sure that we are investing it where our Veterans will best be served and have the greatest impact.

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

Colin Baden: I think its because so many people have been a part of this conflict for such a long time and the challenges they face are really profound and not going away. Some are very hard to grapple with, when you see someone with their limbs amputated from an IED or suicide prevention. When the suicide rate amongst veterans is 30 a day and how you grapple with all of this is not a simple thing. There are not enough VAs to be there to adapt and deal with so many of these challenges, so we need the diversity of all of these foundations to make a difference. We are just one piece of this work.

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

Colin Baden:There are moments when an investment has paid off, when Gary Linfoot gets to walk his daughter down the aisle for her wedding and we had a hand in that or someone going through one of our leadership development programs and is passionate about his new life as a result of our work. All of these moments make me feel really good about the little work we have done.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about your success and impact?

Colin Baden: We manage to raise about a million dollars a year. We aspire to always have a bigger impact and we do everything we can to make sure all of these funds go directly to the cause. What has been so nice about Oakley being a part of this is that we have already had so many skilled people that we didn’t need to pay who could help us make this work.

Investing in innovation in this space has been interesting. We signed up to take on really huge challenges of problems that are not simple for our Veterans. For example we found a treatment center that does amazing brain work with depression and we have been paying for a number of our veterans to go through this treatment and it has been eighty to ninety percent effective. When you think of suicide being one of the biggest challenges our Veterans face and we are really excited about what this can do for so many.

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

Colin Baden:What has always struck me about the military and their families is their humility and the realization that they really struggle asking for help. I will give you an amazing story as an example and try not to cry telling it. When we launched Infinite Hero we went to Walter Reed Military Hospital. When you are blown up in Afghanistan you are bandaged together enough to get to Walter Reed. When you show up there you are a bandaged ball. The minimum stay at Walter Reed is one year to give you an idea of the severity of these injuries. On average soldiers have an operation every other day.

I walked into a room at Walter Reed and there is a guy who has lost both his arms and legs to an IED laying there. I had a great conversation with this guy who was a beautiful human being and he tells us how happy he is to see us because he wants to thank us for all we have done for him. You have lost your arms and legs and are thanking us? Are you out of your mind? The soldier said, “No, no, no you don’t understand. I am going through training so I will be fitted with artificial legs and will be able to walk around. More than that, I am getting fitted with artificial arms so I can pick my baby girl up. If it wasn’t for you guys I wouldn’t be able to do that. That is why it is so important that I thank you.”

That kind of humility taught me all I needed to know about Veterans. They are not the ones to help themselves. It dawned on me that if you have any ego on the battlefield, people will die. I have learned humility from these soldiers and I just admire them for that so much. I have made that my personal mantra to never let my ego take over and to have humility.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Colin Baden: This work is so rewarding and more people should do this. We have had such huge returns emotionally from all of this work. I just wake up every morning and think how am I going to out nice humanity. 

 

Charity Matters

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Help Us Adopt

All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.”

Helen Keller

photo credit: Classic Kids

Charity Matters:  Tell us a little about what Help Us Adopt does?

Becky Fawcett: Help Us Adopt began in 2007 at our kitchen table and an idea to help build families through adoption. Our platform was families combined with a commitment to equality, something everyone could believe in. The brutal reality is that over 100 million children in the world need homes and adoption is the answer. We didn’t want to tell those children that people can’t afford to adopt, we wanted to be the ones who make their adoptions a reality. We do that by raising funds to provide grants to people who need financial support to begin their families.

photo credit: Classic Kids

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start  Help Us Adopt?

Becky Fawcett: I was raised that we were fortunate, there will always be people with more and always with less but more importantly, be grateful for what you have. When my husband Kipp and I realized that Invetro Fertilization (IVF) wasn’t going to work and adoption was going to cost $40,000 I thought, what would happen if we didn’t have this money? I knew how much motherhood meant to me and that I could just barely afford this, but where would I have gone if I didn’t have the resources?  So, I began to look for organizations that helped families to fund adoptions and couldn’t find one that didn’t dictate how someone adopts.

I never intended to start this. My original intention was to give my marketing and pr skills as a volunteer to an existing grant organization. The more I looked I realized that the only existing organizations were limited in their thinking, giving small amounts of money to help fund adoptions, charging expensive application fees and were really patching the problem. These organizations were dictating how someone adopts. I thought who am I to tell families that they have to fit the traditional mold to adopt?  Everyone grows up dreaming of a family. We knew we wanted to support all who had a dream of having a family.

That is why I started this because it just didn’t exist.  So in 2007, I set out to tell this story that I knew I had to tell. Raising the initial funds was easy, until the recession….

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Becky Fawcett: Our biggest challenge is raising money. Finding big angel donors is a lot of hustle for the million plus dollars we raise a year. Finding those donors who are investment donors. The other challenge is that there is still a stigma about adoption and a lot of misinformation about adoption out there and what makes a family.  It is frustrating the language used around adoption. 

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

Becky Fawcett: So many things, number one thing is that a lot of people thought we would fail and we have succeeded. Strangers have come to us and want to get involved, which is huge. We are doing groundbreaking work not just for adoption but for family equality. I love leading the charge here and I have become very comfortable with the uncomfortable.

I love building things and I believe Help Us Adopt can be even bigger. The last and most important thing is that helping people is infectious! 

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

Becky Fawcett: The minute we read an application from a family I know we are going to make a difference. When we award  a grant we know we have moved the needle. We relieve families from debt in some cases, in some situations our funding helps to speed up the process of adopting their child. I know we help people the minute that grant is awarded. When the child gets home that is when the story starts getting told.

We can watch our work grow up before our eyes and that makes me SO excited! When we watch these children grow up and get Christmas and birthday cards of these beautiful families. Adoption is my world, this is my children’s lives and I need to make it better for everyone. For my children, for their birth mothers and all birth mothers who make the most difficult decisions in the face of adversity that none of us will ever understand. I am advocate for them and their rights as well and I never expected to be here.

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

Becky Fawcett: Help Us Adopt is now in our 12th year and are awarding on average a family a week a grant. When we started Help Us Adopt we only had $100,000 to award. Now, we have four grant cycles at $150,000 each year and our average grants are about nine thousand dollars. This puts us at helping a family a week for 2019.

A lot of blood sweat and tears have gone into this.  It is hard work but a steady progressive upward climb. Everything we do is slightly different and we run our nonprofit like a business. Our issue is a unique and such an untold story. People think it is easy to adopt and that it should be free. When we start to tell people the challenges in adoption and about the children that need homes, people say, “I had no idea what can I do? ”  Every single donor big or small makes a big difference by helping the life of a child. We put kids in homes and build families and everyone can relate to building a family.

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

Becky Fawcett: I know that every job I have ever had lead me to this. I have learned to always ask, the worst thing that can happen is that someone can say no. People are waiting to be asked. Tell people you need help they want to help.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Becky Fawcett: I don’t even know how to put that into wordsI know I am not the person I was fourteen years ago. I am such a better version of myself in so many ways. The biggest change has been my level of compassion. I think I am much more aware now that you really never know what someone is dealing with. I didn’t tell people what I was going through when I struggled to have children. I’ve learned I have had to trust strangers, my children’s birth mothers and so many others along the way.  I know I’m far from perfect but I do know the instant love I had with my children has changed my life forever.

 

Charity Matters

 

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Changing children’s lives:Centinela Youth Services

“I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.” 

Abraham Lincoln

Office Benny Abucejo and Executive Director Jessica Ellis

In my crazy life one thing always seems to lead to another. This past Christmas I met the amazing Jessica Ellis at a holiday work party. Jessica is the Executive Director for an incredible nonprofit called Centinela Youth Services. Their mission is to reduce the number of youth attached to the criminal justice system. After last week’s conversation with the remarkable Jill Weiss from UpRising Yoga, I thought the time to circle back with Jessica was now. There is so much work happening in the juvenile justice system and I wanted to know more.

It truly never ceases to amaze me how a  simple idea can impact generations of lives in such a positive way. That is exactly what happened in the 1970s when a few Inglewood police officers recognized that kids who were doing stupid things didn’t really need jail, they needed guidance. More than that, these juveniles’ needed to own their mistakes and face (literally eye to eye) the person that they had harmed.

Charity Matters:  Tell us a little about what Centinela Youth Services (CYS) does?

Jessica Ellis: Centinela Youth Services, or CYS as we call it, mission is to reduce the number of vulnerable high needs youth attached to the juvenile justice system in partnership with the Los Angels Police Department, seven other police departments, Inglewood and Compton School Districts, the Public Defender and the District Attorney. We work to keep kids out of the justice system and service the victims of crimes in the process in order to create a more human approach to healing.

When our kids and the victims of crime meet face to face they are put together with two trained community volunteers. We are healing the child and the victim and the community. Our volunteers are the true champions. The magic is bringing two people together towards resolution.

Charity Matters: Give us a little history of CYS?

Jessica Ellis: Between 1973 and 1975 there were a number of police officers in Inglewood, CA who thought that there were kids who really needed to be helped rather than arrested. A couple guys on the police force on their own started to connect these kids to after school programs or counseling rather than to jail. It ended up demonstrating that there was a need for this. It became more than they could do on top of their day job so the city of Inglewood along with five local cities ended up coming together to charter our nonprofit to divert students from arrest to counseling.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Jessica Ellis: The interesting thing for us right now is that there is a very unique window of opportunity that has been going on the past couple years for our kind of work in restorative justice. We have been doing diversion (from juvenile hall) since the 1970s and restorative justice since the early 90s and now it is sort of the new hip thing and all of the sudden there is political will for this work and a quite a bit of it.

We have been doing this work in actively transforming the juvenile justice system and our model has influenced others to replicate our program across the state and country. We started the first diversion program in LA County, so when a child is picked up the arrest is not recorded on their record if they complete the diversion program successfully that they have been assigned. While the replication is hugely exciting, we get pulled in as the experts to help replicate our work for this juvenile justice transformation. We don’t necessarily get funded to be the experts. So the challenge is to meet our core capacity  and help to  expand and replicate work. 

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

Jessica Ellis: What I love most is that we transcend all criminal justice systems. We bring people face to face to resolve conflicts. We bring the child face to face with the victim of the crime and this two sided approach brings us back to our humanity. It is so much more rewarding. A lot of us have been impacted by both  sides of the justice system, I have close family members who have spent time in prison and I have a family members who was murdered. People that I love have hurt other people. We need to recognize both of those sides and that we can repair humanity, move forward, make people whole and not just give up and throw away people, especially kids.

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

Jessica Ellis: I know that we have made a difference when a child connects with the person that they have harmed.  A fifteen-year old boy vandalized a school really badly with graffiti everywhere. He really did a huge amount of damage. The principal was so angry he didn’t want to meet with him. The principal sat in the room with the images of the damage on his laptop fueling his anger. The boy walked into the room and the principal would not look up at him. 

When the mediator asked the boy why he wrote bad things about his school and his teachers. The boy didn’t answer. The boy’s mother said to her son, “Tell the principal about what your teachers did.” The young boy tells his principal that when his father went to jail, his teachers were kind and that they bought him clothes and food. The principal now looked at this boy now with humanity. He said, “Your dad went to jail?” The boy replied, “Yes, and I was angry.” The two began talking about art because some of the “damage” was very artistic. The principal loved art as well. He ultimately mentored the boy and enrolled him in a special art program and had him draw a mural at the school

Resolution like this happens everyday. This is very typical of our work. One third of kids are dealing with some sort of mental illness in their homes, one third deal with trauma…we see so many kids do dumb things on the heals of a parent’s death. Kids act out so often due to trauma . Our system is set up to feed that anger and bipolarity, the prison system does not get to the underlying issues where we do. 

Charity Matters: Tell us what success you have had? What has your impact been? Number  of people impacted, funds raised?

Jessica Ellis: Our greatest impact is that we have created a space where kindness and compassion can grow for over 1,000 children a year. We believe that our kids deserve quality. Our crime victims have a 98% satisfaction rate with our work, the kids rate our program fair and equitable 96% of the time.  Our recidivism rate (or the rate with which students are rearrested) is significantly reduced. If you lock kids up they have a higher chance of going back to jail by two-thirds. If you don’t lock them up but put them on probation there is a 23% to 33% of recidivism. Our kids a have less than 8%rate.

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

Jessica Ellis: It is so easy as humans to want to fix or to blame and to not look at ourselves. If we are helping other people resolving conflicts at work, how can we do this in our own families and lives? Looking at our own lives reminds us how hard this work is and how important.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Jessica Ellis: Our work is having such a huge impact here in California. Nationally there is so much discord. All politics aside, the amount of change we are making here in California that moves the criminal justice system to be better for kids, just gives me so much hope. We are seeing law enforcement, District Attorneys, community advocates, criminal justice reformers all coming together to make this change. 

Having hope is a good thing to have.

Charity Matters.

 

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Uprising Yoga

 

While I am still compiling my final New Years resolutions one of them is definitely to do more yoga. In a recent yoga class I was talking to my instructor about her work volunteering in juvenile hall teaching trauma informed yoga with an organization called Uprising Yoga. My yoga teacher and friend introduced me to the amazing and beyond uplifting founder, Jill Ippolito Weiss. Jill has taken her gifts to bring yoga to both underserved communities and to the incarcerated kids at juvenile hall.

I came away from our conversation inspired, invigorated and moved.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what Uprising Yoga Does?

Jill Ippolito Weiss: The mission of Uprising Yoga is to bring trauma informed yoga to the incarcerated and to underserved communities. Trauma informed yoga helps people understand the impact of trauma on your entire mind and body, it helps understand the imprint left on the brain.

We have now had such growth that we are training the trainers to bring our program to social workers, probation staff and more teacher awareness. We are building sustainable business models where others can take our curriculum into their communities and use to provide trauma informed yoga.

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

Jill Ippolito Weiss: In the summer of 2010, I was dating a man named Nick, now my husband and he came home from work and was shaking and upset. I asked what was wrong and he explained that he had just toured a youth prison camp. He described what he saw and I asked him, “Can I teach yoga there?” 

I was working at a yoga college with my friend Mary and she was trying to put a group of instructors together to teach in juvenile hall already. Between the two of us we tried to find a way to actually get into juvenile hall. Getting clearance to work in prisons is a big deal. For months we tried to offer our services and got nowhere. Then in 2011, Nick and I were at a Christmas party and I was talking to a man who worked in the prison system and told him what I wanted to do. He and his colleagues all reached out and said, “When do you want to start?” So Mary, Nick and I began teaching trauma informed yoga on Tuesday nights to juvenile hall’s most vulnerable kids, the foster care sexually trafficked minors. 

Slowly, the classes began to grow and grow. We received a grant to determine how yoga was helping these kids. A friend said, “Have you thought about starting a nonprofit?”  So in 2012 we started officially. We were having a fund raiser and I called my mom to ask if she would donate. She asked what for and I told her to help the kids in juvenile hall. My mom said,” Jill, I picked you up there when you were a kid.” I was speechless because I honestly did not remember that I had been in the juvenile hall that I was now teaching in. Because I didn’t remember I began to study trauma and how it affects your brain and how we heal from trauma. That is how I connected trauma and yoga. 

I knew that I had gotten into trouble and I knew that recovery and yoga had saved my life. I hadn’t really been able to figure out why I was drawn to incarcerated youth until that moment. What pulled at my heart is that my mom came for me and no one is coming for these kids.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Jill Ippolito Weiss: I had no idea when I started how this was going to grow and expand. Our biggest challenge is that there is not enough man power and so much need that we simply can not meet.

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

Jill Ippolito Weiss: Connection and the stories I hear about what we do works. The thank you notes that I receive from students that say, “Thank you for letting my body detox.” It makes me high on the universe . My work matters. The ultimate gift is hearing that how you changed someone’s life for the better.

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

Jill Ippolito Weiss: There are so many ways but when we receive a letter, an email or a picture from juvenile hall saying, “Thank you for caring about us.” I know we are teaching life skills and that what we teach lasts a lifetime. I was recently asked to participate in a book about best practices for yoga in the criminal justice system. When people recognize me for my work that is touching.

We recently had a hostage/shooter situation at our local Trader Joes a block from our home.  The day after the situation I called volunteered my services to teach trauma informed yoga to the hostages.  I felt so helpless and thought what can one person do to offer their gifts and talents?  There was so much pain and trauma in my own neighborhood. So now we come together once a week and the trauma informed yoga has brought us all together. The yoga is healing these victims of violence and has given me an opportunity to use my gifts to let others know I care. These hostages have told me how this class has healed them.

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

Jill Ippolito Weiss: Our impact is on many levels. It can be as small as what we do for one person with our one on one work or large when we do large events. We know that violence goes down significantly after we work in the prisons. Today is our work is recognized nationally and internationally. Our Uprising Yoga curriculum is spreading across the country because it works and people are replicating our model. That is when you know your work has impact.

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned since beginning Uprising Yoga and how has this experience changed you?

Jill Ippolito Weiss: I have learned that people are good and want to keep doing good.  Once the nonprofit got started, people who cared came out of the woodwork to volunteer, to help, to donate and that literally shifted my entire perception of humanity. I didn’t know people had SO much good in them. I continue to believe that.

This experience made me go from suspicion and confusion into understanding why I went through my pain and how my healing process became available to others. I understood what my own healing journey meant. The yoga just didn’t heal me but it also healed everyone around me. My husband Nick has been a part of this entire journey and I feel that our love is shared out into a community.

Charity Matters

 

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Tracy’s Dogs

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

Josh Billings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

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

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

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

Charity Matters

 

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Many Hopes

 

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

Martin Luther King, Jr.

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

Anthony Mulongo

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

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

Gift

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

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

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

Thomas Keown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charity Matters: Tell us what successes you have had?

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

Charity Matters: how has this experience changed you?

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

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

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

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

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Project Angel Food

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

Marianne Williamson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Adopt Together

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

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

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

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

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

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My Hope Chest

” When you come to the edge of a forest and there is no path-make one that others will follow.”

Author unknown

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I had a friend who has recently undergone a mastectomy. Well sadly, since I wrote those words, yet another friend has experience the same loss and this time a double. Breast Cancer isn’t something that only happens in October it is something that happens every two minutes every day. One in eight women will develop breast cancer over the course of her lifetime according to the American Cancer Society. Breast Cancer does not discriminate from the rich or the poor. To be honest I had never thought about what happens when you get breast cancer and have no insurance? I assumed that Medicaid and Medicare covered everything. Well, I was wrong.

Last week, I had the most inspiring conversation with nonprofit founder, Alisa Savoretti, a women who lived this journey of having a mastectomy and no insurance for reconstructive surgery. The result was the creation of My Hope Chest, the only national nonprofit in the country that takes these women and helps to fund their reconstructive surgery. Alisa and I had an incredible conversation and I left feeling inspired by this amazing warrior who fights for women who truly need one.

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

Alisa Savoretti: Hearing you have cancer is a devastating moment. It’s one thing to hear you have cancer but it is another thing to realize you have cancer, you do not have insurance and you do not qualify for Medicaid. This is what happened to me at 38 years old. I had been working in Las Vegas as a showgirl and had recently moved to Florida to begin an online furniture  business, before companies like Pottery Barn exsisited. I had borrowed funds on credit cards to launch Retrohome.com in 1999, when I found out I had cancer. The doctor said to take care of the cancer, focus on surviving and worry about the reconstruction later. 

I survived but lived without my breast for almost three years. You have no idea what this does for you as a women, for your mental well being. During those three years I reached out to organizations all over the country, government, nonprofit, anyone who could help me to become whole again. I discovered that there wasn’t anywhere to go. I felt deformed, depressed, frustrated, had metal anguish and enormous financial stress.

I went back to Vegas to work at The Rivera and the 1998 government law now mandated that their group policy could not decline me insurance in order to get my reconstructive surgery. I realized how my own self esteem, confidence and self worth as a woman returned when I could look in the mirror and could see my whole physical being once again. It was my healing, a restoration in body mind and spirit.

While I was in Vegas, I volunteered for a NAWBO (National Association of Womens Business Owners) event. I told the women from NAWBO my story and these women rallied around me and with their help I was able to start My Hope Chest and had my 501c3, six weeks later on December 3rd, 2003. We will celebrate our 15th anniversary this year.

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

Alisa Savoretti:Some days it feels as if I am pushing a boulder uphill with a toothpick. And fifteen years of doing this at the grassroots level, the work is very hard. What fuels me is knowing that thousands and thousands of women are missing their breast and this shouldn’t be happening in our country. Making women whole again is our mission. I think about more women are surviving breast cancer and thats true, but what about their quality of life if they are not whole?

These women are sick and often lose their jobs because they can’t work. They are now disfigured, deformed and depressed. The ripple effect of not being whole is devastating  on marriages and families. This work has become my life’s mission. I am not married, cancer made children no longer an option and for the past fifteen years this work has been my life.

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

Alisa Savoretti: We pick up where the government programs leave off. That is why we exist.  Our biggest referrals come from nonprofits such as American Cancer Society, Susan G. Komen and Care.org.  We get referrals from them weekly and we can not tell our clients if or when they are going to be helped. They sit on a wait list while we try to raise the funds to make their reconstructive surgery happen. Helping women to become whole again is what fuels me and just knowing that there is always a list of women waiting for us to find the funding.

I know that we have made a difference when we can help them with whatever they have asked for and the letters they send us.

Charity Matters: Tell us what success you have had?

Alisa Savoretti: We help women every year in a small way and I feel blessed that God picked me to do this task. Every time we get the word out about our work it helps fund someone’s surgery. Shining a light on this cause is SO important. We have been able to fill a gap where other breast cancer charities leave off. If there was another organization doing our work we wouldn’t do it but sadly there isn’t anyone else. The women we help are eternally grateful for all we have done and to me that is the success.

Charity Matters: What is your vision for My Hope Chest going forward?

Alisa Savoretti: We will only exist until there is a cure for breast cancer. Of course the big dream is that there is day when our services are no longer needed. Ten years from now I dream that we have enough resources, funding, surgical partners and angel warriors that we can help women as quickly as they are referred to us. I dream of no longer having a wait list and being able to have a more efficient meaningful impact on these women’s lives.

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

Alisa Savoretti:God had a different plan for my life. I have a quote on my desk that says,” When you come to the edge of a forest and there is no path-make one that others will follow.” I feel like that is what happened with My Hope Chest. My life’s lesson is that when you persevere you will make a difference. The fact that this even exists in 2018 and is still flying under the radar that there are women, thousands of women in this country living without their breast.  I have refinanced my home three times to keep the funding going for My Hope Chest. I have taken extra jobs at the grocery store to fund this. I have learned that I have to persevere to help these women in any way I can. I cannot give up on them.

I think that changing even one life is important. Things are bigger than us, this mission is bigger than me and I have tied my life to making a difference. For me, I am grateful I was chosen for this journey. I am grateful to keep doing this work and I pray the Lord that My Hope Chest gets to leave a legacy on this earth until there is no longer a need for our services. That is my utmost prayer.

In the end,  I know that I have done my very best.

 

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The Wellhouse

Our world seems to shrink everyday as technology and communication continue to advance. A few weeks ago, I was attending an online webinar for nonprofits and started a conversation with a woman named Kat Kirkpatrick from Alabama who is part of an amazing nonprofit called The Wellhouse. What began as an online conversation became multiple emails and phone calls to learn more. I have done two interviews this past year on organizations similar to the The Wellhouse and initially thought twice about writing this now. However, I believe things happen for a reason and there are no accidents, so I am excited to share our conversation with you.

Kat told me that 40% of the human trafficking that happens in the United State happens in the South East off of Interstate 20 and the average age of young women who are trafficked is 12 to 14 years old. That information was more than enough to continue the conversation on this uncomfortable topic.

Charity Matters: So tell us about what The WellHouse does?

Kat Kirkpatrick: The Wellhouse is a safe place that rescues and restores young  women from human trafficking. We restore these women so they can live their lives. We are a residential safe place that can help these women deal with trauma, addiction, health care and counseling. We give them mentors and set them up for life to be successful.

Charity Matters: When did your nonprofit begin and what is the back story to the WellHouse?

Kat Kirkpatrick: Our founder was a victim of human trafficking. She escaped from her trafficker with $33.00 in her pocket and was taken into a place in Birmingham, Alabama called The Dream Center because she heard about it on the radio. Our founder became a mentor there in helping other young women and realized that more needed to be done so in 2010 she began The WellHouse.

She realized there was not a facility that existed only for trafficked victims and she conceived the idea of a home that would not have any prerequisites that can often hinder victims from obtaining needed help. Her goal was to welcome survivors who wanted to move forward in their lives.

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

Kat Kirkpatrick: The team. Seeing everyone work together and support these women. The women who change their lives.

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

Kat Kirkpatrick: We know we have changed lives. We have rescued over 400 women since 2010. We know we have made a difference when a girl has a safe place to be for the first time. We know we have made a difference when they share their story and then graduate into our long term program. We know we have made a difference when they graduate and when we celebrate every little step along their journey.

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

Kat Kirkpatrick: I have seen the public’s misconception and stigma for these girls. They are victims of horrible crimes, victims of violence and yet there is hope. They are coming from the darkest of times and yet their resilience is astounding.  I have learned that people are good and are always there to help.  I know when we walk along side these young women on their journey they can accomplish anything.

 

Charity Matters

 

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