Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Guide to Giving Your All, Literally

How Much Is Too Much?
A Guide to Giving Your All, Literally

In Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, children are presented with a kindly tree who gives of its fruit, give of its branches, and eventually even gives of its trunk until there is nothing left except a stump. The children then have a place to sit, and the tree is happy and continues to give.

Reading this tale, I first thought it was a travesty. How stupid that a tree would be reduced to a stump and still feel worthy?

Still in my own life, building an international organization to help orphans around the world, I have had to make similar judgments at every step of the way.

Use frequent flier miles to take my mom on vacation, or to visit children living in a garbage dump in Bali? Leave Wall Street? Cash out my 401-K? Max out my credit cards? Pay my rent pay teachers for children in Haiti? There is no guide. So I will try to write one.

“Mathew’s Rule” is the foundation of Orphans International Worldwide, the organization that I founded in 1999. It states simply that each child in our care be treated the way we would treat our own children.

I now offer “Jim’s Rule”- how to know how much to give back to society.

As humans we have basic and secondary needs that are vital to our life and happiness. Primarily, we must eat, sleep, have housing and clothing, and maintain our health. Secondarily, we need to share love – with parents, children, and life partners.

Desires such as better food, nicer housing, more expensive clothes, going to the gym are on a third plane.

“Jim’s Rule” states that as long as our primary and secondary needs are met, sacrifices may be made on the third level to better our world.

As a result of my choices, unexpectedly I meet regularly with heads of state and royalty, sip champagne and eat caviar. I also celebrate family birthdays at White Castle, own few clothes, and allow my friends to treat me to Broadway plays and buy me books for my birthday. The socks-and-underwear under the tree at Christmas that annoyed me in my youth now delight me.

It has been difficult for me to be comfortable being treated to dinner and theater – I’m used to treating. The feeling might be similar to being able to accept care one day from my own child.

Christians discuss being good stewards of one’s resources to better the world and to live with sacrifices, like Lent. Jews debate the best way to repair the world. Muslims sacrifice and fast for the month of Ramadan to experience an austere life, so they can better understand and respond to those who have less. Buddhists and Hindus give to the less fortunate, mindful of karma.

Priests and nuns, like Buddhist monks or members of a kibbutz, give their all to the greater good, trusting in the institution of the church, temple, or collective to care for them. “Jim’s Rule” applies when one without or with little institutional support thinks about how far they can go without a safety net.

Globally, there is a safety net for do-gooders in family, neighbors, and one’s house of faith. But these often have limits that can be exhausted early.

Time is another precious asset. How much time to work? To relax? To love? To sleep? Our bodies’ needs vary greatly. I can go on five hours sleep per night for a month but then crash for a whole day. To remain focused, I try to limit myself with Orphans International to twelve hours a day, six days a week. To flourish in a relationship and be a good father, is how I use the other 12 hours.

To be an asset to society, one must maintain one’s base. Without a base, you are a liability to everyone. You can only help others if you are not in need of help yourself. Like adults who must receive oxygen in an airplane emergency first, our children benefit when we are stable.

So how much is too much when it comes to giving your all? Learning from our children’s book, The Giving Tree, I propose Jim’s Rule: Give of your fruit, your extra money and time. Perhaps give your branches, even more of your resources. But your trunk is your essence. A stump helps humanity only in fairy tales. Jim Luce, New York

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Repairing The World
Next Chapter Can Begin with You

As founder of OI, I have spent six years building homes and programs for orphaned children in far off places.

Beginning this summer, twelve young leaders – from schools like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale – will be Global Volunteers for Orphans International Worldwide, following in my footsteps.

Each project sustains twelve children. In Haiti, they were orphaned by Hurricane Jeanne. In Sri Lanka their lives were uprooted by the Tsunami. In Indonesia, they were cast adrift by abject poverty and disease.

Our mission is Raising Global Citizens. Our Global volunteers will teach English, French, Spanish, the arts, and computer skills. In every project, we set up classrooms, computer centers, and health clinics.

OI projects are required to adhere to the Orphans International Worldwide Global Standards. This lengthy list of Do’s and Don’t’s is captured simply as “Mathew’s Rule”: each of our kids is treated as we treat our own.

In Indonesia our home is on a hill overlooking Manado Bay in North Sulawesi. It is a minority Christian area, sitting next to the neighborhood mosque.

Many children in this region have been orphaned by sectarian violence -- angry Muslims burning down a church, then the angry Christians chasing them literally into the ocean.

Despite sectarian violence, Indonesia is a fantastic and beautiful nation, formed in 1949 from over 17,000 islands with more than 300 dialects, and five religions. This vast area has one national language to unite it all. In essence, Indonesia is the United States of the Pacific.

Haiti, the size of Connecticut, is a proud nation that quickly becomes a part of you. The strength and dignity of its people, the first slaves to form a free state, continues to barely overcome the centuries of exploitation by French and Americans, as well as its own often corrupt leadership. Haitians live in widely divergent realities.

  • The slums of Cite de Soleil saw the bridge where women overwhelmed by poverty are said to squat, giving birth into the sludge below.
  • The city of Gonaives, ravished by Hurricane Jeanne. More died there than in the Twin Towers. I witnessed both. In New York, the safety net held. In Haiti, it has never existed.
  • Jacmel, where our project is re-locating to. Here is the artistic center of Haiti. With beautiful beaches, an infrastructure built by the same French architects responsible for New Orleans, Jacmel seems paradise – far from the hells of Cite de Soleil and Gonaives.

Galle, south of Sri Lanka, is another colonial gem, complete with massive fort on the sea. It is surrounded by quaint and friendly villages, such as Unawatuna and Kathaluwa.

I confess that I am madly in love with all three cities, Manado, Jacmel, and Galle, and hope to retire one day to each of them. The people. The mountains. The bays and beaches. Most of all, the incredibly beautiful children who depend on us.

“Om Jim!” they shout in Indonesian. Frè James!” in Creole. I am beginning to know our kids in Sri Lanka, “Ayyaa” is “Older Brother” in Singhalese.

Colonialism has deep roots. The imprint of the Dutch lies across the Indonesian archipelago, the French throughout Port-au-Prince and Jacmel, and the British -- from tea time to cricket -- across verdant Sri Lanka.

They overlay the Islamic traditions of Sulawesi, the Buddhist culture in Sri Lanka, the mostly misunderstood practices of West Africa known in Haiti as vodou. These cultural mosaics make my returns -- and our projects -- endlessly adventurous as well as deeply satisfying.

Violence and disease are more commonplace throughout the developing world than most Americans are comfortable with. Malaria, hepatitis A and B, typhoid, rabies, Japanese encephalitis, and polio exist in parts of the developing world. In Haiti, political violence led to the overthrow of once-golden Aristide, with many dying in the process. In Sri Lanka, the conflict in the north continues to spill into the south, with frequent innocent victims. In Indonesia, extremists have bombed from Bali to Jakarta.

Life at our projects is not life in New York. We don’t drink the local water. We don’t have hot showers. We don’t have air conditioning. But we do have incredible fresh fruits, unimaginable beaches, and often astonishing arts. Of course, we go to children who need nurturing. Our Global Volunteers must bring lots of love. Are volunteers are often surprised at how very much more they get back than they give.

What does it take to be an OI Global Volunteer? The same qualities, it turns out, I have needed to build an international development agency from scratch: extreme patience, back-bending tolerance and flexibility, tenaciousness beyond reason, inventiveness in coping, and a rock solid belief that one person can change the world in spite of daily obstacles.

This year, in addition to our in-house, full care of twelve kids at each project, OI is expanding our vision to support orphaned children living with their own extended families. With OI Family Care, we hope to create a replicable model to lift all the boats in the harbor, not just our own.

As we expand, we look to Tanzania and the Dominican Republic. Our connections to both -- there and here -- are vast. Such connections make a solid bridge possible, uniting those who need with those who have.

Our Global Ambassadors are Global Volunteers Plus. Our ambassadors agree to sponsor a child and speak when they return to community groups about their experiences abroad.

I left Wall Street to do this, kicking in my mom’s estate and my own 401 K, rewarding decisions for me. Repairing the world is not cheap. Likewise, our Global Volunteers pay their own way and contribute about $100 a week just to help for however long they can stay – a week, a month, or sometimes even longer.

If you would like to join us, write me personally. We need you. I will share your dreams and desires with my dedicated team, and together we will begin to realize them. Today we have almost 150 people working with us across five continents. It all began with one person, me. The next chapter can begin with you. - Jim Luce, New York