Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Power of One to Make A Difference

Giving is a journey that opens our hearts to humanity. We are transformed by encounters with visionaries who inspire us with their ability to transcend obstacles and create miracles.

True philanthropy goes beyond the ability to write a check. The power of one to make a difference, creating positive change by giving from our deepest self, bringing our own experiences to create solutions, is the essence of giving. Each act of generosity is unique because it speaks of who we are.

Bringing the best of our self to create a better world is a priceless gift that everyone has the power to give. In every community, there are everyday heroes who teach us by their example that giving is not about money but is the gift of time, energy and imagination. Time is free and therefore priceless yet in our busy lives it is often easier to just send a check than to participate actively in making change happen.

Every year at the Russ Berrie Making a Difference Awards I meet the most incredible human beings who bring this gift to life into the work they do.

2014 Russ Berrie Award for Malking a Difference,
top Winners and Semifinalists.

This year's keynote speaker, Alfa Demellash, spoke movingly of her journey from Ethiopia to the United States. Arriving as a 12-year-old, Alfa entered Harvard and founded Rising Tides - a nonprofit that provides training to low-income, minority and women business owners to gain entrepreneurial skills.

Alfa works to fight poverty in communities by building one business at a time. Since launching Rising Tide Capital in 2004, she has helped about 250 entrepreneurs in towns like Jersey City, Newark, Elizabeth and Camden. Her organization offers extensive training and support to new business owners such as florists, bakers, mechanics, designers and disc jockeys.

Alfa professes, "Our mission is to assist struggling entrepreneurs in low income communities, to start and grow successful businesses that transform lives, strengthen communities and create livelihoods."

Alfa grew up on less than a dollar a day, against a backdrop of torture and murder in Ethiopia. Today, she makes it possible for small businesses to flourish. "Entrepreneurs are at the very heart of what the American dream is all about." Demellash was named a CNN Hero, a role model for many ordinary Americans on how to create extraordinary impact.

Another hero I had the privilege to meet is Bill Strickland, of Manchester Bidwell (Manchester Craftsmen's Guild and the Bidwell Training Center). A recipient of the MacArthur Fellows Program (known as the genius grant), Bill spent 30 years transforming the lives of thousands of people through the jobs training and community arts program he founded.

Visiting Manchester Bidwell, I was impressed by the photography darkroom with classes that encourage students to turn their camera into their passport - stitching photographs together to tell stories about their communities. Using photography to inspire students, the classroom walls post the positive message, "life is like photography, you use the negatives to develop." 

A myriad of engaging arts programs entice students to develop into their best selves – a digital arts studio, printmaking and pottery studios adorned with art donated by famous visiting artists, a culinary program, a horticulture technology course in a greenhouse that provides orchids to retailers like Giant Eagle.

Bill Strickland believes, "Expectations are everything." Setting high standards within a beautiful environment in the middle of a distressed neighborhood in Pittsburgh, he creates an oasis of excellence with 90 percent success rate for job placement opportunities.

The world is a better place with heroes like Alfa and Bill.