Power of One
These Marinites took individual action to lend a helping hand
Photos by Tim Porter
America’s political stature is taking a beating around the globe, but its generous spirit remains strong. Marin residents are no exception. Three who formed their own nonprofits show how one person really can make a difference.
For Emebet Bellingham of San Anselmo, the desire to provide help and hope to Ethiopia hits close to home. Bellingham grew up in Ethiopia and was shocked when she visited in 2003 to see the devastation AIDS had wrought—about 6 million children were orphaned when their parents died from AIDs, malaria, TB, water born and other preventable diseases.
“Africa in general gets lots of foreign aid and help, but most is not sustainable. It’s not long term,” Bellingham says. “That’s always bothered me. We need a program that gives people a tool to make them self-sufficient.”
Bellingham cofounded the World Family, an organization that collects outdated U.S. hospital equipment and donates it to health centers in Ethiopia. Since 2003, World Family has sent equipment worth more than $5 million to that country and helped open two dental schools. The group has also launched a rural community program for orphans.
The program promotes self-sufficiency by providing orphans and the community with access to such resources as health care, vocational training, farming and livestock development, water filtration, nutrition and educational opportunities. The aim is to weave together a comprehensive response to the needs of orphans. A single-track approach focusing on, say, education alone will ultimately be weakened if other needs are not addressed as well, Bellingham explains. “We’re not there just to bring money from the U.S. and say, ‘Here you go, go live your life.’ This has to be their work.”
Bellingham takes a larger view of global action. “I see us as one world. We’re all interconnected; we’re all people,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if there’s a problem in China or a problem in India or a problem in Ethiopia—we should see the world as one. We should come up with some kind of way to support each other because it always affects the world when one part of the world is not doing well.”
In 1984, Olga Murray of Sausalito had just retired as a lawyer working with the California Supreme Court and was pondering what to do with her life. “I knew I didn’t want to sit around and eat bonbons and polish my toenails,” says Murray, who was nearly 60 at the time. “I think subconsciously I was looking for something that would excite me as much as my work. I always knew it would be something with children, but I thought it would be something like advocating for a teenager in court.”
A trip to Nepal changed everything. The impoverished children Murray met there so inspired her with their “amazing capacity for joy” that she returned in 1987 to offer four of them college scholarships she had paid for herself. Not long after, Murray founded the Nepalese Youth Opportunity Foundation, which has provided scholarships to more than 3,500 Nepalese children.
Today the foundation today also runs two homes for orphaned, disabled and other needy children and works to free girls who have been sold into servitude by their impoverished families. In addition, because half of Nepal’s children under age 5 are malnourished, the organization operates a nutritional rehabilitation home. There children and their mothers live for about five weeks while the children are nourished and the mothers learn to prepare nutritious meals with local foods. The cost is $350 per mother-child pair, and the results are dramatic, Murray says. Most children arrive unable to smile, play or even react to anything because they are so malnourished. They leave alert and active.
Murray, now 84, lives in Nepal six months of the year to check in on the children and their progress, bringing their stories back to Marin.
“A child is a child is a child wherever they are, whether they are here in Sausalito or in Kentfield or in Africa or Asia,” she asserts. “They have the same needs, the same capacity, the same prospects for turning into wonderful human beings.”
John Wilhelm of Tiburon is trying to change the worldview of Americans promulgated by the relentless export of media images and pop culture, and he’s trying to do it one student at a time.
Wilhelm is cofounder and chairman of AYUSA Global Youth Exchange, which for more than 25 years has sent American students abroad and brought foreign students to the United States. He calls this “public diplomacy.”
“The experiences (the students) have during six months or a year in the U.S. will impact the attitude toward us for the rest of their lives,” he points out. “One student goes back and tells his classmates and coworkers about the experience in the U.S. and that has a ripple effect.”
That’s increasingly important in this post–9/11 world, Wilhelm says. In fact, one of the group’s most notable programs brings Muslim students for 10 months to the United States, where they live with American families and attend local high schools. The program is so popular in some predominantly Muslim countries that only a fraction of students who apply are accepted, he says. The program is underwritten by a State Department grant.
In the organization’s first year, fewer than 10 students, all Japanese, participated. Today more than 1,500 students from about 70 countries are involved annually. Each represents a chance to promote a side of Americans not often perceived abroad. “They’re amazed at what a friendly people we are,” Wilhelm says.
You don’t have to start a nonprofit to be involved in global issues. Last year Michelle Stern of San Rafael traveled to Honduras with Heifer International, which gives families cows, chickens and other livestock to raise for food. Here’s her account of the trip.
Our airplane flew carefully between two mountains and made a steep turn before an abrupt on the short runway. The jolt was an appropriate welcome to what would be an adventure of a lifetime.
By participating in this study tour, I hoped to collect personal accounts that would help me motivate my students to use food and cooking as a way of helping others. I also wanted to learn more from Heifer about how people work together to make sustainable food choices and protect the environment.
For seven days we nearly lived on our bus as we traveled to projects all over the country. Each community had its own story of how Heifer International had helped transform its people’s lives. Women told us about the school uniforms and food they were able to purchase from the sale of their piglets. One mom earned enough money to build an enclosed kitchen with a fuel-efficient stove for her family, and another was able to buy furniture for her home for the first time. At a beekeeping cooperative, a young woman said she was grateful to have a business so that she was no longer considered “just a housewife.” Another woman beamed with delight as she declared that she had become an expert at breeding chickens and was a mentor for other local families. A man named Jorge told us about the milk his cow provides for his children and how the protein is improving their performance in school.