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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Anyone can make a difference

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. --Margaret Mead

Recently I had a conversation with someone who showered praise upon the group of us who founded A Little Something. She said we must be incredibly special people to take the initiative and make a difference for so many women and their families. She went on to say that the world needs more people like us.

Here's the thing. We are all pretty darn normal and average in most ways. I think if you met us in line at the supermarket, or if you sat with us at one of the many meetings we sit through for our jobs, you'd find us to be smart, funny, and personable, but not extraordinary. And that's the point.

As a new year is ready to unfurl its days, people around the world will make resolutions to do more, to do better, to try harder, to make a difference. Many won't follow through because they think the task is too daunting. The task may, in fact, be huge, but you start off thinking not about what you can't do, but what you know you can do for sure.

It is the ordinary people who make a difference in our world every day. We are everywhere. I stayed up very late a few nights ago and found out (much to my delight) that each day, Oprah! is shown for a second time after The Late, Late Show. On this particular program, a group of teens discussed their service project wherein they raised money to build a school in rural Kenya. At first I thought, "Well, that's nice. They probably pooled their money, had some car washes and bake sales..." and while I was having that thought, the story unfolded to reveal that these kids--regular high school kids--also traveled to Kenya to live in the village for three weeks while they built the school themselves.

Now they had my attention. The story was compelling on its own, but watching those kids become aware of the complexity of need--the domino effect of aid or neglect--gave me goosebumps. The kids were flummoxed by the work--none had ever done any construction work at all before this, and after receiving oral instructions and only a very rough idea of how to construct a building from the ground up, they set about building something that would make a better future available to an entire community. They didn't know what they were doing, but they had faith that they would figure it out.

During the trip, the students figured out a lot about the world and about themselves and about the capacity to effect change within and outside of oneself. A group of smart, sharp, high achievers got on a plane and went to Kenya. A group of considerate, aware, compassionate, critical thinkers came home less than a month later. It was obvious that by being physically present in the midst of need, by seeing that there are answers--although not easy ones--these kids were profoundly changed. I would bet that their experience in Africa will continue to affect them for a lifetime. As a result, these kids will find a way to make everyday actions have meaningful impact. Isn't this the true essence of education? Do any of us know what we're capable of until we're knee-deep in new challenges and commitments?

When you sit down to make that list of New Year's resolutions or just a wish list for personal change, don't set out to change the world. Instead, think of how you can incorporate mindfulness, meaningful gestures, compassion, and the talents you already have into any given day of your life. If you keep at it, you'll be in the midst of significant change before you even realize what's happening before you.

Several months into the creation of A Little Something, I was reminded of the story of the starfish on the beach. Perhaps you know it. I believe it is the perfect metaphor for how we found ourselves up to our eyeballs in entrepreneurial benevolence. We weren't setting out to start anything; we were really just trying to help some women we already knew.

The Starfish (an exceptionally abridged version)
An old man walked along the beach early on a summer morning. During the night, the tide had washed in thousands of starfish that were now hopelessly stranded on the sand. The tide was going out and as the sun climbed higher in the sky, the chances of the starfishes' survival was waning.

As the man made his way along the beach, he walked bent over, picking up starfish after starfish and throwing them back into the ocean. A young man walking the opposite way approached him. "Old man," he said, "are you crazy? There are thousands of these things out here. You can't possibly save them all. What difference does it make if you throw a few back into the water?"

The old man didn't break his rhythm. He picked up a starfish, looked at the young man, and tossed the starfish into the waves as he said, "Made a difference to that one."

My advice to you: Start where you are. The opportunity to make a difference is there. Let it find you.

For an inspiring story of a young person making a difference for the women of Darfur, click here. It's two minutes of very worthwhile reading.

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