2014 Athena Awards Speech May 22, 2014

DSCN7450If I were to ask you to name some philanthropists, who would you think of?

Raise your hands for Bill and Melinda Gates? Warren Buffet maybe? Oprah??? She gave $40 million in 2010. Did you know that Taylor Swift was actually the most generous celebrity donor in 2013?

Would you call out your name? Probably not, and yet you are I know you are.

Philanthropy simply means the love of humanity/of people.

In America, we have a tendency to express our philanthropy through our gifts of time talent and treasure. And those are great gifts. The world needs those gifts from us.

And yet philanthropy is so much more because it is about our hearts – about LOVE; that is really what we are celebrating today – those who give just a little bit more of themselves than they thought they could. We’re celebrating small business owners who work hard and give back to their community; we’re celebrating the incredible nominees for the 2014 Athena Award for leadership. And we are celebrating the vision that Vanessa  Mintz had to acknowledge and honor those who give just a little bit more of their hearts.

In all the places I have visited and lived, I have discovered two universal truths that make the world one boundary-less community; underneath the images we like to project, beyond our socioeconomic status, our

genders, our races, our religions or faiths, our work     or education levels – under all those layers of differences and distinctions, every human yearns to be loved just as they are.  

Not thinner, not richer, not smarter….just as we are. We yearn to be loved.

And the other truth is that each of us wants our life to matter. We want to connect with a power greater than ourselves– to be part of a force for good greater than ourselves. I know I do.

I’m going to talk a little about my story ….and it does include sex drugs and rock and roll. And I am going to talk about god and money and politics and all sorts of things our mothers have told us polite people don’t talk about in polite company.

Elizabeth Taylor is quoted as saying “I don’t entirely approve of some of the things I have done, or am, or have been. But I’m me. God knows, I’m me.”  So take what you like and leave the rest

Volunteering saved my life.

I barely made it through grade school and middle school and high school. I wasn’t stupid, but my home life was so violent, I couldn’t seem to do anything right. I made it through school because I volunteered.

Trick or Treat for UNICEF, cleaning up the neighborhood for ECO day, prepping food at soup kitchens, being a candy striper any and every opportunity I was given, I took. Gratefully. Because when I volunteered, I felt valuable– just for being me.

It was the encouragement I received as a volunteer that kept me going when I wanted to die. Because I did want to die. My mother was an alcoholic – and it was my job, by age 5, to take her from the dinner table – she’d be sloppy drunk – and put her to bed, kiss her goodnight and tell her I loved her. My father was such an angry man – his response to what he couldn’t control and make better was violence – grabbing me, shoving me into walls, throwing a hatchett at me, slamming books on my head…but by God we needed to look good on the outside and on the Christmas card.

Every night after saying my prayers for each member of my family,  I would add the ps prayer, asking God to kill me or kill my parents.  I didn’t care which. I just couldn’t stand living in such hopeless desperation, knowing that each day would start with my recommitment to being better and doing better, and ending in failure to meet my parents’ unachievable expectations,.

By age 6 I dealt with my desperation pause by overeating –to numb the pain I felt. When I was 13 I started stealing from my parents’ well-stocked liquor cabinet. At 14, the summer of love and Woodstock, I started smoking cigarettes and got addicted to nicotine, and I ‘discovered’ boys when I went to college. I know what it is like to look for love in all the wrong places –to feel lonely and not good enough and lost and drunk and messy and ugly and disgusting to myself, much less to others.

I am not afraid to be with other women who feel desperate and desperately lonely and messy and unwanted.  But because people outside my home were generous and kind to me, I learned about the power of love and forgiveness.

Today I am sober and no longer addicted to nicotine. I sat at my mother’s bedside when she was dying and held her hand so she wouldn’t die alone which was a huge fear of hers.

 My sister died alone of alcohol before the cigarettes three year later. And I was with my dad in the nursing home when he died.

It was the unconditional love from others that gave me the hope and the strength to love my parents more than they ever could love themselves.

So God sends me places to love on people who are told they aren’t wanted or aren’t good enough or who don’t feel worthy of love. And I bring hope in the form of bubbles and nail polish and hugging and hand holding…. That’s what I do best.

This is Soweto, the southwest area township of Johannesburg in South Africa. How would you like to raise your children in a tin roofed shack with an earthen floor, not water, no electricity, no money, no food, no transportation, no medical care……nothing. But other people just as desperately poor as you are?

It was in South Africa I met a woman named Caroline. She was HIV positive and she and her two babies had AIDS. South Africa still denied that AIDS was and is a pandemic in that country, so treatments weren’t available for Caroline, who was 19. Her two adorable, roly poly babies were living in an orphanage that in reality was a children’s hospice.

The organization didn’t have enough money, enough regular power to maintain medications, enough staff, and enough people who cared about these babies to fund treatment.

Caroline made bead pins with the red AIDS ribbon on them and sold them to visitors to the orphanage. I bought all she had and as I was leaving, she grabbed my hand and said, “Miss Annie, Miss annie, you must tell my story. I am not a bad woman. I did what I did to put food in my babies. Sometimes a man would give us a roof over our heads. Please tell everyone I am not a bad woman.”

Caroline sold her body for money, for food for her children, for a few nights in a safer place. She was not a bad woman. She was a woman who loved her children and had no other source of income for her family.

In Haiti, I met women who had never been to school. They were uneducated but not stupid.

These Haitian moms came to the medical clinic with their children so that they could get vitamins, anti-worming medicine and a semi-annual check up from the white doctors. I was so surprised and really touched that these moms dressed their children up in their Sunday best clothes. Frilly pull up pants over the diapers, a golf shirt on their son. It was so sweet to see how important these visits were for these mums just trying to do their best for their sick, malnourished, worm infested children with bloated bellies.

So I decided to take a break and put my head out the window of the yurt … I saw the mothers taking the fancy outfits off of one child, and putting them on the next child who would get in line to see the doctor. This is what women do for their children, for their community, to make the world a better place – a healthier place for their children. Those women have not given up hope for a better life for their children; they may not see how it is going to happen, but they haven’t given up hope Yet.

In India, the caste system was outlawed in 1949,  just like Jim Crow laws were outlawed in the south in 1965.

But that doesn’t mean that life has actually changed. 

There were/are over 4 million permutations and layers of castes which keep people in their place; these beautiful women are untouchables. Which means their shadow is not supposed to fall on someone of a higher caste.

So here I am, breaking about a million laws, sitting on the floor with these women learning sewing. You can see they are trying to sit lower than I am.  And when I gave a few hundred dollars to these women so they could start a micro-enterprise making disposable plates out of leaves that they could sell in the market, I broke another million laws – and so did they. Because economic freedom means these women can pay to send their daughters to school – not just their sons.

And, as we’ve learned from the fantastic book and documentary Half the Sky and the documentary It’s a Girl, women who send their daughters to school require the girls to come home and teach their younger siblings what they are learning so everyone in the family gets educated.

And when everyone in the family gets educated, the girls marry later in life – maybe 17 instead of 13, but still later, which means they have fewer children  which means they can distribute more food to their fewer children which means better nourished children who can learn better and retain more knowledge and perform better at school and get better grades and then get better jobs rather than just marry.

Schools cost money as “public” schools do throughout most of the world. And most families in the world cannot afford to send their children to school because school means, uniforms, shoes, a certain level of personal cleanliness, books, paper, pencils—all of which cost something. And yet educating women and girls is the way out of poverty.

I’ve been working in India since 2006 to get children out of poverty and into schools. It started with a 10 year old girl whose father had just died and her neighbor from down the road came to her mother’s house and asked to buy her for about $4. And the mother was about to say yes – because that $4 would feed her family for a month. That is the economic reality of today’s slave trade;

The United Nations estimates that roughly 30 million individuals are currently caught in the slave trade industry, approximately 70 percent of whom are women and girls.

Modern-day slavery is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. After drug dealing, –the trafficking of humans is tied with arms dealing as the second-largest criminal industry in the world.

Women are being sold in marriage – to men who already have many “wives” and who sell them onto traffickers who turn them into prostitutes, who grind them down to the point where they would much rather die than live….. Who take away all their hope.

Sometimes we are given A CHOICE – an opportunity –to save another person.  And we can no longer close our eyes, or the eyes of our heart or the eyes of our soul to what is happening to others whom we have the power to help.

We know we want to help because our soul yearns to matter.

Even if we are scared.  Even if we feel we won’t be good enough.

Well I have been given this opportunity; I didn’t go through the hell I went through to be stuck in fear helplessness and hopelessness.

And I am ending human trafficking.

One life at a time.

I have partnered with the Church of North India through the Episcopal Church in Western North Carolina, and my friends in India are building a shelter for women and girls – who are being trafficked.

For $400 we can ensure the safety for one woman for an entire year so she will receive rest, food, medical treatment, more food and solace.

But that is just the first step out of trafficking. The second step is helping them create their own economic freedom.

I couldn’t figure out how to find them employment so they can earn a living for themselves and find a place to live without being dependent on a male for financial support.

And on December 20th last year, a cherished friend of mine, Lisa Clark, a local small business owner, called out of the blue and told me about her new business making these fabulous hearth scarves; usable art for our homes.

Well, that was the economic answer I was looking for: Lisa and her team are going to India with me in September and we are going to start a sewing center where vulnerable women can learn to make the India line of Hearth Scarves in order to earn money and to be financially independent. The Artful Team’s reason for being: Our mission is to embody the philosophy of combining art & beauty with the purpose of helping women overcome extraordinary circumstances of sex trafficking, abuse and socioeconomic hardships. We believe through finding your own beauty, love and light, you are empowered to transform the world.

By choosing a Hearth Scarf (www.theartfulpear.com) you are creating a job, building a home and a life for a woman who would have no other avenue of resources. You are recognizing and implementing beauty in your own home and engaging the beautiful act of loving assistance to another—in other words – you get to be a philanthropist!

And India is just the beginning – we think Thailand might be next and Mexico, Guatemala and who knows where – wherever there are vulnerable women being abused, trafficked and sold. 100% of the profits go to protecting and supporting women and children.
Today sponsor a trafficked woman so she can have a safe place to heal and live; buy two hearth scarves; one for yourself and one for a friend – I’ll even pay the postage today so you just address the envelope and put a note on the card and I’ll mail it. Buy 10!

Sign up on a clip board for updates and join the e-revolution of Amazing women working in the World and share your stories of hope; if you are a person who prays, please pray for the vulnerable people in the world.

My sweet sisters and brothers, the time has come for us to stand together for good and against the silent acceptance of what is wrong.

While I spoke, 270 children in the world died of completely preventable diseases like hunger, malnutrition, worms, polio, and tuberculosis…….Tonight, 1 out of 5 children in Henderson County will go to bed worried about where their next meal is coming from.

Fear of food scarcity gets even worse in the summer when school isn’t open to serve two dependable meals a day.  300 teenagers will not be able to sleep at home because home is not safe or because their behavior is such that they are not welcome at home. 1 out of 7 county residents will be forced to choose whether to buy food or gas for transportation or medication because they can’t afford to buy all three.

Suffering knows no boundaries – and thank God neither does love.

Let your life speak volumes for what you believe in.

Be courageous. Be courageous and take action.

Take my hand if you are scared- it will diminish my fear.

Together we will work for great – not just good.  You and I have the power to change the world, one life at a time, one day at a time, one prayer at a time, one dollar at a time.

Don’t think it to death or worry it to death —-but commit yourself to stand for something or someone. That’s what philanthropy is.

Be brave. Be bold. Be hope for someone today.

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