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Success: I found it!

“I failed my way to success.”  
Thomas Edison

That is certainly what it feels like sometimes. A lot of failures and not too many successes. Starting a new business with your own money is certainly differently from working for someone else. My life has been spent in start-ups. I didn’t always see it that way because I was in it and we didn’t call it that when I started working 30 years ago, they were just new businesses. Now we put a name on it: start-up, and give the whole thing this glamour and possibility of huge growth and an eventual IPO. In reality it is just a new company starting out and who knows where it will go. Even when you think you do or plan for it, it may not go where you think it will.

When I was working for these other start-ups, they weren’t mine. Often and always it was my blood, sweat and tears, well okay my sweat and tears that helped to build them, but it certainly wasn’t my money. Interestingly enough when it wasn’t my money those setbacks that we encountered along the way were never failures. They were just setbacks. There were lots of them and we always found a way out: with the sweat and tears and unfortunately too much yelling, but we got through them and turned them into what most of us call successes. Financial success equal success right?

Now as I find myself doing the same thing but for myself, it seems very different. Instead of having someone on top being the motivator, it’s me. If things are tough, I have to be THE TOUGH to get going. You know what else? It’s work. Hard work. Or it seems that way in my dramatic ol’ head. The reality is; if and when I am capable of stepping back, as I am doing right now, it is not hard work at all. It is a lot of fun. I have surrounded myself with an amazing team who all have the same drive and passion that I do and they want the success as much as I do. We laugh a lot, eat whenever we can, drink way too much coffee, don’t yell, care incredibly a lot (if that is English) about our customers and customer service and being THE BEST at what we do. We are wiling to learn and to learn again until we get it right. I have built relationships with vendors and suppliers who work as hard as I do and want success as much as I do. Not for the money or the fame (fame?) but for the fun of it. The ones that don’t see things like this don’t last long. They aren’t quite sure why I end those relationships when I do, because they just don’t get it.

DREAM BIG. WORK HARD. GET IT DONE. PLAY FAIR.
HAVE FUN. MAKE A DIFFERENCE.

I don’t think Thomas Edison got it either. There are no failures in business or in life. Unless you are so deep in them that you can’t see beyond the end of your nose.

When I left my career in the fashion business I vowed that when I got up every day I would see each day like it was the first day of a new job. Do you remember that feeling? When you are filled with wonder and excitement. Nothing less and often so much more that you just can’t describe it. That is success for me. I see that I found it.

How about you?

Is Empathy Enough?

From a purely external point of view there is no will; and to find will in any phenomenon requires a certain empathy; we observe a man’s actions and place ourselves partly but not wholly in his position; or we act, and place ourselves partly in the position of an outsider. ~ T. S. Elliot 

We hear a lot about empathy these days as if it is the driving force to help others. But is it? The word empathy was only created somewhere around 1905. Does that mean that we didn’t have empathy before that? Was there not the need for it? Is empathy something that became necessary after the Industrial Revolution and the world that developed from it at the turn of the century? Why the need then to create that word?

Empathy is about spontaneously and naturally tuning into the other person’s thoughts and feelings, whatever these might be […]There are two major elements to empathy. The first is the cognitive component: Understanding the others feelings and the ability to take their perspective […] the second element to empathy is the affective component. This is an observer’s appropriate emotional response to another person’s emotional state. ~ Simon Baron-Cohen

I would argue that empathy is not enough or not even natural. Is that our driving force? Are we not out for ourselves first? Must we not be taught and learn how to give and to share? Or have I got it all wrong and that innately we are empathetic? But that is not what I see today. I see entitlement as the buzzword of this generation where it is I first and everyone else second? With all due respect to the late Steve Jobs, where is the empathy in IPhone, IPad, or IPod – it looks like we are all being taught that it is all about me me me.

In the end, it seems that empathy just gets in the way of getting things done. If we didn’t have to put ourselves in someone else’s mental shoes wouldn’t life be a lot easier? Couldn’t we get to our goals much faster without worrying about someone else’s feelings? If we didn’t have empathy before 1905 why do we need it now?

Nobody is against empathy. Nonetheless, it’s insufficient. These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments. In a culture that is inarticulate about moral categories and touchy about giving offense, teaching empathy is a safe way for schools and other institutions to seem virtuous without risking controversy or hurting anybody’s feelings. ~ The Limits of Empathy by David Brooks

Empathy is not enough. We must look beyond to something that we are usually far too afraid to affront, that which is deep within us. It is our fear that we cannot that must be tackled to allow ourselves to help others. Who needs empathy if we would simply learn to put ourselves second instead of always first?

Send in Your Knickers! The Bra Bank Appeal

The mission of The Social Effect is: through the Internet and through Social Media platforms, to help each other connect, learn from one another, and share information to make change in our communities where and when it is needed.
Back in August I came across a Tweet from BraBankAppeal that said:
Determined to make a change for Africa’s females, arm them with bras and new found security need support and advice…
And so I asked BraBankAppeal, what they wanted to do exactly and to see if there was a way to help.
The answer?
At the moment I want awareness of the issue and of my Project so that when the time comes to start collecting underwear people will respond.
So I did a little digging and found out that there was a Facebook Page and what the Bra Bank Appeal is all about.
I also sent a direct message to Beth, the woman behind The Bra Bank Appeal, and we started to exchange emails. In learning what Beth was doing, I wanted to help if I could.
Here is an interview I did with Bethany Staff about her project The Bra Bank Appeal.

What is The Bra Bank Appeal?
The Bra Bank Appeal is a small project I started before I went to Uganda to work in an AIDS orphanage in July. It aims to collect underwear, the new and old, (the decent and the not so decent) to send to countries in the third world (Uganda to start with) to protect their women from sexual abuse.

Why did you start this project and where did you come up with the name?
A few months before going to Uganda I was desperately researching ‘what Uganda needs’ so that I could do my bit, no matter how small to take something with me… I managed to find a website which listed the order of which the containers (full of used goods) that are sent to Africa are emptied: shoes were first (I thought this was fairly obvious) then second was bras… I was intrigued by this and did some further research and found out that women who wear underwear are less likely to be raped. Also, bras sell for roughly three times the cost price (more than any other used item) and so were very much so a luxury item. So I spoke to my amazingly artistic best friend who designed lovely posters, I revamped card-board boxes I was given by local shops in to hot pink ‘Bra Banks’. I got the mums of friends to put posters in their work place and store bras in their car boot and posters and Banks placed all around my college, local schools and the local tourist information office, I had an advert in the local newspaper, I was mentioned on peoples twitter accounts, I walked around local clothing outlets and begged for help and I just watched the message spread. The response was phenomenal!
The name, I knew it would be the bra … something! So I rattled around a few ideas ‘Bras for Uganda’, ‘The Bra Box’ I finally settled on ‘The Bra Bank Appeal’ as I felt it was simple, like the cause, nothing fancy – it’s a necessity that we take so for granted and sexual abuse is a subject close to every women’s heart. So it simply had to succeed! Well, that’s what I had to tell myself during the first few quiet weeks!

Can you tell me a little about yourself?
I am 18 years old and I am studying the International Baccalaureate in Cornwall (UK). I hope next September to go on to study Economics and Spanish at university. My ultimate dream is to forge links between western governments and successful organization and those in South America to try to improve their economies and give advice to businesses. Basically when I was little, I decided I was going to change the world, now I’m just trying to climb that ladder!

It looks like you want to affect change in our world – why?
This question looks complicated but it’s actually very easy! Someone has to, so why not me?

Do you think this is everyone’s responsibility?
I think everyone should try to do their bit, even if saving the world isn’t on the top of your priority list, there are so many things that you can do to help! For example, it astounds me every time I get on public busses how very few people will give up their seat for the elderly or a child anymore! Little things you do can just keep the world ticking over a little more smoothly.

Is changing the world your goal?
In an ideal world – of course! In reality, so I don’t feel like I’m not achieving anything, I’d prefer to say that making a difference is my ultimate goal. Whether that is to one person or to an entire country, it’s still an improvement! If I protected one girl/woman from a sexual attack with the underwear I took with me then I will sleep easy! But there’s always more you can do…

What do you find most challenging about your project?
I’d have to say before I went to Uganda, were the critics. I know every notion of change will always face criticism, but people said that I was naïve (which with my age, I expected), that I had not researched this enough and that by giving the Ugandan women and girls underwear I would encourage prostitution and rape and men would see it as ‘an exciting challenge!’ Needless to say I was outraged and informed the relevant people that I was incredibly and personally offended that someone would accuse me of encouraging the very thing I set out to prevent!
Today it is the day to day running of the social networking, juggling this project around the floods of college work, a family life, a social life and working part-time is a definite challenge!

Tell me about some of the people you have met doing this that have had an effect on you.
Being in Uganda itself was an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life! For me the most memorable people along the way were some of the ladies I gave underwear to, I asked all the orphans of bra wearing age, the ‘mamas’ (a women is in charge of each orphan house on the village) their daughters and the women of the village to come and choose themselves some underwear one afternoon when we covered our ‘Mission House’ with underwear. The women who were unable to attend that afternoon I invited to come any time before then. One girl who was my age came to me excitedly one afternoon, bringing with her, her mother and the mama who had been cooking for us during our stay. I showed them all to my room and opened some of the massive bags of underwear, the mother stripped off down to her knickers and proceeded to try as many bras on as she could, the mama looked down at her chest then grabbed my boobs, thought for a second then said: “Yes, I think I’m your size help me find things that would fit you!” And the girl burst into tears and told me that God had finally had mercy and that may I be blessed. Unforgettable!

What do you do when you are not working on the Bra Bank Appeal?
Generally, college work! I do also work in a wine bar, sing, meet friends, play the guitar, spend time with my family spend time with my boyfriend. To be honest I’m just your average teenager!

Is The Bra Bank Appeal full time?
I wish it could be but I’m strong believer in education and it being the key to everything else I want to do with my life.

What networking do you do to help get more goods?
I’m on Facebook and Twitter, I’m probably a disappointment to my generation but I really don’t know where to start with these things! My heart’s in the right place though!

Did you have a strategy when you started this project?
Ha! This is where I wish I could regurgitate some very complex strategic plan to you… No I really didn’t at all, it was a cause that I believed spoke for itself so just went for it and kept my fingers crossed! (This probably is not recommendable to others thinking of starting something similar!)

What is your greatest fear?
Failure. Failure in anything and everything, when I choose to do something I put so much of myself into it, I really put my heart and soul into everything I do!

What is your mission?
To have done everything in my power, to arm as many woman and girls with underwear, to help to protect them in the never-ending battle against sexual assaults.

What is your goal?
To forge links with organizations that are able to help me to transport bras and knickers across the globe, safely and directly into the hands of those who need them most.

What has been your greatest challenge so far?
Besides carrying home bin bags full of underwear (which are very heavy I’ll have you know) every day? Definitely dealing with the criticism, I remember bursting into tears when I was criticized, it makes you doubt everything you are doing!

You had an idea to help others, what gave you the push to take that first step, what would you suggest to anyone else who had an idea to help others?
Definitely, having a brilliant cause for doing it! If I had an obscure issue that not many people could relate to then it would have crashed and burned. My advice would be to do your research, be able to fire back answers to any questions you could be asked and above all else, have a damn good cause that you are passionate about – and don’t be ashamed to show how important the cause is to you, people will follow a worthy cause!

Do you ever feel like giving up?
Not give up, but not bother to do more… yes everyday! We all feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day and have a seemingly never-ending list of things to do, but then I remember the overwhelming feeling of crying with woman after woman while they pray and thank the lord for the underwear I brought them. I have never been a theist myself but their faith was astonishing. Also I remember playing with a tiny little boy on a woven mat; his mother was kicked out of her home after falling pregnant due to being gang-raped on the way to collecting water for her family. She was 14 years old. So no, I won’t let myself give up.

What do you consider your greatest achievement (s) so far?
Getting over 2000 items of underwear to Uganda without exceeding baggage allowances!

Who are your heroes?
The 14 year old girl I have previously mentioned who had to mature beyond her years to live alone, caring and providing for her little boy. She is a beautiful mother.
Also an elderly woman I met in Uganda who has a paralyzed torso and walks on her toes and knuckles, she cares for her four grandchildren in a small mud hut. All of her children died due to AIDS.

What would you like to be remembered for?
For helping people when they needed help, for making people happy when times are hard, for giving, advising and for being someone that people would turn to.

Where do you see The Bra Bank Appeal in 6 months or a year from now?
I would love for ‘The Bra Bank Appeal’ to be a flourishing charity with underwear being sent all over the world with various organizations who would offer to help. Not making a penny but making a difference.

The philosophy at The Social Effect is it only takes one person to affect the world and that person is each one of us. We must make a cultural shift to see the possibilities we each hold and to learn first to give and to help each other, which in turn will help those around us. Beth and her project illustrates this perfectly. Thank you Beth for all that you are doing to help others.

If you would like to help Beth and her Project I would encourage you to ‘LIKE’ The Bra Bank Appeal Facebook page, click here.
If you are on Twitter, follow the BraBankAppeal, click here.
You may also contact Beth at ourbras@hotmail.co.uk

(All photos are the property of The Bra Bank Appeal)

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

What would you do?
Really?
Would you change your job?
Go back to school?
Go on a trip?
Do something that you have always wanted to do?
What?
Say it.
Better yet do it.
We all spend a lot of time here on the computer.
Surfing.
Reading.
Looking.
Watching.
For what?
Since I started The Social Effect I have done a lot of things I never thought I would do.
Things I thought I was too afraid to do is the real answer.
I have learned that there really is nothing to be afraid of.
Nothing.
It has also taught me that if I let go of my fears then I help others.
Givers gain. Always.
That’s all we have to do.
Is give.
Of ourselves.
Why be afraid of that?

Wanna hug?

Last week for the International Day of Peace I hit the streets with a few other huggers to give away Free Hugs. For those of you who don’t know about Free Hugs, watch the below video, it explains it all.
But how did I end up giving away Free Hugs for the International Day of Peace?
In surfing the pages of Facebook I came across an event for Free Hugs for World Peace, I checked to see if it was being done in Montreal and when I didn’t see anything I said to myself, “Why not?”
It seems I keep doing that these days!
I contacted Vincent Marx who had started this initiative through his site 1 True Spirit dedicated to revealing the 1 TRUE SPIRIT that exists in every one of us, in all life, and in all things and I was off to the races.
Actually, I was off to the art store to get poster paper and felt pens.
First I launched the event on Facebook, and then the night before (yes, I am one of those people that pulled all nighter before the exam), I enlisted the help of my friend Eric to make posters with me. Well he made the posters and I watched him.
Wednesday, September 21st 2011 was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky for the International Day of Peace. I packed up the car with my posters and my meditation pillow – I had organized a MedMob (Meditation FlashMob) from 12 to 12:30 and from 12:30 to 1 PM we would give away Free Hugs.
The location was in the centre of downtown Montreal (Phillips Square across from The Bay for any of you that know the city) and after negotiating with a band that was playing a little too loud for us to meditate, and finding a spot on the pavement between the kiosks and a photography exhibit that had popped up since I had first chosen the location, a group of twenty or so of us of sat in meditation.
After the meditation, I asked for anyone who wanted to join in for the Free Hugs. Anne, Marilyn and Karen were ready to give it a hug, and we hit the streets to offer a little free love to complete strangers during a busy lunchtime in Montreal.
I hope you can see from the video (thanks Carl and Joanne) we had a lot of fun. What you can’t see is what it feels like when someone you don’t know trusts you enough to let them take you in your arms and give them a real hug. What does it feel like? It just feels right. It feels like there is no fear, no hate, no anger, that we really are all brothers and sisters, from one family, and that there is one true spirit that exists in all of us.
We did this for the International Day of Peace, but I will tell you a secret, I kept the signs. You may just see me sometime standing on the corner giving out Free Hugs. If you see me, don’t be shy, come and get one, they are free, and I promise, they don’t hurt.
And by the way, you don’t need a sign to give a hug away. Why not give someone you know a hug today, you may be surprised at how good it feels.
For information on 1 TRUE SPIRIT, click here.

Lest we forget

AIDS is a strange disease isn’t it? It descended on the world and took so many lives back in the eighties. Many of us watched as friends died a horrible and painful death. We did not stand by quietly. Some of us stood up and marched to fight for money for new drugs. Some of us stood up and fought to teach people about prevention and what could be done to stop the spread of AIDS. Some of us stood up to stop the discrimination that went with AIDS. And some of us stood up to help people living with AIDS. Ron Farha was one of those people. With the help of his family and those in the community he started the Farha Foundation to help people less fortunate than he was so that they could live out the end of their lives in as comfortable and humane a way as possible. He did whatever he could and did not stop until he had no choice and physically he could do no more. His short-term dream was to be able to help others; his long-term dream was of course to see the end of this horrible plague.

When Ron died, there were not the drugs and organizations to help people that there are today. AIDS was a death sentence. Period. It pushed people like Ron and his family, and many others to face things they did not want to face. It taught people about life as much as it taught people about death. It separated some families and it brought others closer together. Through the constant battles with governments, pharmaceutical companies, and with the help of the medical community, our society was able to change and grow to not only help the individual living with AIDS, but to build a structure and community of organizations that now deal with prevention and long term care. Ron’s dream to help has in many ways come true, but it does not mean we can stop the work that he started.

The war of AIDS is not over. If anything, the war is getting worse. Lest we forget is a phrase that comes from a war where hundreds of thousands died. Today we are fighting a different war, a war that has claimed over 20 million souls since 1981. Lest we forget why Ron started the Farha Foundation. Lest we forget that people are still becoming HIV+ every day. Lest we forget that this war is not over. If anything, the battlefield has only grown larger as the disease has spread across the world. Most important of all, lest we forget that we can make a difference.
Today, Sunday, September 18, 2011 is ÇA MARCHE, the AIDS walk in Montreal and it starts in a few hours in Parc Emlie-Gamelin. For any of you who knew Ron, I ask you to stop for a minute, just one minute at 10:30 when the walk starts and there is a moment of silence and remember him and all the others that have fought for this cause and for all those that have died from this disease. For any of you like me, who didn’t know Ron, take that same minute to be thankful for a man who has helped so many in our community, and again, remember those we have lost.

Then, let us all take another minute to take a step to do something in this fight against AIDS, for it is a fight that we have yet to win. Talk about this disease openly and honestly, protect yourselves always, and let Ron by your inspiration, as he has been mine, and do something to prevent this preventable disease. It is not too late to come and walk with us today.
For more information on the Foundation that Ron created or to make a donation, click here: Farha Foundation

Why me?

We did it Carl and I. We went out and took the photos for US versus THEM Friday morning for our group action in the INSIDE OUT Project.
We met for breakfast and stayed to have a few more cups of coffee so we didn’t have to leave. Didn’t have to start what we set out to do: take photos of the homeless.
But we did it. And it wasn’t photos of the homeless in the end. It was just photos of people. At least that was what we realized after we got going. We started with the owner of the diner where we had breakfast. She was ready to be part of this project. It made it easier. It let Carl figure out how he wanted to take the shots. And we got in the car and we headed out.

THERE’S ONE!

As we drove down Ste. Catherine street in Montreal we were on the look out for homeless people.
“He looks like one!”
“Where?”
“There – in front of the grocery store!”
We parked and got out. I carried the camera bag with the extra batteries and lenses. Something to hold, make me feel part of the experience. But I was the talker and I had to get my elevator speech down for what I was going to say.
By the time we got to the corner where I had seen the guy, he was gone. Carl took a few shots of me.
A girl walked by.
“Excuse me….we are taking photos for a project called INSIDE OUT. Have you heard of it? No? Well it was started by this guy in Paris and…..well, we are taking photos to show people that there is no difference between us and the homeless and I wondered if we could take your photo?”
“I am not homeless.”
“I know but….sure, sure….I understand. Thanks anyway.”

WHY NOT?

We get back in the car and kept going. We saw more homeless people and we parked.
I don’t have my words. I don’t understand what this is all about I realize. Not really. I thought I did, but I don’t.
We see a young guy sitting on the sidewalk with his dog.
“Hey bud, what’s up?” I say as I crouch down next to him and stick out my hand. My name is Simon, this is Carl.”
“Sebastien,” he says with a smile.
“We are taking photos of people for a project called INSIDE OUT. It was started by this guy in Paris name JR. We are going to take photos, send them off to them. They will blow them up into black and white photos that we can put up outside somewhere. They may end up on the net, in my blog, you cool with that? Can we take your photo? Just your face.”
We had the release forms in our bag.
“Sure man. Why not?”

RIGHT HERE RIGHT NOW

And so we started. We walked west on Ste. Catherine and we asked people to take their photos. I got my speech down.
“Hey bud, my name is Simon, this is Carl. We are taking photos, photos of all kinds of people here in Montreal between 9:30 and 12. The name of the project is INSIDE OUT, started in Paris by a guy named JR. We want to take a photo of your face, just your face. We will send all the photos to INSIDE OUT and they will send us back big posters that we will put up somewhere for a few days. We don’t know where yet. The idea behind this is that we are all the same. Our project is called US versus THEM, comment vois-tu le monde? How do you see the world? It’s all about our attitude. Can we take your photo?”
The responses were different and the same. The people living on the street said, “Sure, no problem. Cool idea. “ They heard what we were saying. They listened. They were right there with us. Present.
Those walking down the street were afraid, distrustful: “If I knew you maybe I would.”
Then we got lucky and a few people did say yes.
Half of the photos we took are of people that live on the street. Half are of people that don’t. If you notice, I am not writing “homeless” anymore. These people aren’t homeless; they are just people. Attitude matters for me too I learned.
We continued on. We were moved by what we saw in these people’s eyes and we were excited that we were doing what we had set out to do. We were touched by all those that said yes, we had to be.

PANIC IN EMILIE-GAMELIN PARK

Then we continued east to Emilie-Gamelin park and the world changed.
We parked the car and asked the first guy sitting on the steps of the bus station, “Hey bud….”
We looked into his eyes and the ‘no’ did not surprise us. The pain we saw only hurt us.
We crossed the street to the park and that excitement changed back to fear and then panic as we looked across the grass and saw groups of twos and threes with their sleeping bags. I took a deep breath and said, “Let’s go, let’s do it.”
We went up to the first two guys and I explained what we were doing. “I think I have seen you around,” Neuron said to me. That was his name he said: Neuron. I watched as he tried to tie a scarf around his wrist, his friend looking on to see what we were all about. “Can we take your photo?”
“Why me?”
I could only tell him the truth, “You were the first one in the park.”
Neuron was not in great shape. Neither was his friend. Neither were any of the people living in that park. Neuron didn’t say yes, he couldn’t have his photo out there like that. We kept going.
Carl and I walked around the park and we didn’t say too much to each other. We just walked and took it all in and we found it hard to breathe.
“I don’t think we can do this here,” I said.

INSIDE OUT

Why was this place different?
Was it because there were so many people all living here together? I think “hurting” together would be a better way of putting it.
We stopped in front of an old man and Carl started talking to him.
“How is your day going?”
I have to stop here. I had to stop there too. I had sat down next to Chamberland on the bench and reached out to shake his hand.
“Not too good,” he said.
We didn’t explain what we were doing at first, about the project, about INSIDE OUT. It didn’t matter. Not to him. At that point I don’t think either of us thought this project really mattered to anyone.
I said, “Can we take your photo?”
“Sure, no problem.”
Carl took his photo and I turned away and looked up at the sky. If you are ever in a situation where you are going to cry, raise your eyes up to the sky and it helps to stop the tears.
I went back and gave him a couple of bucks. He hadn’t asked for it. He thanked me and smiled. Not one of the people we took a photo of asked for money. Not once.
We continued to walk through the park. The air was gone in the park for us. We walked by a series of benches. Each one filled with groups of people. Some of them were talking, some of them were just sitting. The last guy lying there, asleep, was wet from pissing himself.
“I can’t do this anymore.”
“Me neither.”
We got back in the car.
We didn’t say much on the ride back.
We drove back to Carl’s office to download the photos and I could only say to myself, “Why me?”

For more information on the INSIDE OUT Project, click here.
If you would like to know when US versus THEM will be up in Montreal, please sign up for The Social Effect Newsletter: Sign up.

Walk with me

I am really tired of writing this blog post. I have been writing one now at this time of year since 1998. Then it wasn’t a blog, it was a letter to my friends. Then it was a fax. Then it was an e-mail. Now, for the last few years it has been a blog.
It always says the same thing:
1. Come walk with me in the AIDS walk
2. Please donate to help the Farha Foundation
3. If you have your own charity you support, then donate to them.
4. Protect yourself: HIV can happen to you.

There are over 33 million people that live with HIV throughout the world
This is not an epidemic this is a pandemic. This is not something we can ignore, put aside, or try to hide from. It is here and it is real and there is no cure. But it is preventable. We must talk about it; we must treat it like any other disease. We must forget the moral implications that surround it and we must reach out to those who have it and embrace them as much as we must ensure that everyone else knows the realities of HIV and AIDS.

Every minute a child dies from AIDS somewhere in the world
This disease is everywhere. We just don’t see it, especially in developed nations. With the stigma attached to this disease, everyone makes sure to keep it well hidden. Or most everyone. Thankfully there are people that speak up. Ron Farha was one of those people. He started the Farha Foundation. But he is only one man in one city. There are many like him all over the world who found the courage and did the same thing. If there hadn’t been men and women like Ron, we would not have the resources that we have today to help those living with HIV.


[Carl Ruscica and I made this video last year for MASKARADE 2011]

There are medications for HIV.
What does that mean to someone who has to take those pills?
What does it really mean?

I work in a clinic that practices aesthetic medicine. I don’t want to tell you how many patients we see each week coming in for treatments so that those around them won’t know that they have HIV because of the side effects from some of the drugs they take.
On Friday night I had dinner with a friend, someone that has had HIV for years and when I went to give him a hug, he said, “Not too hard.” He lives in constant pain. Chronic pain. Sure the drugs are keeping him alive but what most of us don’t understand at what cost. When I say, most of us, I should be saying: anyone out there that is still having unprotected sex and thinks that there are medications to take if you get HIV. There are, but do you want to take them everyday for the rest of your life with all of the side effects that they can have?

It doesn’t seem to matter what we do, people keep getting HIV
I have marched in the streets, and talked on the radio and done interviews in newspapers and written more letters than I care to think about. And so have many of you. And we have to keep doing it. We have to keep doing what we have been doing and finding new ways to get the message out.
So here I go again. On Sunday, September 18th, please walk with me in Ça Marche. If you would like to join our team, please click here.
If you would like to sponsor me, please click here.
If you would like to find out more about the Farha Foundation, please click here.

There but for the grace of God go I

Last Wednesday I did something that I have wanted to do for a long time, I spent the day volunteering at Dans la rue.
What is Dans la rue?
It is an organization that helps street kids. It provides food, shelter, support and guidance when they need it most, providing a consistent source of support and giving youths the confidence to move forward and make positive changes in their lives.
Why have I wanted to do this for so long?
Because I have always felt: There but for the grace of God go I.
What?
No, thankfully with the parents, family and friends that I have I don’t think that I could ever have ended up on the street, but I have learned through being on the board at l’Anonyme a few years ago and the habit I have of stopping and talking with street people, that there are many reasons that people end up on the street and some of them are not at all what you would think.

Get a job!

Homelessness encompasses a range of economic and social factors that have negative impact upon health and well-being. Such factors include poverty, lack of affordable housing, lack of health care supports and social supports — all of which may be understood as problems of social inequality and social exclusion.  The chronic nature of these problems is perpetuated by ideological stances that are significantly different at the community, provincial and national levels.  While many communities across the country are working to develop and maintain homelessness initiatives, these initiatives are difficult to sustain in the absence of adequate awareness and funding. Dealing with homelessness necessitates collective action, and truly effective collective action demands a pragmatic shift in how homelessness is viewed. With estimates between 150,000 to as many as 300,000 Canadians living on the streets, a movement beyond ideological fixations on “self-reliance” is necessary.  It requires an emphasis on equality and inclusivity in the social contract, in civil society, and in the community. (Via Intraspec.ca)

Holding Back the Tears

I arrived at the Dans la rue facility in the east end of Montreal and was given the tour and the history of the place before I was put to work. Sue Medleg, the Development Co-ordinator, told me the story of how Father Emmett Johns, “Pops” – as he is known, started it all back in 1988. She walked me through the place and watched as I did all that I could to hold back the tears as I heard the stories of what they do and what kids do who end up on the street. There is nothing that I did not know or had not heard before, but it doesn’t seem to matter how often I hear these stories that it hurts, it makes me angry, and it makes me sad, and it reminds that that I can still feel.

Hotdog anyone?

After getting the walk through and hearing about the front-line services, I was put to work in the basement. My job was to help get ready a few thousand hotdogs that would get handed out to kids on the street between the ages of 12 and 25 (yes, I said 12) over the next week on The Van. At first it was just me, Jordan and Chris and then Mike that work there. Then, as part of how the program works, kids would come down to help out. We put on our rubber gloves and we took hotdogs and put them in buns, and put them in wrappers and then packed plastic boxes that then got stored in the fridge to be used over the next five nights when The Van went out staffed with volunteers to give out hotdogs, hot chocolate and the services Dans la rue has to help kids living on the streets.
I am not sure that I will ever eat another hotdog. I am not sure that the kids that depend on them each night really want to either.

I can’t stand the pain

For me it was just a few hours. I got pretty good at putting the hotdogs in the buns, into the wrappers and then packing the boxes. They do this every Wednesday to get ready for the week. Often there are volunteers that come in from different companies as part of initiatives to give back to the community. I was lucky as there was no group and so it was just me and the guys that work there and the kids. We talked. We sang along to the words in the music playing in the background. We talked about dogs and tattoos. They asked me if I had a tattoo and I laughed and said, “No, I couldn’t stand the pain.” They laughed with me and told me it wasn’t so bad. They talked and I listened.  I fit right in standing there in my shorts and t-shirt except when it was all over I was going to get in my car and go home. For the people that work there they deal with this day in and day out. For the kids that live on the street, this is part of their life. I think it was at that point that I started to go a little numb.
At noon we took a break for lunch. We went upstairs to the cafeteria and lined up and had a burger and a baked potato. All the staff and the kids who are doing some work there get to eat first. Then they open the doors and the kids from the street come in through the side door and they can get a hot meal. I sat and talked with the staff and watched as the kids came in. They were dirty and tattooed and pierced and hungry. They lined up and they got their food. They sat with their friends and they were polite and respectful of those around them and they ate. I watched as a girl took her baked potato, wrapped it up and put it in her pocket for later. I got a little number.

How long is long when you are living on the street?

We sat and we talked, Chris, Jordan, and Mike. I asked a lot of questions. I asked what was the hardest thing they did. The answer was always a version of, “can’t give enough or can’t help enough.” I heard a lot of caring and a lot of compassion in a place where it must be easy to get hard, to put the walls up to protect yourself.
Then I remembered a kid I had met a few years back one night when I was out on the bus with l’Anonyme. It was a Sunday night about 3 AM and this kid had got on the bus and he was a mess. He had piercing blue eyes that I remember to this day, and dreads, blond dreads. He was upset because his best friend had just died of a drug overdoes. What shocked me was not that his friend had died, but that this kid had a friend that he was so close to and he was so upset about. I didn’t think that people that lived on the streets really had friends. I realized, that I didn’t think that people on the streets were people.
I asked if anyone knew him, I still remembered his name. “It depends who’s asking,” a young woman said who had just sat down beside me. I explained who I was and why I was there. “Yes, he’s still around, he works sometimes in the garden project that I look after. He is doing okay.” I had met him back in 2006 and he is still on the street. That is a long time to still be on the streets.

Don’t you see it?

I have an innocent belief that deep down inside each of us there is a good person full of love. I believe that with all my heart and you will never convince me to think otherwise. What I was reminded of in seeing these kids and in listening to the staff that work at Dans la rue is that for many of these kids, it is pretty hard to see good. Their lives have taken so many twists and turns that it is hard to believe that there is good in anything or anyone. What hit me the hardest is that they very often cannot see that good exists in themselves.

Imagine that for whatever reason, and there are so many, that you are a kid on the street. It may start with a feeling of freedom those first few days, freedom from the situation you were living in, until the money runs out. Until you aren’t able to eat when you are hungry, or have a place to sleep and then you resort to things you never thought you would do. Things that no child should ever have to do. But you do them. And then the good is gone. And it is very hard to get it back. Trust becomes a word you don’t know the meaning of. You become someone you don’t know anymore. You have to hide that person that you used to know. The person that had a chance. That knew deep down inside that there was good, in yourself and in those around you. But that is gone now.

Back to work

We went back down after lunch and we finished getting all the hotdogs ready. There were a few more kids that came down to help. We cleaned up and my day as a volunteer was over. I was going to go home. The people that worked there were going to continue on and then go back tomorrow. And next Wednesday they would be packing hot dogs with someone else. The kids were going to go back on the streets for now. Or some of them that had started to get involved in the different programs of music, or art, or the school that Dans la rue has, would be back and start to build a future. That is what Dans la rue does, it gives any kid who wants it, a chance again, and a real chance.

Hope

As I was leaving I got a tour of The Van and saw where all those hotdogs will get passed out. I saw where the kids sit and talk and get warm in the winter and have a hot chocolate. I saw the window at the back of The Van where the street people over 25 get served because Pops knows that you can’t refuse anyone in need. Or at least he can’t. And perhaps that is why this organization works, and these kids trust it and the people that work there. I know I certainly do.
I walked back to my car now completely numb with no real idea of how to deal with what I had just seen. Except then I remembered the hope that was there everywhere I turned. It was there if you wanted to see it, to take it, to have it. And there were people willing to help you see it if you couldn’t.

If you would like more info on Dans la rue, click here.
There are many ways to give to Dans la rue, to find out more, click here.

Take Action and Inspire Change

Take Action! Inspire Change is the theme this year of the 2nd annual Nelson Mandela International Day. This Day is to honour Mr. Mandela and celebrate his achievements towards a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic South Africa, his dedication to the service of humanity in the fields of conflict resolution, race relations, promotion and protection of human rights, reconciliation, gender equality and the rights of children and other vulnerable groups, as well as the upliftment of poor and underdeveloped communities. In November 2009 the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed July 18th as “Nelson Mandela International Day” to be celebrated each year. It is the first time that the UN has dedicated an International Day to an individual.

It is only 67 minutes out of your whole life

Now here is what we all are being asked to do to celebrate: perform 67 minutes of public service – one minute for every year of the South African leader’s own service to humanity.
They are not asking a lot, or are they? I find it interesting that we need to be asked to perform public service as if it is not something that we would think about it on our own. I am thinking I better put it in my to-do list to make sure that I don’t forget, and that I allow for the whole 67 minutes. Is this not something that I should be doing each day? That is too much time I hear some of you say? Is it?
Forget about how much time it is, what exactly does it mean, perform public service. When I read this I sat there dumbfounded. What could I do this Monday for 67 minutes to help others? I thought about my day and all that I had already planned and thought: “It is just symbolic, I don’t really have to do 67 minutes of service. I do a lot all the time.” Do I? Do I do enough?

What is enough?

I think of Mr. Mandela and wonder if he ever thought: “I have done enough.” He is human after all. If he thought that way I am wondering if he would have accomplished all he did in the fight for freedom, justice and democracy.
After I decided I was going to fit in those 67 minutes I couldn’t figure out what I would do. I sat there staring at the screen thinking, I could not come up with one thing to do,
“What can I do to perform service? I don’t have a project going on, there is no event coming up that I am involved with right now?”
Here I am, someone that truly does believe that if each of us does our part we can affect change in our world, and to me ‘our world’ is what is around us, the same way I am sure Mr. Mandela was thinking of ‘his world’ as he fought for human rights.

67 Ways to Change Our World

Thankfully these days we don’t need to look very far for answers to anything and the answer to how I could spend those 67 minutes found me in a blog post. I don’t think I could come up with a better list than these 67 suggestions from Natalie Govender in her blog on HUDDLEMIND: 67 Ways To Change Our World (posted on July 15th, 2011).

Here is what I am going to do

I am going to make Monday not about ME. I am going to do all those things that I say I am going to do for others that day, those small things, those things that I don’t think matter, that matter to those I do them for. Then I am going to move forward on two projects that I have started – one on meditation and one for the homeless.

What are you going to do to celebrate?

Is it going to be doing the dishes or taking out the garbage?
Is it calling that friend who is going through a rough time and you just don’t want to hear about it?
Is it finally calling that charity to offer to volunteer.
Is it making a donation?
Is it making a conscious decision to speak up for something you believe in?
Is it simply remembering: that giving is doing service and we are able to do that in each of our daily actions no matter how big or small those actions may be.
 Now, what I would love to hear is what YOU are going to do on Monday, July 18th to celebrate Nelson Mandela International Day. I have made the commitment, now it is your turn. There is a comment box down below. Put it in writing. Make it real. And remind yourself as I am reminding myself; we could make this commitment every single day.

For more information on Nelson Mandela International Day, click here
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