Recently Jeff and I went to see the movie Lion, about a young boy in a village in India who is separated from his family when he accidently gets on a train bound for a distant city. It’s a wonderful, triumphant film. When you see it (you should most definitely see it), be sure to have plenty of Kleenex on hand.

At the end of the film, a caption onscreen informs us that more than 80,000 children go missing each year in India. Wait—80,000 a year? This elicited the hoped-for response: I immediately began wondering what could be done about it. But instead of donating to the charity recommended by the movie, I started thinking about a young woman I’d once met who was making a difference in the lives of street children in Delhi.

Jessie Leigh Hodges grew up on the Outer Banks not far from us. When we met one day for lunch in 2011 she was in her late 20s, with long, dark hair. She wore a leather jacket with wide lapels, feather earrings, and a short skirt with knee socks and loafers. The effect was fashionable and a bit quirky.

In 2006 Jessie and her brother had spent four weeks volunteering with street children in India and Thailand, through an organization that places foreign travelers with service agencies. Jessie came home from the experience unsatisfied. She didn’t feel she’d contributed much of substance. So she went back to Delhi for six months to volunteer for the Salaam Baalak Trust, an organization that works intensively with street children. On her first trip she and her brother had befriended a 16-year-old street boy named Vijay, and when she returned he embraced her as his sister. “That was in no way a casual thing,” she said.  Vijay helped her find a place to live and showed her around the city.

Even this second prolonged stint wasn’t enough for her. She returned to the States briefly and went back to volunteer with Salaam Baalak for another six months, each time learning as much Hindi as she could.

“I’ve always been interested in people living on the margins of society, whatever that means,” she said. “Delhi grabbed me, because it’s so crazy. You can’t hide there. It’s a huge city teeming, with colors, smells, noises.”

The Salaam Baalak Trust’s approach was remarkably casual, and no one seemed surprised when she showed up again and again unannounced. Finally she convinced the trust to hire her as a volunteer coordinator.

From Jessie’s description of Delhi, it’s easy to see how a child could go missing. “The streets are a milieu. Everyone’s pressed together without a single space between them. Vijay got separated from his parents near the main railway station and was never found. His brother too.” She looked thoughtful for a moment. “Of course, it’s quite possible that their parents abandoned them. It happens. And there’s no system in the country for finding lost kids.” This is astounding, given that Delhi has 400,000 homeless children. Some of those have been intentionally sent to the city alone from outlying villages.

What do those kids most need? Food, certainly, and schooling, if you can lure them inside long enough and hold their interest. But Jessie found that the trust’s volunteers were given little instruction on how to engage the children. “The kids are free to come and go, so you want to do things that will make them stick around.” She helped develop a curriculum for classes—there was much coloring and painting involved, which the younger children loved—and a protocol for matching volunteers with tasks suited to their talents. Under this more organized system, the classes began to cover more complex material, even teaching some computer skills.

Most of all, though, Jessie focused on developing relationships with the street kids. Life on the street can be boring and largely directionless. Giving them some stimulation, and hope, may be life-altering—over the long haul. Substantial change does not come quickly. “Mostly I felt like I was just making friends with them. I wasn’t trying to make a difference every single day.” Jessie shrugged. “I was just doing what I did—learning about their lives. They taught me heaps, and I did the same with them.”

By the time we met she was working with another nonprofit, the Kid Powered Media Project, which gives street children the chance to write, act in, and direct short, Bollywood-style movies and other media productions. The movies were shown in slums—500 kids came to one—and are still posted online. Some of the films are about social issues like environmental problems or treating women fairly, while others incorporate important messages—wash your hands after using the bathroom and before eating. All are woven into simple but entertaining plots. The movies gave the children a chance to do something that, perhaps for the first time in their lives, made them feel important and valued.

   One of the movies written, directed, and acted by street kids.

   One of the movies written, directed, and acted by street kids.

I loved talking with Jessie, because her experiences reinforced everything I’ve learned about effectively helping others: Work to bring good ideas to life, but also be flexible and fluid. Share both the work and the credit with the people you’re trying to help. Also, be yourself.  Share yourself.  You can learn as much from them as they learn from you.

Still living in Delhi and now married, Jessie is taking a break from working with street kids to care for her 18-month-old son. She has another child on the way and plans to continue living in the city, immersing herself in the lives of the people she meets there.

I will always remember her as someone who decided she wanted to make a difference, and then dedicated herself to doing so. I hope I’ll find ways to sink myself into service as she has, at least in fits and starts.

Jessie is a skilled photographer and often chronicles street life in Delhi on her blog, Wander and Wonder, which you can find here:

If you’d like to see some of the children Jessie’s worked with, here’s a link to one of the Kid Powered Media films, Mad About Khan. Take a look—It’s really fun.

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AuthorJan DeBlieu

‘Twas the night after Christmas, and all through the house . . .

Actually, there was no house—which was the entire point.

Jeff and I had volunteered to spend the evening of December 26 staffing an Outer Banks homeless shelter, hosted this week by our church. We’d felt a little unmoored ourselves this Christmas, with all our parents gone now and no family members close by. Fortunately, some dear friends took us in for Christmas day, and we had a grand time.

But what if we’d had no house and nowhere at all to go? The least we could do, we figured, was to take a shift helping to give sanctuary to folks for whom this is reality. As the evening approached I started thinking: There are plenty of online blogs about sports and political events. What if I were to keep a loose record of what was said at the homeless shelter one night? Folks should know what it’s like, I thought. Not scary, not at all. Sometimes it’s even enjoyable.

People at homeless programs across the country insist that the homeless are just like you and me, only without shelter. That might be a bit of a stretch, since many street people are mentally ill. Once I had a long conversation with a homeless guest who claimed she was an elf. Another time a woman insisted that her brother and his friends had a business making dead bodies disappear. Are people like this lucid or hallucinating? It doesn’t matter. They are human, with an immense capacity for love.

So into the homeless shelter I headed Monday night, with a big pot of beef stew and a notebook.

We were in the large kitchen, heating the stew, when that evening’s guests entered the parish hall. Without saying much, they placed their belongings next to their beds—mattresses on the floor. One pleasant-looking man in a fleece pullover and a ball cap walked into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator to retrieve a soda. He turned to me and introduced himself. I shook his hand and asked how he was doing.

“Great,” he replied with a smile.

A second man wearing shorts and a basketball jersey began helping Jeff put out the food. “I’m Jan,” I said. “How are you doing?”

“Great,” he said, sounding absolutely sincere.

This was not what I’d expected from men who were homeless at Christmastime.

The fellow in the basketball jersey told us about how, in October, he’d been trapped alone inside his trailer by the flood from Hurricane Matthew. The current had been too strong for him to get to high ground. He’d spent the storm lying across the back of his sofa, the only dry place in his home. Compared to that, yes, today he was doing well.

There were seven guests, six men and a woman. We said a blessing and sat down to eat. I overheard the woman saying she’d gone back to her little travel trailer that afternoon—it was in a storage lot, having been badly damaged by vandals—and discovered that someone had stolen the propane tank.

At the other table, I could hear Jeff and several men telling funny stories about skiing. Conversation at our table was slower. We concentrated on our food. Finally the man to my right volunteered that he had a job as a painter but had been laid off until January. The man next to him said he was working in construction. “Homeless” does not always equal “unemployed,” especially in communities like ours, where rising rents have so badly outstripped local wages.

The construction worker asked if I was a stay-at-home mom. Nope, I said, a writer. I told him my first book had been about the Outer Banks—how people are drawn here and find they can’t leave.

“You got that right,” he said. “There’s no place like this.”

Why?

“The fishing, and the beaches,” he said, “I could say I’m from Virginia Beach, and nobody would bat an eye. But tell them you’re from here, and—Everybody knows this place. People love it.”

The woman nodded. “We’re all here, aren’t we?”

It’s having the water all around, someone else said. But it’s gotten so crowded, another person complained. It’s not the same as it used to be.

I’d had this same conversation countless times at dinner parties.

And—that was it. We finished eating, we cleaned up. At 7:30 two men went off to play gin rummy and watch a football game. Two others started trying to fix a glitch on a computer. One man hit the sack, and the sixth went into the bathroom, where he talked loudly on his cell phone for a very long time. The woman sat pensively on her bed.

Jeff and I settled down to do what the homeless do every day, every night: wait for time to pass. Jeff went in with the others to watch the football game. I took out a blank piece of paper and wondered what to write down. The only thing left for me to blog about was my own line of thought.

Here’s what went through my mind: On our drive over to the church, Jeff and I had passed several hundred vacation houses, all shuttered and empty. Meanwhile men, women, and children sleep in cars, in the woods, or in our tiny homeless facility.

I thought of the millions of people displaced by war and poverty. I thought of the billion-plus who are hungry. I felt, in rapid succession, powerless, and angry, and deeply sad. I felt like a failure for not being able to solve a single one of the world’s problems, to not even make a small dent. And then my mind circled back to what I’d told a friend a few weeks before Christmas:

The most I can do is to stay alert for opportunities to help others, and to act on them. That, and to try to love everyone as purely and gracefully as I can.

The night passed. I slept well on my mattress, in a big room with seven people I didn’t know.

Up and around early, before we turned on the lights, I was startled by a “Good morning” from a dark corner. It was the painter, the first guest awake. He asked how I’d slept, and I asked him.

He shook his head. “I don’t sleep,” he said. “I’ve got something wrong with my ear. And insomnia.” He gave a pained grin. “Sleep isn’t for me.”

“That’s tough, not sleeping,” I said. “It makes everything worse.” But he didn’t seem sad, so we lingered for a few moments in companionable silence.

I asked what he would do that day.

“Go to Urgent Care, for sure, to get my ear checked,” he said. With businesses reopening after the holidays, life would be a little easier for the homeless. They could go to the local rec center and shower. They could hang out in the library, maybe get some exercise at the Y.

We set about helping a church volunteer cook breakfast. Counting out the needed plates, I remembered something from the previous afternoon. As I had cut up the vegetables for the stew, a prayer had come to mind: May the people who eat this be happy. May they be healthy. May they be free from danger. May they live in peace. Now that I had shared a little time with them, my prayer became much fuller. The painter, the man from Hatteras, the woman, and the others: In my mind I saw each of their faces. May they be well. May we all.

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AuthorJan DeBlieu

It’s almost Thanksgiving. Oh my. At the mention of that word, I start thinking of Christmas, and inevitably wondering if it makes sense to buy gifts for my loved ones that may be a little off the mark and a little more expensive—but that will help people in need.

“Cause marketing,” it’s called. I’m sure you’ve seen the ads. Buy a “compassion scarf,” one urges, and help poor women in India. These kinds of pitches always tug at me, and it’s gotten worse since I bought my wonderful, comfortable, pretty Reef sandals.

Oh, those sandals! High-end flip-flops with a nicely padded sole, they caught my eye in a local store one summer day. Their straps were made of colorful woven fabric that reminded me of the Guatemalan artisans I’d seen working in a Central American plaza.

Curious, I examined the tag. Sure enough, the fabric had been fashioned by a cooperative of Mayan artisans, brought together by Reef and a charity called Nest. I’d never hear of Nest but didn’t pause to do any investigation. I bought the sandals on the spot.

I wore them and wore them, until the fabric faded and the arch began to crack. And still I wondered: When I paid $30 for them, had I done anyone any good?

I am already seeing potential holiday gifts that claim to have a charitable component: handbags, candies, sweaters. Each time I wonder anew if buying one of these products would serve any purpose, beyond salving my discomfort at living with plenty in a world of want.

The answer, I’ve discovered, is yes—and no.

Cause marketing began as early as 1983, when American Express decided to donate a portion of its profits from a certain credit card to the ongoing renovation of the Statue of Liberty. There’s a reference to that American Express offer in a 2012 Consumer Reports article about charitable buying. The article notes that, whatever the product, the tag should clearly state how much of the purchase price will go to the charity. If it doesn’t, beware.

I hadn’t seen anything on the tag for my Reef sandals that specifically said how many of my 3,000 pennies would actually go to the Mayan weavers. But I loved those shoes. The claim that they had been made by a women’s cooperative helped push me to pay more for a pair of flip flops that I really did need. And the nonprofit group Nest does seem to be doing good work, connecting manufacturers with people in need. So in the end, I made peace with that particular purchase.

chocolates #2.jpg

Later I came across some candy bars with labels that featured pictures of endangered animals. I bought a couple, wondering all the while if I was being scammed. But then I noticed the little medallion on the label: 10 percent of the net purchase price goes to conservation charities like Rainforest Trust and the Wildlife Conservation Network. A list of “10 percent Giveback Partners” was inside the wrapper.

My purchase that day contributed only pennies. But it adds up. The Endangered Species Chocolates web site reports that $1.2 million has been given to its charity partners in the past three years. The organizations are free to use the funds however they wish—and I heartily approve of that. Requiring charities to use donations for particular projects may tie their hands when it comes to innovation, and it often makes it harder to raise funds for critical needs like salaries and keeping the lights turned on.

Once again this purchase worked beautifully, because I was going to buy some chocolates anyway.

Last month I came across another reason to choose these particular treats: Endangered Species Chocolates is on a list of candy producers who have pledged not to use child labor, a common practice in the industry. That alone is reason to support their brand.

Back to my Christmas shopping list: Perhaps I should buy token gifts or no gifts at all for my loved ones, and instead make donations to my favorite charities in their honor. Jeff and I often take this tack. But it doesn’t work for everyone. Some of my family members really want to give us gifts, and I prefer to reciprocate. It’s a fun way to connect: scheming about what they’d like and coming up with fun ways to surprise them.

After years of turning this problem over in my mind, here’s what I’ve decided to do when purchasing gifts for the people I love:

 * Can I find a cause-marketed product that fits the person’s desires and needs? If so, I jump on it. This, to me, is the perfect marriage of love and conscience-based shopping.

  * If I can’t find something fun and appealing that will also benefit the needy, I try to find a choice gift on sale. I pool my savings from these items and give them to a good cause.

  * When neither of those works, I buy a gift and give it without reservation.

It’s not hard to be a wise “cause consumer,” but it does take some research. Also, it’s easy to get pulled into impulsively buying a cleverly hyped product or book of coupons before you have time to look into it a bit more. When that happens, shrug it off. Next time, perhaps, you’ll think twice. And buying some of those products does in fact help others.

Choosing wisely, getting a kick out of matching gift to person: That, to me, is a big part of the season’s excitement. But so, also, is reserving a generous amount to give to good causes. Finding the right balance, as always, is the key.

Here’s a link to the Consumer Reports article on charitable buying and a link to the web site for the nonprofit group Nest.

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AuthorJan DeBlieu