Finding the Positive in Negative
When difficult circumstances touch us or those we love, it’s easy to feel helpless and leave it to the multi-million-dollar foundations of the world to make a difference. (And they do!) But, as these seven people will demonstrate, you don’t need to be wealthy or well-connected to have an impact.
The people profiled here were moved by stories of loved ones — or by personal tragedies — to acts of service and kindness that have helped thousands of people. Each took advantage of what they already had — whether it was their social network, their love of cycling or, in one case, their pet bulldog — to make a real difference in the lives of others. Here are their stories.
Lisa Bain, Tulsa, Okla.
In 2008, Lisa Bain was diagnosed with celiac disease and spondyloarthritis, and the avid runner was told to hang up her running shoes. The same week, Bain’s mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. “As I sat by the bedside of my mother, after telling her she had cancer and that I had received some bad news on my end, we started laughing,” Bain says. “Her reply was, ‘Well isn’t this just a hoot!’ At that moment, we decided to make this the journey of our lives. We would make it about laughter, about joy, and about helping others through their tough journey.”
Taking action: Bain and her mother made a commitment to embody joy throughout their struggle, particularly through chemotherapy treatments. They drew attention wearing chicken suits and party hats in the chemo rooms and realized many other chemo patients could use a dose of joy. Inspired by Bain’s English bulldog, Mavis Pearl, the two started the Mavis Pearl Project. Mavis Pearl, a certified therapy dog that sports a pink wig and a tutu, has a special way of making people laugh, Bain says.
Bain and her mother began collecting donations from friends, corporations and others who heard about their project to produce Mavis Pearl look-alike stuffed dogs to give out to patients. They began making monthly deliveries to the Tulsa Cancer Institute to give each patient in treatment a Mavis Pearl stuffed dog and take the real Mavis Pearl to visit each patient. “It is a special time, and the patients always comment about how wonderful it is to have some moments to think about something other than cancer,” Bain says. “And to laugh!”
Bain and her mother also launched Joy in the Cause, a nonprofit organization that focuses on helping others through a life-altering illness. In addition to making visits with Mavis Pearl, the organization helps cancer patients with practical needs such as providing house cleaning, gas cards, gift cards or someone to sit with them during their chemo treatments.
Making a difference: Through Joy in the Cause, Bain and her mother have made a difference in the lives of thousands of Oklahoma cancer patients. Many boxes of Mavis Pearl stuffed dogs have also been shipped to other places, including U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, as well as Portugal and France. “We send each dog off with a prayer and a blessing, and the miracle stories never stop,” Bain says. “Mavis Pearl has touched countless hearts.”
Bain’s mother is currently in hospice care, and it was her desire for Bain to carry on the “legacy we walked together through her cancer journey,” Bain says. “It is a joy and an honor to carry it on.”
Gregory Crawford, South Bend, Ind.
When Greg Crawford was hired as dean of the College of Science at Notre Dame and met the Parseghian family, he was inspired by their courage and determination. Legendary Notre Dame football coach Ara Parseghian had lost three young grandchildren to Niemann-Pick Type C (NPC), a genetic, cholesterol storage disorder that is fatal and primarily strikes children before or during adolescence. Crawford was so moved that he decided to devote research to find a cure. “The effort to cure this inherited, always fatal disease — with only a few hundred victims, not enough to attract the attention of big companies — aligns with [the Notre Dame] mission in so many ways, not to mention our historic connection with the Parseghian family.”
Taking action: In addition to making NPC a research focus of the college, Crawford wanted to do something personally to contribute to the effort. In 2010, Crawford and his wife Renate undertook their first cross-country bike ride to raise funding and awareness for NPC. Since then, Crawford has completed a cross-country bike ride he calls Road to Discovery each summer for the cause, riding this year from Long Beach, Calif., to Baltimore, Md.
Making a Difference: This year, the Crawfords’ ride raised more than $500,000. Crawford says it was an especially important effort because the researchers have discovered promising treatments that are ready to go to FDA trials.
“I believe the rides have raised a tremendous awareness about NPC among both the Notre Dame family and others who have heard of the Road to Discovery. Some of the most meaningful experiences involve meeting with children and families who are dealing with this devastating disease — their courage and hope are so inspirational. The whole experience has had a profound effect on my own life, and I believe that eventually we will see a cure for NPC because so many people have cared in so many ways.”
Michael Sinensky, New York, N.Y.
Michael Sinensky was born and raised in Rockaway, Queens, N.Y., and his parents still live in the home where he grew up. When Hurricane Sandy brought an 11-foot ocean surge that ran through Rockaway in 2012, “my hometown was literally underwater,” Sinensky says. “My parents’ home had nine feet of water in it, and both their basement and their first floor was destroyed. In addition, all my childhood friends’ and their parents’ homes were terribly damaged. The town looked like a tsunami and nuclear bomb hit it.”
Taking action: Sinensky, who now lives in Manhattan and owns Tres Carnes, a quick-serve Mexican restaurant brand, went out to Rockaway after the storm to check on his parents and survey the damage. “When I arrived and saw the destruction, confusion and lack of help and communication, I decided I needed to help and step in where there was definitely a need,” he says.
Sinensky joined with other friends from the area to create Friends of Rockaway, one of the most proactive Hurricane Sandy “rebuild and restore” initiatives. The organization raises funding, organizes volunteers, reaches out to victims and rebuilds homes.
Making a Difference: To date, Friends of Rockaway has raised more than $2.5 million and coordinated thousands of volunteers, averaging approximately 25 volunteers per day. “Our efforts have helped with communicating important information to thousands of homes, cleaning debris out of over 1,000 homes, and gutting and mucking out over 400 homes with a Robin Hood Grant, which also allowed us to hire over 30 unemployed Rockaway residents,” Sinensky says.
“We’ve also removed mold in over 100 homes with Robin Hood, via Red Cross and St. Bernard Project [another rebuilding nonprofit], and we have been rebuilding destroyed homes.” There are approximately 200 more homes in the queue, which he estimates will take another two years to finish rebuilding.
In October, Sinensky’s restaurant brand, Tres Carnes, held a month-long social media and marketing campaign, #BuildWithBurritos, which raised $10,000 for Friends of Rockaway and the St. Bernard Project.
Carla Blumenthal and friends, New York, N.Y.
After Hurricane Sandy, millions of New Yorkers were dealing with the effects of flooding and fires, and those who wanted to help them had difficulties finding the best ways to serve. “A few days after the power returned to Manhattan and Brooklyn, there were hundreds of people who were looking to help neighbors still facing difficult situations,” says Carla Blumenthal, a social media manager in New York. “Many centers who were coordinating efforts had an overflow of volunteers whose time and efforts weren't being used.”
Taking action: At dinner with Paull Young, Bryce Tom and Meghan McCormick, Blumenthal and her friends were discussing the issue and decided there had to be a better way for New Yorkers to give back, Blumenthal says. Young was inspired by a tweet that encouraged people to eat downtown and tip double. “We learned that hundreds of restaurants downtown lost all of their inventory, and their entire wait staffs were out of work for a week,” Blumenthal says. “We decided that encouraging people to eat downtown could be a simple and effective way to rejuvenate business.”
Eat Down Tip Up was born. After conceiving the idea over dinner, the four decided to gather a large group of friends the next day to spread the word. For the next week, the group interviewed restaurant personnel about their Sandy story to post on the group’s website, reached out to all of their local networks, including media contacts, and continually posted about the initiative across social media. “We even reached out to influential people on Twitter, such as Chelsea Clinton, to share our story,” Blumenthal says. (Clinton’s tweet appears on the organization’s website.)
Making a Difference: The group’s call to action was simple: Eat downtown, tip double and post your receipt on Twitter and Instagram with the hashtag #EatDownTipUp. While Blumenthal and her friends will never know the actual economics of their efforts, they do know that the first 10 days of the campaign generated more than 3,500 social media posts of people eating downtown and tipping double.
Photo: From left: Carla Blumenthal, Meghan McCormick, Paull Young, Bryce Tom, Nina Yiamsamantha, Max Zorick
Sam Russell, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles
Working for 10 years in Hollywood as a stylist and image consultant for Hollywood celebrities doesn’t sound like a difficult situation. But while Sam Russell’s job came with lots of perks and connections, he struggled with the fact that he was often using those connections to help people who really didn’t need — or appreciate — his help. “A client’s girlfriend was hounding me for weeks wanting free shoes, and I had had enough with her persistence and demeanor about it,” Russell says. “That was when my lightbulb moment kicked in.”
Taking action: Russell decided he would rather spend his time giving to women with stories of perseverance who “are looking for a hand up, not a hand out.”
Russell launched The Giving Closet, a traveling mission to surprise women who have overcome great obstacles with a wardrobe upgrade valued at more than $10,000. With the help of nonprofit organizations and social workers, Russell locates women around the country who could benefit from his organization’s bounty. To date, he has convinced designers and publicists to donate to the Giving Closet more than $80,000 in clothing and beauty products that would normally be “gifted” to Hollywood celebrities.
Making a difference: So far, eight unassuming women have been the surprise recipients of a new wardrobe from the Giving Closet. There was the two-time cancer survivor who spends her free time running bone marrow drives to help save other people and longs to become a professional screenwriter. Upon her graduation from graduate school, the Giving Closet provided her with the wardrobe she needs to make an impact in her new Hollywood job (also part of the surprise). There was the Columbia Law School student paralyzed in a car accident who was rewarded with new clothes to help her maintain her professional style despite needing daily assistance.
“It’s very humbling to hear the stories six months later,” Russell says. “Each woman that I have surprised with a wardrobe upgrade has either landed their next job interview or gotten a promotion. The Giving Closet is here to prove that fashion does have a heart.”
Denise Willingham, Florence, Ala.
When her youngest son, Jon, was 27, Denise Willingham and her husband got the news that he had been involved in a fatal car accident. Shocked and heartbroken, Willingham began thinking of ways to help others in Jon’s memory. “When Jon died on June 13, 2009, I think that our greatest fear was that Jon would soon be forgotten,” Willingham says. “Since Jon’s memory lived on in our lives, we wanted his life and memory to live on in the lives of others.”
Taking action: In 2010, with encouragement and help from friends, Willingham, a P.E. teacher, organized a 5K charity race in Jon’s memory. To focus on the faith that has sustained her and her family, Willingham named the race Run to the Cross.
Making a Difference: The race, held each October, raised $6,000 its first year, and has grown significantly each year. In 2011, Willingham and her co-organizers set their sights on digging one well in Bulawayo City, Zimbabwe, where women working at a particular orphanage were walking five miles each way to gather fresh water for the children. When the race was over and the money was raised, the well was named Jon’s Well.
“Because of Jon's Well, the orphanage was able to plant a garden to grow food for them to eat, have a medical clinic and start a school,” Willingham says. “How Jon's life has helped these children!”
In 2012, Run to the Cross made it possible to build two more wells in Africa. And this year, Willingham expanded the vision: They raised $24,000 to dig one well, set up 20 microloans to help women in third-world countries start businesses and created a “rehab scholarship” for those suffering from addiction who could not afford rehabilitation. “We chose this cause because Jon had struggled with addiction, and we wanted his life to help the lives of others,” Willingham says.
Willingham says she’s realized that the only way to be truly happy is to help others. “I know that Jon's memory is alive and well in Africa. These people who use the wells on a regular basis know God through Jon's memory.”
Judy Schaffer, Fort Lee, N.J.
Judy Schaffer’s father was a World War II veteran “who taught us a love of country,” she says. He dedicated much of his time to wounded veterans, so after his death, when Schaffer had an opportunity to visit the Walter Reed Army Medical Center for wounded soldiers, she felt called to make a difference for the soldiers and their families. She was especially touched by the soldiers suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), since their plight is so difficult, she says. “They do not have physical disabilities, so they tend to be ignored,” Schaffer says.
Taking action: Schaffer founded Heroes to Heroes, a nonprofit organization focused on four areas of healing: spiritual, social, emotional and physical. On a flight to Israel to visit her son who was studying there, Schaffer met an Israeli soldier who told her about Israeli programs for wounded soldiers. Intrigued, Schaffer visited the programs and was told that if she brought American wounded veterans to Israel, they would be welcome. “I had to try,” she says.
Funded entirely by donations, Heroes to Heroes sends teams of American veterans to Israel, where they find support among their Israeli counterparts and visit holy sites. “A trip to Israel changes the lives of the people who travel there,” Schaffer says. “No matter what religious beliefs they have, they are forever changed in a positive way after a trip. “
Also, “almost all Israelis serve in the military,” she continues. “Our veterans love the idea that they are in a country filled with veterans. They feel as if they are understood and feel comfortable from the first day.” On their trips, soldiers travel in teams of 12 Americans and five Israelis and visit Bethlehem, the Western Wall and other spiritual sites that help them “break down the moral injury suffered during their combat experience,” Schaffer says.
Making a difference: Participants say Heroes to Heroes has given them hope and a team of people who understand and support them, relieving their feelings of isolation. “One of our veterans was about to commit suicide on the day he received the call to attend our program,” Schaffer says. “After much coaxing, he agreed to give the program a try since it was Israel. He had basically said goodbye to his family. Now, he will be leading the next Heroes to Heroes team and is opening our Houston chapter. Another one of our veterans was failing at all of his relationships. He and his wife broke up and he had given up on life. He went to Israel with Heroes to Heroes and, according to his wife, was much calmer and more at peace. They were able to renew their relationship and are now celebrating their first Christmas back together.”