Inspiring Stories Of Giving Back That Changed The World

May 1, 2019

It’s a mathematical dilemma. Being only one person, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed at the scope and breadth of the world’s needs. Famines, tsunamis, malaria, poverty—there are countless adversities to overcome. It turns out you can’t save the entire planet. But you can follow one good idea—yours or someone else’s— and do something for one person, ten people, perhaps a thousand people. And that’s something to feel good about. Here’s a look at two relatively new charities, a little out of the mainstream, which are committed to helping improve others’ quality of life, both domestically and abroad.

It all began with a pencil. That’s what a small boy, begging on a street in India, told Adam Braun he wanted most in the world. Braun, an American college student on a backpacking trip, gave him a pencil—and got an idea. In October 2008, Braun put $25 into a bank account and created Pencils of Promise. He hoped his new nonprofit could attract enough money to build just one school in Laos, a country he had visited and wanted to help. One year later, he had built that school, and he realized that what he’d started was gaining momentum.

Today, Pencils of Promise has completed 55 schools around the world. By the end of 2012, they hope to have built 100 schools. Their mission is really two-fold, says Wendy Wecksell, director of corporate partnerships for Pencils of Promise: to increase access to education in the developing world and to train young leaders to take action at home and abroad. The first element means not only building schools, but helping communities sustain those schools.

“A big thing for us is ownership. Before we break ground, we work with the community to find out if they value education; we work with the ministers of education in the region,” Wecksell says. “We’re empowering people, not giving handouts.” To that end, each village is asked to contribute 10 to 20 percent of their school’s build budget, which has projected sustaining costs included. That dedication to working closely with communities sets them apart, Wecksell says. They take the time to develop local staff so the organization will be sustainable. At all of their schools, which are now in Laos, Nicaragua and Guatemala, 90 percent of the employees come from the region.

Lanoy Keosuvan, a Laos country coordinator for Pencils of Promise, is one example. Braun met her while staying at a guesthouse there; she was the housekeeper. He saw promise in her and offered her a job. Today she oversees a 40-person staff. “I’m so very happy to work with Pencils of Promise,” she says, “and I will work with Pencils of Promise all my life.” The second part of their mission—training young leaders—includes raising awareness and teaching leadership skills. One way they do this is through an internship program. Suzanne Maietta, a Pencils of Promise community engagement intern at the New York City headquarters, says her job involves visiting schools around the country to spread the word about Pencils of Promise’s high school internship program and the fundraising toolkits available on their website that can help students take action for the cause.

Maietta arrived at Pencils of Promise after graduating from Northwestern University last June. She had read about the organization and appreciated its emphasis on “working with the community, not for the community,” and on education, a subject about which she is passionate. “I’ve had a great education, and I see the value of it,” she says. “Education is the beginning to solving a lot of problems.”

In many parts of the world, shoes are hard to come by—but they can be life-changing. “They provide protection from diseases such as hookworm, which affects cognitive development in children,” says Elizabeth Kirk, director of communications with the nonprofit group Soles4Souls. “And in countries such as Haiti and Tanzania, it’s a requirement to have footwear to attend school, so it goes far beyond health benefits.” Shoes can actually help break the cycle of poverty. That’s where Soles4Souls comes in, with its seemingly simple mission: redistributing shoes to people in need throughout the world.

It started after the 2004 tsunami devastated Southeast Asia. Watching reports on television, Wayne Elsey was struck by an image of a single shoe washed up on a beach. Elsey had worked in the footwear business since he was a teenager, and the image resonated. In it, he found an answer to the question so often asked in the wake of a disaster: What can I do? Elsey started collecting shoes.

He’d gathered 250,000 pairs and distributed them through the affected regions, when Hurricane Katrina arrived on the United States’ shores. Elsey went into action again. He realized he would have to launch a full-time organization to help address this simple, universal human need. 

Today, Soles4Souls sends shoes to 128 countries and across the U.S. “Domestically, the homeless rate in children has risen 33 percent,” Kirk says. “Parents can’t afford shoes for their kids. They don’t have access to footwear that would allow them to go outside and play and be a kid.” The shoes come from manufacturers and from shoe drives run by schools and churches. Individual donations are essential as well. “We want people to feel empowered,” says Keith Woodley, chief development officer with Soles4Souls.

“Everyone has too many shoes, especially in this country. This is something anyone can do.” Even worn out shoes have a purpose: They are recycled through Soles4Souls’ microenterprise program, which provides people in developing countries with the resources to start their own businesses. Someone may transform those old shoes into bracelets or belts or bags to sell. “We’re trying to set them up in a way that allows them to support themselves,” Kirk says. “Shoes can become a business that feeds a family.”

When Soles4Souls hand delivers their shoes around the world, anyone can travel with them to help, which is a great way to break down cultural barriers, says Katie Lentile, Travel4Souls manager. “A child comes in and we clean off their feet and put the shoes on them,” she says. “Shoes are an avenue to get to know the kids and share love and hope. The impact that it has is incredible.” One volunteer was moved to adopt two children she met while distributing shoes in Haiti; another went home and started her own shoe drive, collecting 90,000 pairs. Last year, Soles4Souls hit their goal of 17 million pairs of shoes given away, but the need continues to outpace donations, Woodley says. “There’s always a list.”

The organizations listed above are just a few of the groups working to make the world a better place. If you want to get involved, start by supporting one of the causes in this article and help them change the world for the better.