I remember peering down a cul-de-sac filled with begging children, unwashed, hungry, disabled. I was 12 and on a family vacation to Mexico. But I just could not accept this view of life.
In our home, my mom had always emphasized the power and presence of God as divine Love governing our lives. As a young girl on that street in Mexico, I felt it was only right that everyone should feel this presence of divine Love.
That scene has driven me ever since. I started volunteering—in soup kitchens, with welfare patients, crisis counseling in the United States. Since then, I’ve volunteered all over the world from microfinance in India to sustainable farming in Guatemala. From this, I realized a need to get money and volunteers to the best, most qualified organizations. So in 2002 I launched UniversalGiving (www.universalgiving.org), which helps people give and volunteer with the top-performing projects and volunteer opportunities across the world. The website is a way for people to get involved that is both trusted and meaningful. To me, volunteering is the opportunity to love others and to be of service. It isn’t just about giving food in a soup kitchen; it’s about spending the greatest gift you have—your time and yourself.
Philanthropy now seems to be more about money or donations. But the real root of philanthropy means “love of people.” I’ve found that the people we serve, wherever we volunteer, appreciate that you care to spend time with them, listen to them, and help their community. Beyond giving material goods, our visit to these people made them feel cared about and loved.
I was in El Salvador during the earthquake crisis about six years ago, and another person and I were taking deliveries of food, clothing, and bedding up to remote parts of the mountains. These villages were so removed that even the UN’s World Food Program wouldn’t go there.
When we arrived, volcanic fluid was flowing into the rivers, and the church steeple and ceiling had fallen down. It was raining, and some homes were caving in. This was a very tough situation. But I could also feel God’s presence. People were so appreciative that someone had found them. Someone cared to visit, to provide care, and to make the effort to help. That was a very moving experience because beyond giving material goods, our visit to these people made them feel cared about and loved. This was an answer to my original motivation to see how everyone is cared for by divine Love.
But that trip was definitely a two-way blessing. I was so struck by their generosity and selflessness—and I never felt like an outsider. They were living on perhaps five cents to a dollar a day. But when one family learned that I loved mangoes, they offered me a big bag of fruit that they could have sold. At the time, my Spanish wasn’t that good, but I tried to thank them with my smiles and positive thanks. I took some of the mangoes, as I felt it was right to accept the gift, but the true gift was this sense of warmth and love, of connection, shared among us. We were both caring and blessing one another.
There are so many ways to give.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that we’re all equal ideas of God with equal access to His qualities. God loves and cares for all His/Her children. A wonderful 19th century thought leader, Mary Baker Eddy wrote that “ . . . one must acquaint himself with God, if he would be at peace. He must be ours practically, guiding our every thought and action;”
Of course it’s important that people have what they need. They need food, clothes, and jobs; they should be able to follow their dreams. But I like to base my prayers about this on the fact that good is accessible to everyone through God, rather than going first to the human need. When we start from God’s love for everyone, then we can listen for where or how God wants us to help.
There are so many ways to give. It might be volunteering to help ensure a safe water supply in Tanzania, helping preserve part of the Amazon River, smiling at a homeless person, or patiently helping an elderly person across the street. Whatever it is, it’s evidence of Love caring for all.
Pamela Hawley is the founder and CEO of UniversalGiving in San Francisco, California. A global volunteer herself, the organization she founded has, to date, provided more than $1.5 million and 10,000 volunteers in more than 40 countries around the world. You can see more on spiritual topics at http://www.spirituality.com.