A Holocaust Survivor and a Kenyan Boy

20 07 2010

Director Jennifer Arnold, Chris Mburu, Hilde Back, Jane Wanjiru Muigai during the Sundance Film Festival - Credit: Matt Carr, Getty Images

For Chris Mburu, a young, rural Kenyan student, the opportunity to make something out of his life would’ve ended if not for a small act of kindness.

Hilde Back was a young girl and a Jew who was helped by a stranger to escape from Nazi Germany to Sweden. She never saw her parents (who did not survive the Holocaust) again after leaving. She never forgot the kindness of that stranger and of the people who helped her once she got to Sweden. Hilde eventually became a school teacher on a modest salary, but sponsored…for about $15 a month…a young Kenyan student.

Because she paid his fees to go to secondary school, which his parents could not afford, that student…Chris Mburu…went on to eventually graduate from Harvard Law School and become a human rights lawyer for the United Nations. Inspired by Hilde’s generosity, in 2001 he decided to start a scholarship program to help other bright Kenyan students who can’t afford school fees and to name the scholarship program after her. With help, he tracked Hilde Back down and the two are now fast friends. She never knew that her small gift each month made such a difference in the life of one boy…and is now making a difference in the lives of countless other children.

Kimani, Ruth, and Caroline - Credit: http://asmallact.blogspot.com/

HBO is now airing an incredibly moving and important documentary film entitled A Small Act about this story and “the ripple effect one small act can have.” The world premiere of the movie was in January 2010 at the Sundance Film Festival. Jennifer Arnold wrote, directed, and produced this film.

It features three students…Kimani, Ruth, and Caroline…who are the top students in their school and who all have no hope of progressing in school due to the lack of ability to pay the $40 per month fees unless they get one of the coveted Hilde Back Education Fund scholarships.

I mostly subscribe to  HBO because of their documentaries. They are thoughtful, well done, and carry powerful messages. The message is easy to see in this one. So many of us think we don’t have the ability to make a difference in the life of another person so why bother? We may think we are barely scraping by ourselves and what little we could give just isn’t enough. This story shows that a small donation made monthly totally changed the life of Chris, who has gone on to change the lives of Kimani, Ruth, Caroline and so many more and they have all pledged to change the lives of students who come after them.

A few other ripple effects and how you can learn more:

Watch the trailer for the movie, and if you have HBO or if the film is being screened near you, watch the entire film. It will move you…hopefully to make your own small act.





Oak Ridge, TN: Developed the Atomic Bomb and Now Stopping Child Predators

19 10 2009

What was rolling farm land in east Tennessee, the city now known as Oak Ridge was quickly transformed by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1942 to become one of the four places that worked on the Manhattan Project and birthed the atomic bomb. Because of the plentiful and cheap hydroelectric power provided through the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), Oak Ridge was the place where uranium was enriched. At one point, the Oak Ridge plants consumed one-sixth of the electricity in the entire United States…more than New York City.

World War II-era billboard at the Oak Ridge Facility, part of the Manhattan Project. (Photo: Life)

World War II-era billboard at the Oak Ridge Facility (Photo: Life)

What workers were doing in Oak Ridge was so secretive that not even the governor of the state knew it. The city was not on a map and was referred to as the Clinton Engineering Works.

Today three of the four major facilities used for wartime bomb production are still in use and owned by the Department of Energy. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is the DOE’s largest science and energy lab in the country. It is home to over 4,300 scientists and staff, 3,000 guest researchers annually, a $1.4 billion budget, two of the most advanced neutron scattering research facilities in the world, and the most powerful scientific supercomputer in the world.

They do research there in the fields of nanosciences, biological systems, energy, advanced materials, national security, chemical sciences, electron microscopy, nuclear medicine, and physics.

Detective Tom Evans of the Tennessee Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (blue shirt) demonstrates child rescue technology to Tom Potok of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (standing) and PROTECT's David Keith

Detective Tom Evans of the Tennessee Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (blue shirt) demonstrates child rescue technology to Tom Potok of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (standing) and PROTECT's David Keith

According to the National Association to Protect Children (PROTECT), “the Oak Ridge research community may be taking on its grandest, and most important, challenge since the legendary World War II Manhattan Project.” Oak Ridge scientists, led by ORNL Applied Software Engineering Group Leader Dr. Tom Potok, and Y-12 (one of the remaining Oak Ridge facilities) National Security Complex’s Steve Payne, are partnering with the Knoxville Police Department, PROTECT, and PROTECT development director and actor David Keith to develop software to help track and prosecute child molesters and pedophiles who traffic in child pornography.

An example of how efficient and effective this software is? An estimated 10,000 Tennesseans traffic in child pornography. Manually sifting through just one of those 10,000 computers takes 40 hours of work. The software developed by Dr. Potok’s team does it in just one hour. Knoxville Police Department is in a pilot program with this software now; if the program is successful, it could become a national law enforcement standard per WBIR.com, a Knoxville news station site.

PROTECT Executive Director Grier Weeks says that the Protect Our Children Act of 2008 was a major step forward that the federal government made, but technology has not been forthcoming. He said:

There’s been a government-wide disconnect, where it is understood that cyber-security and economic crimes require serious resources, but it’s somehow assumed that volunteers and micro grants are enough to drive child rescue technology. Our hope is that when Washington sees the inspiration and passion for rescuing children coming out of one of America’s finest scientific research centers, a light will go on for many people. We can really do this, and this is the way.

I wrote a blog post about the need for technology to stop human trafficking on 6/5/09 entitled Can Retailers Teach Us How to Prevent Human Trafficking? As a member of PROTECT, I received an email on 8/14/09 about what is now being done with technology to stop predators and that’s how I heard about the ORNL project.

I am so impressed with the work that David Keith is doing. He is using his celebrity as an actor…in An Officer and a Gentleman, The Rose, The Great Santini, Firestarter, and many more movies…to bring awareness to sexual abuse and the trafficking of children, and to rescue children from the hands of sexual predators.

David Keith

David Keith

He speaks to groups to enlist help in his quest and tells them how there are 750,000 traffickers of child pornography in the U.S., child pornography is a multi-billion dollar global industry, 50% of the worldwide market for child porn comes from the U.S., 96% of cases of child sex abuse are committed by a member of the child’s family or a trusted acquaintance, and how child molesters assault 27 children on average.

PROTECT operates on only a $400,000 annual budget. So much more is needed. Consider joining PROTECT at http://www.protect.org and donating to help them do this very important work. Here is PROTECT’s mission from their website:

PROTECT is a national pro-child, anti-crime membership association. We are founded on the belief that our first and most sacred obligation as parents, citizens, and members of the human species is the protection of children from harm. We are committed to building a powerful, nonpartisan force for the protection of children from abuse, exploitation and neglect. We believe that this must be done through a determined single-issue focus, a meaningful mainstream agenda and the use of proven modern political strategies.

I have a personal connection with this story. David’s father is a neighbor of my mother and sings in the men’s chorus she accompanies and leads. I met David’s father at one of their chorus performances recently and he told me that he’s most proud of his son (even more than his acting) David for his work to stop child predators and rescue children in their throes. I am from east Tennessee and lived in Oak Ridge for five years and even wrote a weekly business column for a year for the local Oak Ridger newspaper.

To commemorate the 50th birthday of the city of Oak Ridge…the city that was created to develop the atomic bomb…dedicated on May 3, 1996 a Japanese bell (also called the International Friendship Bell) to exemplify theOak Ridge Peace Bell theme of the celebration of Oak Ridge’s birth: “born of war, living for peace, growing through science.” I was privileged to play piano for the chorus that sang at this prestigious dedication, which was attended by many dignitaries and also by representatives from Oak Ridge’s sister city Naka, Ibaraki, Japan. It was a moving experience.

Oak Ridge is a town that was quickly and secretly assembled to build the atomic bomb, which was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan on August 6, 1945 and on Hiroshima, Japan on August 9, 1945, facilitating the end of World War II. The very labs where such destructive power was created is now creating the means to rescue children from the destructive power of child predators and to stop them from ruining any more children’s lives. The peace bell is a fitting symbol…a place, people, facilities, technology, and tremendous brain power are now being used to create peace in the world and stop those who would use their own horrendous power against innocent children and devastate their lives and the lives of people who love them.





NBA Star Tracy McGrady Creates a Darfur Dream Team

7 09 2009
Tracy McGrady Houston Mansion

Tracy McGrady's Houston Mansion

30-year-old NBA Houston Rockets star Tracy McGrady, who makes an estimated $21.1 million a year, is an unlikely advocate for refugees in Darfur. He could just live a cushy life in his 35,000 square foot mansion with his four children and wife. Instead, he heard about the plight of Chad and Sudan refugees in Darfur, wanted to see for himself, thought that surely there was something he could do, and traveled there with John Prendergast and Omer Ismail from the Enough project, which bills itself as “the project to end genocide and crimes against humanity.”

Tracy grew up in a rough neighborhood in Auburndale, Florida where he witnessed shooting, robbing, and dealing drugs. He said that when he got aTracy McGrady - Credit NBA website well-paying job, he wanted to have nice things, but said that “…those things don’t really mean anything to me anymore.” Before he went to Darfur, in the western region of Sudan and bordering Chad, in the summer of 2007, he said he had no idea what genocide was and was nervous about what he would see…and he saw a lot.

His trip resulted in the documentary 3 Points, which has just been released and can be seen on Hulu. Tracy is so passionate about the film and his work that he has changed his jersey number to 3 to remind people of the three goals for the Darfuris: peace, protection, and punishment (of those who have harmed them).

Tracy goes there with a big heart and a lot to learn. He…like most of us…has no idea what the life of the refugees…all 2.2 million of them…is like…that the women are being raped, the men are being killed, and their villages have been burned down. He sees children running and wants to build them a soccer field (which would cost just $1,000) and an indoor swimming pool (which would be considered extravagant), but learns that these children have more basic needs such as clean water, food, safety, and schools and supplies. There are no secondary schools (high schools). The people tell them that they have nothing…NOTHING.

He sleeps in a tent for the first time and displays a lot of naivete, but a willingness to learn about the Darfuris. He learns that children and families walked 200 miles to be in the camps, that the women choose to go out to get firewood because they will only be raped; if their husbands go out, they will be killed. Refugees are bombed by planes that look like United Nations planes, are surrounded by land mines, and eat once a day if they are lucky. People are attacked, killed execution-style, and even buried alive by Sudan’s military and Janjaweed, the government-backed militia. Children watch their parents being killed and are instantly orphaned and traumatized. Even small babies being carried on their mothers’ backs are shot.

Tracy asks questions that reveal a lot about the refugees:

  • “Who is protecting you?” No one
  • “What did you [young children] do when your village was attacked?” We ran, hid in the bush for a month, and walked for 10 days to get to a refugee camp.
  • “What do you want to be when you grow up?” 3 boys: I want to be a teacher. A girl:” I want to run my country.
  • “What kind of help do you need?” We have nothing. Everything was burned.

These are brave people, courageous people, strong people, survivors. They have seen unspeakable atrocities and injustice…the worst from their own government. Tracy reflects…

Tracy McGrady with Darfuri Children - Credit Darfur Dream Team

Just imagine that this could be us. What if the roles were reversed? What if the dice were rolled another way? This is not a joke…it’s not a game…this is real. This is our people we’re talking about. I guess that I am beginning to feel that I was put on this earth to really like help people. There’s more to me than just playing basketball, doing Adidas commercials. This is who I am and who I’m going to be. This is the beginning stages that we’re in. There’s definitely a lot more that needs to be done.

After returning from Darfur, Tracy visited with the State Department with his teammate Dikembe Mutombo and got input about how he can make a difference in Darfur. He recruited several other NBA stars to help in this effort as well as other non-profit organizations. He started a Darfur Dream Team Sister School program, which connects middle schools, high schools, and universities with students in the refugee camps of Darfur.

Tracy also visited his alma mater high school in that rough neighborhood of Auburndale, Florida with his Enough project allies who told the students that by being passive and nothing, they help evil triumph. Omer Ismail, the human rights activist from Darfur who joined Tracy on his travels there, said this to the students:

One day somebody is going to look you in the eyes and ask you “When Darfur was declared genocide, what have you done? I want you to look them in the eyes and say “I knew about it then and I’m proud to tell you that I’ve done something about it.”

Here’s a trailer about the 3 Points movie. Watch it. It will touch you. If it moves you, consider donating to the Darfur Dream Team’s Sister School program. Refugees in Darfur need all the heroes…like Tracy McGrady and you and me…they can get to help lift them up and into a better life.





Teens Making a Difference – Bravo!

28 07 2009

Remember summers when you were a teenager? Going to the movies or the pool with friends, gossiping or talking to your boyfriend or girlfriend on the phone, hanging out at the mall, etc.? Three Houston siblings…Stephen (18), Melanie (17), and Dianna (14) Muldrow…have much bigger things on their mind this summer. They have organized a concert to be held at Houston’s Jones Hall on August 29th to benefit organizations that work to combat human trafficking.

The concert features renowned musicians: 3 pianists, a clarinetist, 2 violinists, and one viola player. You can find more information about the concert at www.BrokenCords.com.

Houston is one of the major corridors of human trafficking. I wrote a blog post about cantina workers being trafficked there.

Muldrow Family

Muldrow Family - Credit: http://www.BrokenCords.com

The Muldrow children are home schooled and quite accomplished. Their parents have obviously instilled in their children a sense of compassion, caring, and desire to help others.

From their website:

“Part of a family of 10 children born and raised here in the Houston area, Stephen, Melanie, and Dianna encourage all young people to stand up and use this time in their lives to make a difference in the world around them!”

They have a Facebook page if you’d like to join their cause and be kept up to date. They also welcome donations and/or you can purchase tickets to the concert on their Broken Cords web page.

Bravo to Stephen, Melanie, and Dianna for the work you’re doing to help victims of trafficking! You are real heroes.





The Audacity of Having a Voice

17 06 2009

We have so villified the Iranians. Made them to be the enemy. Bush called them part of the “axis of evil.” We have feared them, mistrusted them, hated them, wanted to harm them.

Credit: Huffington Post

Credit: Huffington Post

I am in awe of the Iranian people. These are people standing up for freedom and for having a voice. Would you have such courage to protest as they are doing now?

Why, when Bush stole the election in 2000, did people in the United States not stand up and protest? Why, when Bush tortured people and we knew about it, did we not cast him and Cheney out of office? Why, when we knew that the Bush Administration was monitoring ordinary citizens, clamping down our human rights, and creating legal documents to make themselves a monarchy with absolute authority did we do nothing?

Where is our moral courage and passion to march, protest, and demand an end to child trafficking or sexual abuse or violence against women? What about children going hungry even in our own country or people living in tents or elderly people who can’t afford their prescriptions? Do we stand up and say ENOUGH!? Do we write our lawmakers who make light of these situations and spend more money on weapons than feeding people and helping the afflicted? Do we do ANYTHING? 

Would you march silently to give voice and to stand up for something you strongly believe in? Is there anything so important to you that you would risk arrest, injury, or even death as the Iranians are doing? 

Consider spending 10 minutes each day in meditation for healing in our world. It’s the least we can do.

Here is a video of people in Tehran peacefully protesting the election results today. This brings tears to my eyes. This is courage and conviction in action. I hope that we can all begin to see the Iranians…and so many other people speaking out all over the world for freedom from violence and freedom for a voice…as our brothers and sisters who are to be loved and applauded and not enemies to be feared and hated.

 





Chris Gardner and The Pursuit of Happyness

14 06 2009
Chris Gardner, Jaden, and Will Smith

Chris Gardner, Jaden, and Will Smith

I heard the powerful, and formerly homeless, Chris Gardner speak at the Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration in Austin on January 20, 2007. His booming voice and charismatic personality filled the large hall during his talk and enthralled me when I shook his hand afterward.

Chris is best known as the subject of the 2006 $300 million+ grossing movie “The Pursuit of Happyness.” The movie, for which Will Smith won an Academy Award nomination and Golden Globe award, is based on Chris’ New York Times #1 best selling book The Pursuit of Happyness. Jaden Smith, Will’s Son, plays Chris’ son in the movie.

The book details Gardner’s remarkable life journey. In his early years, he had to deal with poverty, domestic violence, alcoholism, sexual abuse, and family illiteracy. He had a violent, physically abusive step-father who beat him and his mother frequently and nearly killed her. His mother was imprisoned twice…once for trying to burn down their house with his step-father in it. He was put in foster care twice and was eventually adopted by relatives.

He became a hospital corpsman in the Navy and afterward, went on to become a research lab assistant in San Francisco and a medical equipment salesman. He left his wife to live with dental student Jackie Medina, with whom he had his first child Christopher Jr. in January 1981.

One day he encounted a well-dressed man (Bob Bridges) with a red Ferrari and asked him what he did. Bob told Chris that he was a stock broker and at that moment, Chris decided that’s what he wanted to do. On the very day that he had an interview (which Bob arranged), he had just gotten out of a 10-day stay in prison due to $1,200 in parking tickets he could not pay. Jackie had accused him of beating her (which he still denies) and disappeared along with all of his possessions and their child. He showed up at his interview wearing the casual clothes on his back and with no formal education or experience, got into the training program at Dean Witter Reynolds.

Chris Gardner and Son 1984

Chris Gardner and Son 1984

Through hard work, he was the top trainee and got his license and a job at Bear Stearns. After four months, Jackie returned with his son and Chris gained custody of him. Still not making much money and without the knowledge of his co-workers, Chris and his son were homeless for a year. They spent nights in a bathroom at the transit station, his office, at flophouses, and at parks. Eventually they were allowed to stay at the Glide shelter for homeless women while he saved money for a place for them to live.

In 1987, after just five years and with just $10,000, Chris started his own brokerage firm called Gardner Rich in Chicago. He sold part of his stake in the firm for several million dollars in 2006 and became founder and CEO of Christopher Gardner International Holdings.

Chris Gardner and Nelson Mandela

Chris Gardner and Nelson Mandela

Chris is a remarkable man who is making many positive things happen in the world. He met with Nelson Mandela and is working on a venture in South Africa that will bring hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars into the country.

Chris has helped out Glide, which gave him and his son shelter, and helped fund $50 million to build homeless low-income housing and provide emnployment to homeless people in San Francisco, where he was once homeless. He is involved in other philanthropic ventures, serves on several non-profit boards, and has received many awards, including the National Fatherhood Initiative’s Father of the Year honor.

Gardner’s second book, Start Where You Are: Life Lessons in Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, was published on May 12, 2009. Today the 55-year-old Chris Gardner, who also has a daughter Jacintha who was born in 1985, is worth an estimated $165 million.

 Thomas Jefferson penned these words in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Despite unbelievable odds, Chris Gardner has worked hard and lived his life by these words. You can find out more about Chris on his website at www.ChrisGardnerMedia.com.

See this bigger-than-life, charismatic man in action in this video of Chris giving the commencement speech about a new vision of the American Dream at UC Berkeley on 5/22/09.

I’m so glad I met him. He gives me hope for our country and inspires me.