Changing the World, One Book at a Time

A book. One single book. How is it that one book can change a life? To a child who has nothing, a book, just one single story can be life changing. A book is escape. A book is freedom. A book is life.

I first realized how vital books are to my life when I was 2 years old. I was reading the classic, The Little Princess, with my mom (mommy at the time). I loved the ways it took me emotionally to places I’d never even begun to dream of. I found that books immersed me in a world – a world free of worries (not that I had many at the age of 2). I was enthralled by the power of the print, and how it could help those who have no escape from the world and its burdens.

Then later on, around kindergarten, I started to read the same books that I so thoroughly enjoyed a few years prior. It was at this time, when I was five, that I truly understood how life changing books could be to myself and my peers.

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My goal when I started Books For Bedtime, two years ago, was to help as many children as possible, in as many places as possible to get as many books as possible. Today, I have donated 18,000 books to children and families all over the state of Ohio. I have distributed to schools, homeless shelters, food pantries, new immigrant organizations and library programs.

I often am asked what moment in time caused me to create Books For Bedtime, but it wasn’t just one particular moment that caused me to create it. I strongly believe that my whole life, every up and every down, is what truly prepared me and inspired me to create Books For Bedtime. If it weren’t for my mom having taught in low-income schools my whole life, I wouldn’t have been exposed to the “real word”. Like many of my friends and peers, I wouldn’t have seen hardships that life can bring: hardships not necessarily deserved, but given all the same.

When I first started going to schools, my only intention was to talk about Books For Bedtime and how and why I created it. As Books For Bedtime has grown and evolved, my speech has changed with it. While I still talk about how and why I started Books For Bedtime, I have added an element of motivation, suggesting that if I could start a non profit, they could too. I want to inspire my fellow students to help change their communities and the world.

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Whenever I go to an educational setting, such as a school, I give a short speech about the magic of books, reading, and Books For Bedtime. The speech also features a Q+A session for the students. The students are always amazed by my willingness to go up and speak to them even though I’m only 13, and am so close to their ages.

I have been lucky enough to help those children who had no books at all, by giving them a book, or maybe even two. Because, if one book can change a child’s life, then what can two or three or four books do?

How can you help these children who are in need of books? It’s pretty simple. All you need to do is visit www.booksforbedtimenonprofit.org to find out more.

 

Meagan Warren is 13 years old and just finished seventh grade at Bexley Middle School in Bexley, Ohio.  Meagan has been an avid reader since she first learned to read at age 2 and loves sharing her passion for reading with others.  Meagan has won a Jefferson Award and a Prudential Spirit of Community Award for her work toward erasing illiteracy in Ohio.

Prepare for Success: Read Aloud

In a bustling waiting room, Daria, a young mother, finds a space, pulls a rug from her bag and lays it on the floor. She gathers together a group of young children, sits them down around her, pulls out a brightly colored book, and begins to read to them.

What is remarkable about this scene is that just a few months ago, Daria, a recent immigrant from the Dominican Republic with basic English and rudimentary reading skills, was reluctant to read to her own young son, let alone to a group of children surrounded by a crowd of parents.

Fortunately, she has been given help with reading aloud through the Reach Out and Read program at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. Daria’s doctor has explained to her, and thousands of other new parents, that cuddling and reading to infants, toddlers and preschoolers is one of the best ways of helping them achieve their full potential.

It is widely accepted that reading aloud to young children is the single most effective activity that will prepare them for success at school. At a time when the achievement gap is wider than ever, and when more than a third of American children start school without the skills necessary for learning, it is disheartening that less than half of the families in the U.S. read together every day. This is often because parents do not understand its importance or because they do not have the confidence to read aloud.

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This is where Reach Out and Read makes a difference. More than 21,000 Reach Out and Read medical providers nationwide talk with parents at each pediatric checkup from infancy through five years about the benefits of reading aloud to their children. More importantly, they model how to engage young children with books at each developmental stage.

Claudia Aristy, Reach Out and Read Program Director at Bellevue tells me, “Many of the parents we serve did not grow up with books in the house and so are not comfortable reading aloud. We give them the confidence to read together with their family – And for parents who do not read well, we explain that the most important part of reading aloud is connecting with their children. We show them how to talk about the pictures and create the stories with their own words.

It’s so wonderful to see the transformation from a parent who says, ‘I can’t do this, I’m stupid!’ to one who can enjoy the bonds created through shared time together and who knows that they are giving their child a chance for success at school.”

There are many families who do not have the resources for books at home, and so each child in the Reach Out and Read program takes home a new “doctor-recommended” children’s book. In many cases this is the first book that a family has ever owned and our doctors tell us how the children’s eyes light up at this gift. For those parents whose first language is not English, we offer books in different languages.

Room to Read

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recognized the important role that pediatric providers play in encouraging parents and caregivers to read aloud to their children and the program has one of the strongest records of research support of any primary care intervention. Parents who have participated in the Reach Out and Read program are four times more likely to read to their children and include more children’s books in their home, and children served by the program are three to six months ahead of their non-Reach Out and Read peers on vocabulary tests.

Aristy tells me that the impact of the Reach Out and Read program is clear. In a community where the percentage of pupils graduating from high school is typically low, she sees the children that participated in Reach Out and Read growing up and going on to college.

On February 24th, Reach Out and Read will be joining a global celebration on World Read Aloud Day.  Bellevue is just one of more than 5,500 Reach Out and Read medical clinics across the U.S. that serve 4.5 million children each year. We are asking all those who believe in the value of reading aloud to young children to take part in our campaign and help more parents like Daria give their children a chance for success. Daria says,

“Reach Out and Read has helped me to give my son a chance to do well at school – I’m so proud to be able to do that for him.”

It Starts With A Monument

Most stories we read about maternal deaths are from the developing world. How shocking would it be to learn of a neighbor, friend, or close relative who lost her life while giving birth here in the U.S.? Here’s an example:

Despite living close to a hospital in Arizona, young Melissa faced significant challenges during her pregnancy. As a working mother, Melissa’s time demands caused her to miss several doctor appointments. Without paid leave she had to work until her labor began. As soon as her baby’s fetal heart monitor signaled distress, her doctor ordered an emergency C-section. The procedure was successful and Melissa soon gave birth to a beautiful girl. Tragically, Melissa died at home a few days later when a clot broke free and caused a stroke. Since the hospital was not required by law to follow identified best practices for post-surgical care, she was sent home too early. As a result, her death was not recorded as a maternal death because maternal loss due to adverse events is not reportable per Arizona law.

Since 2000, the world has been marshalling efforts to reduce maternal mortality across the globe. While significant progress has been made in most countries, there are still almost 280,000 women like Melissa who die every year due to pregnancy-related causes. The United States is one of the few countries that has gotten worse; we have slipped by the largest margin of any country. To put this into perspective, more women in the United Sates have died in childbirth since 2001 than soldiers have died in war. Think about that number for a minute. Even with several active war zones, twice as many women have died in childbirth.

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Perhaps the reason that fewer soldiers die is because we have improved triage care on the battlefield. This may be true, but it doesn’t fully explain the difference. The underlying difference between the two is the degree of emphasis placed on reducing these losses. On the military front, we have invested and continue to invest substantial resources to care for those who protect our country, and rightfully so. However, relatively little is spent on protecting those who give birth to it. The sad part is that most of these maternal deaths are preventable.   

How have several European countries nearly eliminated maternal deaths?  What limits our maternal healthcare system from being as robust? Here in the U.S., maternal deaths are still thought of as a private loss. We feel bad for those who have lost a loved one, but we fail to recognize the enormous loss to our society as a whole. Keeping this a private matter limits what we are willing to demand publicly in order to create a safer environment for women. For example, are companies required to provide paid time off for mothers? Without public support, mothers are forced to bear all the risks of childbirth.

Here in the U.S., the problem is practically invisible and goes unaddressed. It’s time to publicly recognize these losses. In order to raise public consciousness about these losses, increase support for laws that will improve maternal care, we need to help people see what families and communities have lost, both at home and around the globe.

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Why build a memorial? Wouldn’t it be better to simply invest more money in public health? If money or technology were the problem, then yes, this would be the solution. However, availability of healthcare is not a key challenge in the U.S., but access is. While memorials may not directly solve problems, they allow us to contemplate our personal responsibility to act and create solutions. They symbolize what matters to society, what we value, and demonstrate our will to do something about it.

Mother’s Monument exists to build memorials to publicly recognize the loss of mothers in childbirth. We will not forget their sacrifice. Beyond that, through the process of building a memorial, a community can come together to solve these problems. It is possible to create a world where we all focus on finding collective solutions to environmental and community-wide issues, a world where we can save the greatest number of lives.

It starts with a monument, brings together a community, and changes a mother’s world. Get involved at MothersMonument.org

About the Mothers Monument Project: 

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The Mothers Monument Project is a non-profit organization dedicated to building memorials to publicly recognize the loss of mothers in childbirth. Public memorials draw attention to causes, values and hopes, and they teach us how to react to the sacrifices of our fellow humans. Our hope is that by creating these monuments, we can help create the awareness and solidarity necessary for us to act as a community to find solutions to both environmental and community-wide issues affecting these women.

Every Person Has a Right to Health

My mother, Azucena Escoto, lived a life typical of women in Nicaragua’s impoverished rural communities.  Married and a mother at the age of 16, she became the sole provider for her young family of seven children when my father left us just ten years later.

The town I grew up in, Mina El Limon, is built around a gold mine.  The people who own the mine are wealthy, but like most of the people in the village, my mother earned less than $1 a day.  Determined to give her children a chance to rise above a life of poverty, Azucena looked for work outside of our village and took a job in the capital city of Managua. The city is a three-hour bus ride from Mina El Limon, so Azucena decided to leave us in the care of my grandma while she worked in the city. My mom returned home for a couple of days every month – proudly handing over her monthly salary of $160.

Even though I was just a baby when she left and my life in Mina El Limon was easier because of Azucena’s hard work – I never stopped missing her.  I was always planning for the day she would be back for good, and my dreams were filled with all of the things we would do together – just like other girls. In late 2006, when I turned 16, my mom finally returned home. However, it was not the joyful reunion we expected. Azucena was stricken by sudden weight loss and severe pain. Too weak to continue working, she finally made her way to a hospital where she learned she had cervical cancer. According to the diagnosis, the cancer was advanced, and she would have about a year left to live.

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Azucena, realizing her family depended on her for survival, convinced the doctor to admit her to the country’s one public hospital that treats women with cervical cancer. As I was going through high school, I experienced her suffering as she struggled through painful episodes of chemotherapy.  Now my dreams revolved around miracle treatments that would make her healthy again. Azucena returned to work but continued to decline and eventually was fired from her job. She went back to the hospital for another diagnosis and found out cancer had invaded her colon and stomach. Despite the immense courage Azucena showed in the face of the disease, she lost her battle to cervical cancer and died at the young age of 48 – just weeks before I graduated from high school.

After watching her torturous battle and death from cervical cancer, I began to dream about finding a way to keep more children from losing their mothers to this horrible disease. I earned a scholarship to the university determined to learn everything I could about cervical cancer and in 2013 graduated with a degree in clinical bioanalysis focused on epidemiology. Cervical cancer is a slow-growing cancer caused by HPV, the most common sexually transmitted infection.  In the United States and other developed countries pre-cancerous cells are detected by PAP tests and easily treated.  Death from cervical cancer is one of the greatest health inequities in the world  – with 85% of deaths occurring in developing countries, which lack access to the most basic proactive health measures for women.

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As I shared the knowledge that cervical cancer, a preventable disease, is the #1 cancer killer and a leading cause of death of women in Nicaragua, it was easy to enlist others to make this dream a reality.  We launched The Lily Project in 2014, motivated by a simple belief: every person has a right to health. Named in honor of Azucena, Lily in English, we deploy a simple ‘screen and treat’ procedure endorsed by the WHO for low resource countries.  The procedure is beautiful in its simplicity: a trained health technician swabs a women’s cervix with vinegar (acetic acid); infected cells, if any, become white, and cryotherapy is performed to freeze and destroy the abnormal tissue.  Since the beginning of the year, we have worked in rural villages in Nicaragua, similar to where I grew up, screening over 600 women and providing life-saving treatment to 60 who had precancerous cells.  Dreams have turned into plans and with the help of the Friends of Lily, by 2020 The Lily Project will prevent cervical cancer for more than 200,000 impoverished women living in rural villages throughout Central America.

Today we are in a capital-raising campaign to purchase trucks and equipment to outfit our version of a mobile health clinic.  To learn more and donate to our campaign, please visit: http://www.thelilyproject.org/get-involved.html.

 

About the blogger: 

Anielka is the founder of The Lily Project. Her experience growing up in rural Nicaragua serves as the foundation for the vision of the project. Beating all odds, Anielka was accepted to the Autonomous University of Nicaragua-Leon (UNAN), where she studied bioanalysis with a focus on cytology. During an internship with the foremost trainer in Nicaragua of VIA and cryotherapy, Dr. Sonia Cabeza, she was fully trained on the use of visualization and cryotherapy. Visualization and cryotherapy are the most effective tools for early detection and treatment of HPV, the leading cause of cervical cancer. Anielka is now responsible for the overall development of the strategy and delivery of the detection and treatment to the rural communities in Nicaragua.

Its Never Too Late

Vietnam changed my life – Twice! The first time I was an infantry platoon leader immersed in one of the United States’ longest and ugliest wars. I lost my innocence. At 24-years old I learned violence and commanded violent men, who wrought brutality on people different from us. But at the time we thought that we were doing something noble because our country asked it of us.

The second time Vietnam changed my life I was in my 60s and had returned with my wife, Elaine Head, on a journey of reconciliation. I hoped to expunge my ghosts. And as I did. We discovered a Vietnam that was vastly different from the one I had known four decades earlier.  We found peace and forgiveness, and overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming people in a beautiful, yet bewildering country. We found a culture of contradictions: Communist government and Capitalist economy, modern cities and dirt poor villages, cell phones and computers juxtaposed against hand-lifted rail crossing barriers.

Boats at anchor in the Thu Bon River, Hoi An.

Boats at anchor in the Thu Bon River, Hoi An.

We also found a country rife with social problems: poverty, disease, repression, corruption, a disproportionately high number of people with disability (PWD), male dominance, and child trafficking. But for me, two of the more compelling issues are legacies of the war.

  • Thousands of people suffering from the lasting effects of Agent Orange, the herbicide sprayed on the countryside by U.S. forces. Those who are affected include people who were alive during the war, as well as many second and third generation victims who suffer horrendous birth defects and deformities.
  • Rural areas vastly contaminated by unexploded ordnance left over from the war. As a result, hundreds of people, mostly children, are killed and maimed each year when they handle old bombs and artillery shells.

None of these scars are hidden in Vietnam, although sufferers of leprosy are still somewhat ghettoized. The stark realities that we encountered in remote villages and on city streets tore at our aging hearts. We had planned a placid retirement in our idyllic island community on Canada’s West Coast. Instead we threw ourselves headlong into volunteer work in Vietnam.

We discovered a social enterprize that specializes in helping PWD learn marketable skills as artisans and crafts persons and thus become integrated as productive members of society. We decided we wanted to help, but what could two people in their 60s with no experience in arts and crafts contribute? After all, most volunteers working for NGOs in Asia are young, zealous, idealistic and fresh out of university.

Women at Reaching Out creating beautiful fabric art.

To our surprise, Binh (who is a wheel chair user himself) and his wife Quyen, the founders of Reaching Out, were enthusiastic about our business and management skills and welcomed us into their fold, encouraging us to come each year and stay for three months at a time.

We have now been traveling to and living in Vietnam every year for nine years. We  have been making a difference despite, or maybe because of, our age and experience.

  • Reaching Out Vietnam in the city of Hoi An, where we work as business advisors and customer service trainers, has grown from modest beginnings twelve years ago to 65 employees, all of them enjoying a standard of living they would not have thought possible before.
  • The Hoi An chapter of VAVA (an Agent Orange victims’ assistance agency) has, at our behest and with funds we raise from other American veterans of the Vietnam War, initiated a micro-loan program which enables victims to create small business and become independent.
  • Through our work with Children’s Education Foundation Vietnam, our fundraising  efforts and organizational skills have helped more girls stay in school, thus reducing their vulnerability to trafficking.

So it’s never too late to begin in a small way to have an impact. If you want to know more about what we do, better yet, help us in our efforts, you can order a print version of our book, Back to Vietnam: Tours of the Heart. You can also order a Kindle version from Amazon.com. All proceeds will go toward helping the disenfranchised in Vietnam.

About the Blogger:

R. Bruce Logan is a retired U.S. Army officer. He served two one-year tours of duty in Vietnam during the 60’s and early 70’s. Since 2006, he and his wife, Elaine Head, have been engaged in doing humanitarian work among the marginalized in Vietnam. Together they have written a book describing their experiences, Back to Vietnam: Tours of the Heart, published in 2013. Bruce has recently completed a draft for a second book, Finding Lien, a novel dealing with the issue of child trafficking in Vietnam and Cambodia. Bruce and Elaine live on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia when not in Hoi An, Vietnam, which has become their second home. 

Eliane and Bruce

Elaine and Bruce

 

 

HELP: It sounds like a miracle, but it isn’t

Elice Oreste grew up in a remote, mountainous region of Haiti called Labiche. When he was born, Labiche had no roads, no utilities and no schools. Few in his community, including his parents, had ever been to school. Luckily for Elice, a local resident who had been educated, came back to the area and started a primary school. The first year, it had one room, the second year, two rooms, and so on. Elice’s mother said that since she had never spent a single day in school, when Elice started school she could only give him a pencil, a notebook and a prayer.

Elice lived with his parents and four siblings in a two room house; they got by on the revenues from his parents small plot of land but things were always tight in Labiche so people made do with what they had. Elice developed an early interest in music, and at the age of 12 he built his first guitar from scrap wood.

Luckily for Elice, just as he graduated at the top of his class in primary school, the government built the region’s first-ever secondary school in neighboring Grigri. However, it was a two hour walk from his house, each way. Elice did that walk every school day for five years and still finished high school with a straight-A average.

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But university was out of the question. Not only had no one in Labiche ever been to university, Elice’s family could barely afford to pay for the seven hour bus ride to the capital, let alone books or housing or tuition. So he apprenticed himself to a local carpenter at a monthly salary of $50. Elice’s life was pretty much set. He would apprentice at the same salary until he was ready to go out on his own and maybe end up making $200 a month.

One day HELP (Haitian Education & Leadership Program)  showed up at the high school in Gris Gris, offering university scholarships for straight-A students. The Principal said he didn’t have any that year but he told them about Elice who had just graduated the year prior, and we left an application. Thankfully, Elice got the application and that September he began an industrial engineering degree at Haiti’s oldest private university. At school he was consistently on the Dean’s List and when he graduated in 2014, he secured a summer internship with an energy company in Green Bay, Wisconsin. On his return to Haiti Elice found a job as junior maintenance engineer at the local Heineken brewery at a starting salary of $18,000 a year – 30 times what he had made as an apprentice.

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Despite his success, Elice remains attached to his humble roots and committed to improving his hometown. He returns often to Labiche where he has transformed a musical group he started with some friends into a educational and charitable group which awards prizes for the top local students and distributes food to the most needy, who Elice describes as “those that haven’t eaten in two or three days.”

When Elice talks about his story he says, “It sounds like a miracle, but it isn’t. It’s real. And we are only just beginning. We are going to change Labiche, and we are going to change Haiti.”

Call to Action!

We are losing more than 30 scholarships from institutional funders this year. Despite a record 291 straight-A applicants, we can only admit 20 freshmen next month, our smallest class in five years. It will also be the first time in HELP’s history that student enrollment will shrink from one year to the next. With 160 students, HELP is still strong but we would like to be stronger to provide opportunity to an increasing number of students.

Help make a difference by donating and sharing this blog with your friends and family!

 

About the Blogger:

Conor Bohan, HELP Founder & Executive Director, lived and worked in Haiti from 1996 to 2008. Under his leadership, HELP has grown from a single student to the largest university scholarship program in Haiti. In addition to growing HELP, he was a volunteer teacher, Deputy Director of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Haiti, and Director of Haiti Programs for the American Institutes for Research (AIR). Conor has a B.A. in History from Brown University and was named one of the Hemisphere’s Innovators by Americas Quarterly Magazine and is a recent Ashoka Fellow.

Your voice matters on Capitol Hill

A friend of mine took her first job in a congressional office this spring, after many years working in D.C. “What surprised you most behind the scenes on Capitol Hill?” I asked her just a few weeks into the new role. Without missing a beat, she answered, “How much influence just one constituent can have.”

That’s not the standard line about Washington. But it’s the one I hear every day in my job at RESULTS. I hear it from our volunteers across the country who experience the same thing from the other side – as constituents.

People like Barbara in Miami, Ginnie in Columbus, and Andy in Tacoma are the heart of RESULTS, a movement of passionate, committed everyday people. Each of them is that “one constituent” asking local members of Congress to prioritize the things that matter: things like health, education, and economic opportunity. Together they use their voices to influence political decisions that will bring an end to poverty.

RESULTS volunteers on the steps of the U.S. Capitol

RESULTS volunteers on the steps of the U.S. Capitol

When our volunteers call their members of Congress, it’s not from a fancy lobbying firm. It’s from their cell phones, on their lunch breaks, or between classes. And when they meet their members of Congress, it’s as a voter who Congress was elected to represent.

It’s not always easy at first; but they get detailed training and support from RESULTS staff in Washington and a network of volunteers across the country. Minh, a graduate student in Houston, had never spoken to a member of Congress at this time last year. After practicing all night for one of his first congressional meetings, he said, “I was nervous to the point that I was visibly shaking.”

Minh went anyway. And he got hooked. A year later, Minh’s already had a whopping 12 face-to-face meetings with members of Congress and another 16 with their staff.

Volunteers learn to work with the media, too. Last year, I watched in awe as Bob got published in the New York Times, Lisa was in the Washington Post, and Willie was in TIME magazine. They’re not PR professionals or journalists. They’re volunteers writing their letters and op-eds at home, often with multiple drafts and tracked changes (kind of like how I’m writing this blog post).

Volunteer advocates bringing their message on vaccines to the U.S. Senate

Volunteer advocates bringing their message on vaccines to the U.S. Senate

Not more than a year ago, a volunteer told me she was almost in tears because writing her first letter to the editor seemed so daunting. Since then she’s had over a dozen published in the biggest papers in her state.

They do all this because they’ve seen the power of advocacy: by helping shift government policies and investments, their work touches the lives of millions.

Our volunteers come to RESULTS for all different reasons…

  • Some collect donations for local food pantries, and now also push Congress to support SNAP (formerly “food stamps”), a program helping millions of hardworking American families put food on the table.
  • Others trick-or-treated for UNICEF as kids. Now they ask Congress to do its part by investing billions of dollars in the world’s most vulnerable children.
  • A handful of them are even teachers who spend their days in the classroom, and spend their nights calling on the President to support quality education for all.

And their voices are changing the world. Just this last year, RESULTS advocates helped fight back billions of dollars in proposed cuts to SNAP. They helped secure landmark investments from our government to support the world making sure every child has access to vaccines and every child has access to education. Together they’re helping make the end of poverty a bipartisan priority, call-by-call, letter-by-letter, meeting-by-meeting.

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How about you? What issues do you care about? Want to multiply your impact across the country and around the world?

Join us at the RESULTS International Conference next month in Washington, D.C., to learn new skills, meet advocates from around the world, and take your message straight to Capitol Hill. Don’t know how advocacy works? Come anyway – we’ll learn together.

**Exclusive A Path Appears discount for the RESULTS Conference, enter “IC100” at registration.

About the blogger

Colin Smith is the Director of Communications for RESULTS and RESULTS Educational Fund, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. Every day he gets to come to work to support a network of passionate, committed every-day people across the country who are using their voices to change the world.

 

One World. One Story.

I’m the fourth generation of a newspaper family. My great-grandfather saw journalism as a public service and passed that journalistic tradition to my grandfather, and then to my father.

As an intern at the family papers, I decided I wanted to be a photojournalist. My career started in Rwanda in 1994 – a sinister time in the country’s history. The human wreckage from the genocide taught me about the brutality that people can inflict on one another.

1994 was the beginning of a decade spent mostly in war zones: Rwanda, Burundi, Zaire, Chiapas, Russia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Afghanistan, Gaza and Iraq. As I gained experience, I learned that my photographs could connect people who would never witness violence firsthand to those who are caught in its vortex.

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Molly when she was an Intern

In 2003, days before the invasion of Iraq, I headed to Baghdad. Early in the morning on March 25th, I was surrounded in the hotel lobby by several Iraqi men. They were members of Saddam Hussein’s highly feared Iraqi intelligence.

They held me and four other Westerners at gunpoint and we were driven to a walled compound outside Baghdad – Abu Ghraib. I was stripped of my possessions, given a prison uniform, and placed in solitary confinement. My country was invading theirs. They were accusing me of being a spy. I knew that this might not end well.

Each day I was blindfolded, led by the elbow from my cell down a long concrete path to a carpeted room. Each time I realized it was possible I was being led to my execution. Each time I discovered that it was only for interrogation.

Eventually, after eight days, all five of us were released unharmed. The visceral experience of that week has faded, but how it challenged me remains. I emerged from Abu Ghraib with a fresh appreciation of the brevity of our time on Earth. I found myself reflecting on what my greatest life contribution might be and how I might make it.

Orb was my answer to my questions.

I’ve spent most of my career covering conflict around the world. I’ve seen how societies are shredded – and how it often takes generations to recover.

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One of Molly’s earlier photos from Rwanda.

Our global resources are finite and our population is rising. There’s no disputing the challenge this presents us as a human community. Oftentimes, our world settles disputes about limited resources through conflict.

We are also presented with tremendous opportunities through innovation. As an example – we’re more connected than ever, thanks to the wild digital renaissance of the last thirty years. In order to manage our global opportunities and our risks, we need to be able to collaborate as a single human community.

Nationally and culturally driven narratives in journalism produce a fragmented image of our world, hindering our ability to see that, in spite of our differences, we share a core that profoundly outweighs them. To understand that collaboration is in our own best interests, we need to recognize the reality of how interconnected we truly are.

Journalism has a role to play here. Uniquely tasked with helping us interpret our world – in real time as events unfold – journalism has the power and the responsibility to shape our narrative about our world.

I founded Orb to deliver journalism to a global audience that unifies us around our human story. Orb’s stories reveal the stake we each have in our global challenges and opportunities, and help us see our interconnection more clearly. By demonstrating our interdependence, Orb fosters our sense of membership in one human community.

It’s early days at Orb, but I invite you to check out Orb’s very first story, released earlier this month, and to join Orb on this journey.

About the Blogger: 

Molly is the driving force behind Orb. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, photographer and journalist, Molly has covered news and conflicts around the globe. Her work has been featured in leading media outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Rolling Stone. She was recently named by the Columbia Journalism Review as one of “20 Women to Watch” in 2012. 

Watch Molly talk about the genesis of Orb in her TEDx talk.

Molly Bingham

The Case for Clearing the Rape Kit Backlog

Thirty years ago, I was the victim of a violent crime I did not expect to survive. Two men came through my window. They had a knife. I was blindfolded and tied up with a phone cord. It was terrifying and dehumanizing, and I probably survived because the blindfold kept me from identifying them. After ransacking the apartment and raping me repeatedly, they disappeared into the night.

I was left torn and bitten, so I sought treatment at the hospital where I had a rape kit examination conducted. Two detectives interviewed me once, but there was no follow-up. At the time, it didn’t matter that it seemed there was little effort to solve my case. It felt irrelevant to the monumental task of trying to pick up the pieces of my life. But later, much later, it mattered. It mattered a lot.

CAMPUS SEX ASSAULT EXAMS

I closed a chapter this month on an almost 10-year search for my rape kit and the information it might have contained. The information rape kits hold reaches far beyond whether prosecution is still possible. Had the kit been found and the DNA tested, I might know who my attackers were, what happened to them, or whether they were in jail for other crimes. Why does this matter to me, and what would it mean three decades later? Why are we all hearing so much more about this thing called the rape kit backlog?


A few years ago, I was invited to Washington D.C. to be part of a focus group meant to advise cities beginning to address their backlog – 10,000 plus untested in Detroit alone. They hoped to understand what it might be like for someone to hear decades later that their rape kit had finally been tested and their rapist identified. What information might people need to prepare themselves? How would they be informed? Would it open up wounds that might have healed?

We were chosen because delayed rape kit testing had extraordinarily impacted us. In almost every case but mine, the identity of the rapist had been discovered when kits were taken off shelves and run through the national DNA database years later. Their stories were some of the worst I had ever heard and I remember feeling shocked on the one hand, but also so tremendously happy to have found my peer group. I was no longer alone.

In many cases, rapists had committed numerous subsequent crimes that could have been prevented had the kits been tested sooner. The investigations were also traumatic – victims were disbelieved, some cases even closed within weeks.

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In 2007, the Boston Globe reported that there were 6,000 plus untested rape kits “found” in the State Crime Lab, dating as far back as the mid 1980s. I wondered, could my kit be there? Is that why I never heard from the police?

During my multi-year search, I was told that my kit was definitely not in the backlog since the Boston Crime lab was up to date with testing. Nevertheless, when I asked whether mine was ever tested, I was told it was missing.

Along my journey, there were many dismissive comments from people who were supposed to enforce the law and protect victims. I was told that since they couldn’t test for DNA until the mid-1990s and the statute of limitations would have passed, my kit wouldn’t have been a priority.

I thought about stopping my search, but then I would think about my peer group – hearing their stories and the years they waited for a speck of information. I saw how that pain turned a slight corner when their kits were tested and their rapists identified. It meant so much to them that their attackers were in jail or that they could testify in current rape trials or sentencing hearings; knowing that their attackers couldn’t hurt them or anyone else again; knowing their names.

I admit I felt a tad jealous of my newfound friends. They hadn’t healed completely either, but they had that one little bit of peace, and I wanted it too. So I kept looking.

This week it was finally confirmed that my kit was most certainly thrown away and the available evidence in my file yielded no usable information to identify my attackers. I’m at the end of a long road, but I want the journey to mean something. Victims deserve to have their crimes attended to for so many reasons.

Michelle with her daughter

Michelle with her daughter

Conviction rates in NYC for rapes are higher than any other city because they test all rape kits now. Significant numbers of serial rapists have been identified now that Detroit is going through its backlog. Same in Dallas. Same in Memphis. Same in Houston. In Cleveland last year, a mother was told the identity of the man who had raped and murdered her daughter 29 years ago after thousands of backlogged kits were tested.

The rape kit backlog is emblematic of what we mean when we say “rape culture” and I am hoping to give it a face. Rape is the most underreported felony, the least successfully prosecuted, yet it changes victim’s lives forever. The implications of ignoring DNA evidence are simply staggering. Let’s work to clear warehouses across the country of backlogged kits, and begin to change the way we respond to victims of this violent felony. It’s a place to start.

About the blogger:
 Michelle Bowdler is the Senior Director of Health & Wellness at Tufts University, where part of her role involves oversight of sexual assault prevention and education and clinical response efforts. She has been involved in advocacy work on the rape kit backlog issue and is currently an Advocacy Partner for the Rape Kit Action Project, a national effort among RAINN, Natasha’s Justice Project and the National Center for Victims of Crime to educate the public on the impact of delayed rape kit testing.

Addressing Childhood Exposure to Domestic Violence

Emerging from an abusive relationship, Denise wanted her three children to leave that life behind, too. And giving them the resources they need to help them avoid the same path in their own lives was just as important.

Childhood exposure to domestic violence (DV) often has adverse effects on a child’s development and well-being. Children who are exposed to DV are at greater risk of developing attachment disorders and emotional disorders that have long-term impacts on their success in relationships. Exposed children are at increased risk for developing depression and anxiety and often demonstrate behavioral problems like aggression, non-compliance in school, and delinquency. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy for a parent escaping family violence to talk to their children about it, or vise versa, especially when the pain is still fresh. Additionally, many parents don’t have the tools on their own to address the negative effects of violence they may already be seeing. Knowing the effects this exposure has on kids, we saw a growing need to help them heal and to limit the effects of the violence on their lives going forward.

That’s why we created Camp PEACE, a Women’s Resource Center to End Domestic Violence program that brings children exposed to domestic violence together for a month of activities that facilitate Peace Education, Action, Compassion and Empathy (PEACE). Based on principles of Peace Education and Cognitively-Based Compassion Training, through Camp PEACE we help children learn alternatives to violence while promoting tolerance, impartiality, affection, self-compassion and compassion for others.

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“My kids still talk about it today,” said Denise, whose children attended the camp last year. “The No. 1 thing they got out of it was learning to have compassion for other people — learning how actions affect everyone around you.”

Her children aren’t just talking about the Camp experience, they’re living it, Denise said. Meditation skills help them through tough days, as do breathing techniques and tai chi, an ancient Chinese tradition introduced at the Camp as a way to reduce stress. The children wear their Camp PEACE T-shirts, use the meditation CD and share photographs from the Camp.

“I never thought meditation could have such a positive impact on kids,” Denise said.

Denise credits Women’s Resource Center and the Camp with more than the impact on her children’s lives. For example, volunteers from the Center picked Denise’s children up each day for Camp, giving her not only peace of mind, but more time to focus on her own work and life.

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She and her children are looking forward to an extended version of Camp PEACE this year that offers two sessions of five weeks of Camp activities including coping activities and new experiences like farming and other activities outside of their daily life, like tasting goat’s milk. It’s not only good for the three children, it gives Denise free daycare and keeps her children learning and engaged.

“For me, Camp PEACE is knowing that my kids are learning something that I can’t really teach them, such as meditation and farming,” Denise said. “These are areas I don’t know about. It gives me peace to know that they are learning things I never learned as a child.”

About the blogger:
 
Jean Douglas has served as Executive Director of Women’s Resource Center to End Domestic Violence for more than 15 years. She has become known and recognized in Atlanta as a leader on the subjects of domestic violence and women’s issues. She has served on the Boards of the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which envisions a Georgia free of domestic violence, and Georgia’s WIN List, a political action committee dedicated to electing women who advocate for women’s issues, and as a member of the DeKalb County Domestic Violence Task Force.