Saving the world – one person at a time

Everyday people, not just billionaires, can make a big difference in people's lives.

Warren Buffet recently donated $31 billion to the Gates Foundation, representing the largest charitable donation in United States history.

It's wonderful to see people with tremendous resources do great good. I was also struck by the apparent glee with which Mr. Buffet made this decision. It was as if he had decided not only to make a difference in the world, but also to enjoy doing it.

Most people would like to have the resources of a Warren Buffet. And I believe many would like to be able to make the kind of positive impact that a person can make with the benefit of great wealth. People often say, "If I won the lottery I would..." And then they mention a charitable act they would perform if they had enough. They might send a relative's child to college, build pure-water systems in thirdworld countries, or support a homeless shelter.

I work in schools where the need is great, and I often wished that I could help some of the kids I worked with. If I were to win the lottery, I thought, I'd have enough to do the things that seemed generous beyond my means.

But one day as I talked with one of my little clients about my life and my children, I realized that, in his eyes, I had more than he could imagine! It gave me a quick jolt of insight into what is important and what is enough. That summer his teacher and I sent the little boy to camp. He and his mom were homeless, and it was the first time in ages that he had spent so many nights in the same bed.

The wonderful but perhaps daunting truth is that right under each of our noses is some act, more powerful than we might realize, that in one person's life could make a huge difference. My work brings me into a community where the need is great, but the opportunity to make big differences with small acts is even greater.

Looking at the big picture, there are so many problems in the world and so much need that it can be overwhelming. Some evenings, by the end of the TV news, I'm exhausted, left wondering whether I should donate a kidney, adopt an orphan, or write my congressman.

People call it compassion burnout. When the task seems too great we sometimes shield ourselves by giving up, or we stop caring.

Earlier this year I tested a 9-year-old boy who was reading poorly. English was not his first language, and Luis had other obstacles as well. He did, however, have a gift for spatial reasoning and made wonderful drawings. The few hours we spent together must have meant something to him, for each time I saw him after that he waved as if we were old friends.

Then the week before school was out I watched one of those newscasts that left me with that wrenching sense of powerlessness. I could not pull off some heroic trip to the neediest corner of the world, but then I was reminded of Luis and other children I worked with. If I could make a small difference closer to home; maybe I was not completely powerless. So with a very small investment, I went shopping and found items for several kids who needed a cheerleader in their corner. On the last day of school I called each in and gave them a journal, a sketchbook, colored pencils, and markers. And with each went the message, "You have a special gift, and I hope this helps you develop it."

The kids were pleased with the gifts, but Luis's reaction was the best. I asked if he knew what the word encouragement meant, and he responded easily. "It means putting courage into someone when they don't feel so strong." WOW! Mr. Buffet will be able to help millions of people, but millions of us can do it, too – one person at a time.

Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.

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