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Difference Maker

Marc Gold travels Asia paying it forward through little acts of kindness

'Shoestring philanthropist' Gold pairs tiny but powerful donations with acts of kindness

By Tibor Krausz/ Correspondent / April 4, 2011

Marc Gold, a retired college professor from San Francisco, poses in a Bangkok slum with some of the Muslim Thai children whose education he helps to sponsor. ‘I thought you had to be rich to do such things,’ he says of his charitable giving, then ‘I realized I had the power to help change people’s lives.’

Tibor Krausz

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Bangkok, Thailand

Marc Gold spends most of his time on the road. One month he may be in India or Afghanistan; the next he's in Cambodia or Vietnam, both of which he's visited numerous times.

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But he doesn't travel to see the sights. The retired community-college professor from San Francisco pursues his own brand of tourism: philanthropic travel.

"I go where the poor people are," Mr. Gold says.

He slogs muddy dirt tracks to far-flung Tibetan villages, scouts garbage heaps teeming with destitute scavengers in Indo­nesia, and legs it around slums in India.

Everywhere he goes, Gold performs acts of kindness, both random and preplanned. He hands out soccer balls and art supplies to children at a Tibetan orphanage. He helps an elderly scavenger in Sulawesi, Indonesia, open a small grocery store. He buys a year's supply of rice for battered women at a shelter in Jaipur, India.

He rarely spends more than a few hundred dollars. "For people who live on a dollar or less a day, $50 can make a big difference," says Gold, who has been dubbed "the shoestring philanthropist."

As little as $10, he adds, can get a poor child into school. "Imagine saving a woman's life for a dollar, the price of a candy bar [in the US]," he says.

He may have done that in 1989. While visiting Darjeeling in the Indian Himalayas as a tourist, he befriended a young Tibetan refugee and his wife, who kept nursing her ears. Gold, who trained as a psychiatrist, thought she could have a serious ear infection. He found her a doctor and paid for antibiotics, which cost $1. Another $30 got her a hearing aid. She squealed with delight at being able to hear again.

That led to an epiphany. "I'd thought you had to be rich to do such things," he recalls. "I realized I had the power to help change people's lives."

Back home, he asked a hundred friends for small donations and was soon back in India with $2,200. He then set up a nonprofit charity and called it 100 Friends.

Two decades later, 100 Friends has some 4,000 members worldwide, and last year Gold raised $200,000. He continues fundraising via his portable office: a laptop, a digital camera, and a cellphone.

"This is 80 percent of what I own," Gold says during a stopover in Bangkok, pointing at two duffel bags stuffed with his clothes, dog-eared paperbacks, and his large collection of wacky rubber masks.The latter he uses for clowning around with children from Tibet to Thailand. "I don't need much, and I'm free."

A divorcee with two adult sons, Gold took early retirement in 2003 and began devoting himself full time to his mission.

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