Daniel Karslake had heard time and again about the challenges of hunger and extreme poverty experienced around the globe.
But it was during an annual event in 2006 at the Chautauqua Institution, a nonprofit adult education center in southwestern New York State, that the true gravity of the social problem became clear to the filmmaker.
He was listening to a sermon by a minister in which he shared these sobering statistics: Every three seconds someone in the world dies from factors related to extreme poverty – some 30,000 people each day, 10.5 million every year.
"I stopped hearing him and just thought, how is this possible?" Mr. Karslake recalls. "To know that 30,000 people were dying a day was really stunning to me."
Karslake also remembered a second part of the minister's message: Hunger and extreme poverty are both completely solvable problems.
Frustrated, he began to ponder why, given that a solution is possible, poverty could still be so severe.
That's when he decided to get involved.
Today Karslake is the director, writer, and producer of "Every Three Seconds," a documentary film that profiles five ordinary people from countries around the world who have asked themselves the same question and found remarkable, yet simple, ways to "get involved" and make a difference.
From gleaning fields to gather fresh produce for the hungry in North Carolina to launching the largest microfinance institution in Kenya, the activities of the five individuals in the film are as diverse as they are inspiring. Each person brings a unique background, Karslake says, allowing ample opportunities for viewers to connect with their stories.
The film illustrates that the ability to make a difference is not dependent upon a person's age, occupation, or cultural background, he says. "We all have a role," he says, "and the possibility of [making] a huge impact."
In 2007, Karslake, a Pennsylvania native, was making public appearances to promote his award-winning documentary film "For the Bible Tells Me So." During a screening at Stanford University near Palo Alto, Calif., he began to talk to people about the idea of making a new film about eliminating hunger and extreme poverty.
In January 2008, Stanford made Karslake a visiting scholar, giving him a stipend, an office, and, most important, a library card.
"I stopped taking gigs for the Bible piece, and I just read and spoke endlessly to students and people I met about this issue and what they thought," he says. "I emerged from that experience knowing that it had to be a story about people who were engaging" with the problem.
He approached his film with two questions: "How do you tell people that [a problem] is solvable in a way that people believe? And how do you encourage them to make a difference versus just brushing it off?"
He sought to answer these questions by telling the stories of five people. "None of them were particularly activists," he says, but then "something happened to each of them where they saw a problem and saw a way they could have a role in a small part of the solution."
The result is a film geared toward a general audience, not necessarily those already committed to taking action.
"This is not a movie for people involved in the issues," he says. "This is a movie for the public."
Many of those who learn about the extent of hunger and extreme poverty can be overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem and could walk away feeling helpless, Karslake points out.
Instead, he hopes his film inspires them. "This is not a movie about guilting people into solving hunger," he says. "This is a movie about the greatest blessing we can ever imagine achieving."
Eradicating hunger and extreme poverty at the global level can be accomplished little by little, he says, a point that is made in the film.
It took Karslake a year to edit down the more than 250 hours of footage he had shot. The film has since been completed and screened on a limited basis, though Karslake is still in the process of planning a wider release. The end of the film features an opportunity for viewers to engage with the people in the film: Texting a special number provides viewers with a set of opportunities to get involved in the work.
"People leave the theater and want to know what they can do," he says.
The timing of the release could not be better, Karslake says. "This is the issue of our time. I think the film is coming out at a time that is emerging as a zeitgeist for the world."
The film profiles the following five individuals:
•Charlie Simpson, who, when he was 7 years old, prodded his family into supporting the efforts of UNICEF UK in Haiti after the catastrophic earthquake in that country on Jan. 12, 2010.
•Josh Nesbit, who interned in a small health clinic in Malawi and then founded Hope Phones, which teaches health volunteers how to use recycled cellphones to communicate health information more efficiently.
•Lisa Shannon, who raises awareness in the United States of the forgotten humanitarian crisis in Congo. Her Run for Congo Women is now an international movement that aids more than 1,400 women in the war-torn country through Women for Women International.
•Ingrid Munro, who runs Jamii Bora Bank, founded in 1999 and now the largest microfinance institution in Kenya, with more than 170,000 members. "One cannot lift a person out of poverty," Ms. Munro says. "What we offer … is access to a ladder that [women] can climb up to take themselves out of poverty. But the climbing they must do themselves."
•Gloria Henderson, who organizes the gleaning of farmland in North Carolina with the Society of St. Andrew, a Christian hunger ministry that salvages fresh produce and delivers it to soup kitchens and food banks across the US. "I hope [the film helps] make other people aware of the hunger that's in America," she says, "and maybe it will inspire someone who's not involved to get involved."
Sheri Heitker, a co-executive producer of the film, believes Karslake's movie will strike a chord.
" 'Every Three Seconds' will do so much more than just bring attention to the problem," she says. "There are many myths and outdated positions about this issue, [and the film] will help to dispel those.
"We are in a time when many of us feel powerless over many circumstances and issues in the world," she says. "The audience of 'Every Three Seconds' will see that just by acting on what touches their hearts they can make a difference to end poverty and hunger."
Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and the director of the Greater Good Science Center there, is featured as an expert in the film, discussing the effects of altruism on the human body.
"Every Three Seconds" is a way to motivate viewers to action and provide ways to make a real difference, Dr. Keltner says. "For a lot of people, it will orient them to what they should do to make the world a little better. I think it is going to make a big difference and give people concrete tools to give," he says.
Michael Huffington, who served as a producer for the film, saw his participation as a way to make his own contribution. "I felt that it was a better investment ... than just giving money to homeless individuals that I met on the street," he says. "This film leverages all of our contributions a hundredfold."
Karslake "is an incredibly talented and creative individual who produces and directs films that focus the spotlight on issues that need to be brought to the attention of the public at large," Mr. Huffington adds. "He is a man of deep spirituality who cares more about helping other people in this world than he cares about himself."
In an interview at his Newark, N.J., home, Karslake explains his hope that the five people profiled will serve as examples of what a single person can do, no matter how large or complex a problem seems to be. "Five people working incrementally can make a difference," he says, smiling. "Five million people working incrementally can change the world."
• For more on Daniel Karslake and "Every Three Seconds," visit everythreeseconds.org.
Ways that you can make a difference
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• Miracles In Action provides Guatemalans in extreme poverty with opportunities to help themselves through educational, vocational, and other projects. Project: Give a Guatemalan family the gift of livestock.