And then I read and learned more about what they do. One of the things that struck me the most when I worked in these countries and areas was working with malnourished children. When kids are so malnourished, when they are that malnourished, they don’t have energy or any vitality. And no matter what you do, you can’t get a reaction out of these kids. So you tickle them, you take them on plane rides, you tell jokes, you act crazy, and you cannot get children who are that malnourished to laugh. And these clowns come in, they put on a red nose, and they bring laughter into these communities.
And more than that, when you look at the results, you learn that they’re building self-esteem in children, they are involving children in theater, getting them to speak. They are building community, and if nothing else, for a few short moments, they are bringing laughter. So that is what I say: that if you can start somewhere and contribute in your own way, it will make a difference.
Make sincere connections
My third tip is, that in order to do all of this, you need to make sincere connections to people, to the community, to the Earth. I think that most people that are here today want to dedicate some of their time to doing something, but don’t really know where to start or how to get started. And so I say: pick something that you are genuinely connected to, and it’ll grow.
Here is my story. When I was an undergrad at the University of Waterloo, I was part of an organization called Habitat for Humanity. So what we do is, on the weekends every once in a while, we would go and help to build homes for people who couldn’t afford them. And I have to tell you while I loved the concept of putting a house up that somebody could live in, the best part was the amazing people that I met. So this group of people decided we would participate in a collegiate build. The collegiate build is when students decide that instead of going crazy on March break in some exotic area, they’re actually going to commit to a week of service.
Our group went to New Orleans. We spent a week building houses, having fun, working really, really hard, but most importantly, when we were down there, we were allowed to build with the people that would actually live in those houses. We got to know them, hear their stories, and I’d say, become friends.
Ten years later, I’m starting my Master’s in International Development at Princeton. I’m so excited, I feel like a little kid in a candy shop again. And I’m there at the orientation meeting with all of these amazing people, and Hurricane Katrina hits the Gulf Coast and devastates New Orleans. I remember watching the images on TV of people that I had met, people that I felt I knew, literally drowning. Once again, I couldn’t reconcile the fact that I was running off to picnics, meeting all these great people, staying up all night, and people in the country I was living were literally dying right beside me. And I decided I had to do something. I couldn’t give up my Master’s, but I knew I could give a week.
So during my break at school, I decided I would go down there. A bunch of students found out I was going and decided they would come with me. We didn’t really know what we were going to do, but we knew we could give our hands. So we get down there all excited and at first, we are kind of just twiddling our thumbs. We start working in some local soup kitchens and asking around saying that we are energetic and excited to work. When people see that we are serious, they start to give us tasks.
Before we know, we are helping people clean out their flooded homes, we set up a makeshift Medical Center, we worked heavily in a soup kitchen, and we were handing out blankets and food. A local organization noticed us and asked us if we could conduct surveys of the survivors. So we went around and asked dozens of survivors what it was that they needed most, and we went to their local governments and asked them to provide those needs.
One woman saw the work I was doing, and she came up to me and asked me what organization I was with. I said, “I’m just a student. I’m only here for a week.” We started talking, and she said that she was moved by my passion and my ability to organize, and that she could see me as somebody working in emergency relief. I didn’t even know that was a career.
And a year later, I found myself at the United Nations, not really knowing how I got there. So I can’t tell you how to get a job at the UN, but I can give you three tips to do meaningful work. The first is to do something. The second is to contribute in your own way. And the third, and I think most important, is to make sincere connections.