Be a beacon by walking with, not by

On February 29, I gave the keynote speech at the Tallahassee Alumnae Panhellenic organization’s scholarship luncheon. I appreciate the opportunity to speak about service projects, and how to turn them from mandatory (in college) to voluntary (lifelong). I’m grateful for the fellowship shared with the women that day and the opportunity to share these thoughts.

Be a beacon by walking with, not by
Photo credit: Amy Zoldak

I do have a “real name” — as you see on the program — Paula Kiger.

However, over the years, my alter ego, “The Big Green Pen” has sort of taken over. It’s the name of my website and my social media “handle” almost everywhere. There are times I barely remember my legal name.

I got that name during the first phase of my career, when I was an administrator for Florida’s Healthy Kids program, which provided health insurance for uninsured children. When Healthy Kids started in the early 90s, long before social media was a thing, our signature color was green, and we had an abundance of green felt tip pens around.

As I would edit the work of others with the green pen, I earned a nickname behind my back (not to my face) — the big green pen — because apparently I was a tough, some would say ruthless, editor.

Once someone finally told me that was my nickname, I got on the bandwagon and it stuck.

These days, I try to position it as a positive thing, not something that instills fear. I try to encourage people with the hashtag #WriteOptimistically.

All of that editing when I was supposed to be shaping health policy must have been a sign, though.

When I left that job in 2014 after almost 20 years, I thought I was going to go in search of my bliss. It turns out I went in search of depends and a hospital bed, as my father-in-law got ill and moved in with us. For the next three years, I was doing a variety of freelance jobs and taking care of him as his health deteriorated and he went through two bouts of cancer. 

Fortunately, one of those freelance jobs was with SmartBrief, a business-to-business publisher of newsletters. I had prayed for something I could do early in the morning before my father-in-law was moving around, that involved writing and editing, and voila there it was! I started freelancing for SmartBrief in January 2017. My father-in-law passed away in July 2017, and eventually I got hired full-time as their nonprofit sector editor in September 2018.

My job at SmartBrief is to edit newsletters that tell members of organizations what the latest news is in their industry. For example, I do the National Emergency Number Association newsletter, so if you have any questions about dispatching, I have the 4-1-1 on 9-1-1.

One of my newsletters is BoardSource, which has to do with all things nonprofit boards. Every single day, I walk away with an aha of some kind and this newsletter is a big reason why.

One aha, which really shouldn’t surprise me but somehow still does, is the amount of money some people have to contribute toward philanthropies. In the issues I’ve edited in February, 

Those are all such laudable efforts, but they make me ask how I can make a difference, seeing as how I don’t have millions to give. 

I have three examples, one I gathered from SmartBrief and two drawn from my life, to make the case that you don’t have to have millions to make a difference.

Let’s start with my friend Diane Berberian. She’s a visually impaired triathlete whose vision has gotten worse over time because of macular degeneration. She’s also a stage four head, throat and neck cancer survivor. (If you don’t know what a triathlon is, it’s a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike and 26.2 mile run. Hard enough to do when you can see exactly where you’re going!)

Diane has accomplished so many things since becoming visually impaired. She was on the USA National Paratriathlon Team in 2013. She represented the US at the Paratriathlon Worlds, where she placed 5th overall. She won the National Championship for Visually Impaired Females at the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Half Marathon in Washington, D.C., in October 2014 then traveled to Wilmington, N.C., where she won the Paratriathlete Division of the Beach 2 Battleship Half Ironman. 

I was Diane’s sighted guide once at a 5K at the Tampa Zoo (just a 5K, not a half-marathon or triathlon!). Diane has had other assistance as a runner, some coming from Delta Gamma members. One of their philanthropies is Service for Sight. She benefited from help from DG members when she was running the Boston Marathon. They got her to and from places by assisting with public transportation. They assisted with the athletes’ banquet. Many members who were communications majors worked with Diane to provide interviews about being a visually impaired athlete and how Service for Sight helped. Many Delta Gamma sisters have been her sighted guides in races from the 5K to the half marathon (13.1 miles). Many DGs guide other runners at races in Boston and other areas.

Be a beacon by walking with, not by
With Diane at the Tampa Zoo 5K in 2015

She was helped so much that she wanted to be a bigger part of the organization, so she did something that wasn’t an option for her in the 70s: she pledged as an adult initiate in 2017!

Diane shared with me that she has a wish for other Alumnae Panhellenic women that she has interacted with. While it’s easy to write a check, and important as none of the causes in the world can succeed without cash, she sees a way that generations can work more directly with each other. One woman she knows still helps a visually impaired gentleman even though it has been 15 years since she was in college. Diane says, “I still think I have a lot to learn from this generation and they could learn from me.” She encourages the collegiates to go from service hours being something you have to do to something you want to do.

I’d also like to share a personal story about going from mandatory service hours to service because you care. 

My niece, Jessica, was an ADPi at Valdosta State University around 2010. Prior to her time at ADPi, and long before she had made any decisions about sororities or college life, she stayed in a Ronald McDonald House with my sister-in-law and her siblings. (Our family has a congenital heart arrhythmia known as Long QT. The discovery that several members of the family had this arrhythmia, after my sister-in-law Ann died in her sleep and left behind three very young children, led to a long process of working with different specialists to figure out who else had Long QT, which is for the most part treatable once you know about it.) Jessica and her mom, my sister-in-law Mary, and their family had traveled from Thomasville to Jacksonville for testing, so they needed someplace to stay and RMH of Jacksonville was there for them.

Fast forward to college Jessica and her ADPi life. As those of you who were ADPis know, the philanthropy of ADPi is the Ronald McDonald House. Jessica, as part of her service hours, helped clean the RMH in Macon, which is a bit of a drive from Valdosta but the closest one in Georgia from VSU. 

Jessica is now married and living in Huntsville, Alabama, with her husband, Eric. I showed up in Thomasville, her childhood home seven hours away from Huntsville, on October 12 for a baby shower for Jessica, because she was expecting a baby on November 27. I really pleaded with her to make it Nov. 28 so we would share a birthday, but this baby had his own ideas for when he should come. When I arrived for the shower, my sister-in-law said, “have I got a story for you.” It turns out Jessica’s water had broken the night prior and she had given birth to Paul Thomas Viale just a few hours later. Because he was at 32 weeks, he was transported to the NICU at TMH. Jessica and Eric had to figure out where to stay while Paul was cared for at the NICU, and they ended up being at Ronald McDonald House Tallahassee for about 10 days! 

Right after Paul was born, before Jessica had transferred to Tallahassee to join Eric and Paul, my daughter, Tenley (who had also been an ADPi and done service hours at the Ronald McDonald House) and I visited her. The first thing she said was, “wow I guess all those service hours paid off!.”

Of course Ronald McDonald House doesn’t quiz incoming parents to ask if they ever scrubbed a Ronald McDonald House floor before, but having done so still gave Jessica a more direct sense of why those service hours mattered.

The RMH made it possible for Jessica and Eric to be close to the hospital, have essentially unlimited food, have access to a breast pump, and get their laundry done — all for a donation of $10 a day that was waived for families that couldn’t afford it. 

I asked Jessica about some ways that people can give to Ronald McDonald House beyond writing checks. Just as Diane has advice for Alumnae Panhellenic members, so does Jessica. It can be as simple as donating the pop tab off of your soda can. Ronald McDonald House locations need bulk items such as paper towels and toilet paper. (Typically the Ronald McDonald Houses have suggested lists, however during the pandemic this process has changed. The Tallahassee facility, for example, suggests Publix or Costco gift cards right now.)

I want to ask you how you chose your jewelry today, if you have any on. 

Did you choose it because it has sentimental value? Maybe it matches your outfit. Maybe you have the same issue I have sometimes and only one necklace in the drawer was untangled enough to make it out of the house.

This is what I chose to wear today. [Here I demonstrated the item I was wearing around my neck.] It didn’t come from a rack at the store and it won’t ever need polishing, but it does have an important job. It’s special not because of how it looks, but because of what it does.

These beacons are made and distributed by Samaritan, an organization in Seattle that helps homeless people and others in need of assistance. It was started by Jonathan Kumar, who was eating lunch in downtown Seattle one day and saw a man at an intersection. He was a homeless man holding a sign that said he needed medicine for his diabetes. 

No one was helping the man.

Specifically, Kumar says “no one even acknowledged that he existed.”

As Kumar started talking with the gentleman, the man said, “I’ve got the wrong look for this, the wrong skin color, the wrong clothing. Nobody actually believes that I’m homeless.” Jonathan called what the man was experiencing something different than the definition most of us would give: poor. The man, Kumar said, was experiencing “relational poverty.” Dr. Bruce Perry defined relational poverty as “a deep lack of the connectedness with others that we all need to survive and to be well.”

Kumar was still working in the tech field, and his wheels started turning. Could tech help the man and others like him?

Jonathan decided to try to alleviate this relational poverty through an app. He built the Samaritan app, and he also developed bluetooth beacons that people such as the man he had met could wear. The Samaritan organization has the motto “walk with, not by.”

The beacons are distributed by approved clinics and nonprofit counselors.

When a user of the Samaritan app walks by (within 30 yards) someone with one of the beacons, the app notifies them of that person’s story and need. That person can choose then and there to make a donation that will help the individual, and the individual can use the funds at places like grocery stores, barber shops, outdoor supply stores and coffee shops. Nonprofit counselors can also help the people apply the funds to other things like phone bills or bus tickets. When the batteries run low, the people have to go meet with the counselor (once a month). The meeting is as much about the face to face as it is a fresh battery.

One person who had a beacon and ended up with housing through its connections said this is “the first time in seven years people have seen me for who I am, not what I look like or where I’ve come from.”

You can send encouraging messages to individuals — they love that. It’s an addition that brings the human connection back and helps people not feel invisible.

What if there was an app that told you people’s stories and deepened your connection?

Tallahassee is a little different – we’re not much of a pedestrian town. For me, one way that same deepening of connections happened was through Facebook, and got me in touch with Going Places, a local drop-in center for homeless, runaway, and at-risk youth under the age of 22, many of whom have been kicked out of their homes by their parents. I read about Going Places on Facebook and the web, but my understanding of their mission and the heart of the place changed when I spent three hours with them at their Thanksgiving dinner. 

After that Thanksgiving event, I gave a ride to a Going Places participant and her boyfriend. She was 16, pregnant, and working security at night to try to make a way for herself and her baby.

Having spent that time at Going Places, especially with that young woman, changed things for me. Now when I do write a check, it will be for more (if possible) because I understand in a more personal way why their services matter.

Think about whatever your philanthropy was when you were in college — are there stories there you need to return to? If not, is there a way you can connect with someone else’s story and make them feel less invisible? Maybe it’s cleaning a toilet again at Ronald McDonald House. Maybe it’s reading to a visually impaired person or driving them to a doctor’s appointment. Maybe it’s as simple as saying hello the next time you encounter a homeless person when every instinct says to ignore them and walk the other way. 

When you leave our luncheon, find a way to walk with someone in need, not by them. Be their beacon of hope.

Be a beacon by walking with, not by