Thursday, August 14, 2008

Shameless Plea for Clean Water in Africa

When I look out of the Douglas County Courthouse front doors, I see the doors Warren Schmidt [a.k.a. Jack Nicholson’s character in About Schmidt] walked out of the day he retired.

Remember how he later connected with an African orphan he “met” after contributing to a “Save the Children”-style infomercial, later writing to the boy:

“Well Ndugu, I'll close now. You probably can't wait to run and cash this check and get yourself something to eat.”

Later, looking back on his life, Mr. Schmidt, the retired Omaha insurance executive wonders:

I know we're all pretty small in the big scheme of things, and I suppose the most you can hope for is to make some kind of difference, but what kind of difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me?

Reminds me of Gerry Spence’s question, asked in Win Your Case, about whether the appropriate response to our lives, at their very end will be “so what?” In other words, what did we stand for, what’s better because of us?

What I love about that scene in “About Schmidt” is that it shows how a middle-aged insurance executive from Omaha can connect with a young boy from Kenya, so much that it moves him to tears, despite his naive belief that somehow the check will arrive and Ndugu will rush off to the bank (a prominent image from Warren’s world as the First National Tower has recently surpassed Warren’s former building as the highest landmark on Omaha’s skyline) to “get something to eat.”

While the movie is obviously a critique of Warren, I love the way it doesn’t melodramatize him. Despite his faults and misconceptions about what life is like for a young boy in Africa, he still feels a human connection to this soul a few thousand miles, several generations and lots of dollars away from him.

That is the most touching scene in the movie to me and the most hopeful. It’s not too late for this man to make something in the world “better because of” himself. , He’s just not sure how to go about making it happen, so sending a check to Save the Children and believing that when it arrives it fills both the belly and heart of a young kid is what he does and believes in.

But does the check “make some kind of difference” or “make something in the world better because of me” as Warren wonders?

I don’t know and am sure it depends on the organization. I have my doubts which are based not on fact but on images and stories, like the scene I see every day when I walk across the United Way parking lot and pass an ironic sign that says “UWM Employee Parking Only” planted directly in front of a Saab convertible.

A couple weeks ago, my uncle and his wife stopped by the house. He’s an uncle I haven’t known very well as his job with Boeing and base in Seattle meant he didn’t get back to Nebraska often. But talking to him is like talking to a long-lost brother, or, um, uncle. I don’t know him very well but can tell that despite our years apart, we’re very much alike.

He and his wife, Joanruth, soon told us about a project they’re raising money for in Kenya. They described their excitement about being able to save lives, literally, by raising money for a clean water supply in a village called Kunya.

When I told them that I’m hesitant to give to charities because of the Saab convertible I walk by every day, parked in the United Way parking lot, they laughed and said that they learned, during their stay in Africa, that the joke among the people was that the “aid” organizations drove around in Land Rovers and the money appeared to go more for wheels than water. I wondered how many kids or how many gallons of clean drinking water the optional leather upholstery would have provided.

And they told of finding a calling after retirement, the kind Warren Schmidt likely longs for, because, as Joanruth put it, “where can you see your efforts actually save real people’s lives.” As it states on their website:

"It's only by the luck of the draw that we were born in the U.S. and that our friends in Kunya were born to the deprivations they face.

We feel extraordinarily lucky in our lives and want to make a difference to those who are not. There are a lot of needs [dying starfish?] in the world, and we can't solve them all---but we can solve this one and make a life-saving difference for thousands of people.

We lived and worked in Kenya for three months in 2007, and from that experience came the Friends of Kunya."

This struck a chord with me because it’s what made me stay at the Public Defender’s Office for so long. I realized that it was only “by the luck of the draw” that I wasn’t born into the lives of my clients. I loved it because I felt like I could make an amazing difference for someone if I simply cared and tried. Granted, people didn’t change very often but when they did I occasionally got to feel like the little boy in the starfish story who says, “I made a big difference for that one.” Have you heard this story, first told by Loren Eisely in which he:

... was walking along the ocean ... one morning.... after a storm had subsided and ... he noticed that thousands of starfish had been washed up on the beach. [He then saw] a little boy, gazing fixedly at an object in the sand. Eventually, he flung the object far beyond the breaking surf.

Eiseley went up to him and asked, "Son, what are you doing?" The little boy answered, "I'm throwing starfish back into the sea because if I don't they're going to die."

[Eisley said,] "But there are thousands of starfish. In the larger scheme of things you're not going to make much of a difference to all these starfish."

The little boy looked up at him, stooped down again to pick up another starfish and, gently but quickly, flung it back into the ocean. "It's going to make a big difference to that one."

My Uncle Dick and his wife Joanruth then told me about living in Kenya for three months with no running water, showing me pictures of “drinking water” the color of toxic waste and of how they learned that what they thought they truly needed, such as electricity or a working toilet, they really didn’t. They described this as something nice to come home to but also something they learned to appreciate once they lived without it for awhile.

And they showed me a brochure they put together and told me about a website some friends helped them put together. They told me how, unlike other organizations, in which administrative costs soon begin to siphon off funds (and buy Landrovers?) their organization sends each penny it gets directly to Kenyans with all the administrative costs provided by volunteers like themselves.

I also liked what they told me about their affiliations with churches. They described how, understandably, people who find out they spent three months in Africa believe that they “must have been on a church mission.”

But they weren’t.

Their organization is not affiliated with a church and neither was their stay in the village. I appreciated this because it shows me that their aren’t “strings attached” to the contributions and that no Kenyan child will have to pray before drinking a cup of clean water, unless he or she wants to.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that prayer is bad or that churches don’t do amazing work. I just think that, just as our founders believed a great nation was built on the separation of church and state, a great giving organization is built on the separation of aid and belief.

I know this post doesn’t fit into a law-related blawg very well. I just know that, just as my uncle and his wife heard a calling and later found a cause, perhaps there are people out there who want to help.

I wish I could go there and work, or write a huge check, but I can’t. I’ll give what I can, but thought that the least I could do was to tell this story and spread the word.

Perhaps there’s someone out there feeling, as Warren Schmidt did, “pretty small in the big scheme of things” and wanting to act on his or her wish that “the most you can hope for is to make some kind of difference.”

Maybe there’s someone who’s sick of seeing Saabs in United Way parking lots and able to give but as yet unwilling, suspicious, as I often am, about where the gift will land and who it will truly help.

Trust me; my uncle and his wife have labored in the place they’re now trying to assist. If you want to email me to talk with them directly, they’re the kind of people who would gladly call you up and answer questions about where the money will go, no matter whether you drive a Saab or a Schwinn.

They lived with the people they’re now trying to help and they’re making a real difference, ensuring that despite all the “starfish” dying on the beaches of this world that they “made a real difference for that one” village in Kenya where the water runs green instead of clear.

(If you want to give and have questions, email me at “nelawyer at cox dot net” and I will contact my uncle to find the answer)

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