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Gifts That Keep on Giving: Generosity in Your Community

When I was seventeen I thought I was dying and consequently swore to God to go help street children if I survived. I made this promise as I hadn’t had a great childhood — it was a childhood where I’d lost both my mom and most of my self-confidence due to bullies, but I’d always had family who loved me and a roof over my head. I realized, in Vancouver where I was at the time, feeling very lonely, that some children don’t even have that.

Thirteen years later I set off to fulfill my promise. Living as a gypsy, traveling my whole adult life, and experiencing the difficulties of life, often on my own, I have also come to realize the value of community. It’s not easy being away from friends and loved ones, especially when something goes wrong. Helping to raise kids here and dealing with a ton of stuff in the township you have no idea how many times I’ve longed for my family, or some of my close friends who live in other countries.

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This Christmas I gave three kids from the township their first Christmas morning with gifts. It was a dream come true for me to be able to do that.

I’m here to help transform a community, but this year I’ve also decided to build a community around me. I have a global community of friends (and an extended network thanks to social media), but I also need community in the two towns where I spend the most time — Los Angeles and Cape Town. Together with spending more time on myself (as opposed to work), realizing creative projects and blogging more for the Huff Post, that’s my New Year’s resolution: community.

Just because the holiday season is over doesn’t mean the season of giving gifts need to be over. We can give to our community; to family, friends, colleagues and neighbors, every day of the year. And what we reap in return is priceless — people who will be there to share in the good time and support us through the bad times.

Below you find a list of some of my favorite things when it comes to random acts of kindness for your community, including friends and family.

  1. Compliment someone. A few years back myself and my best friend decided to send each other one compliment a day for a month. By the end of it you have a list of 30 things someone likes about you. If you do it with two people you have 60.
  2. Leave love notes for people. Sneak a note into your friend’s handbag thanking her for your friendship, or complimenting her on something. Leave a note hidden in your date’s laptop case telling them how much you love them. Sneak a note into your mom’s cookie jar. It’s the kind of surprise that will put a smile on anyone’s face.
  3. Some years ago I stumbled across this woman who decided to Pie It Forward for a year — she baked a pie a day for someone (unfortunately I’ve lost the name of her blog — there’s a book out with that name now, but I’m not sure the author is the same). I love this concept. Whether you are great at baking pies, making cupcakes, or whipping up cream cakes, why not give some away? If you aren’t great at it, it’s the perfect excuse to learn. You can do a Julie and Julia and make a recipe a day from your favorite cookbook (it’s the story that got me blogging in the first place, though not about recipes!), learn to make kombucha (Kombucha Kamp offers free advice, as do sites like the Kitchn and being a California girl I kinda dig kombucha and enjoy making my own), or why not sourdough bread (something I’m personally going to tackle in 2016 — please recommend blogs/books in the comments if you know of any)? Set about making a batch of whatever you choose and hand it out to the homeless, people in your neighborhood, your kids’ teachers, your work colleagues, or your family. This is a wonderful thing to do together with friends, dates, kids, or colleagues as well — the act of doing it with others in and of itself builds community. And learning something new together as a group always reminds me of the film Italian for Beginners where a group of people come together to learn Italian and their entire lives change because of it: they create a community.
  4. If you’re a great artist, wordsmith, photographer…share your gift with a global community through a blog, or set up a small gallery to share it locally. You can even create a “shop” where people get your art as a gift. You can also donate to hospitals, prisons, schools, etc.
  5. Teach free classes, or do mentoring in your community. As an entrepreneur coming from a background in film I was relieved to find organizations such as SCORE exist, where people volunteer their time to mentor entrepreneurs (beware not all mentors will work great with you/understand your business — choose wisely). Way to go for uplifting a community! If you get a group of people together to do the teaching/mentoring you’re bound to meet people yourself as well.
  6. Do something for the elderly in your community where they get to socialize. My own gran is very lonely and not living in Sweden myself I often feel helpless. As people get older and their mobility decreases it makes it harder for them to attend events. They also often lose a lot of friends, sometimes their life partners. The end result is that their social life often comes to an abrupt end.
  7. Put together a neighborhood patrol that volunteers to come round and help people, business and charities with chores. Community support for whatever you’re doing is vital. Here in South Africa we constantly have to rally together as there are disasters like fires in the townships where people lose their homes, but we all need a helping hand from time to time, even in less dire circumstance.
  8. Start organizing courtyard, or street parties. We meant to have a block party in Hangberg with the youth at Little Angels on NYE but alas gangs from another township threatened to come in and shoot. Today Hangberg is proudly taking steps to stand up to crime. So the bad fueled something good in the end. On that note: rally together your community to stand up for something together, be it planting more flowers around town, raising funds for a new school, or helping a neighbor with cancer.
  9. I’m looking into something called the Blue Zones this year — Dan Buettner set out to explore the places on earth where people lived the longest. What he found was that it were places where people also had the strongest sense of community. He decided to start a project around this where people could come together to create their own “blue zones.” I want to see how we can use this in Hangberg.

More than anything? Choose to do what you love. Community work should be a joy, not a chore.

By Maria Montgomery. I originally wrote this post for the Huffington Post

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Our fight for Tony…

As some of you know we’ve been fighting to help Tony; one of the teacher’s partner, who is suffering from cancer. Here’s a video we made to try to raise some money for him and his family. It will also show you what kind of conditions some of our teachers live in, what it’s like at Little Angels and the community we work in. We’re busy planning fora  proper mini-documentary and feature about the stories from Little Angels and beyond.

To support Tony, please donate through our Indiegogo campaign on Generosity: https://www.generosity.com/medical-fundraising/your-old-bling-in-exchange-for-helping-a-family/x/1882884

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Don’t just be thankful. Create more things to be thankful for…

It’s not my fault terrorists exist, but it is my problem

It’s not my fault.

It’s not my fault that South Africa is corrupt.

It’s not my fault that gang wars and criminality has swept through the town in Sweden where I’m originally from.

It’s not my fault that terrorists are bombing the world and the city I used to call home. A city that still feels like home.

It’s not my fault that people are suddenly scared of different nationalities because certain groups of people are infusing the world with fear.

None of that is my fault. So I could just tell the government and police to handle it, whilst I moan and get angry because I still see problems.

I can work myself up about the problems. See the end of the Europe I used to know. Get furious about my friends in South Africa who suffer due to the corruption, the lack of education, the drugs, the…

I can get really angry and miserable thinking about all that.

I can also turn my back entirely. Focus on my life and my life alone.

Lastly, I could focus on the positive in the world and what I can do to contribute to that.

There is this Aesop fable. About a tree that said it was OK for the woodsman to cut down every last tree around him until only he was left. Really, it wasn’t his problem. Then the woodsman cut him down too.

We often think this world is about us and then we get angry when the world does not seem to comprehend how we want it to function. Some people moan. Some people get angry. Some people sit belittling everyone in power. Some people get scared. Some people ignore it as best as they can. Some people get sad. Some people think they have a solution, but don’t think they can implement it. They aren’t a politician, nor police officer.

Then there are those that find a vision. A vision they’d like to see become a reality. A vision for a better tomorrow.

It’s a vision for a better tomorrow, but it’s not a radical vision. It’s not a vision that demands other people choose their religion, or political party. No, it’s more of a “treat thy neighbor as thyself” kind of vision. They have a vision for kindness.

As it is their vision they set about making it a reality.

They do not waste time wallowing in negativity. They do not waste time wallowing in hatred for the crimes against humanity being done around them. They do not waste time belittling people in power.

They simply get up and do something. They don’t necessarily dedicate all their time to it, they just fit it in where they can. So that they can have the joy of seeing their vision become reality. If so, only around them, not in the entire world.

They decide to start mentoring a child at risk. One of those kids that could grow up to become someone part of a gang, someone corrupt, someone willing to bomb the world if it doesn’t hold the same beliefs.

They decide to make friends with someone outside their own circle. Form bonds with strangers to build a stronger community.

They decide to set up a community project, like the Blue Zones Project, where people start integrating with one another. Where people start having tea. Realizing that the perceived borders between them aren’t that large after all. Maybe race, color, religion, political views and so forth doesn’t remove humanity after all. Maybe people start seeing each other’s hearts.

They decide to start teaching a class, or hosting a club (like a drama or book club) where people from all parts of town can come together. Where bridges are built and friendships formed.

They simply decide to do something they’d love to do that would also help their vision become a reality. Maybe it’s something big, maybe something small. Maybe it touches thousands of people, maybe just one. The point is they are doing something to bring their vision to life.

These are the people who realize that if everyone did this — forged friendships and educated people from a young age — there’d be no wars. No matter what the politicians say.

There are many wars you don’t start, but which you will end up smack in the middle of. Many situations you didn’t create, that you suddenly find yourself caught up in. It’s your choice whether to be bitter, or proactive so as to try to prevent it from happening again.

It’s not your fault you were born into a world filled with horrible things, but it’s your choice if you will stand up to try to make it a better place, if you will reclaim the streets, or go hide away and watch the mayhem from afar. Until you end up the last tree in the woods.

I want to dedicate this article to Liezl Mathews — a woman who lives smack in the middle of poverty and still stands up to fight for herself and those around her. Below you find a thank you speech I wrote for her when we opened a new charity recently; the Proudly Hout Bay Women’s Forum.

Liezl at Little Angels.

I’d like to finish today by thanking the founder of this project, Liezl Mathews.

People still blame apartheid for the problems in this country today. Apartheid was terrible. It was a crime against humanity. But apartheid is gone.

People blame the DA and the ANC for the problems we face today, but they are not the ones dictating how you live your life. And if you looked a little closer I’m certain you’d find there are incredible people in both political parties.

People blame corruption and I’m sure all of us have been angry because of corruption at some point. Because of people stuffing money in their own pockets instead of into society or bribing the police so they can continue their crimes. But corruption does not run your life.

The truth is, we create our own lives. And for the past almost three years I’ve seen Liezl Mathews run Little Angels and most recently starting the Women’s Forum.

Liezl started Little Angels out of her own home with no funds because her sister had just died from cancer and she swore to look after her kids and grandchildren. And around that time her own kids found tik on the street and almost ate it. So she swore to make a difference for the children of this community, protecting them from tik, crime, violence, prostitution, gang wars…you name it.

Liezl had nothing. No money. No organizations backing her. No nothing. Yet she is now looking after close to 60 kids in the creche, 30 youth and 30 after school kids. And whilst we still don’t have more than shacks to run it out of, the center is growing. Which shows love works greater miracles than money.

Now Liezl’s started the Women’s Project and look at how many women there are here today. Women crying out for change. Women filled with strength and determination.

Liezl faces severe health problems, she’s paid 500 rand a month, which, needless to say, isn’t enough to feed her family, and she’s still making a difference. I’ve been with her when she couldn’t sleep, when she couldn’t walk, when her relatives died, when many of our friends faced relapses into drugs as they’d been abused, when staff fell ill to cancer and we had no money to feed them, when people black mouthed her…I’ve seen Liezl through all of this and it astounds me that she’s still walking. But she is.

Liezl is making a difference. No matter what challenges face her. And the truth is we all can.

We can all make a difference.

If we all acted like Liezl has and still is, Hout Bay and, indeed South Africa, would be different.

You can blame poverty, the government, corruption and apartheid, but those are lame excuses. Because if everyone got up like Liezl, we’d have a different South Africa.

And I believe in everyone who is here today. Even if I don’t know you all, I believe you, like Liezl, are fighting to make a difference, but today I’m thanking and honoring Liezl, because she’s the woman I know and the founder of this organization.

So from the bottom of my heart I’d like to thank the woman who’s changed my life in more ways than I thought possible. And I’d like to end this launch with a standing ovation for her. So everyone please stand up to thank Liezl and to show that you are going to be with us in making a difference. In creating a better South Africa.

Thank you.

By Maria Montgomery (I originally published this blog on the Huffington Post)

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Love is all we have…

Today I had a bit of a shock, receiving a message from Liezel that Stacey’s husband, who was diagnosed with lung cancer earlier in the year, just got the news that it has spread to his bones and liver. I just stared at the screen, wondering what life is all about?

Sometimes I feel bad about blogging about Little Angels when I tell bad news, because Little Angels gave me more than I can put into words – the love and dedication to bringing a change to lives at that center is more than I’ve ever seen anywhere. I became a new person thanks to my experience working there. The love the teachers and children have given me and the feeling of being appreciated for what I do, so if it is just loving the kids, has completely transformed my life.

Little Angels was set up years ago by Liezel when her sister, whose kids were drug addicts, died in cancer and her own children found crystal meth (“tik”) in the streets. She promised her sister to do something and the day her kids found the drugs the answerr was obvious – keep kids off the streets. Liezel didn’t have money and till this day none of the teachers are paid and the center struggles to look after the kids with the little donations given. Yet, the teachers show up every day, working long hours. To topple it off everyone comes to Liezel with their problems – from HIV and poverty to abuse. These teachers are making a difference. Yet they aren’t paid.

Stacey and her husband as well as their two kids live in a shack. Last night Stacey and Nickla were bitten by a rat, which they are now trying to catch. It’s cold, damp and, well, not very nice. I managed to get one of my friends to donate hot water bottles to give to Tony as he can’t sleep at night due to pain in his lungs and cold. He used to be a mechanic, but due to his lungs giving in he can’t work. He did smoke, but he lives in a township – most people are high on drugs and many are criminals. Smoking seems like a small sin in that town and people just aren’t educated about health.

Many times since I found out Tony is sick I’ve felt desperate. Many times in general when I know the kids are showing up in flip-flops and t-shirts when it’s a hail storm I feel helpless. We are in need of help. Desperately.

I researched everything I could about alternative therapies for cancer when I heard about Tony, but the joke is, we can’t pay for them. One woman cured herself of lung cancer using carrot juice and I gave Liezel a juicer for her birthday as when she was using mine she felt better from her thyroid problems (she almost died from them when she was pregnant years ago and lost one of her twins). The joke? We can’t afford carrots.

I had RSI in the beginning of the year and for a while I could hardly work and spent all my money on therapies until I came across John E. Sarno’s book and the TMS Wiki, which sorted me out. I am also in the US trying to launch my social enterprise to support Little Angels, but as a result I have no money. And I feel like I’m begging.

When I was hit with RSI I felt helpless. I had to learn to ask for help – watch other people type for me. It was hard. Likewise, I sometimes hate asking for help for Little Angels, because, well, in time we should figure it out ourselves right? We should be self-sufficient. But right now we aren’t and both the kids (coming from families that can’t pay for regular childcare) and the teachers are suffering.

I want to share the joy and happiness, the hope Little Angels provide to the township of Hangberg. I want to show what it feels like when kids who are often abused at home have a haven to go to where they get loved, cared for and fed. That’s what I love about it. Yet, it feels like I’m always telling sad stories, because a lot of things happen at Little Angels and right now, we can’t always cope with it. And i get angry – how can these people who are doing so much have so little? How is that possible? How can life be so cruel? We are working on setting up a stand selling things, I’m working on an online crowd funding campaign and launching my social enterprise, we will soon look for other charities/foundations to support us. We are doing what we can, yet I feel so utterly helpless sometimes. And I have to ask for help. It’s the only thing I can do.

So if you want to help, please contact us. Email us through the Contact Page, or donate through PayPal. Or just send us a note of love. We appreciate that too. And one thing there is at Little Angels is love. I know Stacey and her family are having a hard time now, but all the teachers are helping them. That’s what I love with Little Angels. You are never alone there. There is always love.

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Stacey’s and Tony’s kids – Nickla and Kita. Cute, aren’t they? Nickla is super sweet and Kita thinks she rules the world and cracks me up every time I see her. 

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Please note: Little Angels operates under the Hout Bay Christian Social Upliftment Organization, REG NO 089-541-NPO