Our Global Link newsletter has featured the personal stories of several SOSA winners. Jan Cote-Cartwright’s story was originally published in the February 2013 issue of Global Link.
SOSA 2012 winner for her project in Tel Aviv, Israel (NEA)
It had been a very rough year, and I was looking for something to change my focus. After my fourth time reading “The Art of Happiness” by the Dalai Lama, where he emphasizes that the road to happiness lies in helping others, I knew I had found my answer.
At my post, Tel Aviv, as at most U.S. Missions, “Trafficking in Persons” (TIP), is part of the Political Section’s portfolio. They welcomed my offer to volunteer, and we set about determining where I could fit in. As the Information Management Officer at post, I already had a full-time job! Management approved my attendance of a few meetings to meet the local Non-Government Organizations and shelter directors. They needed someone who could a) increase awareness of trafficking within Israel, and b) find out how we could help at the grassroots level.
I was able to arrange meetings with several shelter directors in my off hours and to tour their facilities to see first-hand what was needed. There was one common thread—food, clothing, kitchenware, bedding, towels, and other simple items were all in short supply. Departing Embassy families typically donate excess belongings, but here in Israel, there are alarmingly few outlets for donation. Consequently, most household items end up on the street for general trash collection! I have a huge garage, and started to advertise drop-off and pickup of donated household items and food. I made up business cards to advertise the collections and on the back provided web links for further information on trafficking in Israel. I set up collection boxes at the Mission, contacted the shelters weekly to find out their current needs, sorted the items and delivered them to the shelters.
The donation volume quickly became so great that I had to ask for volunteers to help me sort and deliver! The shelters were overwhelmed with the generosity of the huge amounts of items suddenly coming their way—and on a regular basis. Through the Mission newsletter and word of mouth, other diplomatic missions, the international school, and local Israelis also began donating items.
The British Ambassador’s wife, who maintained a website for volunteerism in Israel, contacted me and we collaborated on ideas and contacts. I organized volunteers for several weekends to paint an entire floor at the shelter for the victims of prostitution, setting up a collection jar at the Embassy from which we were able to buy all the necessary painting supplies. One of the shelters happened to be in a port used by the U.S. Navy, and I put them in touch. Now Navy volunteers are also helping the shelter in Haifa! I also used funds from the collection jar to pay for the repair of donated bicycles and purchase specifically needed items from yard sales or shops. I frequented yard and mission community sales, handing out my business card and offering to pick up everything they couldn’t sell at the end of the day—they were thrilled to get rid of it!
Two of the shelters produced handmade purses and woven baskets. I helped find them outlets to sell their items and also organized sales at the Embassy. During the sales, I took pictures on my iPhone to send to the shelters. The successful sale of their handmade items brought such joy to the residents—it raised their self-esteem and confidence, while giving them badly needed extra money to buy personal items. I applied for a grant from the J. Kirby Simon Trust to buy six sewing machines for three shelters, and along with other volunteers taught the basics of sewing. Learning even the most basic sewing skills has brought such joy and empowerment to the ladies living in the shelters. It’s a new world for them. It’s a new world for me. The Dalai Lama was right: the road to happiness indeed lies in helping others.
It only takes one person to be the catalyst but it takes a willing community to make a difference. My advice to others: keep a book of contacts for everything. Maintain lists of those who have helped and send out thank you notes/emails with links for further information on the topic at hand or upcoming volunteer activities. As your name and project become known, it’s amazing how the contacts and calls begin to multiply, from people offering to help to those that need help. Keep yourself restricted to the basic purpose of your project to avoid becoming spread too thin and paralyzingly overwhelmed. Simply providing contacts for those falling outside the lines of your particular project will keep this under control.
Trafficking in Persons is all over the news—there is a war going on. Raising awareness of its existence is an important part of that war. Human trafficking, torture, slavery, the exploitation of the weak exemplifies man’s inhumanity to man since civilization began. Why then has modern civilization not been able to eliminate this ancient practice? It will never end as long as we continue to write it off as “someone else’s problem.” How often have you heard of the disappearance of women and children, or seen prostitutes working and children begging on the street? We have to ask ourselves how we can idly walk by them and not wonder who is exploiting them? Do we seriously think they’re doing this willingly?
Gandhi taught “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” What about the way we allow humans to treat humans? Through all this year I have learned that although donating money and items is fabulous, the greatest treasure we can donate is our time.
Tel Aviv, Israel