These People Came from Nothing—and Now Want Nothing More Than to Give Back
These amazing people overcame childhood poverty to find true success against all odds, and are now using their newfound resources to help those in need.
Feeding the world because she knows what it is to be starving
The odds were stacked against Edna Ogwangi’s favor from the moment she was born in Kenya. Soon after her arrival into the world, the country entered an extended era of a devastating drought that resulted in widespread starvation. On top of that, to say that “girls were not prioritized to attend school,” as Ogwangi put it, is a polite understatement. Fast forward to a time when things turned around for Ogwangi; she made it to the United States, where she was able to obtain an education, even going as far as to earn her masters in social work. This prepared her to fulfill her life’s calling, which she describes as “returning to her home and literally handing out food to young ones.” After all she had been through in her childhood, all Ogwangi wanted to do with her life was to be physically present for the world’s poor children. Ogwangi is continuing to make this happen through her work as Chief Impact Officer at Rise Against Hunger, an international hunger relief organization that distributes food and provides life-changing aid to the world’s most vulnerable, and has committed to ending world hunger by 2030. As of today, Rise Against Hunger has provided more than 300 million meals to the hungry. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, by reaching out personally to the poor, Ogwangi is able to teach them—and with the empathy of one who has experienced it herself—that through education and perseverance, anyone can be anything they want and make a difference in the world. As Ogwangi likes to say, “Children are not the leaders of tomorrow; rather, they are the leaders of today.” Here are creative ways you can volunteer and make a difference.
Helping kids gain access to the sport he had no access to growing up
As a young African-American male growing up in the housing projects of the South Bronx, Schone Malliet never even dreamed of skiing—a sport typically associated with affluence and whiteness. Then in his 20s, he found himself at the top of a ski slope in Park City, Utah, having been “dragged there” by a squadron-mate from the Marine Corps, in which Malliet was doing a seven-year stint that he ultimately parlayed into a college education and also an MBA. Despite his strong athleticism, Malliet experienced what many adults who weren’t exposed to skiing as children: awkwardness, discouragement, embarrassment, and a feeling of not quite belonging. Nevertheless, after Malliet left the Corps for a successful career in business and finance, he gave skiing another shot, and this time, it took hold along with a powerful idea: What if people of color, and especially children of color, had no reason to feel out of place on a ski mountain? Nice idea, but who was going to believe it, right? And who was going to pay for all those kids to get to the mountains, let alone have access to the necessary gear, clothing, and equipment? And who was going to pay for the lessons, because anyone who has skied even once knows that you can’t do it without lessons? Well, fast-forward to 2010, when Malliet, a successful businessman, was finally ready to do something to make it happen. To that end, he co-founded the National Winter Sports Education Foundation whose mission is to encourage teens, especially teens of color, to get over the fear that was once associated with “country clubs of the 50s and 60s” and venture outside their perceived limitations as well as into the fresh white powder. Malliet also founded the National Winter Activity Center in Vernon, New Jersey, the nation’s first 501(c)(3) nonprofit facility/outdoor winter environment dedicated to improving the lives of youth through winter activity. Through its program “Elev8,” the Center provides instruction, healthy meals, equipment, and role model/mentoring. Through partnerships with YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs, Schools, and other youth-serving agencies, the Center served more than 1,160 children this past year and expects that number to increase to 2,200 in 2018. “I know that I would not be where I am in life without the guidance I received from those who protected or sheltered me from things that could have gotten in my way growing up. The Center is a culmination of everything I’ve done in my life,” Malliet says. “I’ve invested my heart in this. To be able to run a business and be in the industry I have passion for, while also giving back and actually seeing the excitement and changes in the kids, makes this experience truly mean the world to me.”
Building entrepreneurs from the inner cities
Robert L. Dudley was the oldest of seven children, and he never knew his real father. He grew up in the projects of Los Angeles, but never in any one building for very long. “By the time I was a senior in high school, we had moved around enough for me to attend 17 different schools,” he says. He dropped out and left home as soon as he turned 18, then found his way into the Army Infantry where he spent three years of his life. While stationed in South Korea, Dudley earned his GED. When he left the service, he began college but felt lost, like something was missing from inside him. He thought he might find it by tracking down his father, which he did, and which turned out to be a horrible, life-changing disappointment that inspired him to make a better man of himself. That week he signed up for college classes again. Eventually, he obtained five degrees, including a Ph.D. in theology. Then, he parlayed his passion for learning and communicating into several successful businesses and several books. But for Dudley, the most important thing he has accomplished is forming Life Changers 180, a success coaching company that teaches how to achieve your dreams and takes its methods to the inner cities to help underprivileged children like he once was to stay in school and attain their goals. Dudley’s next goal is to get various community leaders in Washington, D.C. and the inner cities of Baltimore to get on board with his plan to help “build entrepreneurs” in traditionally poor areas. “We can all help someone, even in a small way,” Dudley says. Here are 100 random acts of kindness you could do today.
Mentoring inner-city youth and women undergoing divorce
When Heather Monahan’s mother left her father, she had no job and no way to support herself and her four kids. With literally nowhere else to go, they ended up at the front door of her grandparent’s house in Worcester, a formerly industrial but now down-on-its-luck city in central Massachusetts. But the house was tiny, so tiny in fact that there was nowhere for Monahan, her siblings, and her mother to sleep. So they ended up moving into an abandoned trailer behind the house. “My mom worked three jobs to put food on the table. Sometimes we used food stamps to get by.” As an adult, Monahan managed to escape the dreariness of her youth and made a home in glittering South Beach, Florida, where she is a top-ranking executive of a media company. The affluence she has earned, together with the power of her position, has enabled her to secure a spot on the board of directors of City Year Miami, a charity dedicated to helping inner city youth advance through school and survive their challenging circumstances. In addition, Monahan has launched a personal brand aimed at mentoring women and teaching them the shortcuts and hacks to get ahead in business and in life. A single mom to her son, Monahan has also been featured in the media as an expert on bouncing back from the pain of a divorce and about overcoming a difficult childhood to succeed as a “boss in heels.”
Helping kids in challenging circumstances to “finish stronger than you started”
Roy Hall played football at Ohio State University and went on to play for the Indianapolis Colts. Before all that, however, he endured an unimaginable childhood with a drug-addicted, abusive father. “Watching my mother endure both physical and emotional pain was at times unbearable,” Hall says. “She went nights without eating to make sure we didn’t go hungry. We spent years struggling to live from one paycheck to the next. My father’s heroin addiction and abusive nature nearly cost us everything. But my mother’s strength and love is the reason I do so much for others in need today.” Having overcome more than his fair share of adversity, Hall is synonymous with his own motto: Finish stronger than you started. Eight years ago, Hall and a fellow Ohio State teammate founded The Driven Foundation, which works to help kids and families in need beat those seemingly insurmountable odds. The program started in Columbus, Ohio but has recently expanded statewide–with the goal of reaching families around the country.
From segregation to transformation, she gets the underdog into the game
“If you want to win the game, you have to be in the game,” says Algeania Warren Freeman, PhD., who knows a little more than perhaps she’d like about what it’s like to be left out of the game. Born in 1949, she spent her childhood in a segregated community in North Carolina, picking cotton, barning tobacco, and enduring the casual racism that was standard at the time. But she managed to rise above it, and has made it her life’s mission to help others to rise above their challenges. Earning a college degree, a Masters in Science and a Doctorate before spending decades as a professor and ultimately becoming the president of two universities and two colleges. And she’s used that transformative magic to raise over $40 million for various non-profit and educational endeavors and has provided access to educational opportunities for over 30,000 individuals. Her most significant labor of love, however is the founding of Step Up Sisters, an organization that helps females improve their lives through spiritual growth, education, and leadership development. Recalling her own almost unimaginable beginnings, Dr. Freeman believes that everyone should be able to change their destiny, and that it’s up to those more fortunate to help out. As to those facing challenging circumstances, Dr. Freeman advises they should “Never give up. Victory is always on the other side of the horizon.”
Wanting to make the burden for others lighter by showing them someone cares
Marisa Zeppieri-Curuana grew up in a low-income household with a single mother and one sibling. “My mom struggled to feed us and keep a roof over our head. We moved 13 times in 16 years.” It wasn’t easy, but it helped Marisa to develop a sense of adaptability as an adult. Today, she’s a journalist and founder of a large autoimmune nonprofit, LupusChick, which reaches about 600,000 people per month who have incurable autoimmune diseases. “Over the years, we’ve awarded five partial college scholarships to Lupus patients, plus we help patients out with medicine costs and housing, particularly for those who are unable to work and pay for their health care because of their illness.” She also partners with various companies to obtain free products for Lupus patients. “As a lupus patient myself, and someone who grew up without health insurance or the funds to properly be cared for, this is an issue close to my heart,” Zeppieri-Curuana says. “I believe my struggles early on in life fueled my desire to give back…wanting to make the burden for others lighter and show them that someone cares.” You may not know that these are 15 symptoms of Lupus.
With enough love, poverty doesn’t feel so bad
Julie Austin spent time growing up in a trailer, and got so used to wearing hand-me-down clothing that she got to believing that they were “new,” because they were for her. Luckily, however, there was so much love in her house, it was only when she got teased in school for being poor and wearing old clothes that she realized she was different. But she didn’t let it change her. She didn’t let it make her bitter. And she never forgot her roots. What she’s found, in fact, are that “some of the nicest people I’ve ever known are the homeless people I meet in my volunteer work,” she said. Austin brings food to homeless people and to their dogs while running five businesses, all of which make money except The Doggie Food Bank, which she’s been funding out of her own pocket (although she’s recently opened a Go Fund Me account to help defray the costs). “I started The Doggie Food Bank after seeing a woman and her dog on the street corner. She didn’t ask for money, but wanted food for her dog. I wanted to help, and I promised I would help.” Austin ran back home that very minute and returned with dog food. After that, Austin started noticing how many homeless people have dogs. But what truly amazed her was that so many of these homeless dog owners offer to volunteer their own time to help bring food to others. “They don’t have anything for themselves, they’d feed their own dog before they’d feed themselves, and yet they still want to help others,” she marvels. “It’s been quite humbling.” And just in case you were wondering, sometimes the dogs pay it forward too. Find out all the health benefits of owning a dog.
Helping others get fit
Suzanne Andrews grew up with five siblings and a single mom who worked as a waitress to feed all of them. Christmas wasn’t really a thing, she says, and they were so poor, it hardly mattered. By the time she was ten, her situation nearly led to a gruesome death: her undiagnosed appendicitis became a ruptured appendix and a life-threatening case of peritonitis (watch out for these serious symptoms of appendicitis). She would have died if her mother hadn’t left her waitressing job two hours early to check on her. Even then, says Andrews, “they didn’t think I’d make it through surgery. I awoke intubated and with a fever of 106. I was given my last rights.” But the hospital staff saved Andrews’s life, and what she remembers most about her time in the hospital is the kindness of the nurses and physical therapists who helped her. She’s now paying that kindness forward by helping others take charge of their health naturally by producing a fitness show called Functional Fitness. And by “producing it,” we mean that Andrews fully funds it herself and provides it free of charge to public television stations such as this local PBS affiliate. Even the proceeds of our DVDs go right back into producing more shows, as well as providing closed captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing. “I could have died, but I was brought back to life by the kindness of medical professionals who didn’t care how poor I was or whether I was poor at all. I believe I lived because I have a duty to empower others to take charge of their own health.” And that’s what Andrews is doing.