Person of the Week

Marilyn Votaw

Catalyst, Bridge Builder, Founder Tremendous Hearts

Sometimes people get to be quite old and never have the experience of knowing what their purpose is, but I had the great experience of seeing it all line up.  I realized that all these jobs that I had had and these various things that I had done helped me to have a vision and fulfill my passion to help people.  For people who are struggling for a purpose, you have a purpose!  You will get an answer no matter how old you are.  I can’t promise you when, but if you are listening, the answer will come. 

1.  What led you to the mission of being a catalyst and bridge builder?

I was born a catalyst and bridge builder.  I have always been this sort of person who was interested in making things better.  I come from a very long line of extremely interesting, powerful women.  My great, great grandmother was a church founder.  My great grandmother was an entrepreneur and church lady extraordinaire.  My grandmother was a church founder.  My mom founded an adoption agency and I inherited this legacy.  I came into the world this way and spent hours going with my mom and grandmother to visit people who were sick.

I was one of those kids in high school and college who struggled because none of the career “stuff” they were talking about fit and it didn’t make sense.  At a young age I had an idea about who I was but I didn’t know how to articulate it.  What I wanted to be didn’t match with what was I presented with in school, so it took me a while to find my mission.

After I had a career, someone looked at my resume and said, “This is all really impressive, but I’m really not sure what this adds up to.”  My internal voice said, “Uh huh, I don’t know either.”  Even into my forties I had developed confidence and had accomplished a lot at interesting places.  I worked for the National Endowment for the Arts and other large corporations, but there seemed to be no center to all this work.

Then I had a dream.  That was the beginning of this Tremendous Hearts piece.  When I was in discernment Marilynand marthaabout what the dream meant and what I was going to do about it practically, all of a sudden I realized that everything that I had done, every job I had had — in fact all of my experiences – were preparation for what I was going to do.  I actually felt really blessed and fortunate to figure it out.  (Click here to see the fulfillment of this dream in Marilyn’s organization Tremendous Hearts, South Africa.)

Sometimes people get to be quite old and never have the experience of knowing what their purpose is, but I had the great experience of seeing it all line up.  I realized that all these jobs that I had had and these various things that I had done helped me to have a vision and fulfill my passion to help people.  For people who are struggling for a purpose, you have a purpose!  You will get an answer no matter how old you are.  I can’t promise you when, but if you are listening, the answer will come.  The idea of being a catalyst was born.

As a catalyst, I go into situations that are broken or there is something new that needs to happen.  I “pitch the circus tent” by getting everyone together and getting everything moving.  I take the thing that is not working and tinker with it and get the pieces together and happening.  Very often people are missing tools or experience or something to get things moving.  The result is that nothing happens.  So, I help get stuff done.  I’m all about action.  When I have inertia and inaction, I can’t stand it.  I build the bridge to get people going and getting things done.

2.  What does this mission mean to you?

Being a catalyst and bridge builder feels good.  I can use the gift that I have to improve and make people’s lives better.  I get a very satisfying feeling to be myself and do what comes natural to me.  When I look at meaning, I look at, “What are the results?”  An example from my work would be that I brought a volunteer physical therapist to South Africa.  Johan de Besche and is family packed up their house and came to South Africa for a year.  He worked with this one child who has a neurological disorder.  She was born healthy but her body started curling in on itself.  She didn’t speak but her mental faculties were all there.  She was trapped in a body that had failed her.  By working with Johan and an assisted device, she was able to say for the first time,
“I’m cold.  I need a hat.  I’m hungry.  Thank you.”   (Click here to follow Johan’s blog.)  

There aren’t words to describe the feeling of knowing that I helped make it possible for a child to tell somebody about a BuggySoccerbasic need – something that she could not do before!  I’m getting people moving, but it isn’t necessarily all my doing.  Johan was the one who had the professional experience to get this child talking.  I just provided the way for him to get there and make the connection between the two of them.  It’s not necessarily my accomplishment, but it feels good to see the results of getting people together.  This child’s life is better and Johan was completely changed by his service during the year he was here.  He and his family had this experience of a lifetime.

(Click here to see other volunteers and workers making a difference at Tremendous Hearts.)

3.  What was your best day as a catalyst and bridge builder?

My best days are about transcendence.  I’ve done a lot of event work for both profit and nonprofit corporations.  Putting together events is hard and requires a lot of moving pieces coming together to finish a project.  My best day recently was an event featuring an American choir that had come to South Africa on tour.  They asked if I could set up an opportunity to sing at a township church.  With help from folks here, we planned a day for the choir visit an Anglican Church group that sings in their native language — complete with bells, whistles, drums, and all kinds of instrumentation that the American choir had never seen before.  The Anglican group is really astonishing.  The meeting was an amazing experience for everyone musically.   It was also a wonderful community experience.

The other thing we planned was meeting with the Masazane Soup Kitchen – one of my pet projects.  We are supporting a group of six grandmothers also known as Gogos who care for over one hundred and fifty orphans and vulnerable children.  The HIV epidemic in their township is very serious and the stigma is very high.  People are not getting tested or medicine.  There are a lot of kids in distress and they are really poor.  Most of the people are daily workers who don’t even make minimum wage.  The people are in distress and chronic hunger.  The choir was able raise money to pay for food and bring clothing donations.  (Click here to see a video about the Masazane Soup Kitchen.)

I’m from Boston where we have all these nice neat little plans in a box, everything goes according to plan, and you can expect a minute-by-minute schedule.  But this is Africa.  This Bostonian kind of plan doesn’t work in Africa.  But what is awesome is that you have a plan and then something else completely different happens!  It’s absolutely fine!  Often what actually happens is better than what you had tried to initially plan!

Of course for the choir event we had a plan but it was running late.  The idea was to have cookies and juice.  The six Gogos were to talk about the project and have the two groups sing together.  There was also to be some social time.

We arrived.  The Gogos did their thing.  Each one in succession gave their testimony in their own language and it was translated by one of the teenagers.  The pastor had his sons’ little gospel rock band join us.  We hadn’t expected this performance.  So, we had all kinds of instruments and teenagers singing as well.  That was great!

One of the Gogos decided to give her testimony about me.  This was uncomfortable.  I don’t like being the center of attention.   She called me to the front of the room and I had to stand there and have her give her testimony about me!

We were in a church that is a shack made out of corrugated tin and blue tarps.  It barely repels water, isn’t very big, and has a dirt floor.  The singing started.  There was an amazing exchange between the choir and the community.  People on the street wanted to know what was going on and came in and joined the group.  Yard roosters were crowing and there was an absolutely perfect time of singing.   A little child was singing “This Little Light of Mine” and everyone joined in – even the people who had come from the street to listen.  There was this group of foreigners and South African people who looked like they had known each other for years.  This amazing community thing happened.

As the person who set all this in motion and had an idea of what would happen, I was just “over the moon”!  I was beside myself that this event transcended even my wildest imagination in terms of what might happen when everyone came together.   I had created this interesting platform for them to get connected.  I found myself standing and watching choir members be “jazzed” about what Tremendous Hearts does.  The young people were talking to the choir about what it is like to sing and travel.  Nobody wanted to go home.  At some point the choir had to be corralled and told, “You are expected at dinner, we have to get you back to the city.”  The kids chased the bus down the street as we drove out.

That’s a best day – when things happen that are even better than you expected.  This event was so beyond all of us.  From my faith perspective, I would have to say that the Holy Spirit showed up as well.  The event was really special.   I got home and couldn’t sleep because I was so wired.  Those peak moments – bits of transcendence – aren’t rare.  I have those experiences often while doing this work.

4.  What was your worst day as a catalyst and bridge builder?

The hardest days for me are when I hear stories about a child who has died or who has been so deeply harmed in some way.  I might feel really frustrated that we were not able to help in some way.  But these feelings are normal.  We can’t be everywhere.  We can’t do everything.  There are so many people in distress.

Focusing on what we can do is how we cope.  For instance we have a physical therapist working with severely handicapped children.   A child may have cerebral palsy as well as be deaf or blind.  This same child might also be HIV positive.  A child’s family might have abandoned the child or both parents may have died of AIDS.  But we help to assure there is someone to help this child or these children.

South Africa has the largest HIV and AIDS epidemic in the world.  There are six million people who are infected.  About a thousand people die every day from AIDS, here.  There is a tidal wave of children needing help.  By 2015, if the death rates continue, one child in every three in South Africa will be an orphan.  That alone is a huge factor in these communities.  The other factor is extreme poverty.  A daily income is one or two dollars or less.  Poverty places extreme pressures on a family.

South Africa also has a very pernicious and difficult problem with violence against women and children.  One in three children are raped.  One in four women in their lifetime are raped.  The sexual abuse and abuse cycle is very prominent.  In the Western Cape where Cape Town is located, there is the highest incidence of fetal alcohol syndrome in the world.

The agencies that we work with are the agencies stepping in when everything else has gone wrong.  They not so much doing prevention, but stepping in when all the family stuff has completely fallen apart.  The child has been removed from the home for often multiple reasons – mom is a drug addict, the child is HIV positive and not getting the proper medication, and in the house there are strangers abusing the children.  The child must be removed from this home.

What we are doing is supporting the foster care agencies, orphanages, and other residential care facilities.  For instance, we work with a foster care agency called Home From Home.  They have a child sponsorship program and you can actually sponsor a child.  Tremendous Hearts volunteers do work with Home From Home.  As a volunteer, I spent my morning working with Home From Home social workers to develop a child well being monitoring and evaluation system.  We had to build it from scratch because there hasn’t ever been one in South Africa.  We measure the wellness of the child in a statistically accurate way.  We are beta testing that right now.  (Click on this link to see the Home From Home website.)

One of the effects of this project is that Home From Home has discovered significant issues just by doing the interviews with the kids.  The kids are being interviewed and are telling stories.  The workers are learning more about each case history, the relationship with their foster mother, and other details that were previously unknown.  That’s where Tremendous Hearts comes in.  They are helping to build the capacity of the organization.  In this way the South Africans can do more and better work as they directly care for the children.

5.  How did you survive your worst day?

One of the ironies of living in Cape Town surrounded by all the poverty is that it is also one of the world’s most beautiful natural places.  There is Table Mountain and the ocean.  Going from a very impoverished urban setting to take a walk in the forest and be in nature is sometimes just the right thing to do to foster resilience.  Sometimes I’ll go and take a walk on the beach and be quiet.  Here I can be with the disappointment.  The trick for me is to feel the bad day.  The bad day can be from a child being harmed, raped, or being removed from their home.  “If I don’t feel that, I shouldn’t be here doing this work.”  That is what I say to myself.

I feel this very strong connection to the people with whom I’m closely working.  Although it seems counter intuitive, I can go back and be connected to my community, talk about what happened, or to start on the next thing.  The people I work with are so resilient.  It helps to see that they have picked up, are moving on to the next thing, and we can do that together.  Being with the community and having solidarity in that disappointment, can be really helpful.

I don’t personalize problems.  Ultimately I realize that I’m not the bad actor here.  For instance, it is the person who committed the crime against the child or the child’s ill health that has to be addressed.  A multiple handicapped body might not be able to take the illness any more and that child might die.  That’s a reason not to take this on personally.  I know myself.  I know my limits.  I know when I need help and will go get help when I need it.  I know I have resources if there is something I can’t handle by myself.  I can go talk to someone about situations.  I don’t have to carry a burden all alone.

When I first started traveling to South Africa back in 2006, I cried a lot.  I realized eventually that my tears actually didn’t help anybody.  My pity did not help anyone.  What was most needed was for me to show up with my gifts, open heart, and willingness to try again.   If it has been a bad day, no matter what that means including that it just didn’t go the way it should have, I realize that I have done my best and I’m going to show up open hearted and try again.   That’s how I get through a bad day.