In 2010, at an age and in economic circumstances that could have easily resulted in Betty’s dabbling in some kind of volunteer work, hanging out at the country club and/or watching her mani/pedi dry, she chose another path. That path led her to create What Gives 365, giving away $100/day for 365 to worthy people and organizations, and to write a blog about it, www.whatgives365.wordpress.com. When that year ended, Betty dreamed up another blogging venture for herself and became the volunteer Global Blogging Ambassador for Heifer International, traveling around the world and writing about the projects Heifer creates in developing countries on her current blog www.heifer12x12.wordpress.com. In addition to her heartfelt writing, she takes spectacular photos.
Did you always believe you could change the world or was this a belief you developed later in life?
I actually don’t believe that I can or am changing the world — but I do believe that we are each called to do whatever we can and use whatever gifts we possess to “win some small victory for humanity” as Horace Greeley put it. My mother was always a total, unrelenting optimist with unquenchable hope in the goodness of people so I think that probably rubbed off on me. I believe that we are all interconnected and that we share common ground (it’s called Earth) … so anything I can do to help make that more of a reality in people’s consciousness, I’m SO there. (But the first four decades of my life, I was totally focused on myself, my horrible romantic choices, my brilliant career, and my own navel. Just saying ….)
How did What Gives 365 come about?
My daughter had just gone off to college and I suddenly had a lot more real estate in my brain & heart to think about bigger issues … and one night after I saw “Julie & Julia” I was musing about what I’d write about if I blogged every day and it just popped into my head — I think I’ll give away money to people doing good things in the world! And that turned out to be a very popular endeavor.
Why 365 charities, as opposed to one or several large donations to a handful of charities?
I really wanted to explore and shine a light on all kinds of different people and organizations who were letting love loose in the world, as I like to put it. I have a lot of different interests myself and I thought it would be cool to explore all the ways in which people are doing good — in the environment, the arts, social ventures, science, poverty, hunger, the aging, wildlife, health, microfinance, politics, education — those were all things that moved me, that I wanted to write about & give to.
In retrospect, which charities have meant the most to you? Why?
I think I probably remember the personal stories the most .. and I did try to find people and organizations that you probably hadn’t heard of — both because I wanted it to be a process of discovery every day for my readers, and because with a big organization it’s not that noteworthy that you are giving to others — that is your mission. But I loved the people who just gave out of their hearts and out of a personal belief (like this one young girl who was a dancer and decided on her own to teach young girls at the Boys & Girls Club three times a week — and then she started a donation service to collect dancing clothes & shoes for her students, since that stuff is pretty expensive, and then she created a big dance recital for the girls at her ritzy private school and got a bus to take them & made them a really nice dinner before & invited all their parents to come watch them … It was such a little thing in the scheme of things but SO touching to me — and when I donated my $100 to her, she was ecstatic because as she put it, “That pretty much covers my annual budget!” I felt like giving her a thousand … seriously!)
You didn’t seem to take a breath when 365 ended. Instead, you launched right into Heifer. Did you at least go shopping in between projects or get a facial? Something? Anything?
Oh no — I took a whole year off! When 365 ended on January 1, 2011, I was pretty exhausted because it was an insane amount of work and just never let up. BUT .. having spent a whole year on the third floor of my house at my computer, I really wanted to go out and see some of the stuff I’d written about … I really wanted to SEE the developing countries and projects … so I thought and thought about how I might do that, and in July, it just suddenly occurred to me that going around the world visiting an organization’s projects and blogging about it would be a pretty awesome marketing idea (and since I spent 25 years in advertising, I understand the power of that). So I pitched the idea to Heifer and they loved it and green-lighted it!
Why Heifer International?
I had always really admired Heifer a LOT and written about them for 365 — but the truth is, I knew the CEO of Heifer – he was a friend of ours and had just gotten the job and since I knew it would have to be a top-down initiative, I screwed up my courage to play the friend card and pitched him the idea. And luckily, he loved it.
How did travelling around the world for Heifer change your life?
It made me realize how incredibly blessed we are in this country (most of us — but certainly not all!) with our abundance. It also made me realize what we’ve given up to have our material wealth and technological advances (our family connections, our connection to the animals who sustain us and the earth which feeds us, and in many cases the simple joy of living) … and I saw that manifested in every single country I visited. As my daughter put it in Rwanda, “Mom, these people seem a lot happier than we Americans do.” I became a huge advocate of Heifer’s programs and methodology … obviously … and I also felt that getting to learn about and visit and meet the people of so many countries…specifically in places where no tourist ever goes… was the gift of a lifetime. If I thought my body could handle it, I’d love nothing more than to go back and check in on all the people I met in five years’ time and see what has become of them. I think that would be totally amazing!
And how did you manage to still look so fabulous, even in the middle of nowhere, without a blow dryer or the ability to wear great heels?
Renee, you seriously need to get your eyes checked! I went to the Goodwill in November 2011 and bought $75 worth of khaki capris, little blouses and a couple of t-shirts and that was my wardrobe for the year. (I’m a real cheap skate but I think all that stuff at REI, etc. is totally overpriced unless you’re a serious outdoorsperson which I am not.) If you look at the photos, I am pretty much wearing the same outfit (well, it all looks identical) in every shot — and my only vanity was always taking the jewelry I love (earrings and necklaces and bracelets)… and of course, lipstick. If I look good in any of the photos, I honestly believe that it was just pure happiness that you’re seeing & not my face. I was really full of joy being there.
Which Heifer projects had the greatest impact on you?
I was really shocked and profoundly moved by my visit to Northern Cameroon because it exemplifies the struggle of the people living in the Sahel all across Africa, as their water dries up and climate change brings less and less rain. It is so desperate, and of course you think — why are these people living here?? — but then you realize they have nowhere else to go, the government has no land to give them, and you just end up frantically worrying that they will simply perish. Heifer has drilled a bore hole there which eases the 10 km WALK the people make several times a day (with 20 liters of water on their heads) but it’s still just incredible to me that in 2012 we allow people to live like this. It’s unconscionable. I also expected to dislike Haiti because the problems there seem so overwhelming, but I absolutely LOVED it.
And then Romania & Armenia were so unexpectedly beautiful and captivating — honestly? there was not one country I didn’t fall in love with, and Heifer’s work in each of them is so unique and crafted to meet their needs, it’s quite impressive.
How did blogging add to your experience of both What Gives365 and Heifer12x12? Aside from me, do you now have a gaggle of groupies?
Blogging was the focus of both experiences — it’s completely how I expressed what I had seen and done with 12 x12, and how I introduced the projects I was donating to in What Gives. I had never even read a blog before I started my What Gives project, so there was definitely a learning curve, but what I found was this thriving, cooperative, mutually supportive community that completely engaged me — and I feel as if I’ve made so many connections with people that I really cherish now (specially YOU, Renee!!!) even if I’ve never met them. It will be really hard to give up blogging at this point — you just get totally wired into the world of sharing your thoughts & feelings about stuff.
Talk about your husband and children. It probably wouldn’t have been possible to do what you did on either project without their support, right?
Boy, that is for SURE, Renee — and I’m really glad you asked that question! My husband Larry is a college president and so he’s a pretty busy guy, but still, to have me be away 1/3 to 1/2 the year — and then when I’m home be totally consumed with writing and putting my blogs together — it was a lot to ask of anybody. He also totally supported me giving away (my personal) money in 2010 .. which was pretty great because I actually used to earn a decent amount of money and stopped doing that. And he never once complained that I wasn’t earning anything this year — in fact, he was pretty jazzed because I totally stopped shopping — had no time and no inclination after seeing so much poverty, I guess. As for my daughter, she is 21 and in college so she’s been proud of me for doing this work, I think, as are my 3 stepchildren (and if you know anything about stepchildren, you know that it’s almost impossible to impress them with any of your good points — ever!) But I never would have traveled or left while the kids were at home.
Has your relationship with your family changed as a result of having committed yourself to these projects?
Yes, to an extent. I’ve always been pretty independent, so these projects that mean so much and demand so much of me are a godsend, really. I’ve always worked and having an identity which is separate from my husband’s is really important to me, but I also felt that being away was both difficult and good — I definitely appreciate my husband and his support more than ever — and I felt like taking my daughter to Rwanda with me was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I was so impressed with how she handled the whole thing and the openness she brought to the experience, and I think it meant a lot to her to see me doing something that meant so much to me & to see my energy being directed at something besides her! ( :
I have no idea, really. I want to relax and come down from this wild experience of the last year, to have time to process it and figure out what I am meant to do next — and I totally trust that it will come to me in the same way. At least I hope it will!!
Do you consider yourself a powerful, visionary woman or do you say “Aw shucks” when someone tells you that you are?
Aw shucks, Renee — I don’t know what else to say. I do feel that I have been extraordinarily blessed and that with great privilege comes great responsibility — and I’ve tried to live up to that responsibility by giving something back and encouraging others to give, too … because I deeply believe it’s what we’re called to do. Also, my parents both felt really strongly that pride was a cardinal sin so I think I’m pretty hard-wired to deflect praise.
What would you say to other women who tell you that their circumstances are preventing them from living their vision?
I always like to remind younger women who feel like they should be doing more that there is a time and place for everything, and women’s great gift is that they can recreate themselves according to the chapters of their life. That has been totally true in my life, but it can be hard to trust that if you feel buried in domesticity.
Also, if you don’t have the means to give money or things, you can always give your time and energy to others — if that is your vision — and that is often the most beautiful gift of all.
I think one of the things that I’ve experienced in my travels this year is that the sacred is not found in the heavens but in our everyday existence — and this is something I believe people in developing countries understand far more keenly than we do — and what makes them happier. They are not looking for big, jaw-dropping, success-driven moments — they are finding happiness, peace and joy in a good crop of lettuce, a new lamb, their sweet children, or clean water. And they are grateful. That was such an eye-opener for me … how grateful these people were for the simplest things.
And so, that’s kind of my vision going forward, to learn how to be like that.