Estrella Rosenberg

A Grateful Heart Is What Fuels Change

In Fundraising, Gratitude, Leadership, Personal on November 22, 2011 at 1:48 pm


For a lot of change making organizations, it can seem like loss and pain are the driving force behind their work. So many nonprofits and NGO’s start because their founder lost someone they love to cancer, to heart disease, to suicide, to war…the list goes on. My own organization, Big Love Little Hearts, is in honor of my sister, who passed away at just 37 days old from an undiagnosed heart defect.

But viewing loss as the impetus of change misses the mark. What really fuels changemakers is gratitude and grace. Being so thankful for the time you had with someone that you’re driven to give the gift of time spent with loved ones to others. Being so thankful for the advantages you’ve had that you want as many people as possible to also have them. Being grateful for your education, the food on your plate, your mentors, the support of others during a hard time….these are the things that truly make the world grow.

Hospitals grow because the people who received excellent care there donate so that others may receive the same. Scholarships are funded by people who are grateful for what education has made possible in their lives. Organizations like Imerman Angels are built by people who are thankful that they had the support they needed while fighting cancer. Organizations like mine are funded by parents who know how lucky they are that their children were born in a country where lifesaving care is abundant.

I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a lot of changemakers in my years as one, and the common thread among all of them is not a bleeding heart…it’s a grateful heart.

We are all meditating on the things we’re grateful for during Thanksgiving. This Thanksgiving what I am most thankful for is simply the act of gratitude, because that’s what is improving and often saving the lives of millions of people all around the world.

If your heart is thankful this week, please consider sharing your love with a grateful photo or gift over at Epic Thanks (an organization whose entire philosophy is that love and gratitude are all that’s needed to change the world).


Answering the Call

In Congenital Heart Defect, Miscellaneous, Non-Profit, Personal on April 26, 2011 at 6:30 am

The last few days have been some of the hardest in my cause community since I started working in this space. In just the last 24 hours, nine I children I know died from their heart defect. Nine. I’ve had weeks where I’ve known 14 kids that lost their battle with their heart defect, but nine in one day is a record. A painful, terrible, paralyzing record. If there was ever a day where I wish I could walk away from the work I do – today is it.

But I can’t walk away, because this is not a job – it is a calling.

I didn’t always know this was my calling. My sister died when I was 10 years old from an undiagnosed heart defect. It affected me and my family profoundly, but I didn’t decide then that I was going to spend the rest of my life trying to save other families and other children from that fate.

I grew up, went to college and ended up a jury consultant. While on a business trip I met a little girl at a golf tournament. She was hitting farther than the grown men on the course and when I went to tell her how incredible I thought that was, I found out that was hardly the most incredible thing about her.

I noticed a heart with two stick-figure kids on either side of it embroidered on her golf bag and when I asked about it she told me she had two open heart surgeries before she was two years old and that it was her mission to raise one million dollars to fund research for children with heart defects. Did I mention she was 10 when I met her?

I made a donation to the non-profit she was raising money for, The Children’s Heart Foundation, soon after and soon after that joined their Board. I started volunteering at their office and while I became more and more invested in the heart families I was meeting, the extraordinary research we were funding and what that could mean for children born decades after my sister….that piece of the heart defect world was not my calling.

One day I got a letter from a father in Ghana whose son needed heart surgery. No hospital in Ghana had the equipment and no surgeon there had the necessary skills. His son was dying and he was sending letters to every organization he could find that had anything to do with children and hearts.

His letter was desperate. I didn’t know how to help him but I had a computer and I had access to a Board full of the finest congenital heart surgeons in the world – these were things he didn’t have. It only took me a few days to find a surgical mission team going to Sudan and only a few more days to figure out how to get him from Ghana to there.

That’s when my calling found me – but it’s not when I answered the call.

I got letters like that frequently, but it wasn’t my daily work and I was glad because most of the time it took a lot longer than a few days to find help for someone. Many times it took a month or more and sometimes help was simply unable to be found. I spent whole days crying when that happened and countless sleepless nights hoping that one more email or phone call would turn up some new solution.

It was the thing I was most passionate about spending my time on, but I was terrified.

I remember the day my sister died like it was yesterday. The almost 27 years that have passed since then have done little to dull the pain of it. I watched a part of my mother and father die with her that will never – and can never – come back.

The stakes were very personal to me. I knew exactly what would happen if I couldn’t find help for a child who needed it. I knew how forever changed and incomplete their family would feel. Every time I couldn’t find help for someone – every time a child died – I was taken back immediately to the day my sister died and all the unbearable pain that came along with it.

It took me almost two years to get over that fear and actually answer my calling. My fears weren’t unfounded. When I left Children’s Heart Foundation and started my own non-profits, the amount of letters I got from families who needed help grew, but the amount of help available did not.

The horrible truth is that on average, every other day I know a child that has died from their heart defect. That’s not just a horrible truth – it’s a hard and crushing truth that sometimes makes it hard for me to breathe, eat, sleep or do any of the other things a normal human being does to take care of themselves.

For a brief moment last night in the aftermath of nine lives lost in a day, I wondered if I could really do this anymore. I wondered what to do period because there’s no manual that tells you how to deal with that.

Good friend Megan Strand reminded me exactly what to do:

“You take a deep breath and know that you have a calling on this earth and nine more angels to guide you.”

If this wasn’t my calling I couldn’t put myself through another night like last night again. But it is my calling. And because I answered it, the wonderful truth is that on average, every other day I get lifesaving help to a child with a heart defect.

Most everyone I know who works in nonprofit is there because they answered their call. Have you answered yours?

Our Town, Our Heroes: What Authentic CSR Feels Like

In Brand Building, Corporate Social Responsibility, Non-Profit, Our Heroes on April 19, 2011 at 7:30 am

Last week I was the lucky recipient of a vehicle loan from General Motors as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program, Our Town Our Heroes. OTOH launched about a month ago under Driving the Midwest (there is also Driving the Heartland, Southeast and Northeast) and it works like this:

Anyone can nominate a local hero, and every two weeks three finalists are announced who then compete for the most votes. Whoever gets the most votes, as well as the person who nominated them gets a GM vehicle for one week, a full tank of gas plus “a few other surprises”.

I’m generally not a fan of any kind of cause related contests and certainly not a fan of asking people to vote for me. I didn’t enter Big Love Little Hearts in Chase Community Giving or Pepsi Refresh and the last time I asked people to vote for me was in Junior High for Student Council (along with the childhood friend who nominated me for Our Town, Our Heroes).

But I was a fan of this. As both an observer and a recipient, Our Town, Our Heroes feels like authentic CSR from General Motors. Why?

Strong Brand Alignment.

From their website: “We are celebrating the local heroes who inspire you and drive positive change in your communities.”

GM brands Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac are hometown cars and trucks. They’re dependable. They can work all day long and look good doing it, and they’re not afraid to get dirty. They’re just like the people Our Town, Our Heroes celebrate.

Even the award of the vehicle itself is in line with brand value. What makes a hometown hero a hometown hero is that they spend their days doing a lot of the same things you do – driving their kids to and from school, soccer practice and playdates, running to the bank or the grocery store, cooking, keeping a house, going to softball practice or visiting friends and family. Things they need a dependable car that can keep up with them for.

It’s Personal.

When Driving the Midwest first let me know I was nominated we talked about some of my charitable activities, and when I mentioned the Little Leo Project I explained that my Volvo Sedan didn’t have room to bring enough stuffed animals for an entire children’s hospital so I usually just brought enough for the cardiac floor.

When they told me I won they said they were giving me a Chevy Suburban for a week so I’d have a vehicle big enough to bring all the stuffed animals I wanted to the children’s hospital. I excitedly said that I’d be going to Hope Children’s Hospital first, because they let me bring a couple volunteers and with room for that many stuffed animals – I’d certainly need the extra help!

Before they came to drop the Suburban off to my house, they called the hospital to find out what kind of stuffed animals were allowed. Then they went out and bought a few dozen stuffed animals of all shapes, sizes and colors and filled up the back of the truck with them. I had no idea they did this! While they were showing me all the features of the truck we walked around back so they could show me how to open the rear hatch. When they opened it and I saw all the stuffed animals I burst into tears! I was beyond touched.

It’s Not a Public Relations Campaign.

At least not a heavy one. In fact, you can’t find any information about this on the General Motors website – not even under Corporate Responsibility. You’d have to have already heard of the campaign to find the Driving The Midwest website. There’s no Driving the Midwest or Our Town, Our Heroes facebook page.

The OTOH team wasn’t aggressive about asking for P.R. material and there was no requirement. When they dropped off the car they asked if they could take a couple pictures to put on their site in a blog post and record a short video. They said that if I wrote about it on twitter, facebook or my blog to be sure and let them know and they’d share it, but they never made me feel like that was part of the deal of winning.

Too many CSR initiatives feel hollow these days and indeed the ones that have felt the most hollow to me have been peppered with controversy. Our Town, Our Heroes is a project that’s truly about brand value and mission. Because of that it’s also a project that works: I haven’t driven a GM vehicle in years. I loved driving the Suburban. Loved it. It was fast, it was sleek, it was comfortable and it drove phenomenally. Couple that and the very positive feelings this experience generated in me towards GM with the fact that my Volvo is on it’s last legs…and you have a consumer currently shopping for a new Chevy or GMC. 

What other CSR campaigns feel really authentic to you? Which ones don’t?

Much gratitude to General Motors, Driving the Midwest and Chevrolet for making this possible – you made a whole lot of children smile!

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