Finding Meaning in Memorial Day

May 31, 2010 by  
Filed under 2010, Blog, Events, Family, Front Page, Holidays, Slideshow, U.S.

What does Memorial Day mean to you? How do you honor the men and women who gave their lives for your country? Photo: Julia Wasson

On Memorial Day, in the United States, many of us pause from our regular workday routines to honor those who died while serving our nation. The tradition dates back to post-Civil War days. Here’s an excerpt from Memorial Day History, a website that claims to share the true meaning of the holiday:

Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11, and was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states. The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war). It is now celebrated in almost every State on the last Monday in May (passed by Congress with the National Holiday Act of 1971 (P.L. 90 – 363) to ensure a three day weekend for Federal holidays), though several southern states have an additional separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead: January 19 in Texas, April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10 in South Carolina; and June 3 (Jefferson Davis’ birthday) in Louisiana and Tennessee.

Memorial Day History chastises those of us who think Memorial Day is an occasion to honor and remember all those we’ve lost. I will admit that I have lost the “true meaning” of the holiday, in its original intent. For me, Memorial Day is a time to reflect upon all of the dead whose lives have mattered to me. Some of those are former soldiers — though I never personally knew anyone who died in battle — but most are dear humans who never heard the call to arms and never stood on a battle line.

I don’t apologize for this. I will continue to honor my own lost loved ones as I observe Memorial Day. But today, in light of what I just read, I am taking time to reflect on the lives of those in military service who shaped my life. Perhaps my story is similar to yours, if you’re a fellow Baby Boomer.

But perhaps you are much younger than I. Maybe you don’t relate to WWII at all, but to the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the War in Iraq, the War in Afghanistan — or some other armed conflict. Or, maybe you live in a different nation. Maybe you’re serving your nation right now — or your son or daughter, wife or husband, father or mother is wearing battle gear and praying to survive another day.

If your story is different — and most are — your reflections will be widely varied from mine. Still, I urge you to reflect. How would your life be different — or would you have a life at all — if not for the sacrifices of those who served your country? And what responsibility do you have to those who died?

My father, David D. Wasson, was a veteran who served in the U.S. Marines and the U.S. Army. Photo: Valley Studio, El Cajon, California

My father served in both the Marines and the Army in World War II. With the U.S. actively engaged on two fronts, he was eager to join up, despite the fact that he was only 16. First, he had to get his father’s permission (though family lore says his dad, a preacher, was happy to see his wild son join the military to get some structure in his life). He advanced quickly, becoming the youngest enlisted man ever to hold the rank he attained (if he were still alive, or if I were a better historian, I would be able to tell you what that rank was). My uncle, a lifelong Marine, and Dad’s buddy before the two men married sisters, once told me that what my dad, David Wasson, did was a remarkable feat for such a young man.

Until his body was cremated, in December of 2002, my father’s left arm was emblazoned with a tattoo of the Marine Corps symbol. By then, the tattoo was disfigured by more than half a century’s aging skin, but he wore it with pride — a badge of honor.

He narrowly missed the fighting in Japan, as he was on a vessel heading from Hawaii to Japan on the day Victory in Japan was declared. Had he arrived even a day earlier in that battle zone, I most likely wouldn’t be alive to write this. So I have a special reason, as do so many other Baby Boomers, to be grateful for those who served our country in the Pacific theatre and in Europe. More than 100,000 U.S. soldiers died in the Pacific during WWII. Their sacrifices gave me my dad, and in doing so, they gave me a chance at life.

After mustering out of the Marines, my father and his young wife headed back to his home turf in Missouri, so he could start college and they could begin a new life together. But once their first child was on her way, my father once again sought out the military and enlisted in the Army. I’m not sure why he didn’t return to the Marines, but because of his choice, two of my sisters and I later became “Army brats.”

Military housing was the first life I knew and the first I remember. As a family member with the Occupation force in Germany after WWII, I spent my first birthday on German soil. I used to wonder why my parents hadn’t allowed us to mingle with German kids and learn the language. We were at the perfect ages: my older sister, Belinda, was 2 1/2 to my 1. My next sister, Betsy (now Liz), would later be born in Heidelberg. I didn’t learn until many years into adulthood that dependents living in Germany at that time we were not considered to be particularly safe. We were “the occupiers,” after all, and there was still a lot of tension in Europe. So, I’m thankful, too, for the soldiers who kept my family and me out of harm’s way while my dad and his colleagues were helping to restore order and security to a nation ravaged by war and divided by hatred.

Of course, I also think back to the beginning, to the origins of this nation I love and to the people who fought for her independence. (But that’s another holiday.) Or, I could consider wars in my ancestral homelands (there were so many, as I’m a true product of the American Melting Pot), but today I focus on WWII. And I am grateful for all those I never knew, who gave me the opportunity for life itself and, especially, life in a free nation.

But what does showing my gratitude really entail? What are my responsibilities to those who died for this nation I live in?

When I’m called upon to vote, I need to be informed – and then I need to follow through and cast my ballot wisely. When I see pollution, I need to step up and do something about it. When I learn of bigotry and hatred in the media or in my neighborhood, I have a responsibility to visibly object and try to correct it. When I see my leaders interacting with other nations in ways I think are dangerous to us all, I must not stand by silent. When I see myself and my fellow citizens squandering the planet’s resources in mindless consumerism and over-relying upon fossil fuels, I must not participate in the problem, but work toward a solution. You see, I have been given a rich life in this nation — on this planet — and have been entrusted with protecting it each and every day.

To me, celebrating on Memorial Day is not enough. I must honor the memory of those who died in service to my country — and my father, who lived into old age — by working for a better future for all of us, in every way that I can.

What does Memorial Day mean to you?

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Preventing the Elders You Love from Falling

November 18, 2009 by  
Filed under Blog, Elders, Family, Front Page, Health, Iowa

Our 90-year-old mother fell and broke her arm. Now we're on a mission to prevent another fall. Photo: Julia Wasson

Our 90-year-old mother fell and broke her arm. Now we're on a mission to prevent another fall. Photo: Joe Hennager

Two weeks before my mother’s 90th birthday, she fell. She stubbed her toe on the carpet while reaching for a light switch, lost her balance and, Bang! She broke her right wrist.

I hustled over to my trusty computer for a little research. Yep. According to the National Security Council, the older you get, the more likely you are to end up in an emergency room from an accidental fall. Each week, more than 30,000 Americans over the age of 65 are seriously injured by falling, and nearly 250 per week die from their injuries.

And this is from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC): “1 in 3 seniors fall every year, resulting in 90 percent of senior hip fractures. Of these seniors who fall” — and this is the scary part — “60 percent of them die from complications (Murphy 2000).”

In 2006, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that unintentional falls were the “#1 reason adults over 45 visited the emergency room.”

According to the CDC, here’s how falls in the United States broke down by age group that year:

Ages 45-54:         817,043
Ages 55-64:        633,428
Age 65+:           1,840,117

Following are some more interesting stats from “Preventing Falls in the Elderly,” by K. R. Tremblay Jr., and C. E. Barber (2005).

  • The risk of falling increases with age and is greater for women than for men.
  • Two-thirds of those who experience a fall will fall again within six months.
  • A decrease in bone density contributes to falls and resultant injuries.
  • Failure to exercise regularly results in poor muscle tone, decreased strength, and loss of bone mass and flexibility.
  • At least one-third of all falls in the elderly involve environmental hazards in the home.

Preventing Future Falls

After our mother’s fall, my brother, sister, and I began to analyze all that we have to do to make sure she does not fall again.

We had eliminated all of the obvious trip potentials years ago. She has no steps to go up or down. We have hidden all loose electrical cords and gotten rid of her step stool and her throw rugs, and made sure no pets were underfoot. We put a nonslip surface in her tub, and got her to buy shoes with tread on the soles.

About a year ago, Mom traded in her cane for a good, solid walker. This one has a seat she can use when she gets tired. Aside from wrapping her in bubble wrap, we thought we had her well guarded. Still, she fell.

Risk Factors for the Elderly

In the trial-and-error process of learning how to care for Mom after her fall, we discovered several factors that made her unsteady on her feet. If you are caring for an elderly person, you might want to consider these factors, too.

Eye Glasses: Older people sometimes forget to put their glasses on. And they may not notice just how dirty their lenses are. That’s what happens with our mom. And even though we all pitch in to clean them for her, they’re dirty in no time.

Vision Checks: For most people, vision rarely gets suddenly worse. Most of the time, an elderly person will slowly lose visual acuity — so slowly that they may not always notice that their prescription is out of date. Getting regular eye exams and updating their eyeglasses is especially important for older folks.

Lighting: Dim lights hide all sorts of things, not the least of which are small items on the floor that an elder can easily trip over. Increasing the lumen level in your loved one’s living space might just save their life.

Medications: Check all medication labels to see which ones indicate the possibility of causing drowsiness. You’ll be surprised how many do. The American Academy of Family Physicians provides a list of Drugs that May Increase the Risk of Falling. Another good resource is, which provides essential information about drug reactions. You might also look up your elder’s medications in the Physician’s Desk Reference. Talk with your elder’s doctor or pharmacist if you have any concerns.

Poor Sleep Cycles: Many elderly folks develop poor sleep patterns, waking frequently to go to the toilet or to get a drink of water. Whatever the cause of a broken sleep pattern, the result is often increased drowsiness. By early morning, when an elder feels the urge to urinate, they may collapse from weariness.

Sleeping Pills: To combat this lack of sleep, their physician may prescribe sleep medication. The positive effect is often sufficient rest. But the side effects may include an increased likelihood of dizziness, disorientation, sleepwalking, and falling.

Dry Air: If a dry mouth is one of the reasons your elder gets up at night, consider using a very good humidifier, especially during the winter months. Keeping the bedroom humidity at about 80% will reduce the dry-mouth symptom. Be sure to use an anti-bacterial agent in the humidifier water. And check the water filters frequently to evaluate the need to replace them.

Urge to Pee: If an urge to urinate is the deciding factor for interrupted sleep, limit liquids after dinner to keep the bladder as empty as possible. This may eliminate half of those toilet runs.

Even a simple family birthday party can add to an elder's stress. Photo: Joe Hennager

Even a simple family birthday party can add to an elder's stress. Photo: Joe Hennager

Caffeine: If caffeine keeps your elder awake, eliminate it from their diet after lunch. This includes all caffeinated sodas and chocolates.

Supplements: Some dietary supplements can also excite the metabolism. Most vitamins and supplements are taken in the morning to reduce the chance of a raised metabolism at bedtime. If you have questions, check with your doctor or pharmacist.

Fiber: Eating enough fiber during the day regulates bowel movements, another of those urges that may catapult your senior out of bed.

Calcium: Calcium is necessary for bone strength. Milk, cottage cheese, cheese, white and navy beans, tofu, soy beans, oats, cereals, grains, nuts, almonds, sesame, broccoli, okra, oranges and orange juice, fish and turnip greens all are rich sources of calcium.

Make sure your senior (and you) get the proper dose of calcium to build and maintain strong bones that aren’t as susceptible to fracture.

But be forewarned: calcium supplement pills can cause constipation. Irregularity is another reason elderly folks get up at night. It may be less stressful for your elders to get their calcium via food rather than dietary supplements.

Exercise: If your senior citizen is not getting enough exercise — if they’re sitting all day, as our mother prefers to do — they’re losing muscle tone and may be lowering their total blood pressure and heart rate. Extremely low blood pressure can cause dizziness upon standing. The heart is a muscle that needs to stay active. It is incredibly important to maintain a regular pattern of movement and exercise throughout one’s whole life.

An age-appropriate exercise program will help build physical strength. Consult your loved-one’s physician about the advisability of a regular physical therapy program. Building strength and stamina will decrease the likelihood of falls. Physical training also helps improve coordination and balance. The Oregon Research Institute found that “a Tai Chi program based on a randomized controlled trial … reduced the frequency of falls by 55 percent” in people aged 65 and older.

Stress: Don’t underestimate the stress that even seemingly small changes can cause — let alone major events like a 90th birthday party. Our mom finds every trip to the doctor exhausting and nerve-wracking. She was apprehensive for a full month before her 90th birthday party — though it went off without a hitch, and she reported having a great time. When an elder is stressed, this too can lead to poor sleep patterns, which then can result in tiredness, dizziness, and possible falls. (And, as if you don’t have enough to worry about, don’t forget that every trip to a doctor’s office is another potential exposure to H1N1 and the regular flu.)

The Child Becomes the Parent

So, here we are, making sure our mother has someone with her every time she stands and walks. We have begun to adjust her diet, her supplements, and her medications, including trying different sleep meds. We are working with her exercise program, getting her to walk a few laps up and down the hallway every day. She is getting stronger, and with better sleep, she’s less disoriented. We’re hoping that, together, we can help to prevent a second fall.

We feel blessed that Mom only broke her wrist and not her hip. According to the AMA, 24 percent of all people suffering a hip fracture die within a year of falling, and another 50 percent never return to their prior level of mobility and independence; they never get out of their wheelchair. Mom is not ready to live in a wheelchair, and none of us is ready for her to die. So our vigil continues.

If your elder loved one is in danger falling, assess their surroundings, their diet, their medications, and their sleep. Falling is one disaster you may be able to prevent.

And while you’re caring for your parent, don’t forget to take care of yourself.

Joe Hennager

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

An Upside to the Downturn – One Psychotherapist’s View

It's time to get off the treadmill and focus on more important things. Photo: © Monika Adamczyk -

It's time to get off the treadmill and focus on more important matters. Photo: © Monika Adamczyk -

Green living isn’t just about being eco-friendly in ways that prevent pollution. It’s also about a way of life that values the world around us and honors it with our attention. Or, so it seems to us at Blue Planet Green Living. The treadmill life keeps us from enjoying the world around us, and if we can’t pay attention to it, we tend to forget to care for it. Contributing writer Abby Seixas provides us with reflections on the value of getting off the treadmill. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

One of my favorite cartoons from The New Yorker shows two mice with two exercise wheels side by side. One mouse is running frantically around his, while the other, sitting still on the edge of the wheel, says, “I had an epiphany.”

The cartoon speaks to the territory I deal with all the time in my work as a psychotherapist specializing in issues of life balance: the elusive change of mind and heart that enables a person to shift from running endlessly on the treadmill of our culturally sanctioned 24/7 way of life, to being able to slow down, or, dare I say it, even to stop every now and then.

I’ve spent the last 15 years helping women intentionally slow their pace in order to experience less stress and more depth and meaning in their everyday lives. In a culture that so highly values speed and efficiency, that’s a humbling proposition, in my own life as well as that of my clients and the women in my groups.

However, the task becomes much easier when certain life circumstances come into play. Circumstances such as:

  • death of a loved one
  • serious illness
  • job loss
  • divorce
  • some other major life crisis

Difficult life events tend to throw people off the treadmill, forcing them to slow down. Often, this downshifting results in asking themselves tough questions, reevaluating their priorities and ultimately (though certainly not without pain), making significant positive changes in how they live their lives.

The experience of a client of mine whom I’ll call “Louise” is a good example of a difficult event leading to a major, positive life reorientation. A mother of two who worked full-time, the event that shifted Louise’s own life dramatically happened to someone she was close to. Louise had worked hard for fifteen years at a job in sales which, she said, “sucked the life right out of me.” Looking back at her life then, she described it as “totally externally focused, driven, and very out of control.”

Relaxing together is a great way to enjoy each other. Photo: © iofoto -

Relaxing together is a great way to enjoy each other. Photo: © iofoto -

During that time, one of Louise’s friends was in a very severe car accident. It was unclear whether she would survive. During one of the first nights that her friend was in the hospital, Louise slept only intermittently, thinking and dreaming about her and her family for what seemed like most of the night. She said, “Toward morning, just as I was awakening, I had this thought about my friend: ’Even if her life is over now, she can know that she has done a great job as a mother.’ Then all of a sudden, I applied that thought to myself, and I remember the clutching feeling in my chest. It was a visceral reaction as I thought: ’If I were to die tomorrow, that couldn’t be said about me.’”

She saw that she had been run so ragged by her job that she wasn’t “living her values,” which to her meant putting her children first. The incongruity between what she believed in and how she was living was so stark and jolting to her in that moment that she had to act. “I gave my notice to a job that I’d had for fifteen years. I didn’t go for options. I didn’t think about how else I might resolve this. It was completely: I’ve got to stop this freight train, and get off.”

The next several months were hard in a different way for Louise. She was at home and spending much more time with her children, but she still felt driven and could not settle down. “I was sewing pillow-covers with a vengeance! I felt enormous stress, but now most of it was self-generated.”

Eventually, in an effort to address the stress she was feeling both physically and emotionally, Louise attended a weekend retreat that included some guided visualization. At first, she had trouble focusing her attention inwardly, but on one of the “inner journeys,” she found herself able to truly go inside, and her inner world opened up. She went in her mind’s eye back to her childhood home, and re-contacted a deep sense of loneliness that had been with her often as a child. She realized that in her adult life, the “freight train” energy that caused her so much stress was fueled in part by trying to avoid the old feeling of discomfort with loneliness from her childhood. This awareness helped her with the changes she wanted to make.

Later she said, “I had lived my life for so long in an outer fashion, and I was so out of synch and so screwed up. I had some sense that I needed to look inside, but it was so hard. I didn’t know how to do it.”

Her weekend retreat was the beginning of an inner exploration that led Louise to one of my groups, and eventually, as her children got older, to an entirely new career that connects back to that early-morning moment that affected her so profoundly: She teaches, trains and writes about parenting skills.  She says, “What I’m doing now uses all of who I am: my professional experience, my skill, my education. And it’s married to my passion. So it’s very powerful for me. And now, because what I’m doing is inner-driven, there’s an energy and an authenticity about it that keeps me going.”

*     *     *     *     *

I see a striking parallel between this process of personal transformation and the societal shift we are experiencing with the economic downturn.

We are in crisis.

We have been thrown off the treadmill.

We have an enormous opportunity to ask tough questions and reevaluate our priorities. What is sustainable growth? How much is enough? What is real wealth? How do we go forward from here?

Australian environmental business expert Paul Gilding has called this time, when we have hit the wall both economically and ecologically, “The Great Disruption.” Thomas Friedman of The New York Times quotes Gilding: “We are taking a system operating past its capacity and driving it faster and harder. No matter how wonderful the system is, the laws of physics and biology still apply.”

This is precisely what so many of us are doing in our daily lives: pushing our wonderful systems — our bodies and minds — to the breaking point with over-crammed schedules, incessant distraction and interruption, and non-stop busyness. Because the laws of physics and biology still apply, some of us do reach the breaking point. And it is there that transformation often begins.

As a psychotherapist, when I see continuing headlines about layoffs, rising homelessness and other forms of bad economic news, I take heart from having witnessed so many individuals who have reached the breaking point and from there, fashioned new lives that are slower and more balanced, healthier, richer with meaning and purpose, and more conducive to happiness. My hope is that the economic crisis can lead us, collectively, along a similar path.

Abby Seixas
Licensed Mental Health Counselor
Contributing Writer
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

To Meat or Not to Meat – Humane Is the Question

My son and his girlfriend arrived today from California for Joe’s daughter’s wedding. They’re omnivores, as are the rest of the offspring from our blended family. Whenever we have a family gathering, my three look forward to an old family recipe (graciously handed down from their dad’s Italian grandmother), Italian beef. This presents me with a dilemma.

Joe and I are trying hard to swear off meat. We’re not entirely successful, because food allergies limit access to other sources of protein: dairy, soy, and some nuts. We do need protein, of course, and we were starting to feel less-than-healthy on our vegan diet. But we do not want to support the factory farms that treat animals as mere commodities.

We abhor the way cattle and hogs and chickens (and ducks, and presumably just about every other food-producing animal) are so often housed in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in unsanitary and inhumane conditions. We are also disgusted and deeply saddened to read how dairy cows are misused, their offspring yanked away shortly after birth and their bones so weakened by the overproduction of milk that they often break on the way to the slaughterhouse at the end of their “useful” lives. But that’s another story.

"You'll never look at dinner the same way." Photo Courtesy: River Road Entertainment

"You'll never look at dinner the same way." Photo Courtesy: River Road Entertainment

So, I promised Italian beef to our family. Then, this morning, I came across a movie review by Roger Ebert. It’s a review of Food, Inc., a powerful recounting of the way food is produced by Big Ag in the United States. Ebert’s review touches on the very issues that made Joe and me want to forgo all meat and dairy products.

I haven’t yet seen Food, Inc., but I have heard that it is not to be missed. Ebert’s review is so powerful that I couldn’t write a better one, even if I had seen the movie. I urge you to read it, and then to see Food, Inc. when it comes to your local area. If you’ve already seen the movie, please give us your own review.

As I read Ebert‘s article, I felt increasingly guilty about my promise to my kids. Maybe I shouldn’t cook Italian beef for them. By doing so I’m betraying the values Joe and I have come to share. But, the truth is, he and I also eat meat at times. So is my promise to my kids any different than what we ourselves do now and then? No, it’s not. As Joe and I said when we first started this website, “We’re on a journey; we aren’t there yet.” That goes for living sustainably, for being vegetarian or vegan, and for being the best humans we can.

I’ll buy meat for my family, despite my reservations. We will serve Italian beef this weekend. But, if I can find it, we’ll eat grass-fed beef from a farmer who treats his animals well, not meat from a factory farm. I’d rather not serve meat at all, but it’s a compromise. Like religion, a vegetarian diet is a choice. But, also like religion, nonbelievers sometimes catch the fire — as long as it’s not forced upon them. I have to remember that our kids are on their own journeys, and they will come to agree with us — or not — in their own time.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Green Festival in Chicago May 16, 17

Chicago's Green Festival will have something for everyone. Photo: Courtesy Green Festival

Chicago's Green Festival will have something for everyone. Photo: Courtesy Green Festival

If you’ll be in Illinois this weekend, head on over to Navy Pier to attend Chicago’s third annual Green Festival, May 16 and 17. Billed as the “original green consumer living event,” the weekend will provide “a vision of a cleaner, more efficient future for American businesses, homes, and lifestyles.”

The event is jointly sponsored by Global Exchange and Green America (formerly Co-op America), both of which are “dedicated to environmental and social justice.” The Green Festival provides a forum to learn about “sustainable solutions for successful communities and a healthier environment.” Regional groups contributing to the program include BIG: Blacks in Green™, University of Illinois Extension, The Field Museum and Local First Chicago.

Two more Green Festivals will take place later this year in Washington, D.C., (October 10 and 11) and in San Francisco (November 13-15). Earlier Green Festivals were held recently in Seattle (March 28 and 29) and Denver (May 2 and 3). In 2008, more than 125,000 people attended the festivals in total.

Kevin Danaher, Co-Founder of Global Exchange and Executive Co-Producer of Green Festival, describes the Green Festival’s purpose as “to share with local communities the importance of living socially responsible and environmentally conscious lives.” He adds that the Chicago festival focuses on “the realities of going green and how to incorporate it into a daily routine to see results in health, finances, and local environment.”

According to a press release from the Green Festival, the Chicago festival will include “eco-insight into the transitioning economy, growing consumer consciousness and evolving environmental policy with over 125 visionary speakers, 350 local and national green businesses, and dozens of community and nonprofit groups. All exhibitors must meet strict standards set by Green America, guaranteeing the highest level of social and environmental responsibility in all participating organizations. Every element of each business is thoroughly vetted to ensure authentic sustainability.”

If you’ve ever wondered whether going green is attainable and affordable, you’ll find the answers here. The show will include the most innovative ideas and products you can find on the eco-friendly scene, as well as speakers who will talk about environmental and social justice issues. Watch for presentations like these:

  • “25 Years Later, Justice for Bhopal,” survivors speak out
  • “Environmental Justice,” with youth community organizer Marisol Bacerra
  • “Greening the Disability Community,” with Ayo Maat
  • “An Edible Education Round Table,” with famed chef Alice Waters
  • “Building Community solutions for Native Nations,” by Laura Bartels
  • “Green Fixes for the Economic Mess,” featuring Alisa Gravitz, Executive Director of Green America

Attractions for All

On the show floor, you’ll find a sustainable marketplace featuring top-notch fair trade and eco-friendly wares from local and national vendors. At the Green Home Pavilion, you’ll be able to participate in a variety of workshops in which you can learn diverse skills and techniques, such as how to do an energy audit in your home or how to set up a compost for your apartment.

The festival isn’t just for the older generation. It’s got features designed specifically by and for youth. Young adults will find entertaining and informative exhibits, games, and workshops presented by their peers. Your little ones won’t be left out, either, as the Organic Valley Green Kids’ Zone provides fun activities for the younger set.

Small Carbon Footprint

Having participated in a number of trade shows in my career, I can testify to the huge environmental footprint and waste that occurs with every show. Not so with the Green Festival, as it’s organizers have been walking the talk by modeling environmental and social leadership since its inception in 2002.

Historically, the festival has reused, recycled, or composted 97 percent — or more — of the waste generated by the show. Responding to the Festival’s commitment to a small carbon footprint, USA Today called the Green Festival a model of “how it should be done.”

If you arrive on your bike, you’ll get a discount on admission as well as free valet parking for your carbon-free transportation vehicle. In addition, the Festival team is providing carbon offsets for the entire event, including for the staff and organizers.

Go Green and Save

As we endeavor to illustrate by example in Blue Planet Green Living, going green is “Earth Wise. Money Smart.” And that’s exactly the message that the Green Festival is working to convey. As Gravitz says, “In addition to providing the Chicago community with exciting and relevant programming, we will also provide perspective on one of the most pressing issues of our time: economic stability. Through the many talks and exhibits at the Green Festival, participants will be able to learn how to go green in their careers, investments, and lifestyle. Going green is a commitment that will add up to big savings for your wallet and the planet.”

Speaker Highlights

You won’t want to miss the opportunity to hear from this year’s list of outstanding speakers:

  • Amy Goodman, award-winning journalist, host of Democracy Now! and co author of The Exception to the Rulers and Static
  • Alice Waters, renowned chef of Chez Panisse in Berkeley
  • Paul Stamets: Mycologist and mushroom cultivator from Fungi Perfecti, a family-owned, environmentally friendly company specializing in the use of gourmet and medicinal mushrooms to improve health
  • John Perkins: Founder and board member of Dream Change and the Pachamama Alliance, and author of best-selling Confessions of an Economic Hit Man
  • Alisa Gravitz: Executive Director of Green America and Executive Co-Producer of Green Festival
  • Kevin Danaher: Co-Founder of Global Exchange, Executive Co-Producer of Green Festival, and Executive Director of Global Citizen Center
  • Damali Ayo: Activist and author of How to Rent a Negro
  • And more!

Program Highlights

The event will provide a wealth of entertainment and information, including:

  • Organic Valley Green Kids’ Zone
  • Youth Unity
  • Community Action Center
  • Green Home Pavilion
  • Fair Trade Pavilion
  • Music Stage Featuring Local Acts
  • Socially Responsible Investing
  • Natural Food, Beer & Wine
  • Eco Fashion
  • Eco Tourism
  • Green Careers
  • E-waste recycling


Navy Pier, 600 E Grand Avenue, Chicago
Saturday, May 16: 10:00AM – 7:00PM
Sunday, May 17: 11:00AM – 6:00PM
$15 for two days/$10 for seniors, students, and all who arrive by bicycle or public transit

Free Admission: Children 18 and younger, Green America or Global Exchange members and volunteers, those who bring three or more books to donate to BetterWorldBooks

Friends of the Green Festival

With a donation of $75 you’ll receive:

  • Full Green Festival admission
  • A coupon for two free drinks at the Organic Beer & Wine Garden
  • 20% off at the Green Festival Store and the BetterWorldBooks Book Store
  • An exclusive tour of the Greening Operation at Green Festival – witness how we achieve 95% resource recovery
  • A visit with Alisa Gravitz of Green America and Kevin Danaher of Global Exchange, and receive an autographed copy of their books: The Green Festival Reader and Building the Green Economy
  • Regular Executive Producer Updates about the Green Festivals from Global Exchange and Green America

For more information on Chicago or any other Green Festival event, visit:

About Green America (formerly Co-op America)

Green America is a national nonprofit organization founded in 1982, providing the economic strategies, organizing power and practicing tools for businesses and individuals to address today’s social and environmental problems. Its Green Business Network is the largest national network of businesses screened for their social and environmental responsibility.

About Global Exchange

Global Exchange is a membership-based international human rights organization dedicated to promoting social, economic and environmental justice around the world. Since its founding in 1988, Global Exchange has successfully increased public awareness of root causes of injustice while building international partnerships and mobilizing for change.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Green Weddings Begin with “Responsible Gold”

When Matt White and his girlfriend decided to marry, they looked for wedding rings that were made in an environmentally responsible way. “We were aware that there were issues associated with gold mining, and we started looking for wedding rings that we could feel good about, that were made with responsible gold. We couldn’t find any. So we got married without any rings at all  — and started greenKarat,” White said in an interview with Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL).

Matt White, greenKarat co-founder. Photo: greenKarat

Matt White, greenKarat co-founder. Photo: greenKarat

We contacted White after accidentally coming across his greenKarat website. We were intrigued by the beautiful designs, and by the fact that customers could actually send in old family jewelry to be re-crafted into new wedding bands. We also wanted to know what makes “responsible gold” different from other gold and why consumers need to know about it. What we learned gave us a whole new perspective on the romance (and responsibilities) of wedding rings. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

BPGL: I’ve always thought of engagement and wedding rings as romantic symbols of a couple’s love. But from what I’ve been reading on your website, it appears that they’re also a symbol of serious environmental damage. Why is gold so bad, environmentally speaking?

WHITE: The issue that my wife and I had been aware of about gold mining — and this really came to our attention as members of Sierra Club — is that separating the gold from the surrounding ore is very destructive to the environment. There are two methods used: The large-scale mining companies use cyanide. They dig the rock out of the mine or out of a pit, put it in a pile, then dump cyanide over the top. The cyanide separates the gold from the ore. Theoretically, the companies have a restraining wall that catches the cyanide to be used it again. But, as a practical matter, a lot of the cyanide escapes and gets into the waterways. It’s an extremely lethal poison.

The other method  is used by the panners, the artisanal miners — there may be 20 million of them around the world. They obtain a little bit of gold, say, in gravel from the bottom of a stream. They use mercury to separate the gold, and a torch to burn off the mercury. A cloud of mercury rises into the air, poisons the miner, then settles into the water and bio-accumulates through the food system. It ends up in foods we eat, such as tuna.

The Wall Street Journal did a story a couple of years ago about a mercury-capturing program in Maine. This was a program with great intent. Their idea was, instead of the mercury going into the landfills, they would collect it. But as it turned out, there was a hole in the system; the mercury was exported and used by gold miners. So it ended up in the environment anyway. It’s a very nasty problem.

A ring made from responsible gold. Photo: greenKarat

GreenKarat creates custom designs. Photo: greenKarat

BPGL: How did you decide to get into the wedding ring business?

WHITE: We saw an opportunity. We decided there had to be a market for wedding rings made with responsible gold. So we devised the concept of greenKarat. It was based upon one very firm concept: We would be as honest as we knew how to be with our customers about what they were getting in their wedding rings. This is important, because in making jewelry, it is almost impossible — no, I’ll go ahead and say it:  “It is impossible to make a gold wedding ring that is completely ecological.”

When you get into the realm of, “We’re pretty good, but we’re not perfect,” we felt that we needed to be as honest as we knew how to be, as transparent as possible with the customer. So we devised what we call the “Green Assay,” which basically is a disclosure of the ecological footprint of each of the designs that we make. It talks about each component of the ring, whether the gold is recycled, whether it’s post-consumer recycled, whether the alloy is ecological — they rarely are.

We talk about the components of the ring. There are little bitty components, for instance, the prongs on a ring that may hold a stone, typically are made in factories. And they are typically of better quality, because they are made in factories, but you are not going to find a factory that’s using ecological gold, or recycled gold. So that’s a component that’s not eco-friendly. So we went through each step of the process, we talked about whether the gold was refined in a refinery that was environmentally responsible, whether it’s ISO 14001-certified — ISO is an environmental certification — and what rules it actually complies with. We laid all of this out and, in the process, didn’t know at the beginning whether we were opening ourselves up to criticism. But it turns out that our niche, the people that we are marketing to, are very grateful for that information.

BPGL: It compares to what Patagonia does on their website to show the carbon footprint of their clothing.

WHITE: Patagonia actually was quite an inspiration for us. We looked at them a lot as we were putting together the philosophy of the company and how we would do it. I’m very impressed with Patagonia.

Wedding rings made from recycled gold. Photo: greenKarat

Wedding rings made from recycled gold. Photo: greenKarat

BPGL: I’ll bet they’d be impressed with you, too. I’m looking at your Green Assay on the website. It’s a great idea.

WHITE: In the beginning, we had an arrangement with a refiner. We told them that we wanted recycled gold and the criteria that needed to be met. They set aside gold that met our criteria. We were very grateful, because the refining industry and the jewelry industry were not very receptive to the concept of what we were doing. It implied a criticism of them when we talked about the ecological issues. There were a lot of barriers in that way. So it was quite a breakthrough to find this particular refiner.

The gold that we were using in the beginning was a mix of post-consumer gold and post-industrial gold, and we didn’t differentiate. We soon came to realize, as in other recycling, that post-consumer really does matter. That’s because gold is so valuable that businesses don’t discard it. So, if there is scrap gold, waste gold, leftover gold, it all gets recycled. They’re all very careful to do that. And so, by using gold that has been “discarded” by a business — if I may use that term — you’re not really changing the dynamic of the industry.

We have estimated that there is enough gold already mined on the surface of the planet to feed the jewelry industry for the next 50 years. And this is important, because the jewelry industry drives the demand for gold mining. About 85% of the gold that is used each year is used by the jewelry industry. So this is where you’re going to make a difference. And that gold that is already on the surface of the earth and is laying dormant that we’re trying to get out with the recycling program is either going to be sitting in bank vaults as an investment, or it’s in people’s dresser drawers as unwanted or broken jewelry. So that has been the thrust of our program, to try and liberate the dormant gold that is in the form of old jewelry.

BPGL: I like the word “liberate.” It does seem that gold stuffed in a drawer is, in a sense, being held captive — often in jewelry that’s out of fashion or unworn for one reason or another.

Wedding couples can register for family and friends to donate used jewelry. Photo: greenKarat

Family and friends donate used jewelry to make new wedding rings. Photo: greenKarat

WHITE: That’s where our myKarat program arose from. It allows customers to collect jewelry from friends and family and send it to greenKarat. They can do one of three things with it. They can either recycle it with us, and we give them a store credit for the value of the gold, or they can reuse the gold that they send in, if it has sentimental value — and for many people it does. Grandma may have passed away, but you have her wedding ring. This is a way for those molecules of gold in Grandma’s ring to go into your ring, which is a very potent symbol of family and continuity. And then, for some people, what they really want to do is to just donate that old jewelry to the benefit of an environmental organization; they can do that, too.

When you send in jewelry, we are essentially buying its gold content, although we don’t pay you cash. We offer a store credit. So whether you are recycling it, or reusing it in your own rings, you are still going to get credit for the value of the gold. If you wish to use that gold to make your wedding rings, but are willing to forgo receiving the value of the gold yourself, we’ll send a check to your favorite environmental charity.

BPGL: I saw that you recommend the Basel Action Network on your site, as a place to donate the value of your recycled gold?

WHITE: Basel Action Network (BAN) is very actively involved in the eradication of mercury. That, in fact, was their core project. They are very much involved in the issue of [stopping the export of] toxic waste. Computers are an excellent example. Computers go obsolete after just a few years. The way it has always been is that they would be put on cargo containers and sent overseas, where the computers would be burned or melted to get the valuable components. There actually is gold in a computer.

BAN also has been taking a look at ways to mine gold without using mercury or chemicals at all. We think they’re good guys. They’ve been supportive of us from the beginning. They are as ethically pure as anyone I’ve ever met — extremely stringent. And helpful to us in evaluating our standards, the refineries that we use. They came along, they asked a lot of hard questions. We think they’re good folks.

BPGL: I know a lot of people who have odds and ends of old jewelry sitting around. They’d probably like having the option of using it to support a group like Basel Action Network.

WHITE: We’re really excited about the myKarat program, because we think this is the key to permanent change in the way jewelry is made. There are three things that are really going for it: One is that if you wish to use the sentimental gold, it’s very romantic, and it fits perfectly with the concept of a wedding, and the commitment, and the gathering of friends and family to celebrate the commitment.

The second thing is that it makes economic sense, because you are reducing the cost of your wedding jewelry.
And the third is that it’s actually good for the environment. And so, we sense that the combination of these things will provide enough momentum that it will eventually change the wedding tradition and become a societal norm to hand down jewelry from generation to generation, to melt the gold and use it in the next generation’s wedding jewelry. It keeps the whole system working in a way that’s more sustainable.


A greenKarat ring is made with responsible gold. Photo: greenKarat

BPGL: How popular is the myKarat program? What percent of your customers choose to do that?

WHITE: A fairly small percent, though it has been well received. We actually have a bridal registry. Instead of registering for people to give you gifts, you set up this registry, and people download the form and send in their jewelry. We receive packages of jewelry from all the family members, and we aggregate them, and let the participants know who has contributed up to this point. Then when they think they’ve got it all together, we start the process of refining their gold and making their wedding bands.

BPGL: If you have 14K mixed with 24K, and people send in a variety of karats, do they work if they’re mixed up?

WHITE: Let me back up and talk about the process of using recycled gold — and this is an important point. The gold that we use always starts out as pure. Except on a very limited basis by request, we never simply melt down gold and make it into a new ring. What we do is take old jewelry and refine it to take out all of the alloys — base metals, like copper and nickel — because they are what deteriorate over time. And if you simply re-melt it and make a new ring, you’re going to start to get porosity, and you end up with a poor quality product. So what we’re doing is actually refining the gold until it is pure gold. What we are making is, in fact, no different from the jewelry that would be made with gold that had been freshly mined. But it doesn’t have the environmental baggage associated with it.

BPGL: How do you refine it, if you’re not using mercury or cyanide.

WHITE: You do have to use the bad stuff to refine it, but you use a closed system that doesn’t allow it to escape.  There’s no water that’s discarded. The air is all scrubbed. It’s a very, very careful process.

BPGL: How much input do your customers have on their design? Do you give them a catalog or do you let them present ideas to you?

WHITE: It’s pretty much an open slate. We say, “Send us pictures of anything that has an element that appeals to you. Send us written descriptions of anything that you would like to incorporate into your design. It’s really wide open. It may be just a hand drawing on the back of a napkin. If they have sent a drawing or a picture of their own, we typically will not render anything beyond that. We just make it as close as we can to their instructions. A lot of people do like to send their own art. It’s really kind of fun.

A new setting for an heirloom stone. Photo: greenKarat

A new setting for an heirloom stone. Photo: greenKarat

BPGL: Do people sometimes say to you, I want to use this diamond or this ruby or this whatever — and do you set those in their rings?

WHITE: Yes. That’s actually a very common request. A grandma’s ring is a very typical case, where a diamond or other stone from a parent or other relative gets incorporated into the new design. We are pleased to do that. That just fits so well with the sentimental aspect of the whole wedding process.

BPGL: I read that you provide synthetic diamonds if people want them. Do you also have other synthetics?

WHITE: We refer to them as “created gems.” We have diamonds, and we offer created rubies, sapphires, emeralds, alexandrite, opals…

BPGL: Obviously, in ecological costs, created gems are a huge improvement. How does the economic cost of a created diamond compare with a diamond that was mined?

WHITE: The created diamonds are going to be roughly in the ballpark of a high-quality natural diamond.

BPGL: In price or quality?

WHITE: Both. The diamond companies, and there are just a handful that make diamonds. By the way, these diamonds are optically, physically, and chemically identical to natural diamonds, so they are, in fact, diamonds — not diamond equivalents. It requires sophisticated laboratory equipment to be able to differentiate the created diamonds from the natural ones.

greenKarat will set old gems into new rings. Photo: greenKarat

greenKarat will set old gems into new rings. Photo: greenKarat

BPGL: Your website says that you won’t use Canadian diamonds. Why is that?

WHITE: The Canadian diamond industry is an interesting case. They decided before they had opened their first mine in Canada, that the image they were going to try to project would be one of social and ecological responsibility. But the reality is that they are mining these diamonds in very sensitive permafrost areas. They are damaging the ground. They are eliminating entire lakes. There is acid rock drainage from blasting that’s getting into the rivers and going hundreds of kilometers downstream. But they don’t talk about this.

It’s a constant drumbeat of how ecologically responsible they are. And they love to talk about how they don’t have blood diamonds. The blood diamond issue came to a head a year or two ago back when the movie [Blood Diamond] came out. While it’s true that there isn’t a civil war in Canada, it’s also true that they are pretty much taking advantage of the native peoples there. The aboriginal communities are not getting the benefit of this fantastic wealth that’s being dug up out of the ground. The big diamond companies are taking advantage of them, just as they have everywhere. Back in Africa, when diamond mining first got underway — diamonds have not always been part of the fabric of our society; it’s really rather modern — as the value of the land went up, the native peoples, who were farming the area where the diamonds were found, were being taxed out of their homes and off of their lands. The only way that they could remain in the area was to go to work for the diamond mines.

The history of diamonds isn’t just about funding wars, it’s also about taking advantage of people. It’s a very sad story. So we shun Canadian diamonds, although we will put Grandma’s diamond in any ring. And if someone wants to bring a created diamond that they bought from someone else, that’s fine; we’ll put it in our jewelry. But we are not going to put any freshly mined stone in our jewelry. We have to live with ourselves. We have to be able to sleep when we go to bed at night. And we can.

BPGL: Not everyone can say that. It’s worth a lot to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and not flinch.

WHITE: We believe it’s a good thing that we’re doing. And we’re dealing with a fun aspect of people’s lives. We’re helping people do what they want to do. There’s really no downside here.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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Healthy Child Healthy World – Inspiring Positive Action for Kids’ Sake

Whatever questions you may have about the environment and its health effects on children, Healthy Child Healthy World is a place where you’ll find well-researched, thoughtful, and practical answers. We are impressed by the work that the folks at Healthy Child Healthy World are doing, and are pleased to share with you our interview with Christopher Gavigan, CEO. He and his team are continuing the work Nancy and Jim Chuda began when they co-founded the Children’s Health Environmental Coalition, following the death of their only child, Colette, to environmentally caused cancer.

GAVIGAN: It doesn’t take much in a conversation with any parent, no matter how old the child, to see that their top priority is their children’s health and, certainly, their happiness. If you ask any pregnant mom, she says, “I just want it to be a healthy baby.” That sentiment is so powerful, and every new set of parents can rally around this thought.

And yet, a lot of information in the media, a lot of information from peers and family and friends, and historical research and data, clouds the message landscape. For any parent, and anyone who’s looking out for the best interest of children, there is information that can be conflicting and fear-based. And there’s information that can be overwhelming at times. Essentially, our organization exists to clarify that message landscape, in particular, to show how one creates a healthy, or healthier, or healthiest environment for a child.

BPGL: Healthy Child Healthy World provides up-to-date information on scientific studies about the environment and children’s health. Why is it important to share the science with parents?

GAVIGAN: Children are so uniquely vulnerable to any type of potential threat from the outside world into their little bodies. It happens in utero. The Environmental Working Group did a study of mothers’ cord blood. People in the past thought the cord blood and the womb created an area of safety, and mom was the barrier for any type of potential danger to harm that child. But cord blood actually has over 200 industrial chemicals. Every mom has over 200 industrial chemicals coursing through her blood, and that can directly affect the child’s development and health.

Children are especially vulnerable to environmental toxins.

Children are especially vulnerable to environmental toxins. Photo: © crystal kirk -

It’s no wonder, with the clear, scientific reality that we’re faced with: We have a regulatory system and a chemical approval system and policy in place that allow industry to bring chemicals to the market without doing sufficient testing. The burden of proof actually lies on the consumer and the marketplace to showcase whether the chemical is safe or unsafe, as opposed to the burden of proof going back to the companies and manufacturers themselves.

So, we have this unique space, where children are vulnerable. They’re so vulnerable just through their behaviors, especially through their hand-to-mouth behavior. They’re eating twice as much, drinking twice as much, for their size, as adults do. Their skin is five times thinner than ours. They are these little vessels and sponges absorbing things. They’re growing quickly. Their metabolism and body cannot excrete harmful agent and chemicals, as quickly as adults can. So they are being affected.

There’s no longer a question in science and the scientific community whether the environment affects health. The concept of “environmental health” is the understanding that the environment, the places we live, the places we sleep, the food we put in our bodies, the chemicals, and the beauty care products we put onto our skin, will affect our health. And it will do so in very dynamic and very significant ways.

The American Cancer Society suspects that 75 percent of all cancer is linked to environmental triggers and things we encounter in our environment. It’s no longer a genetic problem, as Nancy and Jim Chuda unfortunately found out with Colette’s death from a non-genetic form of cancer. Many people are experiencing that type of reality. Besides pediatric cancers, we’re also experiencing the realities of obesity, childhood asthma, learning disabilities, ADD/ADHD, behavioral disorders, and autism. Credible science links these diseases in a very significant way to environmental triggers. When children are exposed to the environment, it actually triggers an unfortunate development in the body. It changes the course of the future of that child and human being.

Healthy Child Healthy World exists because we want to prevent disease and illness. And we want to help parents understand that they can take action. There are solutions. There are easy things that they can do in their daily lives. We’re really talking about this next phase of parenting, this next generation of new parents, and understanding what their priorities are. We’re helping them understand that the environment is affecting their children’s health, and they can do something about it.

BPGL: What is Healthy Child Healthy World’s unique contribution to the discussion of children’s environmental health issues?

GAVIGAN: There are like-minded organizations and groups in the NGO space and the government space and the public health space that do similar messaging. But I would argue that no one does the messaging as well as us. Our constant passion — and our fascination — is with how we frame messages and how we are crafting a message to create the biggest impact and the biggest motivational influence on a parent, or on anyone who’s receiving the message.

We’re doing a lot of internal branding and discussions around this, and we’re always talking about “our voice” as being that trusted advisor and best friend. We want people to hear the message and be inspired. The word “inspires” is in our mission.

Healthy Child seeks to inspire parents to take positive action to protect their children.

Parents' top priority is their children's health. Photo: © Jaimie Duplass -

I’ve actually been in a couple of conferences with some very like-minded and influential CEOs of other organizations, sitting there as they’re delivering the message. I don’t know if they’re numb to it, or if they don’t know what to look for as far as how people receive messages. I have a master’s degree in training psychology, and I’m constantly interested in how people are listening and understanding the information and behaviorally changing. You can sit up there and watch this entire audience be excited, and within four minutes of getting some of these scientific facts and realities, you can actually watch their bodies change. You can watch their faces change. You can watch their energy levels change. You can hear them and listen to them speak — they are no longer excited, they are petrified. They’re soon to put on their blinders and soon to put on their mask of ignorance, and say, “Oh, I just don’t know.” Or, “I can’t do anything about that.” Or, “It’s above and beyond me.”

Healthy Child is all about inspiring people. We are capturing their interest and empowering them with information that they can take direct action against. We are asking people to change their behavior. We’re asking them to buy one product different than the other. I’m asking them to take their shoes off at the door. I’m asking them to turn their products around and look at the labels and look for certain things. So, if you’re asking people to do something, you’d better frame the message correctly.

BPGL: How do you inspire legislators to take action on behalf of children’s health?

GAVIGAN: There are many, many different groups that do good policy work. We’re not positioned, and our resources aren’t best utilized, in that area. We certainly have relationships in the legislative community and policy and advocacy community. We try to best infuse our voice and our influence in certain key moments.

Just last year, there was a very key moment where California‘s Governor Schwarzenegger had a decision on his desk. It was either to sign or not sign AB 1108. The bill was particularly to prohibit phthalates in children’s products, any product that touches the hands of a child between age 0 and 3. He was not sure if he was going to sign it. Through some influential relationships we had in specific circles, we were able to get him to listen, and understand the importance of this moment. He actually signed that initiative into law — it was a great moment in his leadership and demonstrated the power of specific and targeted influence.

BPGL: In what ways are you supporting the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act?

GAVIGAN: The Kid-Safe Chemicals Act would reform the Toxic Controlled Substances Act (TCSA) of 1976. It would put the burden of proof back on the manufacturers, much like REACH does in Europe. We’re hugely supportive of that.

There are many, many different approaches to attack this thing. We’re going from the approach that the parents are the ones who have control over their domains, and a lot of the unfortunate environmental triggers and factors happen in our homes happen while sleeping in our own beds. We want to make sure that parents are capably preventing that. We hope to support those folks who are doing the legislative work, in any way possible.

Parents have control over their children's domain.

Healthy Child seeks to protect children from environmental triggers in our homes. Photo: © Suprijono Suharjoto -

But we don’t have folks on Capitol Hill. We don’t have folks in Sacramento. We’re a nonprofit, and we have limited resources. We don’t want to do a hundred things well, we want to do five things really well. We’re very attuned to understanding what our capacities are, what our skills are, what our strengths are, and maximizing that effort and being efficient with that effort.

One of our Board members uses the term, “Death by a thousand initiatives.” I don’t want that to be how we come to pass. I want us to focus and understand what we do and our impact, to know what we’re good at and what we’re not good at, to be very self critical — relentlessly self critical — to nurture the things that we do well, and to do them really well.

BPGL: One thing Healthy Child Healthy World is known for doing well is the Health eHome site. Nancy Chuda told us about the original Health eHome. What exciting features have you built into the new Health eHome?

GAVIGAN: The first Health eHome was an award-winning piece when it was crafted in circa 2001. And still, up into early 2009, people referenced it and talked about it and used it as a resource. It was the first of its kind, virtually traveling through a home and space and understanding some of the environmental factors that are a risk in our own homes. But it was very much in need of a refreshment, if you will, and some invigoration of new life and technology.

And so, internally, within the staff and within the Board, we scoped out a brand new creative brief for it. We did some donor cultivations with private foundations and families, and also some of our corporate partners. But my big challenge and concern with it was, just because I built it, that doesn’t mean people will find it. We’re constantly building our audience and really doing great in that area, but I needed a partner and a collaborator that was going to magnify this to the next level and beyond. That’s where WebMD came in.

BPGL: The new Health eHome is co-branded with WebMD. Why did you choose WebMD as your partner?

GAVIGAN: The universe very serendipitously brought WebMD into the fold. I’ve cultivated that relationship for well over a year now. After some time, it was very much apparent that they were excited about the opportunity. They vetted the organization and were excited about the fact that they could start having a national conversation around prevention.

WebMD is an organization that is highly passionate about health and about very credible information. That is their sole goal, to be the most trusted and the most viewed health site on line. And that’s what they are, bar none. No one touches their numbers. They have 52 million unique visitors a month. They just have incredible traction and respect in the space. Together, with us as an editorial partner and educational collaborator, we built the new iteration of the Health eHome and brought Seventh Generation on as sponsor.

Healthy Child inspires parents with practical solutions for a healthy family.

We actually just launched it March 17. We are extremely, extremely excited about it. It takes much of the old content and refreshes it. We bring some new video content into it. We have over 50 documentary-style videos in there. We have small, bite-sized information and very comprehensive, longer articles. We’re going to be filling up our content as the years progress.

WebMD sees this as a core feature and core function of their site and are eager to get into the space of prevention and environmental health. It’s a huge, huge boon for the organization in the sense that we get to present our message. Besides, Healthy Child is a winner, and WebMD is a winner, and Seventh Generation is a winner. I’m just excited that environmental health gets to be broadcast into so many homes around the nation.

BPGL: It’s a wonderfully effective medium. Health eHome is a boon to parents and grandparents.

GAVIGAN: People just want to know how to do it, and video’s a powerful way. Presenting small, bite-sized pieces of information is a powerful way, and we’re going to be filling out some more content around some of those action steps and checklists. Healthy Child has three pages in there, where we get to talk about what we do outside the Health eHome too.

And Seventh Generation talks about their positioning and what’s important to them. They’re a thought leader in the landscape as well. One would argue they’re the first nontoxic cleaning company in the United States to bring this to a level of mass market. I really admire folks like Patagonia. If you look at their mission statement, it has nothing to do with making clothing. It’s about affecting change, and a positive change for the environment. That is very much in line with the thinking that Jeffery Hollander and his team at Seventh Generation bring to the table.

BPGL: Your book, Healthy Child Health World: Creating a Greener, Cleaner, Safer Home, is in its third printing. Tell us what parents can find in there and why they will want to buy it.

GAVIGAN: The goal of the book is to continue the tone of freshness and approachability and being upbeat. I wanted that indispensable reference guide for parents, one they could pack away in their diaper bag, take on the go, or sit in their bed — for that precious reading time when the kids are asleep — to digest a bit more.

What I also wanted to do is to showcase the fact that this is a movement that’s happening. There are experts, and there are parents, and there are public health advocates, and there are moms and dads around the country who have a voice in this landscape — everyone from Erin Brockovich to Meryl Streep to First Lady Michelle Obama.

What we did is to prioritize the top ten areas in the home or topics that we each thought were most important for parents to address. It has tips and advice and recipes and a whole 27-page resource section on shopping and products. One of the greatest quotes about it that I love, this one reviewer said, “It’s relentlessly optimistic.” I love that.

Parents need to grip reality and understand the facts and the science, and that needs to be motivational and credible. But if you’re not positive, and you don’t tell them, “You can do it,” they’re not going to do anything. So that was a key goal of mine, to make parents feel like we were their advocate and friend in the process, and we had their best interest in mind.  And we were going to be their guide along the way.

BPGL: Is the book in your own diaper bag for your baby?

GAVIGAN: It is in my diaper bag for my baby. Absolutely.

BPGL: What do you see as next for Healthy Child Healthy World?

GAVIGAN: We’re trying to create a movement here. Besides being a reference space, and besides having information, we really need to get people to feel emotional about these topics. So we’re doing a lot of thought and brand scoping around what it means to tell a good story, and how to tell a story that’s going to make people listen and become emotive and want to do something about it.

Children trust us to protect them.

Children trust us to protect them.

Definitely in this next year, most likely in late summer, early fall, you will see campaign collateral from Healthy Child — and who knows who else — in and around telling a good story and motivating and capturing in a very passionate way. Most likely — because it’s just the power of the audience and the power of the medium — it will be some type of social media play in and around some type of video presentation or storytelling campaign. You can’t underestimate the power of a story.

Embedded in that new thinking is that we want parents to understand, as I said earlier, there is a new generation of parenting and parenting-type of philosophies. We want to help package that type of thought and give people the right to say that they are that type of parent. I don’t think the terms “green mom” and “green parent” and “green world” really capture what we do, because we’re really about health. And yes, we care about the future health of the planet, because that’s what our children will inherit, and their world is wherever they are, from their playroom to their school to their backyard. We really want healthy children and a healthy world.

Health as a concern never goes away, but we are seeing some green fatigue. I think businesses are embracing green because it makes sense for their bottom line. But as consumers, you’re seeing some confusion and some apprehension, and there are some stories of greenwashing that have led people to question the authenticity of the movement. We certainly embrace the word green, but we never have positioned ourselves as a green organization.

We’re a health organization, and we want people to understand that health will always be that evergreen topic. That’s really what motivates people. You think of the circles of influence: your kids, your family, your planet. That’s how you think. Everyone loves the polar bears, but you don’t see them every day. You don’t see the redwoods in your backyard. You don’t see the oceans, and everyone doesn’t have that connection point. If you have a family, you have family members you love and adore and want to keep safe, and help them have the longest and healthiest life possible.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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ANSWER – Ending Caste in Nepal with Education and Jobs

Education is essential for children to overcome poverty and the caste system. Photo: Anita Elder

Conscientious donors around the world give money to NGOs with the full expectation that their contributions will work toward the benefit of the intended recipients. But, as Earle Canfield, explains in today’s post, the reality is often quite different, with too many NGOs working ultimately for their own sustainability and not delivering “real help.”

Canfield’s NGO, American-Nepali Student & Women’s Educational Relief (ANSWER), is different. “Instead of fostering dependency,” Canfield says, “we empower students.” ANSWER gives “just enough help” to impoverished low-caste families by paying for one child’s private school education. The families, in turn, pay for a small part of their children’s school needs. By requiring a personal investment, ANSWER motivates families to continue the child’s participation through college, whereupon the graduate secures a good-paying job. Education not only breaks the cycle of poverty for the families, it also empowers low-caste students to become part of the new middle class that will overturn Nepal‘s caste system in their lifetime.

This is Part 2 of a two-part interview with ANSWER’s founder, Earle Canfield. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

BPGL: What got you interested in helping children in Nepal?

CANFIELD: I went to Nepal first as a medical volunteer. I worked in a children’s hospital. All I saw was a revolving door of poor people coming in, getting fixed up and being sent out, and no [lasting] good coming of it.

Children in private schools have an opportunity to overcome poverty through education. Photo: Anita Elder

During my first three months there, I went on a medical mission with the crew from a hospital. We went to a remote village where there was a community clinic. It had power; the village did not. The people would have to wait for hours to be seen by a doctor; there were four practitioners and hundreds of children to be seen. So we did some health education.

We put the families in a room, and they didn’t know what was happening. There was all this talk and buzz. We were going to show them some slides. None of them had seen a TV or been to a movie. So we quieted them down, and I ran the projector while a Nepali doctor gave explanations of the slides. We went on with our talk about malaria, until I flashed a slide of a mosquito. At that point, all the excitement died, and there was dead silence in the room. It was like a big weight of gloom and doom had come down on the people.

I asked the doctor who was translating, “What’s going on?”

She said, “They are afraid of that mosquito.”

“Well, they need to be afraid of that mosquito, it’s malarial!”

“You don’t understand, they’re afraid of this mosquito, right here. It’s got a four-foot wingspan.” She smiled, and I got it. She explained everything, and we finished the slide show.

That moment haunted me. As funny as it is, it made me realize that, if I take a microscope, a slide, and some pond water, and show them a germ and say, “That’s what’s making you sick,” they don’t understand. They think it’s that water right there, the water they’re looking at, that’s making them sick. They can’t understand scaling, so they don’t know how small a germ is. They don’t understand large numbers of germs.

There’s no way that you can teach health education to illiterate people. It’s just too demanding. And so the best way, the simple way, to do this is to educate the children. With a liberal education, they would have the math, the science, the literacy, the concepts to really grasp the idea. Then they can teach the fundamentals to the parents: “No, Mother, don’t drink that!”

BPGL: So you send children to school. Why not send them to public schools?

Public school children sit on the floor in crowded classrooms. Photo: Anita Elder

Public school children sit on the floor in crowded classrooms. Photo: Anita Elder

CANFIELD: The educational system is built with caste in mind. It reinforces the caste system. Only by paying enough money to go to a private school that teaches in English can you go to college. In the public schools, they teach English in the 3rd or 4th grade, but it’s really directed at being able to read Nepali words in Roman letters, not to learn English. At the end of the 10th grade, everyone who wants to do so will take an exam, and that will determine if their scores are high enough to go to college. But they have to score high in English. About 40% of the students nationwide fail that exam. Most of those who fail are out of the public schools.

Almost all nonprofits will help children in basic education, maybe even up to the 10th grade, but then they drop them. We have taken some of these children, who were sustained but dropped by other organizations, even though they did very well on 10th grade exam, and found spots for them in private colleges. After the 12th grade, the students take another exam, and that will determine whether they are awarded a diploma and/or go on to the university.

BPGL: Is your goal to send students to university?

CANFIELD: The university level is kind of a dead end. The kids want to become engineers, but they’ll never get a job in engineering in this country. The engineering jobs go to foreign contractors. So, even before the 10th grade, we’re discouraging them from going into engineering. Even so, some of the kids want to do it. So, “Okay, you can take the science that leads up to engineering. If you do well enough on the exam and get a scholarship, you’re in. But if you don’t get a job, you can’t come crying back to us. Your decision is made now.” That’s an iron fist in a velvet glove. We try to coddle these students enough so that they can do what we say and understand what we say.

BPGL: When you spoke in Iowa City, you mentioned a club for the high school students. What is the purpose of the club?

CANFIELD: What we do is not only put the kids in good schools — the private, high-caste schools — but we also have what’s called a Social Welfare Club. They meet on Saturdays for three or four hours. We work to educate poor people to the point where they can not only take care of themselves, but they also reach a level of understanding that they’ve been taken care of through the graces of help from outside.

Nepali teens like these participate in Social Welfare Clubs through ANSWER. Photo: Anita Elder

Nepali teens like these participate in Social Welfare Clubs through ANSWER. Photo: Anita Elder

About every other week, we show a movie. For the most part, they are Western-produced movies that have a morality theme. What we’re doing with these films is raising the students’ social consciousness. These are movies like March of the Penguins. One of the things that comes out of that particular movie is that animals have societies too. They have a struggle against the elements to survive, and they handle it by division of labor. The father’s job is to stay home and hatch the egg. The mother’s job is to go out fishing, and she brings home the dinner. Then the children begin to understand that there’s more than one way to look at society. Fathers can do child rearing, and mothers can have careers. We discuss things like that.

These meetings are structured to have discussions. Very few schools in Nepal have discussions; 99.9 percent use rote teaching. You spoon feed the answers, so that when it comes up on the test, you get back the answer. Nothing more than that, just the answer.

All of the kids are extremely shy, and it’s very hard for them to raise their hands. But after a couple of weeks like this, they catch on. They start participating, and they raise their hand. We don’t have an attendance problem on Saturday.

BPGL: Do you see your efforts working?

CANFIELD: I think we will be very successful in producing socially conscious and aware and active students. And that, in a Third World setting, is unheard of. They come out of a subsistence background, and in a subsistence background, you don’t share; not-sharing is a survival skill.

At the Social Welfare Clubs, we instill a sense of the power of sharing. We say, “There are sponsors on the other side of the world that believe so strongly in you and want to help you. You must be committed to helping others, too, because you got help. You couldn’t have done it by yourself.”

I remember asking one class, “Why do you think that people on the other side of the world care enough to help you?” There were interesting responses. I said, “No, it’s not because you are helpless.”

And one little girl said, “Because we’re just like them.”

I responded, “If you’re just like them, what about other poor people? Aren’t they just like you?” The lights went on all over the room. These kids do understand what the purpose is in all of this.

BPGL: Doesn’t it cost more to support a college student? How do you manage to continue supporting them?

CANFIELD: College is more expensive, but it’s only for a couple of years, so we put part of the commitment onto the families. We say, “You have to pay a certain percentage. We usually try to get a third of the cost of college from the family. If they still can’t do it, those children borrow from the college fund. And if they borrow from the college fund, they pay it back, so that other children can borrow from the college fund.

Everything we do is thought out pretty carefully in terms of sustainability, empowerment, and political/personal will.

BPGL: What else do the kids do in the Social Welfare Clubs to get involved in the community?

CANFIELD: We might go up to the children’s hospital and visit with patients there, or go to the old folks’ home and talk with the people. There’s only one government nursing home for the elderly in Kathmandu. We take our kids there, so they can socialize with the older people and find out their stories. These are people who don’t have relatives, who have been left alone to support themselves and were living and sleeping on the streets.

In the cities, poor families live in 8' x 8' rooms. Photo: Anita Elder

In the cities, poor families often live in 8' x 8' rooms. Photo: Anita Elder

One time, we had a mother who was having a very difficult time at home. It was in Kathmandu in one of these little, 8 x 8-foot, one-room bunkers. It was a ground-floor apartment, and the floor was damp. There was mildew growing up on the walls. When you walked into it, it smelled like your worst science experiment. So I got the children together. The girls went to the well and fetched the water. We took the bedding off the bed. The girls helped the mother do the laundry.

When we took the bed up, the bottom of the mattress was all moldy and wet. And that’s where all of this was coming from. We put that out in the sun and sun-bleached the mold. The boys and I bleached the floor, the walls, the ceiling.

Afterward, we went to a momo [a Tibetan ravioli dumpling] shop, and talked about it. I asked, “Did we do good?”

The kids said, “We should feel good about what we did.”

“Was it sustainable?”

They said, “Oh, yes. The place is very nice.”

“Well, do you think we’ll have to come back and do it all over again?”

“No, not for a long time,” they said.

I asked, “Have we solved the problem?” Then I told them about the mattress, because they didn’t really understand the biology of mold. And I said, “What we did is, we put it out in the air. The air and the sun will dry it out, and the mold won’t grow. But if you put it back on the damp floor (with the seepage through the thin layer of concrete), the mold will just come back.

ANSWER families must contribute to their student's uniform costs. Photo: Anita Elder

Then the kids were a little bit downcast. I said, “There are solutions to problems. What are the solutions to this problem?”

They know about beds being elevated off the floor, so we discussed that. I said, “Well, what are we going to do?”

“Oh, let’s buy them a bed.”

“Do you think buying things for people is going to solve their problems? When we send you to school, do we pay for everything?”

“No. Father pays for our sandals or tennis shoes.”

What I could have had them do is go out and make the money to pay for it. But it’s very hard for children to make money. So I said, “Why don’t we put up half the money, and have the father, who is a painter, put up the other half?”

The husband wasn’t going to buy a bed. We went back and talked to the mother, and the mother explained to the father that they could sleep on a bed again for the first time, and they’d only have to pay half of it. So when she presented it that way, they agreed, and that solved the problem. It was a very good mini lesson on development, on how to help. You don’t just provide aid. You have to give instruction and get them invested.

BPGL: Do you serve an equal number of boys and girls?

CANFIELD: We have two-thirds as many girls as boys, because the literacy rate — or the school occupancy rate, if you will — is two-thirds boys. The literacy rate is twice as high for boys as it is for girls. We in the West are savvy enough to know that we want to help girls more than boys, and the girls play a leading role in educating the family and providing health care to the family. So, no question, that money is well spent on girls. But we feel the necessity of educating boys, as well — even if it’s a third instead of two-thirds, which is to say it’s two to one in favor of the girls — because if you educate just girls and leave out the boys, then the boys will have no role models to follow.

Boys must not be overlooked; they need good role models. Photo: Anita Elder

It’s very important to provide the stimulus for the boys to improve, as well. Too often, it is the case that the women take care of the home, the families, the babies and so forth, and the men provide the work. But when there’s no work to be had, what happens to the men? There’s very little alcoholism with women in Nepal, but something like 30 or 40 percent of the men are alcoholics in Nepal. It’s very important that boys are not left behind. That’s why we don’t exclusively support girls. I think that is a shortcoming of many nonprofits that are strictly about girls’ education. Granted that girls have been left behind, but you’re going to have angry men, if you don’t do something for them; they’re going to rise up and keep the women under burkas and not let them out of the house. I’m speaking of Afghanistan, of course, but the sentiments are universal, I’m sure.

BPGL: Do you have more groups planned for children of other ages?

CANFIELD: By doing this for several years now, almost all the schools in the Kathmandu Valley feed into the schools where we do the Social Welfare Clubs. Now it’s time, as we get older students in college and high school, to take the next step, to have an Alumni Club. They will take control of what kind of social welfare they want to commit to.

We’re going to start that this year, because we have 40 or 50 college students now and a dozen graduates. The nucleus will be our nursing and health science students. We have a lot of those, and they’re graduating. They have greater social consciousness. They are respected by the others, because they have landed good-paying jobs. When we form this club, the other college kids will be coming in and getting a peek at what they’re doing. They know that when they graduate, they can participate, too.

Ultimately there will be enough graduates so that some of them can start sponsoring children as well. They can participate in other community activities — whatever they opt for. These things are designed to address empowerment and will and sustainability.

Slowly and surely, the board and the organization will be taken over by our own children. That’s probably about 10 years away. Ten years, for a nonprofit organization, is not a long time at all.

ANSWER supports students in 120 schools across Nepal. Map: ANSWER

ANSWER supports students in 120 schools across Nepal. Map: Courtesy of ANSWER

We now have approximately 500 kids enrolled in about 120 schools. At our present rate of growth, in ten years, we will have produced probably about 700 graduates. We’ll be sending out over 100 graduates a year. We’re talking about hundreds of a new kind of populace. These are low-caste children who have grown up with good educations, running their own businesses and having good jobs. These children will form a new social middle class. Education has always played a big role in overturning the caste society. Once the low castes become richer and more powerful, you replace the caste society with a socio-economic class society. This has occurred in feudal societies in the West and in Japan.

BPGL: I understand that Nepal has thousands of relief agencies. Are they making progress?

CANFIELD: Here are the statistics: There are approximately 40,000 nonprofit organizations in Nepal. Yet there are only 4,000 villages and towns and cities. Why is it, with 10 nonprofit organizations for every village, that there is an overall diminishing return, that the country gets poorer and poorer every year?

If we were all working together, we could save Nepal. It’s a country a little bit larger than Iowa. It’s 100 x 500 miles. Nepalis know, and people in the Third World know, that many NGOs are just self profiteering organizations, that the people who benefit are the ones who work for the organization. They may install a hydroelectric facility somewhere, a local village-run thing, but who’s going to maintain it? The country has dams, and the inspector comes in and signs off. They don’t do the inspection, they just sign off. So eventually, the turbine breaks down, and Kathmandu is without lights.


With only a public education, the future is not very promising for this lower caste Nepali boy. Photo: Anita Elder

People in the Third World know that many nonprofits are self-serving. In Nepal and, I wouldn’t be surprised, in other parts of the world, nonprofits are called the “NGO Mafia.” I even see that printed in the newspapers over there. So, when we founded ANSWER, I told my country director, Som, that there was no way we were going to be part of the mafia, that we needed to make sure that everything was volunteer. And that was when it was just him and me.

As we have evolved, we’ve added a very few salaried staff. We probably pay 1/3 of what other NGOs pay and maybe even less than that, so we needed to find people who did it for the love of what they were doing, rather than for the salary.

Som started as a volunteer, because I wasn’t going to pay him. He wanted to go to school, so I paid for his education, and he got a master’s degree in hospital administration. When you start up an organization, it’s very important how you lay out the framework, because that carries on and on. So our staff is way underpaid, and they willingly work.

Ball, our other person in the office, is also in school. He gets minimal salary with a minimal stipend for education, but it all helps. That’s to keep the costs down so that our fundraisers can make enough money to support the organization, the administration. And in doing that, the sponsors can be reassured that all the money is going just for the education of that child, be it uniforms or books and tuition and so forth.

I am not salaried, I’m a volunteer. I do this from my own savings. I pay for my own transportation, everything. I’m self supporting. The administration is self supporting, and the children are supported entirely by the funds of the sponsors. We’re a 501c3, so that makes it deductible, too.

BPGL: This will sound like an insensitive question, but do you have a succession plan for when you pass on someday far in the future, to make sure your work will carry on in the US?

ANSWER's students of today are its leaders of tomorrow. Photo: Anita Elder

ANSWER's students will become part of a new middle class, toppling the caste system that constrains them today. Photo: Anita Elder

CANFIELD: The whole idea is to have the Nepalis to support their own children, isn’t it? As more of the children come on and take over the office, and the Alumni Club starts supporting their own students, then there’s no need for an office in Grand Rapids. They can fly on their own.

I used to think our mission would be done as soon as there was universal education in Nepal. But it won’t be done. You can just proclaim universal education, but unless schools are accessible, it won’t happen. Unless people have enough money and time — and motivation — to send their children to school, it’s not going to happen. It comes down to a problem of the caste system. I see our end goal not as trying to establish universal education so much as toppling the caste system.

We need to establish a level playing field — through education — to get out of that feudal society way of doing things and thinking, and create a society based on socio-economic class. ANSWER has a role to play. Let’s get to where the students’ own initiative can reap rewards, and they are not limited by birth. I feel that in a decade or two, at the most, we will be near the “tipping point.” Our growth and the impact of these socially aware children, both in quantity and quality, will be phenomenal.

Publisher’s Note: To find out more about sponsoring an ANSWER student for only $5 a week, contact Earle Canfield at .

Part I: ANSWER – A Sustainable Future for Low-Caste Children

Part 2: ANSWER – Ending Caste in Nepal with Education and Jobs (Top of Page)

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

ANSWER — A Sustainable Future for Low-Caste Children

Canfield (right) with ANSWER students, teachers, and visitors. Photo: Anita Elder

“We could see the end of the caste system in Nepal in our lifetime,” said Earle Canfield, addressing an attentive audience in Iowa City this past Sunday. Canfield had come to talk about an NGO he started in Nepal eight years before. American-Nepali Student and Women’s Educational Relief (ANSWER) “places low-caste Nepalese children whose families cannot afford to pay for an education in private, high-caste schools,” according to Canfield.

Several members of the audience are ANSWER sponsors, committing to pay $5 a week to support a child’s education. Unlike many nonprofits that provide assistance to children in developing countries, ANSWER puts every single penny of a sponsor’s donation to work directly helping that person’s sponsored child. Joe and I were moved to hear Canfield speak about the work ANSWER is doing to help Nepal’s forgotten children, the impoverished, low-caste untouchables, earn their high school and college diplomas, then go on to jobs that will help them become productive members of Nepal’s emerging middle class.

We asked Canfield to spend time with us by phone, explaining how ANSWER achieves its ambitious goals. What we found was surprising and refreshing. ANSWER’s story inspires more than just hope; it inspires confidence. This is the first of a two-part interview. — Julia Wasson

CANFIELD: There are two points that I think are important when it comes to any kind of development work. One student put it this way, “These countries do not need aid, they just need help.” We all know what aid is: Aid is throwing money down the toilet. Help is getting them on their feet. There’s a basic paradox that derives out of this: If you help them, you foster dependency. But you have to help them enough, or it’s futile.

Education is a good example. If you teach someone to read in the Third World, but they can’t afford the textbooks, and they can’t afford the newspapers [it doesn’t help them]. You have to understand, they do not get Better Homes and Gardens and Time Magazine delivered to their door.

This is subsistence level. And everything they get is to provide them with subsistence. So, basic education, adult literacy, education through high school is not enough. That doesn’t help anyone. That just makes them literate, but unemployed. They don’t have the skills to get a good job. If you’re going to provide them with education, it has to be enough education and enough training.

Photo: Anita Elder

The low-caste Nepali people live at a subsistence level. Photo: Anita Elder

BPGL: How do you get people who have no education engaged enough to make your work successful?

CANFIELD: Only a few people on the top of each organization really understand the principles of development work. There are three things you need:

  1. Empowerment.
  2. Political or personal will. They have to have the will; they have to be motivated.
  3. Sustainability.

In terms of sustainability, first, every aspect of the program has to be sustainable. One, financially, ANSWER has to be sustainable. Two, it has to be sustainable for the school. Three, it has to be sustainable for the family. If taking a child away from the fields or taking them away from begging on the street puts a financial crimp on the family, you can’t help that family. It’s not going to work.

We’ve tried a number of ways to get around things like that. We’ve said, “We will pay you to bring your child to school.” And if we give them money, they just go and drink it. So then we tried, “We will pay you in palm oil.” Then they’d go and sell it on the black market. We’ve tried things like that; sometimes they’re successful, sometimes they’re not.

This student's family had to help pay for her uniform. Photo: Anita Elder

To create the political will, we have them invest in part of the package. The tuition may be half the cost. All the various fees and the uniforms and tutoring, and whatever else, is the other half. There’s usually a package that includes two uniforms, two sets of shoes, and so forth. If they’re very, very poor, they only have to buy the canvas shoes, and we buy the black leather shoes. If they’re better off, they’ll buy the canvas shoes and the book bag, and so forth. We do it according to each family’s needs. Shoes have to be bought every year, the book bag may last two years. If the families aren’t financially vested in their children’s education, there’s a bigger chance that it won’t succeed.

BPGL: How do you choose the children who will be in the ANSWER program?

CANFIELD: When we first got started, I relied on my director, who is a Nepali, to choose the children. I thought we were very successful, they all stayed in school for a year or two. But many of them were irregular, and it finally caught up with them and they dropped out.

We have three criteria for selection:

  1. The families have to be poor. That’s easy; 99% of them are poor.
  2. The child has to be motivated; he wants to go to school. We say, “He’s bright.” By “bright,” that means he’s motivated.
  3. The parents have to be motivated. If the parents aren’t going to get them ready for school in the morning and clean their uniforms, or they pull the children out of school for whatever reason, it’s not going to work.

We talked to the families very, very sternly. Even so, we had maybe 20% drop out the first couple of years. Now the principal goes out into the community and finds students. He’s motivated to do that. He actually supports them through the first year. But after that, the principals have a free ride; our sponsors will pay for the children’s education.

A young student from the ANSWER program. Photo: Anita Elder

We employ the principles of empowerment. The principals will do the initial screening, and take responsibility for becoming invested in the child. So we have good information to run on — the students’ performance records and attendance records and so on.

And, of course, it’s “their” child. They selected that child. Using those principles and being creative and coming up with ways to manage a program, you can really cut down attrition and have people develop responsibilities. And that’s the name of the game in the Third World.

The principal recommends the students to us. We have to be very careful and make it clear to the principals that no kind of favoritism be shown. Some of the principals are likely to select children from the community, who happen to belong to their teachers, because they are underpaid, and they are poor and they have too many children, and so forth. We make it very clear to them — but some of them try to slide them by anyhow — that nepotism is not something that we permit.

The upshot is that there’s a little educational process here for the teachers, because everything in the Third World is all nepotistic. You take care of your own. When you’re in a subsistence situation, it’s personal survival, family survival, and so forth. So what happens is, we have to spend time educating the teachers.

They make a selection and we carefully screen them. If I’m not there with my director, then the country director does that screening and refers the child on to me. I do the final selection. It’s really a three-layer filter. In doing that, we come up with very carefully selected children that are not prone to drop out.

BPGL: What are the guidelines you use?

CANFIELD: You have to understand a lot about the grading system. I’m now a master at reading report cards. [Laughs.] I’ve read about 10,000 report cards at this point. The principals and teachers are pretty hard pressed to slip anything by.

What we would call a B-, we felt, initially, that was enough, because we’re dealing with low-caste, impoverished children. Now that we’ve got them enrolled in school, and we can see how their performance is, we’ve increased that to an A-.

Children and their parents, ready for a day at school. Photo: Anita Elder

Children and their parents, ready for a day at school. Photo: Anita Elder

But you have to also understand that in the lower grades, the private schools have three levels of preschool, nursery, lower kindergarten, and upper kindergarten. So the kids can start at about three and a half years of age.

Sometimes, if they come in with a six-year-old, they’ll want to stick the child back in nursery school to show us how good their marks are. Also, if they put a child in nursery school, that’s one more year we’ll have to pay for in the end. It’s always a challenge to try to see things analytically and what’s really happened in the big scope of things.

We also have to watch out for grade inflation. They might be a B student, and they’ve inflated him up to an A-. Like I say, I’m an expert in reading these report cards now. I can see if Basket Weaving is an A+ and Math is a C-, and if you have enough basket weaving classes, you can bring that C- up to an A- average. All in all, after doing this for eight years, we’re pretty good at it.

BPGL: What do you consider to be enough education? Is a high school education sufficient to get a job that will help the graduates support their families?

CANFIELD: In the Third World, having enough education mostly means they have to have a college education …  at least 12 years. Many of the schools use the European system, which ends in 10th grade. College is at least two more years, and the university is at least three or four more years on top of that.

If you send them to the university, you feed them right into the brain drain. Those jobs are usually over specialized with more training than they need. Everyone takes that route, so there’s more competition for fewer jobs.

Education at private schools provides a sustainable future for low-caste children. Photo: Anita Elder

Education at private schools provides a sustainable future for low-caste children. Photo: Anita Elder

If you take them up through high school and provide them with two or three years of vocational or professional training — such as lab technicians, pharmacists, animal husbandry, agricultural specialists — if you provide them with those kind of jobs that are available in the Third World, they fit it like a cup of tea.

But if you turn them into university professors in botany, when there are only two or three schools that have botany departments, what good is it? They’ll never get a job [in their own country].

BPGL: What you’re doing is helping the children build a better future, which is different from a lot of aid programs that focus only on feeding kids and helping them survive in the moment.

CANFIELD: There are two kinds of aid: Relief aid and development aid. In relief aid, you just keep people alive. Development aid is what I’m talking about. In development aid, the paradox is, you need to help them enough, but you have to be leery of fostering dependency.

So, what we try to do — it’s heartless for sure — is to make them work for their education. We make it easy for them to get an education, but more difficult for them to survive. We take a child out of the field, or the mothers have to spend more time washing uniforms, and so forth, getting the children ready and off to school. Illiterate people do not understand the commitment that it takes to educate a child. Most likely they’ve never been to school themselves. Or, if they’ve ever been to school, they were never regular, and they never progressed very far.

Their idea of education is, if you can learn to plow a field in a week, you can certainly learn to read in a week. So when [education] goes on for 10 or 12 years, they have no comprehension.

The parents receive the report cards, and they can’t read them. They have no idea what 60 percent means. They don’t understand the subject matter. They never had mathematics. They never had ecology. So the parents do not reward the children, because they don’t understand the grading system, they don’t understand the courses. There are all kinds of built-in problems that come with any kind of help you try to provide. The biggest one is fostering dependency. The parents have to have a strong understanding of the commitment that it takes beforehand and of what the responsibilities are.

That also goes for the schools and the principals. We tell them, “We expect the kids to come to school, and if they don’t come to school, you’re not going to get paid. It’s your responsibility to make sure that the parents bring the children to school.”

A Nepali farming village. Photo: Anita Elder

A Nepali farming village perched high on a hill. Photo: Anita Elder

BPGL: What is life like for a child from the lower caste?

CANFIELD: Nepal is one of the five poorest countries in the world. Ninety-five percent of the personal earnings come from agriculture. They are heavily invested in agriculture. The poor are poor because they’re subsistence farmers.

The farmhouses all have mudpack floors; the clay will pack down. They’re usually mud and wattle houses. They’re framed in wood, and then they’re plastered with mud. The only lights that are inside are what the windows provide, and there’s no glass in the windows. There are shutters, so at night they may have a fire going in the kitchen to keep them warm while they’re there. Then they run upstairs and cuddle together under blankets.

At school, the children have to have shoes. Out in the village, it’s zoris or flip flops; if it’s a public school, that’s all that’s required. At the private schools, they require actual shoes, tennis shoes or leather shoes.

There’s very little light. If they’re lucky, they’ll have electricity, because some NGO has placed a small generator in the river for the houses. When we think of a village, we think of a road going through and a small town. But these are huts on the hillside, and each hut has farmland around it. It’s nothing that’s sequestered together to form a municipal unit.

In the cities, the houses are made of concrete pillars with bricks running between them to make the walls. They usually have glass in the windows. The electricity provided is only to the extent of having a light bulb. They have one room. The toilet is a hole in the ground. Oftentimes no one has maintained it. So, it’s a disaster zone. These are in the slum areas.

The water is brought in from city wells. People do their laundry around the city wells. During the dry season, there are so many people now, and because there are so many roads and concrete buildings, the water doesn’t seep through. It runs off and doesn’t maintain the water table. Early summer, late spring, many of the wells go dry. Children have to walk a mile or two to find a well to get a bucket of water. They’re only carrying a bucket or two back to the family every day. If children are at school, they’re not around to do that until evening. They have just enough water to cook their rice and to drink. Those are the basic problems.

BPGL: With barely enough water, how do children keep clean for school?

Families may have to walk a long way to wash their clothes. Photo: Anita Elder

Families may have to walk a long way to wash their clothes. Photo: Anita Elder

CANFIELD: The schools require children to have clean uniforms, but this presents a problem for the lower-caste families. They don’t have water to launder their uniforms. They may have to walk a long way to get to the well where they can wash their clothes. Then, by the time they get back to their homes, the dust has made the uniforms dirty again. We’ve had to work with the principals to help them understand that our students’ uniforms may not be quite as clean as those of the upper-caste children.

BPGL: What are their homes like?

CANFIELD: The rooms in the slums have a bare concrete floor and brick walls, which are also bare. Some people like to put up wallpaper, which is like a newspaper stuck on the wall right above the kerosene stove. You can see that the paper has caught fire. They have a one burner kerosene stove, the ceiling is blackened from the smoke that the kerosene gives off.

They often have a window, but not necessarily. The door doesn’t latch, but it’s secured with a padlock. A room is typically 8 by 8, or 64 sq ft. It will accommodate mother and father and a couple of kids, and they all sleep in the same bed. If the kids get too big, then they’re sleeping down on the floor. Or another cot is brought in, and there’s no room on the floor. Between the big bed and the little cot, they usually have to sit up next to each other. There’s not room to walk or for the door to open. So, the housing does not lend itself to homework. These kids usually have their chores to do. The kids are always respectful because they’re from traditional families, and they demand that. There’s not a discipline problem in school.

BPGL: But there are many homeless children in Nepal. What is life like for the street children?

CANFIELD: A large number of children have come into the city and are homeless. There are gangs now that are beginning to form and rowdy children that are begging on the street. Prostitution is illegal, but it’s conducted anyhow. There’s child prostitution there. The only children that we can help are the ones that have families and are grounded. If they are homeless, the only way to help them is to disperse them into boarding schools that are bolted, where they cannot run away.

A city street in Kathmandu. Photo: Anita Elder

I know of a couple of people who started boarding schools like that away from the city. The kids would run away, and this woman would chase them down and bring them back. And bring them back. And bring them back. It was a full-time job. After about a year, the kids started to appreciate the comforts of home. She had crossed the line. She was fostering dependency. In order to stay there, the kids would want to watch TV and be fed. They were never stellar students. They grew up feeling entitled. I have worked with several groups like that trying to help them. It’s an interesting phenomenon in the Third World.

ANSWER requires family units [to support the children in their education]. But in Nepal, marriages don’t survive. They have a very high divorce rate. Divorces are expensive and a legal hassle, so the man or woman will just leave the family. The children become a handicap to the remaining parent. Not only do they have to provide for them, but no one else wants other people’s children. So that’s where the abandoned children come from, children who are installed in orphanages.

The parents oftentimes are around, they just don’t want to have anything to do with their children. So there are a lot of abandoned children. But if they go to orphanages, you can help them. You can give them education. You can install them in structure.

But more times than not, the orphanages will take advantage of the children, send them out into the street to beg to bring in money to support the house mother or the house parents. They may or may not get an education. If they get an education at all, they’ll be lucky to get a public education. And the public education is not enough help. They may learn to read, but they won’t be able to do anything more than beg.

Part I: ANSWER – A Sustainable Future for Low-Caste Children (Top of Page)

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Spiritual Sustainability: Save the Earth Without Killing Yourself

For much of my life, I have zealously pursued the ideal of sustainable living. A deep love for the natural world, coupled with an equally deep perfectionist streak, made me alternately — depending on the flavor of the times — an object of curiosity or subject to ridicule. However, over the past five years, I have had to admit that this ultra-determined sort of sustainability has not produced the eco-perfect life that I expected.

Rooker drives an SUV in a zero-elevation town. Photo: Amanda Rooker

Driving an SUV in a zero-elevation town. Photo: Amanda Rooker

For example: I currently live in York County, Virginia — a.k.a. Suburbia, U.S.A. My community is organized into neat lines of strip malls alternating with freshly bulldozed lots zoned for new construction. Not only do I drive an SUV to cart my kids around a zero-elevation town, but I drive a black SUV — not exactly a sustainable choice for the sweltering South. Last week I bought my groceries at Wal-Mart. The only obviously sustainable practice I have going for me is that my son takes the school bus. How did I get here? And how can I, in any conceivable worldview, still believe that I am committed to sustainable living?

When I was fifteen, ecology was still a fringe concept in my part of the world. But as I learned more and more about how particular human practices harmed the earth as a whole, it didn’t take long for me to become radically devoted to all things green. And with every new piece of information, I added a new required practice to my life. I became a vegetarian to minimize my food-energy footprint. I insisted my mother replace paper napkins with cloth napkins (which she, and I, have used daily ever since). My first job was working in a third-world import store, where I developed a taste for brightly colored Guatemalan clothing and handmade African jewelry. Instead of Christmas gifts, I asked family and friends to donate to the Heifer Project.

An organic garden

Growing an organic garden.

After I was married, I grew my own organic garden of vegetables and herbs; made all of my own household cleaners under the expert guidance of Clean House Clean Planet; bought handmade soap from a friend’s local business; frequented the farmer’s markets; and bought or received almost every other product in our home secondhand. The more I learned, the more practices I heaped upon myself. At the time I had high energy, low expenses, and no dependents, so I was able to maintain my ever-expanding list of practices.

When I became pregnant with my first child, my imagination had molded my long list of practices into a detailed ideal of sustainable living, and I could define it down to the color of the hand-woven place mats on my sustainably harvested hardwood kitchen table. I would have all of my children (and there would be many) without drugs and in harmony with my body’s natural processes. Not a crumb of processed food would touch our lips. I was going to put aside career to be Earth Mother.

I quickly learned that intentions do not equal reality. Undaunted by the fact that my idealized natural childbirth turned into an emergency C-section, I poured all my energy into using cloth diapers, searching out affordable organic food (by this time I had let my garden go), and making homemade baby food and natural cleaners. But what was painfully absent was joy — joy in my son and joy as a mother. Nothing was natural about this.

After I had my second son, I found that keeping two children under two years old alive took all my time and effort. Not only was I unable to keep up all of the sustainable practices I believed were so important, I could no longer prioritize which were most important and which were actually contradictory. If I was constantly assessing whether our activity or snack was the best possible choice, I had no time to linger and play with my kids. My ideal of sustaining the earth was now directly competing with my responsibility of sustaining my children’s lives — not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually.

The death blow to my sustainable-living ideal finally came when our household income was suddenly slashed by two-thirds. Whatever spare time or energy I had was now devoted to simply keeping our bills paid on time and trying to figure out how to keep food — any kind of food — in our refrigerator. Our options were limited to the easiest and the cheapest, and I had no choice but to accept it. I laid down my ideal as simply impossible. Living sustainably was only for the wealthy and/or childless. I made my peace with Wal-Mart, my SUV, and my preservative-laden, pesticide-laden, cheaper food. And I spent a year simply surviving, no longer worrying about whether each action was the most “sustainable” or not.


To live sustainably, honor the process of natural growth.

I may have thought I was just too poor and too busy to live sustainably, but in reality, it was my product-based, practice-based ideal of sustainable living that was not sustainable. My zealous, determined perfectionism fundamentally contradicted the natural, cyclical growing processes that govern not only the natural world I claimed to love and preserve, but us as human beings, too.

Trying to create a perfect external ideal of sustainability, as opposed to allowing our lives to grow naturally from our internal values, is like trying to build a tree (even from sustainably harvested wood) instead of planting a seed. We might get visible results faster, but it will be impossible to maintain over time. To live sustainably long term, I had to learn to honor the spiritual process that brings the renewable patterns of natural growth deep within ourselves.

Life has a way of showing us that its principles will prevail, and seeks — perhaps even in a kind way — to relieve us of the impossible burden of building a living thing. Even when I didn’t recognize what was happening, the new priorities of motherhood and our limited budget pruned my overgrown ideal of sustainability down to a stump. I thought that part of me was gone forever. But what is true physically is also true spiritually: destruction yields new life. Pruning creates vibrant growth not possible otherwise.

Another physical principle that has a spiritual parallel, I learned from my naturopath: Even if the body is deficient in many areas, it will only take in what will address the primary deficiency. Pouring supplements into your body (or in this case, adding sustainable practices) to address visible symptoms is a waste of time, money, and energy. Only when the core deficiency is met will the body be capable of absorbing what it needs to address the next core need. That’s exactly what was happening to me spiritually: Establishing new habits is very much a spiritual process. It not only takes time, but takes everything in turn: First the seed, then the shoot, then the leaves, then the fruit.

In the absence of those heavy, burdensome expectations, I was able to discern the living value beneath all of those practices, which was my love of the natural world. That love never died, it was just hidden and weakened by the crazy overgrowth of too many practices. So, for a while, I simply enjoyed the world around me with my children, unburdened by obligatory practices. And that was when I really started to grow: not outwardly, but inwardly. To my surprise, specific corollary values began to branch out naturally from that primary value: pursuing health naturally and investing in local, seasonal, whole food sources. Just two corollary values – not even practices or habits yet.

But from simply naming and nurturing these values, I am beginning to see the fruit of a few new practices that are enlivening rather than burdensome. For example, I have switched from traditional primary care to a gifted, local naturopathic doctor for health maintenance. As part of the pruning, I gave up running (which according to my ideal was the most “sustainable” exercise). But in its place has grown the habit of weekly dance and yoga classes at the YMCA — for the first time in my life, exercise enlivens me. I cook simply and from scratch as much as I’m able, even though our budget still limits how much local, seasonal food I can afford. And for now, that’s enough.

Making choices sometimes provides the option of organic foods.

Making choices sometimes provides the option of organic foods. Photo: Amanda Rooker

But here the fruit of allowing practices to grow naturally from within really pays off: I now know how to prioritize practices within limited means. For example, I know that my practice of buying local whenever possible is rooted in my value of fresh, nutrient-rich food and pursuing health naturally. Therefore, my first and best options are our local farms and the bulk natural foods catalog. When I can’t afford those options, I’m free to shop at the cheapest, most convenient place because evaluated on the basis of natural health, they’re pretty much equal.

But evaluating my food options based on, for example, economic justice for small, local businesses who pay a living wage, would yield completely different results. The local farm wouldn’t be the first and best choice if it used migrant workers, nor would all remaining options be equal. That’s how I can freely shop at, say, Wal-Mart, while someone else might not. Or how I can drive an SUV guilt-free — the carbon footprint branch hasn’t begun growing yet.

True vision provides a decision-making matrix that goes beyond simple monetary cost or objective right-and-wrong, helping us to discern which practice to prioritize and which to simply let go. If we trust that we are indeed living things to be grown and not built, we will trust that priorities and practices will grow in their own time. I certainly have plenty to do in the meantime to nurture what has already begun growing.

Pruning yields fruit

Nurture love of the natural world.

So I am grateful for the pruning process of the last five years, because I’ve finally learned that true sustainability is not evaluated based on an objective list of practices and products, but on how well we yield to a spiritual process — the same cyclical growing process that governs the earth we love. If we nurture our love of the natural world, it will naturally produce the fruit of practices over time. And this approach is certainly no adolescent “do-what-you-feel-like” philosophy.

Most of us determined perfectionists (and virtually all mothers) resist this equally deadly extreme for good reason: Sometimes we simply must do what is required, whether we want to or not. Certain (ideally, codified) minimal practices should be required of all of us, no matter what we define as burdensome. But the key here is to learn the difference between building and growing. Growing certainly requires work that we must do, whether we feel like it or not. Yet our responsibility is not to produce the living thing itself, but merely to enable it to grow the way it was designed.

This kind of spiritual sustainability is tremendously freeing, because we are operating according to design. It costs nothing and produces much. On the other hand, it is not cheap. Just as in the natural world, new life comes at great cost: It requires the seed, or the ideal, to die. It requires us to accept the pruning and to appear to be an ugly, dead stump to undiscerning eyes, even when everyone else has birds flocking to their branches.

If we truly love the natural world and are students of its ways, we will know that pruning burdensome branches increases growth in the long term. This growth will not only be physical, through the addition of visible practices, but spiritual: The process also yields within us the sustaining virtues of humility, perseverance, and faith. In other words, honoring the growth process with patience is how our sustainable practices will be well-rooted enough to sustain us as well — with any budget and in any context. Even while driving our SUV to Wal-Mart.

Amanda Rooker

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)