Gerry’s Blog

Folks who facilitate learning

One of my earlies memories of giving is my mother volunteering at bingo on behalf of a community organization. I also have vivid memories of going on shopping trips with some of our community’s most joyous citizens, folks who are developmentally disabled (or abled in other ways). We bowled with them and did projects with them at the Sunshine Centre.

I felt lucky to be included in these activities throughout the rest of my childhood and I found myself developing friendships with many of these folks. This experience has been more of a benefit to me than them, I am sure, as these relationships have facilitated learning about unconditional love, pure joy, and being in a world somewhat isolated by social or cultural imperatives, which is how they lived from day to day. These experiences imprinted on me so strongly that I knew I had to be in a position to help people.

For most of my adult life I have worked in the non-profit sector. While that is not my legacy, what I deem most significant, are the extra moments I have come in contact with someone who was truly grateful for something I personally did to assist them or enhance their experience in the world.

You’ve heard these moments referred to as “simple acts of kindness”. I have always tried to take that a step further. I want to act in a way that creates positive change in a sustainable way. I subscribe to the “teach a man to fish. . .” theory. And sometimes, enacting the theory is more complicated than it seems. It is amazing how many barriers exist in the world. . . maybe there is no way to find a clean fishing hole, or the pole you provide keeps getting stolen. You get my drift.

I guess I really find joy in being a “barrier-buster”.  I used to tell my children things like “there is no problem too great that can’t be solved”. Ah, the good old days of simplified beliefs. These days, I tackle the easier barriers and the others I leave to a higher power, while always remembering the joy and unconditional love extended and shared by those who are “barrier-busters” by simply being.

Multi-generational values

Imagine a time when your grandparents, parents and yourself are having disagreements about money. OK, that may be imaginable. . .

Now imagine you, your parents and dear grandparents disagreeing on which organizations you will support through a family Foundation. Believe it or not, it is happening. With the transfer of wealth being the most significant in the history of mankind, many more families are creating their own Foundations. That often means the grandparents started it, the parents serve on the Board, and now the young adults are getting involved.

The reality is individuals within families have different interests.  If a family Foundation has traditionally supported the work of alma-matter universities, hospitals and animal shelters, the next generation may not be interested or inspired. Perhaps the interests of the younger family members are putting an end to open-pen fish farming or building schools in developing countries.

Differences of opinion on where family funds are spent can be better understood when the various individuals are able to identify their core values. It is easier, once identified, to see where there is alignment in values, and how those core values help to define philanthropic decisions.

Family members may be surprised to see that the values overlap, but that each person applies them in a different way. Three generations bring their generational lens to the table, and when a thoughtful discussion ensues, the outcome may be shifting collective philanthropic decisions.

This is true as well for generational gifts at Valley Regional Hospital Foundation. Often we see families whose grandparents, parents and adult children are donors. Recently, we had a very thoughtful gift from a four year-old who decided to collect money on his birthday to make a donation. These types of gifts don’t come from family Foundations, but they do come from a sharing of values.

Parents of young children do often teach of giving, encouraging children to put 10% into the giving jar when they receive their allowance, as well as planning for short, medium and long-term age appropriate goals with the balance. When the giving jar builds equity, a family discussion follows to determine where the funds may have a positive impact in the community. Building such a giving culture within the family is not only for the wealthy. Conversations around giving, regardless of the amount, are important values-sharing and learning opportunities throughout life.

Likewise, charitable legacy gifts made through a will or insurance are decisions that may or may not impact multi-generations. Thoughtful discussion of legacy wishes with grown family members by expressing the values that underlie that decision has the potential to reduce tensions, misunderstanding and potential disagreements in the future. From family Foundations to family legacy gifts, the greatest gift is in understanding multi-generational values.

My Philanthropic Quilt

Tragedy has a way of melding with the sweetness of life to redefine and empower us to be better humans, and to expand our spiritual center. Like a lovingly constructed quilt, pieced together from materials no longer fit for their intended use, a greater creation is brought into being. Using the materials of old shirts, curtains, dresses and baby blankets, these once incongruous pieces are brought together to warm bodies and hearts as they are passed along from neighbor to neighbor, family member to family member, through the generations.

At 16 years old my mother lived through the tragic event of losing all of her family possessions in a house fire (really a farm fire – everything burnt to the ground). Immediately, the rural farming community in which she had lived since birth rallied to support her family in finding them a place to live, clothing, food, and many of the household necessities required for daily living. The home that she became so grateful to move into after the fire was lovingly described a “three room shack with outdoor plumbing”.

Her parents, who were in their late 50’s at the time, were of the mindset that they would just begin again. Grandmother began making new quits for the beds, and many of  the neighbour women pitched in with old pieces of material and their time, to comfort my mother’s family.

In one tragic experience, my mother became a beneficiary, and at the same time, the incident left an imprint that developed into serial reciprocity. After my mother grew, married and had children of her own, her mindful nature of the needs of others provided a learning framework for me.

Looking back through the patchwork quilt of my childhood, several of my mothers’ charitable and philanthropic endeavours come to mind. Through these memories I find inspiration. These experiences have enriched my world, and the experiences of others, whose lives I have been given the opportunity to weave into my philanthropic quilt.

My friend Anthony

I’ve been thinking a lot about my friend Anthony today. Anthony was a brilliant Co-op student when I worked at a small University. Although still in his undergrad, Anthony was repeatedly asked to partner with another major University on research projects. He was already published by the time he was in his third year. In addition to his brilliance, Anthony had a refreshing view of the world, his perspective was always unique and very often challenged the status quo. I found that intriguing.

I was fortunate to get to know Anthony a little better after I moved from the Co-op Department to the Foundation office. No longer my student, we would meet at lunch or just in passing, and find ourselves deep in conversation about the universe, thermos-dynamics, nano-particles, etc. As I got to know Anthony better I came to realise that his life was very unstable. He professed to have sleeping issues, trouble concentrating, broken relationships with family members and various other challenges for which he self-medicated with alcohol and marijuana.

It was his sister who told me Anthony had untreated schizophrenia. He had been on medication, but went off and on, as many people will this illness do. I had some previous understanding of the illness, which was helpful. What I didn’t know was Anthony suffered from Anosognosia. Anosognosia, first named by a neurologist in 1914, “is a deficit of self-awareness, a condition in which a person with some disability seems unaware of its existence.”

Can you imagine living with a chronic disease and not knowing it, or in fact, being in complete denial of it? That was the life Anthony led, a life that is led by a large portion of the 1 in 100 people who suffer from schizophrenia, a chronic neurological illness. Fortunately, this is not true for all those diagnosed. Many people who have the illness are treated with medication, cognitive therapy and other supportive programs, and live fulfilling lives. This was not Anthony’s story.

Anthony’s untreated illness caused him to take his own life. It was a very sad day for all of us, in addition to the research community. His light shone brightly for a very short time.

Research is a very important part of our lives, even though we are not aware of the daily impact on the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the houses we live in, cars we drive and the medical care we receive. It is research, combined with education, which will eventually end the stigma of mental illness, as it has done for AIDS and Cancer. It is research that will unravel the complex neurological disorder called schizophrenia.

I am very proud to have been involved in research projects, either as a participant, a researcher or a funder of research. I am pleased Valley Regional Hospital Foundation is funding research projects which impact the determinants to health thus reducing the strain on an already stressed medical system. Next time you visit the hospital, give a thought of gratitude for those brilliant researchers (who may live with their own medical challenges) whose work positively impacts our lives every single day.

A funny thing happened on the way to work today. . .

“I think that since we have to renew our driver’s license every five years, we should have to renew our marriage license every five years”, or something equally clever came from a man at the counter.

Engaged in the very serious act of vehicle licensing changes and drivers’ license transfers from BC to NS, my beloved and I looked at each other, giggling.

He was a little older, and his voice resonated from one end of the counter to the other. The more we stood and stared at each other the larger our grins grew. Wouldn’t that be something? It’s like renewing your vows, in a bureaucratic sort of way. There could even be a small fee, and if you never divorced you could get a refund after 50 years.

Imagine, every five years you would seriously and intentionally have to go to a government agency to say “yes”, we are still in a committed relationship. It may give rise to conversation around “are we?”, “do we”, “will we?”, and various other questions that may pop up as each couple very publicly reconfirm their marriage is still valid and valued. I imagine some couples would find it difficult to find time to go together during business hours to invest in the process of saying “yes, we are renewing our marriage”.

Well, we renew other things, so why not marriages? Everything else seems to require continued validation: driver’s licenses, wills, insurances, registry for guns, alumni status, memberships to service clubs, professional member organizations, book clubs, fan clubs, fitness clubs and even non-profit societies which collect membership fees (annual or otherwise). Whew!

Even with the Valley Regional Hospital Foundation we annually measure the commitment of our donors by asking “will you partner with us this year by providing volunteer time and/or a donation?” It is a marriage of sorts, a process of giving and receiving in a mutually beneficial way. We feel connected, part of something larger; we feel a sense of belonging. Shouldn’t marriages continue to be that synergistic and mutually beneficial – providing us with a sense of belonging? Ah yes, but I doubt a five year marriage register will make it so.