Amazing GRACE: Global citizens and artists for social change
BRATTLEBORO -- GRACE Cares, Inc., founded by Ken Giancola, Zoe Kopp, and T. Namaya, is a nonprofit that runs out of an aromatic kitchen and lively living room.
Its mission is to partner with local heroes and communities on small-scale developmental projects that empower people to improve their lives. What is amazing is that it does this successfully, thanks to the dedication and passion of its founders, board of directors, student volunteers, and the individuals who step up to the plate in the local communities.
Although it has international donors, many here in Vermont have not heard of GRACE Cares, Inc. because the donors' funds are not used for public relations but instead are funneled directly into the local projects that benefit small communities; 92 cents of every dollar goes into projects.
Zoe Kopp, president of GRACE Cares, Inc. spends long hours on the phone, Skyping and e-mailing volunteers in far-flung locations from the Dominican Republic to India. I had the recent opportunity to see her in action. She sat quietly with a notepad and pen, her cat on her lap, bent over the video screen speaking with two student volunteers who have been working in the Dominican Republic and now are assuming new responsibilities as the U.S. Coordinators of Project Hearts in the Dominican Republic nonprofit that GRACE Cares helped to found with its local hero Ruben Ottenwalder.
Although the Skype call lasted two hours, Kopp's patience seemed infinite. She asked each student specific questions to ascertain what was happening "on the ground" and listened with empathy until each student finished speaking being careful not to interrupt since frequently the most important thing said is the last. She was interested in how the students were interacting with the local heroine who had stepped up to improve health conditions in the community.
Obviously, there is a great difference in culture and manners of communication; however, what was stunning to observe was how persons from such different religious, ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds can work well together step by step, to achieve a common goal that benefits an entire community.
Kopp, who has spent years of experience supervising such projects, instead of being directive or authoritative, calmly and clearly discussed the current circumstance and subtly let the students know the tasks that must be completed and what aspects must be evaluated and reported so the project will move forwards as smoothly as possible; indeed, there was much laughter during the Skype call as Kopp took intensive notes interrupted occasionally by a loud meow as the caw pawed her lap for more attention.
Namaya, who also has extensive experience in International Development, and holds graduate degrees in international development and health, works with Kopp and the team to create small scale sustainable development projects around the world.
"The roots of our work are founded in decades of experience in health, education, community development, with the goal of empowering people to be their own agents for change," said Namaya.
In the Dominican Republic, Project Hearts is a nonprofit founded by Ruben Ottenwalder. GRACE always partners with local heroes to develop culturally relevant programs. Ruben's team is in the very poor rural community of Baito near the city of Santiago. GRACE Cares Inc. has worked with Project Hearts to assess the community needs and provide assistance for several projects identified as needs by community members including clean water, an elder care home, school improvements, safe stoves, a local egg business and a community center. Its goal is to empower the local community to address its health, education and economic needs.
GRACE is an acronym that stands for Growth, Resources, Action, Commitment and Empowerment. The board of directors was trying to select a name for the organization when Namaya and Kopp's niece named Grace burst into the room; the name just fit. Call it synchronicity if you will.
While I met with Kopp, two student interns, Lindsay Mitnik and Caroline McCarthy, graduates of Brattleboro Union High School now in college, walked in and out of Kopp's kitchen, and since it was lunchtime, Kopp made a huge salad, fried up sesame seeds with chard, and put out a sliced watermelon and fresh baked organic whole wheat bread along with glasses of iced water with slices of lemon.
Her husband and co-founder of GRACE, Namaya, who had been working outside to complete the B4 Peace Art Studio and Performance space, joined us. We held hands and thanked the universe for our food and wished that those in other parts of the world who are hungry receive food and obtain peace. Then we all dug in with relish.
Since there are so many non-profit groups, I kept wondering what made this group work this well. When I asked Kopp who was on the board; she told me that there are persons from every faith: Muslims, Christians, Jews and Buddhists. Spirituality and the desire for peace and doing well in the world hold them together. As we cleared the table, I looked around the kitchen and saw thank you cards and letters hung on ribbons, pieces of Mexican sculpture, photographs of people from all over the world, art work that depicted peace, crayon drawings by children. There were lyrics from songs and posters in different languages, photographs of people holding hands and smiling or cradling children. I caught a glimpse of a paper Mache Buddha, then an enormous poster of a ballistic missile with the multibillion dollar price tag printed next to it. There was a poem and drawing by Namaya about drones and photos of blinded children in several countries who had been hit by drones. Around the living room, are many of Namaya's peace arts, like the 100 Flowers of Peace and the Pentagon man.
You could feel the creative loving energy as the peace arts and community projects are created here at Blue Heron Pond.
"It may be a tiny drop of love in a sea of pain and poverty, but like the homeopathic principle, we believe this love and positive intention, no matter how small can help to transform the world and ourselves," said Namaya.
This is the new millennium, I thought, right here in action, in this one kitchen and office at Blue Heron Pond. GRACE Cares on a very modest budget creates and manages community and peace projects around the world. A fine example is the Lucknow Project run since 2006 in Amethi, India, that helps 3,000 school age children year round learn English and how to manage finances.
Afshan Nasseri, who is l6, travels there to oversee the project her sister Nazee started at the age of l4, while, their father, Dr. Afshin Nasseri, checks health conditions at each of the schools and performs medical exams of students to ensure they are in good health. GRACE Cares Inc. is helping to build a center for single mothers and widows and needs $l5, 000 dollars; it welcomes volunteers to travel and help in India.
I recalled a friend who, without a second's hesitation, spent $20,000 on a stone patio. It is hard for the average American to imagine a culture so different from our daily way of life. We take clean water for granted and drive to Staples to purchase backpacks or notebooks and pens when the kids go back to school.
"Gratitude is our driving force. We are so grateful for this abundance in life, and it is a joy for us to do this work," said Namaya.
From one kitchen one table one chair on a tight limited budget GRACE Cares Inc. helps the Troll Trust Fund located in south east India that supports the needs of 400 children who live in separate orphanages as well as children of day laborers in the Vellore area and kids who live on the streets. One of these orphanages helps kids who are deaf and otherwise handicapped get vocational training.
GRACE Cares Inc. needs to raise $2,000 to get more computers to provide a training program. I know people who spend $7,000 on a leather couch imported from Italy.
The world is a village. We are all part of the same web of life. The tentacles of the military/industrial complex holds fast because those who possess power and money fight to keep the status quo, but this is the new millennium and in order to survive humanity must raise its consciousness to a higher level. It is already happening as people begin to see we are one regardless of race, nationality, religion, culture and history. Peace begins as a drop and becomes an ocean.
GRACE Cares, Inc. has dreams for the future. One is the Appleseed Health Project that will plant seeds of better health care knowledge among communities with training provided free of charge to community members. A second is a Mayan traditional medicine program which is run by Dr.Anabella Perez, a medical doctor and anthropologist in Guatemala. She and GRACE Cares volunteers have completed a documentary on Mayan medicine. (You can see this at http://gracecares.org/Guatemala/)
Now they need a volunteer to complete the English translation and help with dissemination of the video so that the world will be more aware of this ancient, useful medical practice. Perez hopes to help the Mayan healers start their own community store, that will enable them to offer services at a lower price to the community so GRACE wants to raise $5,000 for start up funds to make their dream a reality.
The B 4 Peace Project is a program which promotes the discussion of peace and human rights through art around the world. GRACE Cares, Inc. has joined with Namaya Productions to create art installations and performance and peace work workshops. As part of this project Namaya created Memoria.Hablar. Dignidad. a dance, poetry, story, and theater performance with Mapuche and Chilean performers in Santiago, Chile at Villa Grimaldi an international peace park and human rights center which was a former center of torture during the Pinochet regime. Namaya and Kopp worked with local collaborators and developed the performance and art installation (which can be viewed at www.b4peace.net/peace-videos) and art instillation that was as one viewer said, "psycho-magical," and provided a performance and healing experience that enabled people to speak and reflect on the trauma of this torture center and the events of the past.
We are moving towards a higher level of consciousness not just the founders of GRACE Cares Inc, not just the student volunteers, not just the board of directors, not just the donors, not just the readers of this article, not just the individuals who step up to the plate in small communities, but all of us.
"Peace is not just the absence of war and violence, but the presence of love," said Namaya. "It is through the continued acts of kindness and peace that we are able to transform ourselves, our communities, and our global communities. As we create peace projects, with the 100 Flowers of Peace poems in 100 languages, and the art/performance projects we are able to engage communities in the critical conversation about the inevitability of peace."
"We are grateful for our home here on Blue Heron Pond in Vermont where we have hosted many peace and community building projects," said Kopp. "From this quiet corner of paradise, with high speed internet, we are able to continue this work which is tremendously joyful and is a reflection of our vision and passion as global citizens."
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