“Act based on what you learn” With Shelley Callahan of Children Incorporated
“First and foremost, listen to each other. We all need to get out of their comfort zones, have an open mind, talk to neighbors, read stories about other cultures, listen to opposing views on the news, and work towards being empathetic often. Things are never black and white — we need to hear each other out so we can start to discuss the real issues that are keeping people in poverty and denying them access to basic human rights. Secondly, act based on what you learn. Donate to local shelters or a food bank — it takes a very little amount of money to have a big impact on others. And lastly, encourage others to participate. It is going to take all of us together to see real change in in the world.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Shelley Callahan. Shelley is the Director of Development with Children Incorporated, an international charitable organization that assists children living in poverty so they can get an education. Over the last fourteen years, Shelley has traveled around the world working to promote human welfare and provide aid to impoverished communities. Shelley is also the author of the book, The House of Life.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
In 2006, while I was in graduate school earning my Masters in Social Work, I started a non-profit organization with my friend Ward called Books on Wheels. Ward and I drove around the U.S. in a brightly painted school bus giving away books and repairing bicycles for free. It was an wild experience that taught me early on about socially responsible and how to give marginalized populations a voice so their stories can be heard. During the same time, I started to volunteer with a medical clinic in Haiti (which my book The House of Life is based on) and I found that I had a great interest in global philanthropic work. I made a conscious decision to look for a job where I was able to help the less fortunate in my own community and those in underdeveloped and developing countries, and that is exactly what I have gotten to do with Children Incorporated.
Can you tell me about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
Children Incorporated works in 23 countries, so we always have interesting projects in the works. Currently, we are focusing on water purification projects at our affiliated schools in the Philippines to make sure children have safe and clean water to drink so can be healthy and attend school. We are also expanding our skills training programs in Guatemala so that parents and kids can learn cooking, computer repair, and carpentry skills to help them obtain employment in the future. I am also hoping to bring an amazing fitness and yoga instructor based out of London to Brazil to work with children in our program there because being active is so important for kids who have faced adversity, especially when they are neglected or come from abusive households.
So how exactly does your organization help people?
At its very simplest, we work to give children living in poverty basic needs — clothing, food, school supplies, tuition fees — so they can go to school. We strongly believe that every child deserves an education, and they shouldn’t be absent from school because they don’t have shoes to wear, or they are ashamed about their personal hygiene, or because their parents can’t afford books or a school uniform. On top of working to break down barriers for individual children, we also build schools, dormitories, provide mosquito nets for families, and help communities in emergencies as well.
Can you tell me a story about a person that you helped?
I love a particular story about a boy from Kentucky that I will call Robert. Robert lives with his single father who is disabled, and his limited disability benefits hardly pay the rent. His father has no transportation and sometimes struggles to provide food for the two of them.
At some point during elementary school, Robert’s four front teeth had been knocked out, and he was desperately in need of a dental partial plate. When Robert’s father was told the cost of the partial plate, he told the dentist he couldn’t afford it. Years later, when Robert reached high school, he was still without his teeth — and he was unwilling to smile or talk to teachers or other students directly because he was so embarrassed. Thankfully, once we found out about Robert’s issue, we were able to pay for the partial plate, and now Robert smiles as often as he can and show off his new teeth. It doesn’t seem like a huge gesture, but it changes this boy’s life in a major way.
This obviously is not easy work. What drives you?
I am driven by how hyper-aware I am of my privilege in life. My parents always made sure that I went to the best public schools, even choosing to live in neighborhoods they didn’t prefer to make sure I got a good education. It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized that so many other kids never had that option growing up, and I didn’t think it was fair that I had had so many more opportunities just because of where I was born and to whom. I try to keep that line of thinking with everything I do — so even when the work feels hard, I remind myself that doing whatever I can to bring equity, and hopefully a little more equality to the world, is how I can give back.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
First and foremost, listen to each other. We all need to get out of their comfort zones, have an open mind, talk to neighbors, read stories about other cultures, listen to opposing views on the news, and work towards being empathetic often. Things are never black and white — we need to hear each other out so we can start to discuss the real issues that are keeping people in poverty and denying them access to basic human rights. Secondly, act based on what you learn. Donate to local shelters or a food bank — it takes a very little amount of money to have a big impact on others. And lastly, encourage others to participate. It is going to take all of us together to see real change in in the world.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
I mentioned earlier the non-profit, Books on Wheels, that I founded along with my good friend, Ward Tefft, who is the owner of Chop Suey Books in Richmond, Virginia. Ward taught me a great deal about being confident and really “owning” what you are doing. Ward also has a very DIY (Do-It-Yourself) approach to life, and for that reason, we never let any obstacle stand in our way. I also learned from him that you can get more done if you “do now, apologize later” than ask for permission first and get rejected. Ward and I had a blast together for the ten years that we ran Books on Wheels, and I am I am grateful towards him for always encouraging me think bigger.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Be patient — when I finished graduate school, I was on fire. I wanted a big job with a ton of responsibility and I wanted to be a part of a team right away. It is not how it works, unfortunately. Everyone that interviewed me wanted to know where my 5–10 experience was. I was disappointed, but now see that they were right. I needed to get out into the field and get my feet wet, and thankfully, I could do that by continuing to grow make Books on Wheels to a point that it was my full-time job while also volunteering with some amazing organizations around the globe.
2. If you want something, be prepared to argue your case — I used to just ask for what I wanted without having anything to back it up — whether I needed supplies for the office or permission to visit a school in Africa, I never was ready for the inevitable, “Why?” question, and therefore the answer would often be no. Be ready to give valid reasons if you feel you deserve something, even if it is just a stapler.
3. Write everything down — Even if you think you have a good memory, you don’t. Details are so valuable when you are trying to write a story or an article, or talk to a potential donor about your work. Small things make a big difference when it comes to being convincing or proving a point.
4. A good story goes a long way — No one wants to hear you spout your mission statement like you are reading out of a textbook. It’s the fastest way to lose someone’s interested in your organization. Instead, explain quickly the work that you do, and then move into a story about a special child that you helped, or a country you worked in — it keeps people engaged and makes them want to get involved too.
5. Don’t decide what other people need — Living in poverty is difficult for people for many different reasons, and what can make it harder is when good intentioned individuals offer things to people they don’t need or didn’t ask for. Why I love Children Incorporated so much is that we focus on each child’s needs so they are getting what matters the most to them, not what we think they might need.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see just see this. :-)
I recently started following Ben Stiller on social media, and I am really inspired by his work with refugees in Guatemala as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador. It is always great to see celebrities (or anyone for that matter) showing that they are socially conscious, but what makes Ben Stiller stand out is that he that he is a good storyteller. He talks in details about what refugees are going through as they struggle as newly displaced people escaping voilence and extortion in their countries. He is giving children and families a voice, a name, and a face that they otherwise wouldn’t have. I admire that greatly.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!