When NYC resident and filmmaker Alison Thompson rushed to Ground Zero on 9/11, her life changed. She discovered that volunteering is not only for experts—everyone has something to offer.
When the 2004 Asian tsunami struck she again felt called. Generating resources and working with likeminded people in Peraliya, a Sri Lanka coastal village, she spent 14 months helping with first aid, in schools and shelters, and even searching for bodies.
Thompson’s current volunteer work focuses on relief efforts after the 2010 Haitian earthquake, but she still works with Sri Lanka. She’s chronicled much of her volunteer experiences in her new book, The Third Wave.
Find more books about philanthropy and giving at Kirkus.
Where are you right now?
I’m in New York City—just flew back from Haiti. Someone just pointed me to $2.6 million [of goods for aid]. Now I need to get it into Haiti. I’m working on a proposal for a container to get the goods there.Can you talk about how volunteers can help even though they aren’t specialists?
Volunteering is great and exciting, but it’s hard, too. The good stuff outweighs the bad. I’ve never seen one volunteer that it didn’t change their lives. If more people volunteered it might get everyone out of therapy. Everyone has a special skill; [for example] one volunteer had an obsessive-compulsive personality, so that person was assigned to keep track of supplies.
So you don’t have to be an expert to help?
Right. People say to me, “How could Sean Penn go to help in Haiti? He’s an actor.” We’re not just one thing, we’re not defined by one job or what we studied when we went to university. There’s so much [we can do] that we haven’t explored. It can be common sense stuff, like, “Oh, they’re hungry! Lets get food to them.”
You write, “The world is full of beautiful silences if only we listen.” It sounds as if that ability to focus on the natural beauty of Sri Lanka and Haiti has been a source of strength for you.
Yes, it is. I meditate to relax, but I also like to do Argentine tango [laughs]. Still, finding a quiet place and sitting is important. For example, in Haiti the volunteers get Sunday off. I try to do yoga, but sometimes it gets so busy I can’t.
When the pace gets that busy how do you handle it?
You can make fun out of really anything. Hmm. The heat is the one thing that gets to you. Like the other day [in Haiti], it was so hot that we bought a swimming pool, and we were washing 100 kids [in it] because in Cité Soleil they only wash in the sewer. We combined baths with giving them food tablets and vitamins, and we made it fun. That has turned into Bath Day, our biggest hit yet. We fill a pool of fresh, clean water and parents bring their children to bathe and receive hygiene kits.
So you draw energy from hard work?
The kids are what keep us with a lot of energy, because they are just so innocent and sweet and full of life and excited for just the tiniest thing. When you have hundreds of kids hugging you every day that keeps you going. We learned to laugh and trust people and be as honest as children. My parents are missionaries, and so I think I've always felt comfortable in the third world.
You mention NGOs sometimes misused funds in a way that made your blood boil, but not all of them, right?
Right, but sometimes with so much red tape and bureaucracy nothing gets done. In 2010, Barbara Guillaume, Maria Bello, Aleda Frishman and I founded an NGO called We Advance. It’s to give a grassroots way to organize volunteers for existing organizations who want help Haitian women.
Sometimes The Third Wave reads like a mash-up between Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw—you write Chanel No. 5 dabbed under the nose masks stench—and Mother Teresa, whom you have written that you admire, yet it sounds just like you. What role did your co-author MeiMei Fox play?
She edited it, I wrote it. She worked so hard. I’m not a writer, if I just sat down to write a novel I couldn’t do it, but [this] stuff is so rich and close to my head it just spat out onto the pages. I just got excited and writing and writing, so it came out pretty quickly. The editor had to bring it down, because I had too much to say. I just really just want to say, “People, you can volunteer. You don’t have to belong to these big organizations. There’s a spot for you out there.”