In the wake of superstorm Sandy, many of us are watching footage of the storm damage in awe of the heroism of first responders and those who are working day and night to get essential services up and running again. No matter where we are, we can make donations of money and blood to the Red Cross, volunteer our time at shelters or cleaning up our local communities, or simply extend a hand to our friends and neighbors. We can also turn for inspiration to these memoirs and biographies of altruism, philanthropy, and everyday heroism.
In her new book “A Gift of Hope,” the popular author Danielle Steel tells the story of her anonymous work among the homeless of San Francisco -- a project that offered unexpected and much-needed relief after the death of her bipolar son, who committed suicide at the age of nineteen (recounted in her earlier memoir “His Bright Light.” The loss also contributed to the breakup of her marriage, and Steel describes herself as “in dark despair” when the idea of helping the homeless came to her, near Christmastime, as a revelation that she understood as “an assignment from ‘upstairs.’” Given her late son’s generosity to the homeless, her course of action seemed clear, despite her initial resistance to the work. In straightforward and self-deprecating prose, Steel tells the story of her journey from reluctance to dedication, and her eleven years’ experience helping the vulnerable and voiceless. With this book, she hopes to bring renewed attention to their plight and their stories.
Sometimes the most ordinary circumstances can inspire life-changing action. In 2004, Alison Thompson, a filmmaker, was at home in New York City with her boyfriend, watching the news unfold of a devastating tsunami off the coast of Indonesia. But she did not simply shake her head and continue with her life -- instead, emboldened by her experience volunteering with the 9/11 relief efforts, and galvanized by the destruction and rising death toll, Thompson flew to Sri Lanka, hoping to be of some use for a week or two. She ended up staying for more than a year, helping to tend the wounded, bury the dead, and rebuild the small coastal town where she arrived with little more than basic medical supplies and good intentions. Since her return from Sri Lanka, she has worked to establish a refugee camp and field hospital in Haiti in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, and her book “The Third Wave: A Volunteer Story” offers a unique, relatable perspective on disaster and its aftermath, and of the role that even ordinary, unskilled volunteers can play in recovery efforts.
Volunteer work, community activism, and philanthropy are almost always group pursuits, and there is no single way to help change the world. In her book “Do It Anyway” feminist writer Courtney E. Martin profiles eight young activists across the United States, including advocates for peace, environmental justice and veterans’ rights, a prison re-entry social worker, a filmmaker, and an eighth-grade teacher in the Bronx. Through their very different ways of making a difference, these eight young people serve as inspirations for Martin’s targeted readership of philanthropically minded under-35s: the much maligned “Generation Me” who are often stigmatized as self-absorbed and uninformed about the wider world. Not so, argues Martin: “We are not, on the whole, entitled, self-absorbed, and apathetic. We’re overwhelmed, emphathic, and paralyzed.” Her book is intended to help those overwhelmed but passionate readers find their own small way of changing the world for the better.
With a scope far beyond the work of individuals, Jan Egeland’s memoir “A Billion Lives” details his three-and-a-half years as the Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs for the United Nations, working closely with Kofi Annan. During a divisive and turbulent period in the UN’s history, in the aftermath of the Iraq war and a wave of terrorist attacks against UN personnel worldwide, Egeland’s role took him to such places as Baghdad, Darfur, Eastern Congo, Lebanon, Gaza, Uganda, and Colombia, and he spearheaded the vast international relief efforts after the Indian Ocean tsunami and the South Asian earthquake. Known for his blunt negotiating style, his pragmatism, and his passion for helping those who are suffering, Egeland displays a powerful optimism and pride in his work in the pages of his memoir.
James Orbinski’s “An Imperfect Offering” describes his work with Doctors Without Borders in some of the darkest, most war-ravaged corners of the world. One of the most thoughtful and searching narrators of a philanthropic life, Orbinski introduces his book as his response to the ongoing question, “How am I to be, how are we to be in relation to the suffering of others?” His attempt to answer that profound question of personal and political engagement with the world, the nature of goodness, and the limits of charity, is the driving force of a story that travels from Rwanda to Somalia, Afghanistan to North Korea, and Kosovo to the Sudan. It is not a single overarching narrative, but a series of interlinked stories, which Orbinski identifies the key to what makes us human: “Nature does not tell stories, we do. We find ourselves in them, choose ourselves in them. If we are the stories we tell ourselves, we had better choose them well.”