The heart of Philanthropist Alison Thompson is an endless source of inspiration for the team here at Urban Zen. We love the way she has dedicated her life to being of service and we are thrilled that we can learn more about her extraordinary experiences through her new book, The Third Wave.
Not only is Alison our Community Ambassador for the month of July, we are also exceptionaly proud to be hosting her book-signing party at our Sag Harbor location. We encourage you to come out on July 15th to meet this trailblazing, impassioned woman for yourself and in the interim, we are excited to share with you our recent conversation with Alison:
URBAN ZEN: How did you become inspired to live your life in such an impassioned way?
ALISON THOMPSON: I’ve had a great life with many adventures around the world, but I’ve also led quite a selfish one which was all about me, me, me. When the September 11th attacks struck NYC, I lost many close friends that day. When the tower was first hit I roller bladed down to the World Trade Center to help with my little first aid kit and ended up living in the streets for the first six days collecting bodies and washing out the soot from tired firemen’s eyes. I then stayed down there another nine months helping as a volunteer doing all sorts of odd jobs. I learned that in these growing large disasters that everyone is needed and that you don’t have to belong to an organization to help out. I also realized that you don’t need many skills or a masters degree to give out water or give someone a hug, it’s really just common sense. Volunteering has filled a hole in me that has expanded my world into one of unconditional love and a fantastic adventure.
UZ: Can you tell us more about We Advance? What is your dream for We Advance?
AT: At night while lying in my tent in Haiti I would hear a woman being raped far off in the dark and I was helpless to help her. Everyday in Haiti we would meet women and children who had been beaten up and raped so I co-founded We Advance with Actress Maria Bello and Lawyer Aleda Frishman. We saw the need to help fight gender based violence against women. We Advance helps get women medical and mental health care and tries to empower these women by moving forward through our English and sustainable job programs. My dream for We Advance is that by the first two years it is a fully run sustainable Haitian NGO helping women empower themselves all over Haiti.
UZ: What steps can women take to have their voices heard in the philanthropic arena?
AT: We can re-tell the stories of these strong women by joining with women from all walks of life and cultures around the world to discuss these important issues and to find real solutions. Hopefully it can be taken to higher levels to create real change in law. Rape only became illegal in Haiti in 2005.
UZ: Our HHRH initiative is a big part of the work we do at Urban Zen and Donna is always saying, “My heart is for Haiti.” What motivated you to open your heart to Haiti?
AT: My heart opened to Haiti as soon as I landed there on a rescue mission after the 2010 earthquake that killed over 300,000 people. I have traveled all over this big world – from Iran to Burma, India and Africa but I have never seen a country in quite this much trouble. My heart broke when I gave a child a small cap full of water and she sucked it back into her throat like chocolate. I realized she had never had clean water before.
The Haitian people are a very spiritual race and they make their way deep into your heart by small gestures and it makes it very difficult to forget them or leave them. In Haiti I have also met some of the strongest women in the world and they really have an unfair struggle in life. Just to get daily water to survive can be an all day ordeal not to mention getting food for their family education and all the other monumental daily life tasks. I really think Americans can learn from the spirituality and resilience of the Haitian people.
What about the Urban Zen philosophy resonates most with you?
In my volunteering I like to cross the line to connect with people. In the disaster aid manuals it tells you not to do that as you will get hurt and its safer to keep your distance. I totally disagree with the manuals and I feel Urban Zen feels the same way I do. It’s about crossing that line and connecting. Its about putting your hand and heart forward and giving that hug. I also believe in inspiring change in not only on the outside of a human being but also inside the body and mind and spirit. It is about empowerment, solutions and sustainable futures. On a more personal level, I remember once I had come to meet Donna and she was very busy with many important people. She saw I was having great pain in my back and she took me into another room and helped stretch me and held her healing hands over me. The important people were made to wait for half an hour as she took time to help me. She cares and she reaches out her hand and it is reflected on a larger scale with Urban Zen.
UZ: What inspired you to write your book?
AT: I wrote this book as I had had so many exciting volunteer adventures around the world that gave me much insight and joy. I wanted to share my new knowledge with everyone and to show them that it was very different experience than you would find in “the disaster aid book guidelines”. I also learned that after a disaster it wasn’t just medical people who were needed. There were thousands of orphans sitting around and mums, dads, actors, writers, fashion designers, bankers, circus workers and everyone was needed. I would set off with a few friends and we seemed to be accomplishing many things faster than the huge disaster aid groups who were stuck in red tape and bureaucracy. We only left home wuth a few hundred dollars to our name but it was the heart of a volunteer that helped rebuild lives. I wanted to share my secrets and to inspire others to do it just like we did.
UZ: How would you encourage people to make a difference and connect? What steps can we take now?
AT: Go volunteer somewhere, it may be on your own street. Take away the ugly four letter word of fear and “what ifs” and over thinking and just do it! You don’t have to go overseas to help there are enough problems right here in the USA and it can even be just for an hour. I find that helping others really helps me forget my own problems and I often see how little my problems are compared to others. It also gives me a deep sense of happiness and fills me up with a deep confidence inside that no plastic surgery could ever give me. Get online and google an area you are interested in for eg: the environment, animals, teaching, soccer, art for kids etc and hundreds of opportunities will pop onto the pages you will be very surprised.
UZ: The world has become more interconnected and globalized through social media and innovative technologies. How has this impacted the volunteer community?
AT: Social media has impacted the whole volunteer community in a ground breaking way. It has connected us all together in up-to-date real time. In Haiti, when there are riots or cholera outbreaks, by the time that news makes it to the large news networks ( if it does) it is too late. The volunteers on the ground rely daily on twitter and facebook updates to tell us where danger is or to get help for our organizations. On twitter I have found rabies shots and life saving oxygen. Twitter can save hundreds of lives within a few hours of the initial tweet and it can be a way to rally other volunteers to come help. In the first weeks in Haiti I was very sick for a few days and had been calling out for help for hours but the loud generator outside my tent stopped anyone from hearing me. I tweeted it out to to the world and someone in NYC tweeted back to Aleda in the tent next to mine and she was able to come and help me.
UZ: What advice would you most like to share with the Urban Zen community?
AT: You can start your own volunteer adventure today, whether you are young, old and you can start today. I started my volunteer journey late in life and I am now filled with a deep happiness and fulfillment. Volunteering is purely a choice from the heart and nobody makes us do it. When people come to Haiti to help I’ve observed they also usually lose weight, get a suntan, meet hundreds of new friends, help save lives and sometimes they fall in love like I did. Its kind of like going to a spa but its free and you get a work out on the inside of you as well