Most people want to help other people, but don't know how exactly to start, or how to do it. Oliver Manuel's wake-up call came on September 11, 2001, when, as a tech employee working on the opposite coast he was gripped with the desire to help out.
"I really felt I wanted to do something," he said. "But I was in the Northwest and couldn't fly out there, couldn't do anything." Then, it struck him: there was something he could do. "I could build a website for people to leave permanent memorials," he remembered thinking. He put it together the next day, and within 24 hours, it had made Yahoo's front page. In 2005, he put together a similar page for Katrina victims.
Manuel started out as a chef, working in restaurants in Missouri, Idaho, Hawaii and Oregon, before going back to his college roots as a computer science major and starting in an entry-level position at a tech company in 1997, where he worked for nine years. In 2006, he started Global Client Services, an Internet marketing services firm. Now, Manuel designs and maintains websites pro bono for a number of community oriented service groups, including We've Got Time To Help.
Manuel uses his cyber know-how to help organizations that have great ideas, but not necessarily the resources to implement them to their fullest extent. He met Seth Reams of WGTTH serendipitously. He was looking at an interview with one of his clients on MSNBC and the WGTTH interview was the next one. He thought it looked interesting and clicked through, started following them on Facebook, and then contacted them about the site. "That was really, really inspiring hearing their story," he said. When he took a look at their website, he knew that he had the ability to help them go even further and offered his services. He's now assisting them with the management and design of the site so that their ability to grow has even fewer impediments.
Though Manuel gives back in his capacity as a tech guy, he's never lost sight of his culinary origins. "I want to feed people," he said. "People going hungry is just wrong." Aside from stints volunteering at the Oregon Food Bank, which he calls "one of the absolute best," Manuel also holds the position of a food bank sustainer, meaning that he automatically donates money to the bank each month from his bank account. It's just one example of his consistent dedication to doing whatever he can, whenever he can, however he can.
Manuel, who describes himself as "48 going on 29," lives with his wife of 24 years and their mini-dachshunds. Though his efforts are undeniably generous, he doesn't see himself as anything particularly special. "Most people should, and most people do give, within their needs," he said. "That's what it means to be in a community: talk to your neighbors, help people who are less fortunate."
But it's clear that he is a person who doesn't know how to live without doing everything he can do to improve the quality of the lives around him. A few years ago, Manuel purchased an electric car on eBay because "it's much more responsible in terms of the availability of energy," and then donated the car to the Portland Community College's Automotive Tech program once he had exhausted the possibilities of tinkering with it. He will soon be one of the first early adopters of the new Nissan Leaf.
Yet Manuel is quick to defer praise. "There are countless people who inspire me every day," he said. One of those people is Dub Debrie, a Portland musician who has lived with HIV for 20 years, whose weekly e-mail reminder Manuel manages. "He is having more and more difficulty as time goes on, but he gets out there three times a week," he said. "A lot of people who are in his situation would be bedridden."
Manuel's work is a reminder that everyone can help in the ways that they are uniquely capable to do so. "I don't think that I do anything that extraordinary," he said. "This is how we should all operate."
For more, visit our new Third World America section.