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Fang Yuan

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Things to Truly Be Thankful For

Posted: 12/07/09 05:35 PM ET

This Year, I am Grateful For...

Access to Clean Water

It was the warmth and purity of the water that shocked me when I first moved to the U.S. I was only seven years old at the time, had just moved to New York City from China, and had never yet been to a place where clean, hot water ran from the faucets every day of the week. Like meat and dairy at the time, hot water was also rationed -- it gushed out only two times a week in my grandmother's apartment in Beijing. To me, constant access to clean, hot water was a daily miracle -- such privileges did not exist where I was from!

Of course, little did I know then that even fewer privileges existed for far more children around the world. Even today, 1 out of 8 people worldwide still do not have access to safe, clean drinking water. This is an especially grave situation given that 80 percent of all sickness and disease worldwide are caused by unsafe water and lack of basic sanitation.

Recently, I came upon an organization called Charity Water that is helping communities in developing nations to get access to supplies of clean underground freshwater. Specifically, Charity Water works with local organizations to drill wells that provide people with access to this vital resource and also establishes a water committee after the completion of the project to ensure ongoing local participation and community ownership.

Charity Water has made it very easy for people who are interested in this issue to contribute to its projects -- you can donate online, volunteer your time (the office and the people are fun, the music is great, and the work is meaningful), or attend the Charity Water Ball taking place on Monday, December 14 in NYC. More information on the organization and on the Charity Water Ball can be found here and on their site.

Earning more than $3 a day

Pato, (or "Duck" in Spanish), was the nickname of one of my favorite students and friends in Mexico. After my freshman year in college, I volunteered as an English teacher for six weeks in a small mountain village of 700 people in Mexico. The adjustment to rural life as the only foreigner in town was rough in the beginning but thankfully, about 45 mosquito bites into the summer (i.e. less than two weeks), I had finally begun to make considerable headway with my work and my relationships with the villagers.

However, it was also around this time that I started noticing that a couple of my students, Pato included, were not being as diligent about attending class. On a Saturday expedition into the mountainside with my new crew of core friends, most of whom were also my students, I teasingly confronted Pato about missing hearing his "quacking" in class. Pato, generally a happy-go-lucky and boisterous 14-year old, suddenly went deadly quiet. Slowly stretching out his deeply tanned and roughened hands in front, he asked me to look down -- my mouth dropped open as I stared at a multitude of what looked like knife scars, some deep, some shallow, and a few recent and burning red, that crisscrossed the wide expanse of his hands. I will never forget holding this young boy's hands, making sure not to disturb his wounds, as he told me about how he had to drop my classes in order to cut down fruits with badly constructed sickles and walk with these mangos, bananas, and other fruits for hours on the only highway that led up to the village with his father, in order to earn around 20-25 pesos (~$3) a day from passengers who were kind enough to slow down to buy from them.

Pato is not alone. Shockingly, 3 billion people (almost half of the total world population of 6.7 billion people) make $3 or less per day. While one can argue that the cost of living is much lower in developing countries, this does not take away the fact that had Pato been born in another country to another family and had you or I been born into his family in his country, the situation would have been very different for all of us.

That is to say, fate has been good to us and I believe we have an obligation to pass on the favor to those who have not been so lucky.

There are two good ways that I can think of to give back in a practical way. The first is to directly support the entrepreneurial activities of people at the bottom of the pyramid. Both Kiva, which works worldwide, and Wokai, specific to China, use similar business models in helping to connect people through lending in order to alleviate poverty. Both are person-to-person microlending websites that allow you to personally select the recipient of your loan, which can be as small as $25. One great thing about this model is that once the first entrepreneur pays you back your loan, you can then re-lend to someone else.

More information about lending with Kiva can be found atKiva.org.

To see the impact that Kiva has on actual entrepreneurs, you can travel abroad to experience firsthand the realities of microfinance as a Kiva Fellow.

Wokai has a special place in my heart. After having backpacked through multiple rural provinces in China and eaten the same food, lived in the same regions, and ridden the same mountain buses as many of these rural workers -- I can say that there are few people I know who are as generous, as hard-working, and as ready to sing a song no matter how hot the day or how loud the engine! The profiles of the people on Wokai are as diverse as they are inspiring. Please check out their loan recipients.

Another way to give back on an even larger scale is to support the work of the Acumen Fund, an innovative organization that is providing philanthropic capital and business knowledge to pioneering entrepreneurs with sustainable and scalable businesses who are offering critical services -- water, health, housing, and energy -- at affordable prices to people earning less than $4 a day.

My own belief is that this will be the real way out of poverty -- innovative, market-oriented approaches that view the billions of people making less than $3 or $4 a day as one of the largest customer bases in the world rather than as people who need handouts. As Jacqueline Novogratz, the founder of the Acumen Fund, puts it: poor people seek dignity, not dependence.

Reading Jacqueline's personal memoir "The Blue Sweater" has been both personally fulfilling and extremely enlightening -- it really shows just how much one person can achieve with the right amount of dedication and strength of heart. A preview of the first few pages can be found on the book's Web site.

We should be thankful that even a $5 donation (basically a round-trip ride on the NYC subway system!) will be able to so meaningfully impact the lives of so many.

To become more involved with the Acumen Fund, you can join a local chapter on its Community Website or, for those in the NYC area, the Acumen Fund will be hosting an event on Wednesday, December 9th at the Bubble Lounge in Tribeca (please forward the information to anyone who you believe may be interested in participating)! Click here to sign up as a member of the Acumen Fund Community (link is for NYC Chapter, but there are also other local chapters and interest groups as well).

Not having to live through a "hungry season"

My father once confessed to me his motivation to keep going no matter how difficult the circumstances. A few years after I was born, he woke up covered in sweat from an unimaginably horrendous nightmare. As he put it, in the surreal Dali-like desert of his dream, the world had become a barren field that stretched for thousands of miles in all directions. Carrying me on his back, my father spent days foraging for the tiniest amount of food. On finally encountering a morsel of food, he quickly pressed the victual into my open mouth -- thankful that his only child would have a chance to eat and survive.

While I sometimes roll my eyes now as he tells this story to family friends, I realize more and more just how real my dad's nightmare is for the 600 million people who suffer from seasonal changes that create a "hungry season" that lasts three or four months out of the year. Basically, a "hungry season" occurs when the previous year's harvest runs low, food prices are high and jobs are scarce, forcing millions of families worldwide to survive on lowered incomes and minimal food.

It is maybe for this very personal reason that I am drawn to the work being done by One Acre Fund in East Africa. One Acre Fund is an organization that helps East African farmers to permanently grow their own way out of hunger and, despite only having been founded in 2006, is already serving 4,000 families.

Through the work of such well-run and efficient organizations, we also gain an enormous amount of power in being able to make the best use of our donation money -- just $20 a month is enough to start a new family in the One Acre Fund program.

More ways to become involved include joining a local One Acre Fund Chapter, signing up for the newsletter to learn more about the program's innovative methods and progress, or becoming a fundraiser. For those who are even more committed, the One Acre Fund is also looking to recruit people who are interested in working with East African farmers in Kenya and Rwanda.

Having the power to change other people's lives

On reflecting on my own life thus far, I have to admit that I have been very, very fortunate. Of course, I have worked hard and will work even harder to achieve my goals in life, but at least I know that I have the opportunity to pursue my dreams, whatever they may be. The ability to shape our own lives is something that we tend to take for granted in this country but really this is a privilege, indeed, a sacred opportunity, that some people fight their entire lives for and yet may never obtain.

If there is one thing that I believe in, it would be this -- that where one is born should never dictate the outcome of one's fate. I believe that internal strength and willpower should be given the chance to overcome any external circumstances no matter how seemingly insurmountable they may be.

At this critical moment in history, when it is easier than ever before to reach out, touch, and shape another person's life, we have fewer and fewer excuses to not contribute to re-shaping our increasingly interconnected world for the better. The power to change other people's lives for the better for so little is perhaps the most important thing that I am grateful for this holiday season.