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Changing Lives: A Market Woman's Dream

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Last week, Time Magazine feted its 100 Most Influential People "who affect our world" at a gala that would be hard to match -- with musical performances by Taylor Swift and Prince, a comic interlude by actor Neil Patrick Harris, a brief talk by Bill Clinton and toasts by Sarah Palin, scholar Elizabeth Warren and actor Ben Stiller. But what was striking about the evening were the less glitzy among the honorees: social entrepreneur Valentin Abe, who also gave a toast to Haitians struggling to restore their country; microfinance pioneer Michael Sherraden of the Global Assets Project; Aravind Eye Clinic's Dr Naperumalsamy, and other remarkable leaders effecting change around the world.

Perhaps the powerful story is that of Chen Shu-chu, a market woman from Taiwan, who saves her meager salary to support orphans and to build a library in her school. Over the years, she has given the over $320,000, and now plans to establish a fund to provide education and health care for the poor.

Her first trip outside of this vegetable seller's home village was this foray into New York's worldly elite. Surrounded by those who had spent the equivalent of her annual earnings on their glittering attire, Chen wore a business suit selected by Taiwan's Foreign Ministry (for which she insisted on paying). Such indulgences have no place in the life of Chen Shu-chu, who lives on three dollars a day, so that she can give the remainder to others.

How many of us with much larger earnings could be just a bit more frugal so as to put our funds to a larger purpose? I dare not count the ways I have expended my salary on unnecessary items with the full knowledge that others lack the basic necessities of life. It is one thing to know. It is another to act.

While my dinner invitation was the result of a small article I wrote, Ms Chen's was the result of lives she had changed. That is true in her village in Taiwan. It was also true that night in New York City. For much as we all enjoyed the well-known speakers and the polished performances, Chen Shu-chu, my modest table companion, will remain the keynoter in my mind.