This is the true story of a couple of ordinary Americans who thought, once they turned 60, that life would be uneventful. That maybe the marriage of their three children - and the grandchildren to come - would be the highlight. Instead, they've just won a prestigious award that honours their world-changing work.
Elizabeth and Stephen Alderman's amazing journey began on 9/11. Their son, Peter, lost his life in the World Trade Center. In the months that followed, as they mourned mightily, an idea began to grow. They realized that they wanted to do something in honour of their son. Considering and rejecting all of the expected options, they were at a loss for what to do. Then, watching a story on Nightline about the estimated one billion survivors of trauma around the world (such as civil war and terrorism), it came to them. "We couldn't help our son, but we can do something for those who survive."
Before long, they founded the Peter C. Alderman Foundation, whose mission is to help create mental health systems in strife-torn countries. Specifically, to help local caregivers learn how to treat people who are suffering from conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. In just eight years, they've established nine clinics and trained 385 local doctors who have, in turn, trained more than 400 health care professionals. And over 100,000 people have been helped to date in Cambodia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, the Congo, and Zimbabwe.
Steve says that health care is just beginning to be recognized as integral to the recovery of a country's citizens. "Mental health is central in post-trauma recovery. Without it, everything else founders. How can you take care of yourself, your family, or your community, when you can't even function? Psycho-trauma, as the African medical professionals call it, is the scourge of the continent. In terms of numbers of people afflicted, it's bigger than HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. Yet there's virtually no philanthropic or aid dollars being invested in that direction."
I asked the Aldermans to tell me about one particular person the clinics have helped. They chose James Opyia, 17, of Uganda. James is a former child soldier - that is, he was kidnapped by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) of northern Uganda when he was just 13. Some estimates peg the number of children kidnapped by the LRA at 35,000, others say it's closer to 60,000. I'll let Liz tell James' story. And I warn you, if you haven't read about child soldiers, it's horrific:
Most child soldiers are forced to commit an atrocity when they are taken away to ensure that they will be too ashamed to try to escape and return. They are forced to kill their father, for instance, or cut off their mother's lips. Once 'in the bush', the boys are turned into soldiers, the girls into sex slaves. The boys are given drugs, usually amphetamines, and forced to begin killing. If they don't kill, they are killed. And the more they kill, the faster they move up the ranks. When we met James, that had been his life for more than three years. He escaped, heard about our clinic, and found his way there. His treatment began with a ritual cleansing - our work is culturally specific, and people won't believe they can get well if we don't begin with the traditions that are essential to them. Then, if the patient is really bad, as James was, they'll get drugs to help still the muddy waters, and get them ready for talk therapy. James then attends a program to help him prepare to re-enter school. And, finally, to attend school, and begin to live as normal a life as is possible for him. In the beginning, he was unable to make eye contact at all...
Here, Steve interjects. "Remember the Vietnam vets? They called it the thousand-yard stare." We talk for a minute about what is going on with the many of the men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Today, James is smiling and communicating and ready to go to school. That's his photo that graces the top of this post.
The Aldermans are also working hard to get mental health onto the global health care agenda. They explained to me that donor and aid decisions are made based on policy, which is, in turn, influenced by data. Here's Steve again, "We're collecting data to show results. All of our clinics are collecting information and reporting quarterly. They're looking at diagnoses, treatments, and successes."
Is it any wonder that the Aldermans were just honoured with the Purpose Prize? Each year, the prize honours people 60+ who are using their experience and passion to take on society's greatest challenges.
"The Purpose Prize winners combine creativity, experience, and passion with a desire to do something bigger than themselves," says Marc Freedman, co-founder of the Purpose Prize and Civic Ventures, a national think tank on boomers, work, and social purpose. Funding for the Purpose Prize comes from The Atlantic Philanthropies The Atlantic Philanthropies and the John Templeton Foundation (I'll be writing about the insightful Marc Freedman, founder of Civic Ventures, and his remarkable team soon.)
There's lots more about the Aldermans and their extraordinary work on their site (and here's a great video about the Aldermans from the Purpose Prize site):
And if you'd like to meet them - and the people who are helping make their work possible - you might consider getting tickets for their fundraiser in New York in November (there's more information on their site, or scroll down to read). If you're curious about how the money is invested, here's a thumbnail. Thanks to their partnerships with governments and faith-based organizations in the countries where they operate, every dollar donated to the Peter C Alderman Foundation generates $3.85 in products and services to help take care of people. And on-the-ground costs are super low. "To run two clinics in Cambodia," Liz told me, "It costs the foundation $21,600 a year."
Now it's your turn. Are you over 60, and does this help you think about these years in a new way? Are you doing something now? Are you thinking about what Marc calls an "encore career"? Please share your thoughts with us all by commenting below. As always, I invite you to email me: julia (that familiar symbol) wearethenewradicals (DOT) (com).
Julia Moulden is on tour, talking about New Radicals like Liz and Steve Alderman.
Peter C. Alderman Foundation Fundraising Event
Tuesday, November 10, 6:30pm
Harmonie Club, 4 East 60th Street, New York, NY
***Bob Costas will be Master of Ceremonies
RSVP or questions to email@example.com