What was the catalyst to your long-time passion for volunteerism and service?
From an early age, I've had a sense of standing for something. I had the benefit of having socially aware, concerned citizens as parents who weren't afraid to speak out and act on behalf of what they believed in. I realized that I had the professional and personal resources that could be allocated to helping others and I created a brand dedicated to community outreach. This commitment gave birth to the Awearness initiative, which entails the awearness.com blog, merchandise and most recently, the publication of a book. AWEARNESS: Inspiring Stories About How to Make a Difference is a compilation of 86 original essays from contributors who have committed their lives in one way or another to service. The book is meant to be a one-stop shop of information about service and volunteerism, ultimately broadening the tent even further with a real call to action. Like with any of my efforts, I hope AWEARNESS inspires people to look inside themselves, to look at their myriad of resources, which we don't always realize we have, and to know that they have the ability - we all do - to affect other people's lives in a positive way.
What was the moment that you took action to get involved with helping others?
My understanding of volunteerism had traditionally been how we pay back our communities and society for all of the opportunities and blessings we've received. Volunteerism was something I decided to do, not a natural extension of my own existence. My understanding has evolved to volunteerism not being a decision at all. To not be of service is a decision. I decided to speak out about HIV/AIDS at a time when there was not a lot of attention or focus on the disease. In 1985, we created the AIDS awareness campaign as a means to bring necessary attention to the epidemic. This was a pivotal point for me and my company because it was affecting so many people in the fashion industry and Reagan, at the time, didn't address it until 1987 after 40,000 people had already died. I knew something had to be done and I used my voice and resources to further ignite a much needed conversation about HIV/AIDS.
You've dedicated your career to marrying social awareness and fashion. Why?
I feel strongly that business and community are not only related, but they're interdependent. For me, being a social activist has always been about using the platform of my company's designs and advertising to bring attention to social causes and issues. It's my belief that now more than ever the safety net - governmental and community - has eroded and we all need to do our part to support each other. I think we're ahead of the curve in building Awearness as a way to get the message of service and volunteerism out there. It's the right thing to do - morally and financially.
What was the hardest thing about getting started?
I didn't have a lot to lose in the beginning because we were small and just starting out. I chose to speak out about the stigma of AIDS at a time when others weren't really talking about it, though it was prevalent in the fashion industry. It became my mission to grow a business while growing a movement for change. So if anyone is afraid or nervous about getting started in volunteerism, I encourage them to just reflect upon the times we're living in. All each of us has to do is look around us and really open our eyes to see the fear and the uncertainty. Countless people need and want assistance in some way. I know that people often think they need lots of money and resources to be of service. The truth is that we each have the capacity to serve, to give back. It's not all about money. Are you able to help prepare and serve food for the hungry? Are you a doctor or pharmaceutical professional who is able to contribute your time and expertise to provide medicine to the sick who can't afford it otherwise? Are you able to work the phones to raise money for a good and worthy cause? The common thread amongst all of the AWEARNESS book contributors was the wish that they'd have started being of service sooner in their lives. But it's never too late and your contributions at any level will never be too small. My mantra is "The smallest and simplest gestures often make the hugest difference."
How has it benefited you on a personal level?
I've had the opportunity to meet some of the bravest and most inspiring people in the world, many of whom are everyday people expressing astonishing courage despite the obstacles and adversity they face. In fact, they're some of the happiest people I've ever met. We're going to continue telling their stories and find and enlist more agents of change to celebrate their work and keep building a broader community, working to bring service to scale so that it's a national priority where everyone incorporates service and volunteerism into every part of their lives, at every stage of their lives.
How can others get involved in volunteerism efforts?
Believe it or not people don't always know how to get involved and more often than not, this unfortunately stops them from taking the necessary steps. First, think about what matters to you. What is your passion? How can you best put your own skills to use to help others? Then, do your research. Use the Internet to find out what organizations and groups support the type of initiatives you're interested in and call or email them to find out how you can get involved. Talk to friends, family members, neighbors and colleagues. Sometimes our own best resources for volunteerism are people who we know and talk to every day. Pick up a copy of AWEARNESS which has a resource guide at the end of each topical section which offers organizational Web site and description info, whether your interest relates to HIV/AIDS, political activism, human rights, youth and education, the environment, or homelessness and poverty. Whatever you do, don't let another day or year go by without being of service to your community.
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