03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Ponzied" and Poorer in Stuff, But Richer in What Really Matters

Millions of us are actively engaging, volunteering, and serving as never before. And I find it amazing how often the lives we save include our own.

Helping other people reach for a brighter day helped me not just survive, but soar, after staggering Ponzi losses. Three years ago, my husband and I were reeling when we discovered that shifty investors had squandered much of our life savings. The losses were heartbreaking. Some of the money was earmarked to launch a long-time dream: a nonprofit to help people in the developing world. Some of it was a cushion to support our oldest son, who struggles with autism and mental illness.

I am beyond grateful for what happened after all this financial ruin hit. The opportunity to go to Uganda to gather the stories of once-starving, HIV-positive refugees suddenly opened up. Still reeling, I grabbed that chance to go to the slums of Kampala and meet inspiring, resilient women from the nonprofit BeadforLife, who are blazing big as they leave poverty behind with their gorgeous beaded jewelry made out of recycled paper. Oprah's featured them, as have other media outlets.

In 2006, I wrote an article about the beaders for a women's magazine that sparked fierce grassroots support from women across the U.S. The power of the purse in action. I couldn't wait to finally meet these African women and their children now going to school with full bellies, uniforms, books and ambitious dreams that somehow belie their harsh beginnings. I was anxious to listen to these grandmothers, mothers, and daughters, who'd somehow escaped rebels with machetes, near death from AIDS, starvation, and malaria, and blistering days crushing rocks to earn $1.

It turned out that trip was perfectly timed. These women were lit up big with their appreciation for friendships, healthy children, the blue sky, red earth, the simplest bowls of soup. They reminded me all over again of one powerful truth: I may be poorer in stuff, but am beyond rich in non-material blessings.

Over two weeks, I saw beaders celebrating the opening of their first savings accounts - and forgot that mine had been drained. In dancing to songs they'd written, like, "We Dance When We are Struggling," I saw I could transform my struggles into triumphs. I could turn my losses into greater empathy and compassion for people around the world who'd lost everything-- homes, health, children, and dreams to AIDS, wars, and poverty.

I could step into my own power and help others feel this electrified by making a difference.

Once home, I felt filled up, hugely grateful. I completed my book, The Give-Back Solution: Create a Better World with Your Time, Talents and Travel, which shines a light on dozens of leading change agents and hundreds of ways we can all make an impact at home or abroad. I supported engineers to get clean water and renewable energy to communities around the world. I rallied more support for BeadforLife.

And we stepped away from our large house. We halved our square footage, sold and donated rooms of furniture, and it became more clear that we may be materially poorer, but are rich in all the ways that count. "It's not where we live, but how we live" became our mantra.

I'm convinced that giving back is the absolute key to living our best lives. We're not here to stockpile stuff while others can't survive. We're here to grow our hearts and become rich in love and kindness and all the things that matter. That's a wealth that can sustain us.