Last year I had the honor of being invited to be part of the Clinton Foundation's Asia delegation. I have been a supporter of the work of the Clinton Foundation for many years, but seeing the actual work they do on the ground had a profound impact for me. That's one reason I react with such dismay at the ill-informed, political attacks on the Foundation by those who clearly do not know their mission or understand the life-changing work they do.
Along with 24 others from many different walks of life -- including students, artists, homemakers, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, activists, television executives and even the chairman of a football team -- I spent nine days on a whistle-stop tour of Indonesia, India, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea and Australia. It was a fascinating and inspiring journey that gave us all valuable insight into just some of the extraordinarily effective grassroots work initiated and supported by the Clinton Foundation, but it also served as a small taster of the grueling pace and demands President Clinton seems to take in his stride.
In India, the first stop in our busy schedule was to the Deshpande Foundation School Lunch Program (Jaipur Kitchen), which was set up and still runs with the support of a Clinton Global Initiative Commitment. Over 100 million people in India survive on less than $1.25 a day, and this extreme poverty is self-perpetuating, as families can't afford to let their children stay in school beyond the fifth grade. Jaipur Kitchen is a $7-million program providing free midday meals to schoolchildren, thereby increasing and prolonging attendance. This helps students often last to 12th grade, which opens up college opportunities while also improving health and enhancing learning ability. Helping serve lunch to the schoolchildren was a moving start to the trip for me, reminding me of my own mother's work as a school dinner lady when I was a young child.
This was also a concept I had used myself as part of UNICEF's End Child Exploitation campaign back in 2004, after visiting the dumpsites of Ecuador as a UNICEF ambassador. There I had met whole families who lived and worked on a dump, some of them born there and fully expecting to die there. They were trapped in a cycle of poverty, with kids as young as 2 years old sifting through other people's rubbish to try to keep body and soul together. Following my trip to Ecuador, I raised $5 million and set up new schools for hundreds of children of the dumps, providing them not just with much needed education but with three meals a day, a stipend for their families to offset loss of income, and I hope many more opportunities for all of their futures.
It was easy to see how much the Jaipur Kitchen initiative means to all the kids, but it reaps even greater benefits for the young girls of India, who so often leave school even earlier than the boys.
The value of women and girls in society is identified as a key issue for the Clinton Foundation, and its "No Ceilings" project has gathered data and worked to promote opportunities for women and girls all over the world to share their own experiences and learn from one another. Participating in the No Ceilings Conversation in Lucknow in India provided a fascinating glimpse into the daily lives of women living in a society where their status is still a battleground. These conversation events grow exponentially with every meeting, and as the numbers grow by their thousands, so does their strength and sense of solidarity.
At this conversation, a mother there explained to me how, in her community, sons are not expected to do anything to help at home, whereas daughters grow up, from the earliest age, being servants to their brothers and fathers. Little wonder that as the boys mature they consider themselves more important and more valuable than their sisters and wives. And so, to counter this long-held status quo, and gaining strength from the mutual support created by No Ceilings events, mothers are changing how they treat their sons. They are making sure they help around the house and don't order their sisters about. It may not seem much, but it is a significant break in the traditions of an Indian household. Such small concrete steps can sow the seeds in the next generation for greater respect for women, paving the way for equal rights, equal freedoms, equal societies.
It takes a huge endeavor of will, commitment and self-belief to set about making the world a better place. And yes it takes money, lots of it -- private money, public money, corporation money. But giving -- of your time, of your energy, and of yourself in order to help others -- is a central tenet of all our world's religious teachings, and a practice that can benefit the giver in deeply spiritual ways.
The Clinton Foundation sets us all an example of how to serve the public good practically and effectively. The Clintons very clearly see themselves as public servants, and as such they simply do the work that needs to be done. Sometimes the impressive efforts of others can feel like a challenge: They hold up a mirror to us, making us examine how much we are prepared to do in comparison. In response to that challenge, sometimes it is easier to criticize or undermine. But instead let's take their lead. At a time when societies are at risk of breaking down through poverty, violence and war, we need a hefty dose of social conscience and responsibility in order to express the better part of our humanity -- compassion, empathy and the power to act for good.