12/08/2011 05:27 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2012

Making The Most Of Our Time

There's a new breed of activists on the rise. Mothers at mid-life are banding together around the rhetorical question: If we don't help this planet, who will? It's a different spin on the imperative to save Mother Earth but both share an urgency to roll up our sleeves and do something. With so many problems across the globe, our first inclination might be to walk away under the weight of the question "Where do I even begin?"

I found an answer to that question at a recent fundraiser for fistula surgery, sponsored by Karen Masterson who founded the non-profit This is My Face along with running her healthy food restaurant. Taking a look in the mirror at mid-life, Karen was struck by how much energy we expend on trying to turn the clock back on the lines in our face and the gray in our hair.

A more productive use of our time, she suggests, is to focus on finding beauty from within as we assist women in this country and around the world with educational and health issues. Her foundation's projects include helping young girls in Africa who suffer devastating injuries in childbirth and are rendered social outcasts since they receive no medical care and are unable to control bodily functions. Karen explains her mission: "For about $450 -- the cost of a Botox shot -- fistula repair surgery will turn around one woman's life. I can't explain it. These girls in Africa are calling to me."

I met Karen through my writing about another one-woman dynamo, Elizabeth Gurney Fry, the nineteenth-century radical Quaker and social activist who helped nearly 12,000 of the 25,000 women transported in chains to Australia, most for crimes of poverty. While British society deemed the young girls worthless refuse, the fearless free-thinker dared to show the world that one person can make a difference.

Like Fry, Karen reaches out to women who have been ostracized and culturally exiled by their own country. She believes, as I do, that we can't let unjust history keep repeating itself. Now that our children are grown, it's time to give back and begin a new phase of social change. It's a true revolution, an undeniable shift from the stifling greed that permeates our culture.

What makes one person extend a hand to help while another turns a blind eye? This question was always in the back of my mind during the seven years I immersed myself in researching the extremes that typified Victorian England. An all-too-common pattern soon emerged. While the wealthy grew richer, the poor fell further into desperation. Sound familiar?

In Elizabeth Fry's time, the deep chasm between the rich and the poor might have sparked a follow-up to the French Revolution were it not for citizens like her whose determined social conscience addressed what her government did not. These echoes of the past resonate all too ominously today and it's no surprise that protests are brewing across the nation. With so many families struggling in the US, more than forty-six million living in poverty, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. Here are a few examples that have inspired me to do more from a grassroots approach.

Flo Wheatley started The Sleeping Bag Project, My Brother's Keeper Quilt Group, after she met a homeless hero. The down-on-his-luck gentleman extended a helping hand to Flo when she and her sick son were having trouble entering a subway station in New York City where they had travelled for his life-saving chemotherapy.

The anonymous Good Samaritan carried their suitcases when no one else even noticed a mother and a child who were struggling in the pouring rain. Flo never forgot the kindness of the stranger who sought nothing in return. For the past twenty-nine years, Flo and volunteers across the country have sewn recycled cloth into sleeping bags that help the homeless survive. In the tradition of Elizabeth Fry, one simple act of caring has been transformed and multiplied by thousands -- an approach that may be our best hope for strengthening the fabric of our culture and leaving the world in better shape for our children.

When I stop by the house around the corner, I know I can count on another example of what it means to parent the planet, starting on our own street. My neighbor Jo Hannah Katz, a single mom and second grade teacher, raised a wonderful daughter and saw her off to college and career. At mid-life, Jo Hannah adopted five orphaned siblings to keep them together as a family. Grateful for the kindness of friends and strangers who made the adoptions possible, Jo Hannah passes on penny-wise philanthropy throughout our community.

Recently she reached out to a soon-to-be-homeless family. Via an internet campaign, she found them a place to live and completely furnished their apartment with donations of household items. Cost to society: zero; the good karma you get from giving: priceless.

Considering the present as a way to foretell our future, I feel optimistic about the new generation of maternal crusaders. I'm grateful for Karen, Jo Hannah and Flo, and for all those brimming with compassion who inspire the catalytic moment that moves us to act selflessly. Thankfully, our greatest gift for the planet is that every day we get the chance to be that person.