THE BLOG
04/18/2014 12:51 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2014

The Immeasurable Power of Love in Overcoming Poverty and Oppression: The Story of Mr. Orange and Leroy Looper

Mr. Orange doesn't know that his caring attention to an incarcerated ten year old 75 years ago had a ripple effect benefiting tens of thousands of people. He will never know. He passed away a long time ago, and so did the 10-year-old, at age 86 in 2011. Mr. Orange was a teacher in a juvenile facility in Maryland. Leroy Looper was a boy who had been locked up for stealing a woman's pocketbook.

Leroy's family was very poor. His father was an entrepreneurial alcoholic whose well-being rose and fell with his drinking. Leroy's mother worked long hours and was therefore absent from the family and largely powerless to control her four children. Leroy was left to learn too much from the streets, a fate that befalls millions of American youth. He landed in juvenile detention. His memories of those years are all negative, except for one thing.

His teacher, Mr. Orange, noticed that Leroy liked to read. He brought extra books from home, and made sure Leroy always had something good to read. Leroy became an avid reader. As he grew older and landed in the penitentiary for drug addiction and drug dealing, he read more and more sophisticated books on philosophy, history, and psychology.

When the inspiration of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X reached Leroy in the early sixties, he joined the grassroots arm of the Civil Rights Movement in his home neighborhood in Harlem, for the first time believing that change could be real. Watching the March on Washington in 1963, he found hope. He decided to leave his street ways behind, and join the Civil Rights Movement. The depth of his prior knowledge and study made him able to relate easily to the educated volunteers and leaders in the movement. He made friends with white activists, across the barriers of race and class. They helped each other navigate each other's cultures and gained wisdom from each other.

When an innovative drug rehabilitation program in NYC sought for the first time to employ the experience and insight of ex-addicts, Leroy stood out as an extremely smart and eloquent leader, whose knowledge and intellectual skill allowed him to be hired as the first counselor for other addicts in 1966. Thus began a 45 year story in which Leroy provided direct counseling and created residential programs to benefit ex-addicts and mentally ill people, and inspired many other civic enterprises.

He started Chateau Agape in San Francisco as a home-based residence for mental patients and Reality House for ex-addicts. He even earned an honorary doctorate, strengthening his credibility.

Despite his criminal record, he won legal custody of his two sons when he and his first wife separated; the law enforcement system recognized the good that he had done. Leroy and his second wife, Kathy Looper, became a powerful positive force in the Tenderloin District. In 1988 Leroy became the founding board chair for YouthBuild USA, gradually resulting in second chances for 135,000 low income young adults who had suffered poverty just as he had.

Neither Mr. Orange nor his children will ever know that his generous caring laid the foundation in Leroy's intellectual development to make a difference for tens of thousands of people.

How many millions of times has a story like this one eluded anyone's awareness? How many Mr. Oranges are there in the world? Nobody ever hears of them but they lay the groundwork through their own loving kindness for others to grow and thrive and give.

How do we integrate into the current passion for evidenced-based solutions the deep wisdom that the power of love is often immeasurable and its ripple effects impossible to track? Nobody knew or measured the fact that Mr. Orange was caring for an incarcerated juvenile delinquent in a way that would invisibly shape his and tens of thousands of other people's lives for generations. Perhaps Mr. Orange did that for dozens of other juveniles, unbeknownst to anyone.

Of course, when heartfelt love and respect are integrated into social action programs of all kinds, the positive outcomes are increased. The impact of that love and respect is indirectly measured. Some programs have the wisdom to train their staff in how to show profound respect and deep compassion, and these programs will achieve greater success. However, these qualities are still not measurable and often are not named as the underlying source of the success. It sounds corny to talk of the power of love. But the truth is, nothing is more powerful, including hate, fear, pain, poverty, ignorance, and loss. People can weather suffering with greater resilience when they believe someone cares about them.

Let us be humble in our determination to measure and analyze everything. Let's stay in touch with the spiritual underpinnings of our work. It makes a difference when we deliberately encourage compassion for what people in our programs have experienced, and train our staff to express love through doing whatever it takes to assist individuals to both overcome and heal from the challenges they have faced.

Our faith in humanity and in the power of love will result in profound changes that will uplift our society. It will also, inevitably, produce higher outcomes and a solid return on investment, even though the true value of a loving cooperative society is immeasurable.