11/08/2012 03:39 pm ET Updated Jan 08, 2013

Can You Really Make a Difference?

It must be nice to be Bill Gates, for all kinds of reasons. What appeals to me most is the ability to apply enormous wealth to the causes that touch my heart. I am not Bill Gates, though, and neither are you. So where does that leave us? Can ordinary people be a force for change? I believe they can.

Saturday was Make a Difference Day, a national day where people were encouraged to dip their toe into the world of service. The naming of the day was a stroke of marketing genius. It's not Service Day or Do the Right Thing Day. Make a Difference Day implies that what you do matters. The best friend that injustice has in this world is the belief that one little person cannot change things. I know firsthand that a humble, sustained effort can make a huge difference.

Eight years ago, I was a social worker whose clients were desperately poor families. I saw mothers reusing disposable diapers because they couldn't afford to change them. Kids were getting horrible rashes. I did a lot of complaining about how wrong this was, until my husband suggested that we could “just do it.” We started buying boxes of diapers and asked our friends to do the same. Before we knew it, we were the “New Haven Diaper Bank,” moving those diapers from my living room to a donated warehouse space. Today, The Diaper Bank is a thriving organization in New Haven, Conn.

I'm now lucky enough to be the founding executive director of The National Diaper Bank Network to help similar organizations that are springing up all over the country. Many of them started out like I did; a handful of people decided to stop waiting for someone else to solve the problem.

People around the country spent Saturday cleaning up parks, holding car washes to benefit struggling schools, and so on. The hope is that once people dip their toe in, they'll be encouraged to wade a bit deeper into the world of service and make it part of their lives. That is how real differences get made.

You don’t need to be a genius, and you don’t need to be rich. You need to tell your friends that you’re not available Wednesday nights, because that's the night you tutor. You need to spend enough time serving at the soup kitchen that you know the guests by name. You need to be the one that the program director calls when she’s stuck, because you’re the one who’ll always help on a moment's notice. You need to make phone calls and follow up phone calls. You need to be so persistent that it becomes easier for people to just give you what you want.

Woody Allen said that “80 percent of success is showing up.” That’s certainly true in the world of service. A lot of people showed up on Saturday to make their communities better at one-day events. The challenge is to find something that speaks to you -- and to show up day after day.