Giving the Gift of Justice

December 11, 2014

It’s early December and I’m sitting in my favorite coffee shop surrounded by the sights and sounds of the Holiday season—frosting on the windows, light strings and ball ornaments hanging from the ceiling, bows adorning the booths, and Frank Sinatra crooning from the speakers, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year . . .” I agree with him. I love Christmas—not the hyper-commercialized frenzy, but the short span of time when the pace of life seems to slow, when families come together to celebrate despite their differences, when the spirit of self-interest that drives so much of our culture gives way, however briefly, to the spirit of generosity. During the Holidays, we acknowledge that we are better off united than divided. And we show it—by remembering the people who matter to us, and by giving gifts to friends and strangers alike.

It’s a curious coincidence (or, perhaps, no coincidence at all) that this is also the season when my mailbox seems to overflow with solicitations from charitable organizations asking for donations. At times, I’ve responded cynically to the mountain of requests. I know there is a world of need out there. I’ve seen it with my own eyes—around the globe and around the corner. But I can’t give to everyone. And I don’t want to make a donation if an organization isn’t going to use it wisely. Before I part with my hard-earned money, I want to know that my gift is going to reach someone with a real need.

I know a lot of people feel the same way. If you’re one of them, perhaps I can help. Here is a short list of organizations doing extraordinary work in forgotten corners of the globe, work I have personally witnessed and that my wife and I are delighted to support. The list is by no means exclusive. There are a multitude of worthy organizations out there. But these are a few groups I can vouch for from experience.

Special Hope Network: My friends Holly and Eric Nelson founded Special Hope back in 2010 to provide holistic care to children with intellectual disabilities in Zambia. I spent time with them while I was researching The Garden of Burning Sand, and I was inspired by the passion, dignity, and efficacy of their work. In Zambia, kids with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, and other intellectual disabilities have an 80% chance of dying before the age of five. Special Hope Network is changing this statistic, one family at a time.

International Justice Mission: My friend Gary Haugen founded IJM back in the late ‘90s after witnessing the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. Fifteen years later, IJM’s human rights lawyers, investigators, and social workers work in countries around the world combatting human trafficking, sexual assault, land theft, police abuse, and other forms of violence against the poor. I’ve spent time in two of their field offices researching A Walk Across the Sun and The Garden of Burning Sand, and I’m convinced that there is no finer human rights organization in the world.

Hawa Abdi Foundation: To most Westerners, Somalia is a source of incessant bad news—rampaging warlords, a never-ending civil war, drought and famine, piracy and terrorism. Dr. Hawa Abdi is a remarkable exception. For over twenty years, she and her daughters have provided shelter, medical care, and education to tens of thousands of displaced Somalis on their family’s land outside Mogadishu. Last fall, I had the chance to visit them while researching my third novel, The Tears of Dark Water (coming in 2015). What I saw moved me profoundly. In one of the darkest places on earth, Dr. Hawa and her family are saving lives, shaping hearts, and slowly redeeming the story of their nation.

Oasis South Africa: Most of us know about the commitments celebrities like Bono and Bill Gates have made to combating HIV/AIDS in Africa. But what happens when the international spotlight goes out, when the money is spent and the medication distributed? This is where groups like Oasis South Africa step in. Their community health initiative offers personalized support for people living with HIV. I spent a week with them in Johannesburg, and I was enormously impressed. Together with their clients, they have forged a community of mutual concern that feels like an extended family. Given the challenges they face, it’s a massive achievement. Indeed, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Richmond Justice Initiative: I focus a lot of my attention on human rights work around the world, but I’m also passionate about promoting organizations that are fighting injustice in my own backyard. A few years ago, my friend Sara Pomeroy founded Richmond Justice Initiative, or RJI, to combat human trafficking in Virginia, where I live. Since then, RJI has partnered with law enforcement, politicians, and educators to raise awareness about domestic trafficking, to strengthen Virginia’s criminal code so that traffickers are prosecuted and victims protected, and to educate high school students about the crime. The problem is colossal, but RJI is making real progress.

The Arbor: One of the great challenges in the fight against human trafficking in the United States is the scarcity of safe houses equipped to meet the unique needs of survivors. Often when law enforcement agencies rescue women and children from the trade, they have no place to take them, except to jail. Thanks to organizations like The Arbor, this is starting to change. In communities across the United States, groups of concerned citizens are partnering with law enforcement and local stakeholders to offer long-term sanctuary and support to trafficking survivors. The Arbor’s safe house just opened in Central Virginia. I’m thrilled to see their vision become reality.