Amy Paulson - Co-Founder of the Gracias Foundation
By Devaa Haley Mitchell
PING…PING. PING. PING. I hear the rain falling quite hard on the tin roof above my head. My clothes are sticky and wet from walking through the rain, and my silver flats are caked with mud. I’d normally be a bit disgruntled about being a muddy mess, but my own spirits are lifted by the high energy of so many kids buzzing around me. Their beautiful black faces are glowing, and I am filled with a mother’s pride-even though these kids are not my own.
The kids are all orphans with HIV, and reside at an orphanage called AHOPE Ethiopia. Most have lost their parents to the disease as well. It’s a very tough situation, and the kids don’t have much of a creative outlet—until now.
AHOPE has partnered with a group called “Music Mayday,” thanks to the involvement of Amy Paulson. Amy is the Co-Founder of the Gracias Foundation, along with Shift faculty Elayne Kalila Doughty and some other devoted eBay managers. Gracias Foundation is a nonprofit organization devoted to serving vulnerable and impoverished women and children around the world through holistic, grassroots community projects (www.graciasfoundation.org).
But Amy wasn’t always doing this humanitarian work (which she does for zero pay, by the way). Just a few years ago she was a finance manager at eBay’s international headquarters in Switzerland. And then she decided to make a big change, follow her heart, and go back to her roots.
You see Amy was a former orphan herself, abandoned to an orphanage in Korea. She was later adopted into a family in USA, and a whole new world opened to her. Not that it was easy. At all. But that’s another story.
Amy’s now wanting to create opportunities for a brighter future for other children around the world. So let’s return to Ethiopia, where I met Amy for the first time.
We sit together in a rickety van headed for a venue it sits on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s grey sprawling capital city. After 6 weeks of learning both traditional & modern music and dance, drawing, painting, video editing, and theater, the kids from AHOPE orphanage, where I am volunteering, are putting on their final show after a summer of classes.
But things don’t go as planned.
Perhaps you can relate to being very xcited about something, and then it just doesn’t unfold as you expected.
As we are sitting in this tiny classroom, the lights suddenly go out. We find ourselves sitting in half darkness. Hmmm. This situation does not bode well for the instruments and dance music that require electricity to function.
We decide to wait a bit for the lights. But time passes, and the lights don’t come on. I am feeling a bit worried that event could turn out to be very disappointing for the kids.
But nothing could dampen the spirit of the kids, lights or no lights! They are smiling and pointing to the walls of the classroom. So I turn my attention there, my heart explodes with joy when I see what’s there. The walls were lined with large, lifelike self-portraits penned by the budding visual artists.
We oohed and aahed at the images while the kids puffed their feathers with pride.
Minutes later, a theater piece begins. The star of one of the scenes is a young boy who I had labeled as “quiet.” But he stands before me playing the role of very dynamic, self-confident shepherd boy who was trying to be hired as a military guard. This boy is completely alive in his role, and the audience is laughing and applauding his vivid gestures and wild antics.
Next, a whole gaggle of kids explode into a hip hop dance piece. Although there’s no electricity, they’ve found a creative solution to play the music from a portable computer with tiny speakers. The music is barely audible, but nothing will stop these kids.
They are depicting scenes of street kids who are begging as a means of survival. Unfortunately, this reality is part of the lived experience of some of these kids. And as I am starting to feel really sad, the music changes. These kids shed their torn clothing to transform into rockin’ dance stars with some very cool moves.
These youth are truly talented! And right towards the end of the show, the lights come back on. There are roars of delight as we finish out the dance segment with full-blown stereo sound.
And the cherry on-top is a spontaneous dance performance by Amy! Little did we all know that besides her finance background, Amy actually studied dance for 17 years and was considering a career in the performing arts before accepting a scholarship to university. Amy throws down some awesome dance moves alongside the kids’ dance teacher, and she is able to match him move for move.
Before we know it, Amy and the kids also pull me into the melee and get everyone in the audience up out of our chairs dancing.
“Wow. These youth are so amazing,” I think to myself. “And so is Amy.” I realize that I’ve just found some new heroes.
As the show ends and we begin to pile into the vans to head home, the kids are singing and filling our rickety vehicle with laughter. The Program Director from AHOPE Ethiopia tells me that he’s never seen these kids so filled with fun and laughter. He thanks me and the Shift Network for helping to support this project. (Gracias Foundation was one of the 3 organizations where we donated a portion of proceeds from the 2013 Inspiring Women Summit, and we earmarked this funding for the Music Mayday collaboration.)
The whole event makes me stop and think. Here are these kids who are struggling with HIV. They live in very poor conditions and have very limited entertainment. Many of them have been abandoned and have no family. And yet with a bit of loving attention, guidance, and a creative outlet, they sprout like spring flowers. And lift us all in the process.
And then there’s Amy. Abandoned at birth, she’s now BOTH an amazing humanitarian and an awesome dancer—not to mention her deep concern and LOVE for these kids.
If that’s possible for them, given their life situations, I know there is a wellspring available for ALL OF US. We too can find deep joy no matter what “rainstorms” may appear in our life.
So when things don’t go as planned, I invite you to stop what you are doing and place a hand on your heart. Breathe in deeply . . . and ask yourself this simple question, “what can I celebrate in the midst of it all?” Let that question take you into the center of your joy. Breathe that feeling of joy through your body for a minute or so. And then continue.
The lights will come back on soon. And there may even be a dance party afterwards.
**Gracias Foundation welcomes donations as well as professional volunteers. Go to www.graciasfoundation.org to learn more. Please be generous! This is such an amazing organization with very low overhead!**