Heading to Indonesia to give back to a country I loved was such a romantic idea. It was something that, at 24, I didn’t really understand. But, I didn’t need to fully understand anything. I had a plan, and with a suitcase full of juggling props, a thousand bucks, and a red nose, I set off to Indonesia. Perhaps because I was told that it would be impossible, or perhaps because deep down inside, I wanted to make a difference in the world, no matter how small or how big. I shortly arrived in Indonesia to begin my 3-month solo performance tour to bring levity into the lives of children in need of a smile.
Everyone I met constantly asked me, ‘why I could be so selfless, why I could be so giving’, but I didn’t feel selfless. I was in Indonesia. A place I’d grown up. Home. And I was doing something I loved to do. Perform. Teach. Neither of which I’d consider particularly ‘selfless’ acts. So I could never really answer those questions and usually just shrugged it off with a smile and a raise of a glass.
Behind all the encouragement, something real happened the day I walked into Cilincing and smelled the poorest place I’d ever been in my life. Poverty was real. I thought I understood poverty, as I sat in my air-conditioned apartment in Chicago, writing proposals to fund a trip to Indonesia, but I only really began to understand the true meaning of ‘in-need’ or ‘at-risk’, the day I arrived in Cilincing, North Jakarta for the first time.
The level of immense poverty, the apparent lack of respect from a government for the wellbeing of its own people, the pure disparity of North Jakarta was so painful to witness. The exact moment that this national geographic shot became real is, to this day, still clear as day. It was the moment when the children of Cilincing began to play. I still remember Rais’ face when I pulled him up in front of the crowd to hold my spinning plates and pretended to walk out the door. I still remember the excitement in Bebi and April’s eyes when they were given a flower stick and shown how to make it twirl. They were thirsty. Thirsty for knowledge, for excitement, for joy. The kids were rambunctious, they were literally bouncing off the walls, but they had such a desire to learn, that I couldn’t ever leave. Cilincing, the first of dozens of villages I visited that year and hundreds over the next decade, stuck to me like the smell of raw fish and landfill. I wanted nothing more than to help the kids in this community so that they could escape the terrible fates that awaited so many of them, at very least for a few hours a week. I wanted to do something, because no one else was doing anything! It seemed impossible; perhaps for anyone else, it would have been impossible. But I wasn’t going to let anything or anyone stop me.
As the dust cleared and the reality of what I’d set off to accomplish began to push its way through the door, I wasn’t sure how to identify, or classify what I was doing. Slowly, with the limelight often blurring clarity, I began to realize what my real mission to Indonesia had become. I was not there to perform for a few thousand children and then move on to the next country. Anyone could have done that. I was there to make an offering to a country that had shaped me in such a way that you wouldn’t recognize me without it.
I often talk about the Indonesian word for ‘thank you’ – ‘Terima Kasih’. Literally translated, ‘to receive and to give’. Throughout the first several years, I began to understand how the simple literal meaning of the phrase ‘thank you’, would justify so much of my actions from then forward. I had received so much from Indonesia. My best friends, my education, my wife and children, so much of my culture and so much of what I aspired to be. I had received, so much. It was my turn to give.
So I began to formulate a plan to build a non-profit that would help the poorest of Indonesia’s children. This would be what I gave back to Indonesia. Something to change the lives of the most in-need. My plan became three part. Build a philosophy and theory of outreach, develop and train a team of passionate Indonesians to implement said philosophy, and build a sustainable structure to support all of the above. Only after I’d completed those three tasks, would my offering be complete. The plan could never have been carried out alone. Every day of every month of every year, I had the support of my team, our donors, and our friends. All of a sudden, the impossible didn’t seem so impossible when you marched with an army of hundreds.
We developed our philosophy and method of outreach, we grounded our mission statement in the needs of the children we sought to support, and we tested our theories over and over again. We trained our staff. We failed. A lot. But, we didn’t give up. And we learned to examine ourselves first after our failures, instead of pointing fingers. We included and empowered our team to own the programs they managed. This resulted in earning the respect and loyalty of strong, smart and hardworking team members. Finally, we worked tirelessly to build a reputation of producing the best fundraising events in town and to earn the trust of individual and corporate donors through transparency and accountability. Red Nose came to life, ideas grew organically and we learned something new every step of the way.
The final touch to our creation was giving this living organism a home. So, we built a community center for all of the current and future programs to live in. A place where the children could call their home. A Red Nose home.
It is with great pride, joy and sadness that I announce publicly, my resignation from Red Nose Foundation. I will continue to support Red Nose, as the leadership team and the board of directors begin the search for a new executive director. Once a new executive director is installed, I will help train and hand over all my responsibilities and relationships, then I’ll sit on the board to offer direction and advice from a different perspective.
I believe my work at Red Nose is complete, and I believe that my team will do wonderful things in the years to come as they grow our organization to help change the lives of tens of thousands of Indonesian children every year. Thank you, Indonesia. Thank you for giving me so much. And, I hope you will support and protect Red Nose Foundation for many years to come.