When I was 5 years old, I walked down Broadway and saw a sign with Big Bird. My dream was to “make it big” in New York City. When I grew up, I moved to New York, but it was a different than I had ever imagined.
I chased after a dollar. I hustled. I taught French, worked in a café (for a week), showed apartments, cat sat, house sat, sold an iron on craigslist for $10, worked at Rolex on 5thAvenue and lived in about 10 different apartments. I never planned anything. I was a pianist who threw herself into a concrete jungle. After a few years, I was seduced by headhunters’ promise of glamour and stability found only in finance and became an Executive Assistant.
I was always busy and obsessed with being busy. I worried about my 401K investments and looked forward to Saks’ “Friends and Family” emails. One day, I thought to myself, “I am a modern day, mouse-clicking secretary.”
To retain my sanity, I worked out ferociously and indulged in nocturnal escapades. I began studying Arabic and reading about the history of Afghanistan, the Third Reich and counter-terrorism. My life ran on a treadmill, and I sought refuge in anything completely opposite to my quotidian life.
One evening, I received a call from a hospital. I dropped my paintbrush in a gallon of paint and fled to DC to be with my mother.
After three days, I made the hardest decision of my life. I took my mother off of life support.
Those three days taught me a great lesson: the value of life.
When I returned to New York, everything I had worked for didn’t seem to matter. I didn’t care about my 401K or Saks Fifth Avenue. In the quest for adventure, I left the country on every major bank holiday. At some point, I began to think of all the children who didn’t have a mother, who understood the pain I felt inside.
Over a Christmas holiday, instead of flying to Paris, I chose to be in the provinces of the Philippines with barefoot, smiling children. I knew their internal pain, and I wanted to show them love, affection and what my mother had instilled in me – values.
These children told me they were lucky to meet me, when in fact, I was lucky to meet them.
From spending time with these uber-courageous kids, I was inspired to help them become superstars. An ocean never kept us apart. I continued to send care packages and connected sponsors to children in the Philippines.
Eventually, I started helping kids in Ukraine, particularly orphans with physical and mental handicaps. Vanya, a little boy with Down syndrome, won my heart. He was a fighter. If a human could survive the screams, the smells, the sickness, death and desolation that he lived with and still laugh the way he did, then I didn’t need to escape. This little Prince taught me the key to survival is focusing on what really matters. And Vanya mattered.
Thereafter, things seemed to happen organically. Michael Meltzer, a close friend, approached me about turning this charity work into a registered non-profit. I agreed.
Michael recruited legal, accounting, and tax experts, and he tapped into his resources to prepare a thick dossier on Maya’s Hope – the name of the blossoming charity – so it could be bestowed with the glorious status of “501(c)3” by the IRS. We established a board. Michael organized systems of collection and reconciliation of funds. We were a bona fide charity!
The hardest part was showing proof of what we were accomplishing thousands of miles away. Facebook, photos, videos, letters and financial reports were the windows into the world of Maya’s Hope. We kept things simple.
Another challenge was how to show these kids in desperate situations to the world. I began comparing our website with major sponsorship websites. But I hated what they did. I knew these kids personally. I knew who had asthma and whose favorite hero was Naruto. I wanted my message to be personal. I also wanted it to be fun. So I made it bright pink and added glitter!
I sent sponsors glitter cards. Soon, volunteers made glitter cards. The glitter movement was a reminder of the kids we help even if they are far away. Sponsors are often asked, “Is that glitter on your face?” Then they have to explain where the glitter comes from and then they start explaining about Maya’s Hope. I like to say that glitter has become a form of PR for us.
The best piece of advice I’ve learned along the way is “Be You.” Also, learn from mistakes. Because of my corporate training, I was accustomed to writing frigid, direct emails that ended with “Best Regards.” Being a perfectionist only made me lose sleep and held up progress. But once I stopped trying to copy others, and decided to do it my way (cue Frank Sinatra), things started moving along.
Our motto is: “We (heart) cutie pies.” I always sign off with “Hugs” and insert smiley faces everywhere.
Now, I am not telling every aspiring entrepreneur to send glitter bombs, but you need to be authentically you. Like any entrepreneur, you feel like Atlas, carrying the world on your shoulders. But that’s the beauty of it. It’s a test of survival. When I hit a rough storm, my cutie pies are my rainbow.
When I grew up, I discovered what I wanted to be. I met kids who allowed me to show their superstar qualities. I am blessed to prove to each child that he and she has value and purpose in this world. And it’s all thanks to my mom for showing me how.