Shelene Bryan wasn't looking to be a do-gooder.
Bryan and her husband, Brice, had been been sponsoring two kids in Africa for $25 a month each, mostly for the benefit of their young son and daughter, to teach them compassion and an awareness of "how blessed they are to live in America," she says.
She had the pictures of the two children — a girl named Omega and a boy named Alonis — on her fridge.
The sacrifice wasn't a big one for Brice, who was a Hollywood producer at the time, working on independent projects starring celebrities like Mira Sorvino while Shelene was raising her son and daughter, Brooke and Blake. She didn't give her monthly donation much thought until one night she was giving a party at her Los Angeles home, and a woman pointed to the photos on the fridge and said, "You fell for that? How do you know those kids aren't a 40-year-old scam artists taking your money?"
Shelene realized that she didn't know. She hadn't done any due diligence. It was possible that she was being taken advantage of and misleading her children. She told her husband that night that she wanted to go to Africa. A few months later, when some friends were going on a tourist trip, she found her chance.
"My motivation wasn't to do any do-good thing," she said. "I was going to do this Diane Sawyer thing and bust this open. I thought, if this is fake, I'm going to be ticked off."
What she found in Africa changed the way she looked at the power of her own pocketbook. She arrived unannounced in a village in Uganda, where a local woman led her to one of the mud huts that dotted the village, and pulled back the sheet for her to enter. On the other side was Omega, the girl on her fridge: "I'm Shelene," she said.
Omega knew exactly who Shelene was because she had the Bryan family Christmas card on her wall.
"I was overwhelmed," Shelene said. "She was real. I just held her and wanted to give her anything she wanted."
What Omega wanted, it turned out, was a bed. In the nearest city of Kampala, Shelene bought Omega and Alonis beds, sheets, blankets, mosquito nets for Malaria, and new shoes for $20. A bed was only $3. She was stunned by how far her money went: "I thought to myself, if my girlfriends knew how much $20 could do, they would skip lunch or a pedicure and give the money to a child instead."
It turned out that the children she had been sponsoring did receive and rely on the money that her family sent every month. Before she sponsored them they had been living on just one meal a day.
Shelene's experience led her to found Skip1, a nonprofit with a simple concept: skip just one luxury — a latte, a car wash, a pack of gum — and donate the money to provide food or water to a child by donating on Skip1.org.
Since its founding in 2009, Skip1 has funded a farm and a clean water well in Omega and Alonis' village in Uganda, and built school kitchens in the Dominican Republic and Peru, and two more are under construction in Rwanda.
Shelene talks to us about micro-giving and trusting charitable ventures.
Skip1 encourages people to skip an indulgence and give what they can — even if it's the cost of lunch. Why small donations instead of more significant ones?
If you slept in a bed last night, or grabbed your clothes from a closet, or have a roof over your head, you are better off than 75 percent of the world's population. If you skip a latte you can buy a bed for a kid in Uganda. If you skip lunch, you can feed a child for a week. It's amazing how even a little currency can make a difference in a third-world country. Literally almost anyone can make a difference.
We all have things we don't need and we say we're broke, but our homes are more than just shelters. We have so many choices for the food that we eat. We have incredible abundance.
Why is it important to "skip" rather than just donate money?
It's about your heart saying I see you and I can forego something for the sake of someone else. I can buy a latte later. We get so busy keeping up our own standard of living that we forget. My fear is that as Americans we will succeed at something that doesn't matter. There's nothing wrong with a mani-pedi. What's dangerous is when those little luxuries take our eye off the needs of the poor. We could use a little more equality.
My dream would be if everyone on the planet had a skip day and everyone skipped one thing — a meal, a round of golf, or a car if you can afford it. I think everyone should skip at least just once in your life. When you do something for someone who can never repay you, there is a joy and contentment that is out of this world.
You embarked on this adventure because you suspected corruption that you didn't end up finding. Aren't many people suspicious of giving money to nonprofits and being taken advantage of?
You will always have people who scam, but there are a lot of people out there doing the right thing. We have been taken advantage of so we tend to sweep across the board and become bitter. Have I been taken advantage of at times? Yes. But most times I have not — and putting faith in people has put me on the adventure of a lifetime.
When we structured Skip1, we decided that we would give away 100 percent of all public donations on Skip1.org to the acquisition of water and food projects. A little girl skipped her tooth fairy money; someone skipped his trip to the beach; one woman with cancer treatments "skipped cancer" when her friends pooled money to donate each time she got chemo — literally 100 percent of those skips go into kitchens and wells.
Many nonprofits have to rely on fundraising and grants to cover operating costs, but you have been fortunate to cover those through generous private donations, many of which come from your connections as a former Hollywood producer. How did you inspire those people to "skip"?
My board has always been wanting me to give a dinner gala, which drives me crazy because I'm tabulating the cost of the venue, gifts and food — and we all need to lose 30 pounds anyway. I said there is only one gala that I would ever do —s o that's what we did. We got the old Warner Bros. sound stage in Hollywood and set it up with gorgeous tables and glasses. We charged $100 a plate to get in, and when the guests were seated the waiters walked out and lifted the lids on their platters. Inside there was no food--instead there were photos of children. I said, "We just skipped dinner and raised $20,000," and everyone started clapping.
I said, "I went to see if Omega was real, and I want to fly all of you to Uganda. But instead, I flew her here to you." Then Omega walked out on the stage in her heels — she's a young woman now — and took the microphone. When she spoke there wasn't a dry eye in the place.
In your book "Love, Skip, Jump" you write about having traveled to Africa many times now, and to other places that suffer from poverty like the Dominican Republic and Peru. Another obstacle to charitable giving is that the need seems so great, and Skip1 is a relatively small organization that can only meet a fraction of the need — do you ever find that to be overwhelming?
We hire locals to build these kitchens, and it's true I can only drop in for 10 or 15 days when projects go up. I'm not going to save the world, but I can leave each village better than I found it.
When I visited Omega that first time, there were so many children who were not sponsored. I asked the woman running the program, "How do you choose?" She said, "The neediest of the needy." Knowing what I know, it doesn't feel right to do nothing.