A sheltering village

“We have the resources to end poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”
— Martin Luther King Jr.

The syllable "op" — as in optimism — derives from Latin. According to the Columbia Encyclopedia, Ops was the Roman goddess of harvests, who blessed the activities of sowing and reaping. Add to that the syllable "port" for safe entry or harbor, plus the syllable "unity" for cooperative community, and you get the word "opportunity."

Fast-forward from ancient Rome to the Art Affair 2012, a benefit for OpenDoors of Asheville. The nonprofit works to break the cycle of poverty for local kids.

I had the honor of attending the event, and a couple of months later, I’m still thinking about it. I stood alongside chefs and surgeons, hip-hop dancers and business leaders, educators and attorneys; there was even a baker and a candlestick maker. We mingled with philanthropists, sociologists, artists and kids who don't yet have career designations but whose spirits are restless with potential and whose minds and hearts are open to unlimited possibility. Behind the scenes were dozens of donors and sponsors, plus oodles of volunteers.

I found myself trying to understand what all those highly successful individuals had in common. What rare element or chemistry had brought them together for such a vibrantly beautiful celebration of kindness and generosity?

After speaking to a few guests, it occurred to me that one thing they all shared was a deep appreciation for the gift of opportunity. Everyone in the room had a uniquely personal story to tell about how a door had opened for them somewhere along the line. They took what was offered and ran with it to create an extraordinary life for themselves.

Poverty is the opposite of opportunity

Despite possessing talent, intelligence, goodness, grace, courage, compassion and other phenomenal attributes, however, not everyone gets a chance to shine. Some don't even survive. They get cut down in childhood like early spring daffodils wilted by a killing frost.

The legacy of poverty is just more poverty, whose conditions violate basic human (not to mention constitutional) rights. The Somali people have a saying that pretty well sums it up: "Poverty is slavery." so much for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

We all know that in order to break the systemic shackles of the perpetual cycle of poverty, we require more than isolated charitable transactions. We need a community of people who, not satisfied with investing only in our basic welfare, are willing to go the extra mile by taking a personal interest in our holistic well-being.

Life is complicated and often problematic, but it's not something you can fix like a flat tire. Our existence on this earth is a continuum, a process, a constantly changing set of unpredictable circumstances. Nobody has ever managed to work it all into a neatly defined, scalable solution.

That's why OpenDoors doesn’t do handouts. It’s about a whole community of helping hands reaching out and collectively lifting you up so you can stand on your own two feet — and then applauding your willingness and initiative to do so.

The alchemy of inclusion

Rather than addressing social and economic problems at arm's length, OpenDoors fully integrates itself into the fabric of children's day-to-day lives. OpenDoors kids don't see the volunteers as strangers coming into their neighborhoods — charitable tourists who’ll soon disappear back across the tracks. Instead, these children encounter a cohesive community that encircles them as if in a sheltering village.

They see a growing number of recognizable friendly faces. They hear a rising harmonic chorus of familiar voices — people who aren't just talking at them but are paying attention to them, listening and reciprocating in ways that really count. They experience the dynamic expansion of practical resources focused on implementing positive changes in their lives. They develop enduring relationships with supportive mentors, challenging coaches, patient teachers, passionate advocates and a family of fun people who become their loyal, cheering fans.

This powerful intervention can deliver transformational hope, inspiration and self-confidence. That vital emotional foundation, though, is always coupled with powerful, tangible tools that enable these children to take full advantage of what’s offered. Surpassing ordinary expectations, they enter a realm where they can lead truly extraordinary lives.

But it doesn’t end there. OpenDoors gives kids a chance to become touchstones who can, in turn, transform the lives of others, helping break poverty’s enslaving chains for generations to come.

That's a mighty plentiful perennial harvest.

And it’s all thanks to the dedicated volunteers who continually sow and nurture seeds of opportunity for the young people helped by OpenDoors.

— Longtime WNC resident Tom Kerr is a freelance writer who actively supports OpenDoors. To learn more about the nonprofit, visit the website (http://opendoorsasheville.org).

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