Sometimes the call to make a difference in the life of someone halfway around the world winds up making a difference in the lives of those sleeping right under your own roof.
Four families across the country have seen it firsthand: One member's efforts against slavery, unclean water or a similar plight have inspired parents, children and siblings to join the cause.
They represent everyday families doing extraordinary things. They've enjoyed greater unity, stronger relationships and more time together. And they've seen the triumphs and struggles of working to combat some of the world's most difficult challenges.
Christi Ziebarth felt a call to create art capturing the plight of African children caught in slavery. Her 14-year-old daughter, Heidi, felt a call to raise money for those children. Together, their creativity led them to start a family-run operation that does both.
In three years, the family has collected nearly half a million used crayons. Inside their Indiana home, they peel the discards and melt them down, then mold new crayon bars, package them and sell them. Half the proceeds go to a West African orphanage that houses children saved from slave labor. The Ziebarths call their operation "Africrans by Amerikids."
Christi learned about child slavery in Africa from a woman who took portraits of the children during a missionary trip to Ghana. The two women spent a year creating an art exhibit. On opening night, Heidi approached her mom wanting to help.
After winning a statewide art contest the next spring, Heidi organized a crayon drive using her $300 prize. The response was overwhelming. As the project became permanent, Heidi found help at home from her sister, Morgan, 12, and her brother Collin, 8. Her father, Tim, a business professor at a nearby college, also offered his expertise.
The lesson of sacrificial giving has been powerful, Christi says. The kids consolidated bedrooms to make room for the "crayon factory" — no small feat after their brother Brandon, 2, was born.
"A spirit of giving cannot be taught from a textbook," Christi says. "It has to be experienced."
Sharing on the Run
As a child, Libby Samples loved to run. As an adult, she wanted that love to serve a higher purpose.
"The Lord laid it on my heart that we ought to have a race," Libby says. And in October 2008 — after her pastor suggested that the race benefit clean-water efforts — the 12:1 Run began.
Named after Hebrews 12:1 ("Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us"), the event began with 5K and 10K races, and has now expanded to include a half-marathon and a kids' race. The annual 12:1 Run has made it possible to purchase about 200 water-purification units for communities in Burundi, Haiti, India and other corners of the world. One unit purifies water for 5,000 people for five years.
Jason, Libby's husband, started helping her that first year. Their five children now help, too — promoting the event, participating in the kids' races and handing out water during the adult events.
Will Samples, 9, and his 7-year-old sister, Faith, both run in the kids' races, and Will makes sure to spread the word before the event. "I tell people why I do it," he says. "And that makes it a little easier to talk about [faith]."
The Samples children have seen pictures of impoverished kids drinking from a puddle, they have seen the water-purification units, and they've heard the stories of lives saved.
"Our kids," Libby says, "have seen God turn a passion into something that glorifies Him."
A Close-up On Compassion
Scott and Jill Hayward sensed discontent in their family of five children, so they prayed for God to use them. And after a work trip took Scott to East Africa — face to face with the AIDS epidemic — the couple joined with several other Illinois families to launch Oasis for Orphans, an organization dedicated to rescuing orphaned children in remote areas of Kenya.
Oasis for Orphans helps match sponsors with orphans and also works to place those children into homes that develop their physical, spiritual and economic well-being. Thanks to Oasis, some of the neediest Kenyan orphans now attend school, and they receive clothing, medical care and regular meals.
The entire Hayward family was involved during the nonprofit's first five years. "It was literally the heartbeat of our family," Jill says.
Their compassion swelled as they learned about the orphans' plight, and intensified after a family trip to Kenya. The Haywards' 16-year-old daughter, Piper, had already organized a school-supply drive for the orphans; after the trip, she helped raise money to pay for a clean-water source.
"I feel like our family has just become more open to meeting the needs of other people," Piper says.
The family's compassion has spilled into other areas of life, even as the Haywards' involvement in Oasis for Orphans has lessened after a family move to Ohio.
"Our house is a magnet for kids with needs, and that's because of our kids," Jill says. "[Our kids] know they can't change the whole world, but they can change a life."
The Perfect Fit
Seventeen-year-old Allyson Ahlstrom just wanted to help others. So she wrote letters to local retailers and clothing companies, hoping to drum up new duds for girls in need in the Santa Rosa, Calif., area.
"I wasn't sure one shirt would come," Allyson recalls. But lots of clothing arrived at the Ahlstroms' home, along with makeup and accessories. And the community enthusiastically joined in, leading to Threads for Teens, a nonprofit shop that gives teenage girls a chance to own what many of them could never afford: brand-new, major-label outfits. All for free.
Allyson collects the donations, organizes them and displays them at a storefront boutique (donated rent-free) in nearby Windsor, Calif. Her parents, her younger sister, Anika, her grandparents and her friends helped clean, paint and arrange the shop, which was designed by a local interior designer and furnished by other local stores. Family and friends frequently help keep the operation humming.
"It's something we can do together," says Amy Ahlstrom, Allyson's mother. "And we're helping others."
Girls from the area, many of them in the foster care system, come to the store by appointment only and are treated to a personalized shopping experience.
"Allyson says it's not just about giving girls the tangible need of clothing, but also the experience of feeling loved," Amy says. "You see it on their faces, and you just want to do it more."
Allyson has grown from the experience, Amy adds, setting an example for Anika, 13, who has spent hours scrubbing windows, sweeping floors and tracking inventory at the store.
"Anika looks up to Allyson and to what she's doing," Amy says. "She also sees that if you put your mind to something and you feel called, you can do anything."