Five Things…

I recently finished reading the YouVersion Bible plan, “Praying For Vulnerable Children – Human Trafficking.” It was a fascinating devotional by Compassion International that discussed five things that, when present, better protect children from people trying to hurt them. I was moved by the publication of this plan as it addresses many of the activities that make up the bulk of the work we do at UnFinished. I wanted to share some of what is covered by Compassion in this plan as it applies directly to working with children with disabilities.

With Giving Tuesday just around the corner, giving you a better idea of what UnFinished does seemed appropriate. Since most of what is written below was lifted directly from the devotional by Compassion International, I am obligated to give them writing credit. Very little of what comes was written by me. The italicized portions are from the Compassion International devotional. Below is the link to the plan. I encourage you to read it. There is much more to the devotional than I include here, and I believe you will be blessed by participating in the actual plan. Compassion International is a fantastic organization doing an incredible work of God.

https://www.bible.com/en/reading-plans/15664

A Tight-Knit Community

“A tight-knit community can keep watch over those who are most vulnerable and speak up when they see injustice. God calls us to rescue the weak and the needy and deliver them from the hand of the wicked. He challenges us to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves and defend the rights of the poor and needy. God has put each of us in a community, and we are called to speak up and defend those who are being treated unfairly.”

The children in UnFinished programs are often hidden away, either in homes or institutions. They live lives of abandonment and abuse. UnFinished enrolls them into schools where they begin to make friends and find out they are not alone. Also, we work to bring the caregivers together into a supportive community. This helps the mostly grandmothers also feel they are part of a community and not alone.

A Loving Family

“There are always those who are pros at deceiving families. They tell caregivers they can offer their children with a special need a better life. Instead, the children are used or often sold into child labor. Children work for little to no pay, far from their home, completely hopeless.”

We’ve met many families who’ve been swindled of what little money they have with promises of help. “Organizations” that tell grandmothers if they pay a fee, the organization will evaluate the child and determine eligibility. These people take the only money the family may have and offer false hope. We include the family in every aspect of our process, never charge a fee, and do what we can, within organizational protocols, to help the entire family along with the child. Supporting a family environment, providing a home, only enhances the life of the child and helps to restore real hope.

Education for the Community

“Be devoted to one another in love. That’s the challenge Paul gives us in Romans 12:9-13. These verses are paired with a list of commands that, when taken together, paint a picture of a Christian life fully sacrificed to God. The unifying theme shares that we’re to set ourselves aside in order to effectively love and serve the Lord”

Our mission involves more than just educated children with special needs. We seek to change social stigmas related to the abuse and oppression of these kids. We involve the schools, teachers, administrators, churches, pastors, and government officials to change values and laws to prepare a better future for individuals with disabilities.

Holistic Child Development

“(UnFinished) also chose to care for the neediest using a holistic model. Our method develops minds, bodies, and spirits to help children with special needs. All of our programs provide opportunities that encourage healthy development in four areas—spiritual, physical, social and economic. That means we don’t focus entirely on physical needs. Instead, all aspects of poverty are addressed in an effort to break the cycle of poverty and stigma for that child. Children are lifted out of the stigma that entraps them and makes them vulnerable to exploitation.

Prayer

“God is aware of stigma and oppression and He cares about the suffering of His children. He has not turned a blind eye. Instead, He stirs compassion in our hearts when we hear stories like the ones of children with disabilities in Kenya. As a result, our compassion moves us into action, which creates change.”

This year, Giving Tuesday is December 3rd. You have the unique opportunity to provide these five things into the lives of children with disabilities in Kenya. Again, I encourage you to read the Compassion devotional, be in prayer and support for that organization, and follow the link below to learn more about UnFinished International and the work we do.

http://www.unfinishedinternational.org

Your Nonprofit Should Mean Business

In my time walking with one foot in the business world and the other in the nonprofit environment, I’ve seen a few things. My experience and education in business and nonprofit leadership has shown me some repeated problems in many nonprofits I’ve studied. While nothing is ever as simple as a black and white list of principles (I’m looking at you, business world) I’ve noticed some trends over the years that cause nonprofits, in particular, small ones, to struggle. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but I’ve put together what I’ve seen as the primary offenders if you will.

Lack of Understanding

A common thread through many nonprofit organizations is lack of comprehension regarding the fact that while their mission and methods may differ from the business world, they are indeed a business. Too many times, those who lead, operate, and volunteer for a nonprofit organization get so caught up in either the idea of “nonprofitness,” or so mission-focused, they either lack the ability or refuse to understand the fact they are also a business. This mindset sets up many of the other problems on this list – not realizing that operating not for profit does not mean working outside of core business principles. Without a grasp on this concept, nonprofit boards and executive leadership teams look for and hire the wrong people for the job.

This is especially true for Christian nonprofit organizations. These types of organizations many times not only lack the understanding to see the business side of the industry, but they also latch onto this idea that they are a “church.” Many Christian nonprofit organizations are founded either from within a church or by well-meaning, mission-minded Christians. They then set out to run the organization as if it is a church. While churches also need a business focus (that is another discussion) running a church is not the same as running a business. To be successful, nonprofit organizations have to run themselves in much the same manner as any other for-profit business.

Lack of a Strong Leader

The lack of business understanding often, but not always, leads to this problem. Too often, when nonprofit organizations on are the search for a leader, they are looking in the wrong places. Most of the time, the primary concern centers around fundraising. Organization boards and leadership are looking for the person who can bring in the most money. There are many problems with this, but we will only look at a few.

First, let’s address the rebuttal. Yes, a nonprofit organization needs to hire a leader that can get in front of individuals and groups and convince them to give money. That is a vital component of the job. However, the problem I’ve seen in my time within the nonprofit environment is not money, its leadership. Too many nonprofit organizations are worried about hiring someone who can fundraise when fundraising is not their problem. I’ve seen nonprofit organizations that have full-time, professional fundraisers on staff bringing in more than enough money. However, the inner workings of the organization are all over the place. The organization is not growing, there is too much drama between the staff/volunteers, the programs are outdated or ineffective, or the mission just needs to be more focused.

In these cases, fundraising is not the problem. I personally know of nonprofit organizations bringing in plenty of money, but their use of that money is anything but efficient. The problem is not cash flow. The problem is the person at the top. Too often, nonprofit boards and leadership look over people who have not worked in the nonprofit field or lacks “adequate” fundraising experience because they’ve spent their careers in for-profit businesses. Often, this is the exact person those organizations need. They need someone who can come in and straighten out messes, put out fires, balance budgets, better allocate funding, and exercise strong leadership.

This situation is many times exponentially worse, again, in a Christian nonprofit organization. These organizations often take and even further step. I’ve seen too many times Christian nonprofit organizations looking for an Executive Director and INSIST this person must be a pastor. Required qualifications often look like, “a seminary degree and fifteen years in the pulpit.” I am not here to speak ill of pastors. However, pastors are called to do one thing, pastor. I try not to stereotype anyone, but few full-time pastors make excellent businessmen. That is not to say there are none, but they are rare. If you look at any thriving large church, you will almost always find an executive of some type running the operations side of the church.

Pastors are called to shepherd. I can give you real-life examples of nonprofit organizations that have gone under almost solely on the fact that they refused to hire someone who was not a pastor. There are more than enough Christian business people in the world who can lead businesses. In my retail days, I knew a lot of managers who would only hire people with retail experience. They did not want to add the extra work of training people on cash registers and such. This was a mistake. When I hired, I looked for someone who was a good fit on our team, could fill the role I had vacant and could move the mission of the organization. I could train a monkey to run the cash register (from the systems I often had it would seem as they were designed by monkeys so getting them to run them didn’t seem too much of a stretch) Secular and religious organizations alike need to get out of this cookie-cutter leadership mindset.

Lack of a Strong Foundation

Most nonprofit organizations start off small – it’s the nature, and the beauty, of the beast. An individual or small group of people see a wrong in the world, and they set out to right it. Many times, none of them have any experience in the nonprofit, or even business, environments. Sometimes, none of them even  possess any business experience. However, they get together and decide, “You’re going to be the Executive Director, you can be the Business Manager, you can handle communications,” so forth and so on. You have a group of friends on fire to change the world and its awesome.

However, this strange thing happens – the organization takes off. Before you know it, this ragtag group of friends has a significantly sized and thriving organization on their hands. However, that same group of friends who were having fun and figuring things out, now find themselves working for an up and coming business in roles they are not qualified to hold. They don’t know anything about finance, or budgeting, or planning, or implementation of strategic goals. This is a big problem. But the more significant issue is they don’t know that they don’t know. So, instead of hiring people with experience in these areas, they trudge along. When they do need to hire someone, they look for individuals who will meet friendship goals instead of those that can help develop and push the mission to the next level. There is not a clear understanding as to what is required in the roles, and qualified business-minded people are passed over. This becomes particularly problematic when new leadership is needed due to people moving on.

Lack of Accountability

All of the above issues lead into this one and, again, Christian nonprofits are the main offenders. Let me start off by saying holding people accountable is tough, especially firing people, and that’s what I am talking about here. While they are so many levels of accountability or should be, before firing, for brevity’s sake, I am cutting to the chase. That being said, most people I know, including myself, who have spent time in the business world hate doing it. Sure, people like to act all tough and tell horror stories about making people cry and kicking people out, but inside, they hate it (or they should). I get more worked up inside waiting for that person coming to the office to be fired than they do, I promise you. However, it has to be, must be, done.

Do any sort of Google search on the topic, and you will find article after article on the necessity of firing people. I don’t need to rehash that here. However, too many nonprofit organizations, and for-profits ones also if we are going to be completely honest, fail in this area. It flows from what we’ve looked at above – weak leadership, the “friendship factor,” and just a general lack of business principles within the organization, particularly the leadership.

Now, I’ve always said that I have never fired anyone. Individuals have decided to terminate their tenure with the organization due to their actions or inactions. However, when push comes to shove, someone has to have the gumption to pull the trigger. That is not to say one needs to be cold, or mean, or rude. I’ve always tried to send someone out the door as gracefully and respectfully as I would want to be sent walking. But the fact is, too many nonprofit organizations, by their nature of heart and help, don’t believe in letting people go.

Again, when you get into the Christian nonprofit world, it’s worse. Not only do you have that caring and loving nature of the nonprofit environment in general, but you also have the issues of grace and forgiveness. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for grace, mercy, and forgiveness. No one on earth needs both more than me. However, Jesus was also all about accountability, tough love, and flipping tables when they needed to be flipped. When looking for leadership, nonprofits need someone who can fundraise, but also internally handle the best interest of the organization and the team when that time comes.

It is necessary for the leadership, the Executive Director in particular, of a nonprofit to understand that while it is crucial to have a passion for the heart and mission of the organization, it is just as vital to operate under the leadership and principals that drive successful for-profit businesses. Missing this will cost you at the least growth and at the most your organization as a whole. These two are not opposed to each other, but like a good marriage, bring the best of each to a successful and organic unit.

The Evolution of Iron Man

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*Warning – This post contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame – starting in the first paragraph.* (You really should have seen it by now).

With the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the story of these heroes we have followed for the past 11 years comes full circle. But none so much as that of Iron Man. While not technically the first movie in this massive franchise (That would be The Incredible Hulk), Iron Man is the film that set it all in motion. Being the excellent storytellers they are, the writers at Marvel brought the series to an emotional close in this chapter – from the birth of Iron Man to, sadly, his death.

I grew up a Marvel kid. However, Iron Man was not really on the top of my hero list growing up. Tony Stark has always been more of a “grown-up” character. His struggles with daddy issues, women, and alcohol, thankfully, did not appeal to me as a child (well, maybe the daddy issues – but that’s a different post). My go-to, “good-over-evil” hero was Spider-Man. A superhero kid himself in brilliant colors and fun bad guys had me hooked.

Conversely, when I needed real action and some comic-friendly violence, Wolverine was my man. I subscribed to many of the different threads of each one of those guys and filled my room with their action figures, bookshelves, sheets, and everything else I could get my hands on. Iron Man was cool, he was still a key character in the greater Marvel Universe, and I’d pick up comics with him as a player often enough, but he was never my main guy.

Then 2008 came along and not only did Marvel change but so did my life. I lost everything after a very long fight to save that which I loved most in the world. It was a terrible conflict that cost me just about everything a person can lose. To say I nearly died fighting this battle is not overselling it. The trial that was this time of my life still haunts me to this day. (More on this in another post). I learned through this experience that loss can birth new life – if you are willing to learn from experiences. This transformation is precisely what created such a huge Iron Man fan in me. It was the evolution of Tony Stark, the change in his life that loss brought on, that revealed some needed truth in my life and changed the way I see myself.

2008’s Iron Man introduces us to Tony Stark, an arrogant, self-absorbed, careless, conceited, billionaire weapons developer and arms dealer on tour in Afghanistan to showcase his latest creations for the U.S. military stationed in the country. On his way, he finds himself escorted by a threesome of young, starstruck members of the military. However, their convoy is attacked, and Stark watches all three of these all-but teenagers die, and himself nearly with them, at the hands of his own technology by terrorists who were specifically targeting him.

One might think a scenario such as this alone would be enough to change a man. However, Tony is not finished watching people die at the hands of his weaponry. Stark is escorted to a cave where he meets fellow prisoner and scientist, Yinsen, who also loses his life as an indirect result of Tony’s life and choices. These deaths, up close and personal, set Tony Stark on a transformative journey unlike any other in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yes, all the characters throughout the 22 movies grow and change, but none like Tony Stark.

The opening scenes of Iron Man give way to Tony giving up the profits-over-everything mentality and changing everything about himself and Stark Industries. The company becomes a producer of clean energy and Tony begins to use his tech to fight the bad guys he once armed. At the same time, he must deal with his own mortality as the technology keeping him alive is also killing him. His attempts to ignore these issues reveal to him his need for others and force him to confront his father’s legacy that has been killing him spiritually as much as the palladium has physically.

From here he is denied “membership” to the Avengers by Nick Fury. Once things get bad enough that he’s allowed to help, he gets an ego check through accepting he is not the leader of the Avengers. This acceptance does not come easy as he repeated knocks heads with Captian America along with the rest of the team. Tony had been a supplier of war all his life, but it took him actually being in one to make him realize he did not deserve to be the leader. Here he began to understand that others had things to offer he did not.

But these revelations are of no consolation when Tony finds himself alone, dealing with PTSD, and the only help he can find is a young boy with daddy issues of his own. Growing through this scenario sees Tony finally give up control, destroy his suits, and throw his arc reactor into the sea. However, Tony Stark is an addict, and giving up one addiction often leads to finding a new one. Now that he has given up protecting the world, he lets fear fully manifest itself, and he bullies Bruce Banner into creating Ultron to defend the earth.

The results are, disastrous and Tony’s guilt gets the best of him. For maybe the first time, Tony learns that actions have consequences. So, to clear his conscience, the man who once told the government they’d never have his tech becomes their poster boy. Turning his back on his friends to calm his own demons, Tony tries to mitigate this newly created guilt by mentoring young Peter Parker. Still struggling to admit his wrongs, he, like many of us, just moves on. Tony makes amends with Pepper Potts and, with Captian America out of the way, becomes the face of the Avengers once again. However, I would go out on a limb and say that Tony saw Peter as a possible way to rebuild the burned bridges between him and the friends he turned into fugitives one day.

By the time we get to Infinity War, Tony’s sentiments reveal that time has allowed him to get past the civil war between Steve Rogers and himself. He seems to be genuinely sad that he and Steve, “fell out hard.” While his relationship with Peter has grown, Peter’s rejection of Tony’s offer to join the Avengers may have been another wake-up call for Tony. Learning that his friends don’t need him as much as Tony needs them is part of his final transformation. Tony, once the ultimate loner who lived on the outskirts of life, now only desires to be surrounded by his friends.

Tony Stark began his journey believing everything began and ended with him, and if something happened to not fit that mold, he ignored it. Gaining a family, then losing it, helped Tony to realize how wrong he was about things – it tends to do that. Following the life of Tony Stark, his, “arc” if you will, we watch a self-centered man evolve from believing his life was the only one that mattered to sacrificing that life to literally save the world. While all the characters in the MCU change and grow over this Three-Phase adventure, none experience the transformation that Tony Stark encounters. Many of the Avengers began their journey as heroes. Tony had to suffer and experience loss, many times at his own hands, to understand that sometimes not wanting to be a hero is what makes a hero.

The evolution of Iron Man teaches us that it’s a long, and challenging, journey from child-like attitudes to being a hero. That Tony Stark’s walk through life mirrored Robert Downey Jr.’s so closely only made the character more relatable. It took Tony Stark 10 years to come out on the other side and RDJ even longer. There were ups and downs, and for every two steps he took forward, he sometimes took ten back. I think that gives us hope that maybe being a hero is about more than just saving the day and fighting bad guys. Sometimes is about just getting through the day and fighting your own demons. But if an alcoholic, self-entitled, jerk with daddy issues like Tony Stark can become the hero we got and the end of Endgame, perhaps there is hope for us too.

Maybe, I am Iron Man.

A True Story of Change

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I know you’ve seen posts all over social media about this #GivingTuesday thing. It’s overwhelming at times; I get it. However, it’s so important. I don’t usually share the darker sides of what we do in a public forum. However, I wanted to give you just one of the stories of why this is so meaningful to us and show you a real kid whose life was changed powerfully through donations that were given to UnFinished International on a #GivingTuesday.

I’ve left her name out and any details that could narrow her down from pictures we post. But this is the story of a child in our program. A real little girl your giving has pulled out of the darkness and into the light of Jesus.

We have a girl in our program who was identified as a special child when she was three years old. Her nursery teacher recognized she was not able to read and write and found she was a very slow learner. Therefore, the teacher referred her to a special school in their area

However, the child’s parents were illiterate and steeped in poverty. As such, they were unable to transfer her to the special school. Financially, they could not pay the school fees, and they didn’t understand the reasoning in moving her from public school. They decided instead to keep her at home to help them with housework and chores. The little girl’s days went from school work to collecting firewood, digging, getting water from the general spring, and cleaning.

One day she had gone to fetch water from the spring. On her way back home, she was raped by an old man in the neighborhood. She became ashamed and lost hope since no action was taken by the parents. She was not taken to the hospital, nor was the incident reported to the police. The man started threatening her, and she began a life living in fear. She withdrew inside herself and did not speak or associate with other children.

However, one day, God brought you into her life. Through your giving to UnFinished, she was placed into a boarding school for special children, which moved her more permanently from the area, her attacker, and the constant reminders. Her new teachers report she is now a happy and smart girl in school. She is receiving treatment for both her physical disabilities and psychological trauma, and she is doing exceptionally well with her education. She also now communicates well with other students and teacher not like before. She is hardworking and promising and learning to be happy again.

This story is just one of many. For instance, we have two children who were born with HIV on top of disabilities. Because of your giving, they are not only in school; they get regular treatments for their HIV because they now have medical insurance. Your giving has literally saved their lives. What you do on Tuesday actually saves the lives of real kids. There are so many more stories I would love to tell you should you ever want to sit down and hear them.

Thank you for all you have done in the past. I look forward to seeing what God does through you on Tuesday.

May God bless all you do.

Go West, Young Man

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11 of the 14 kids of UnFinished International

Kakamega is a town in Western Kenya that resides in Kakamega County. Before changes in the national government in 2012, Kakamega was part of the Western Province. Since the shift to a county-based administration, Kakamega has become a part of a network of larger towns within the western counties of Kenya.

We arrived in Kakamega Saturday afternoon after a flight with 540 Airlines from Nairobi to Kisumu. From Kisumu, a drive of about half an hour led us to our final destination. Kenya is currently undergoing a massive infrastructure improvement that has been underway for the past six years making travel over the road much quicker and safer.

Our first order of business was a visit to the Kakamega Teaching and Referral Hospital, known locally as Kakamega General Hospital. One of the children in the UnFinished International program had been admitted a week earlier. Tausi, the child, contracted malaria. Under normal circumstances, the school Tausi attends provides for the children when they contract malaria, which is often. However, Tausi’s case became so bad, she had to be admitted, consigned to oxygen, and placed under a doctor’s care.

In many countries, medical care must be paid for upon receipt. This is the case in Kenya. In fact, it is often worse. In some cases, fees must be paid before receiving care. While we were waiting to secure Tausi’s discharge, a child was screaming in the ward. In this hospital, there is no triage. All patients are lumped together in one room no matter why they are there. Whether a broken bone or a contagious disease, they are all treated in one room together.

As this child screamed, we heard the hospital staff explaining the situation to the parents. The parents were told the child had fallen and hit its head causing an open, bleeding wound and bleeding on the brain. However, the hospital would do nothing until the parents paid the bill. They advised the medical procedure would cost, 100,000 Kenya shillings – approximately $986.

The parents were beside themselves. The news would have been no different if the hospital told them to leave with their child and refused care. Their child was bleeding both on its brain and on the floor, and the hospital would do nothing until payment was made. Payment was not coming.

As we presented our documentation proving the payment made to cover Tausi’s medical expenses, we were told the doctor was out. The staff advised us they would not release her until the doctor signed off and he was gone until later in the day. We left the paperwork with the front desk with the understanding Tausi would be released as soon as the doctor returned.

The situation was explained to Tausi’s mother. She was overjoyed hearing the expense were covered. Even though she lives in poverty, Tausi’s mother had begged and borrowed 1,000 Kenyan shillings in an attempt to pay the bill. Through the dedication of UnFinished International supporters, Tausi was able to return to school.

We left the hospital to venture far out into the village. The grandmother of another one of our children, Anne, had been in the hospital for three weeks due to high blood pressure and high blood sugar. Upon our arrival, we found the grandmother at home with the four children she raises along with Anne. While she was in the hospital, for three weeks, Anne’s oldest sister of nine years old was left to care for her younger siblings and cousins.

Anne’s grandmother told us of her appreciation, gratitude, and joy at Anne’s improvement in the last two years in our programs. She relayed stories of amazement from friends and family at Anne’s growth physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We spent time talking with her and encouraging her to carry on with the lives she provides for herself and her grandchildren. We left her with food supplies and the few shillings we had in our pockets.

We ended our day at Daisy Special School. This is an integrated school founded by missionaries from Finland. They visited Kakamega decades earlier and started the school in honor of their daughter with special needs. Over time, the school became a county school administrated by the government.

UnFinished International has 12 children at Daisy. Our visit was most eventful, spending time with our kids, sharing snack time, and experiencing our girls sing in their group. The majority of our children are orphans. Not only have they spent life being shunned by society, but they also lack the necessary attention and love that comes from being part of a family. Anytime we can take a few minutes from our always packed schedule to love on them is a blessing.