October 26, 2010

Recipe For Success: Karma Kitchen Serves Up Generosity

What would you do if the next time you ask for your bill after dining out, your server said, "There is no charge, your meal was paid for by the person who came before you"? Yep, that's right, nothing, zip, zilch -– on your bill. You literally see "$0.00."

In a world and society where we're taught, "If it's too good to be true, it's NOT," it's hard to believe.

In this case, you have to feel it, experience it -– to believe it.

Every Sunday at The Taste of Himalayas restaurant in Berkeley, Calif. -- Karma Kitchen is cooking up kindness and generosity across the San Francisco Bay Area. It's a volunteer-run experiment in generosity that is growing.

On your zero-dollar and zero-cent bill, there is a kind note that reads, "Your meal was a gift from someone who came before you. To keep the chain of gifts alive, we invite you to pay it forward for those who dine after you." Patrons can choose to pay nothing or pay for only what they feel is right.

The recipe for this generous idea began three years ago, with Viral and Pavi Mehta and a group of friends. "It's an excuse to start a conversation about generosity," Viral said, with a kind, genuine and humble voice. Included in the morning's training session are lots of hugs as approximately a dozen volunteers gather in a circle; a moment of silence, introductions and stories of why all the volunteers are spending a Sunday morning, volunteering to greet, cook and serve complete strangers.

One volunteer tells me her impetus to give back started one morning when she was rushing out the door to a final exam and her car wouldn't start. A neighbor saw her in distress and offered to give her a ride. Moved by the small act of kindness, she was inspired to pay it forward. When a friend told her about Karma Kitchen, she jumped at the opportunity. "The volunteers are here to serve, there's no ulterior motive, no paycheck, they want to give back," Pavi said with passion.

This project is just one of several experiments under the umbrella of Charity Focus, an "incubator of gift economy projects that inspires people to be the change they wish to see," according to founder Nipun Mehta. "A gift economy is an economic system in which goods and services are given freely, rather than traded. In a market economy, one's wealth is increased by 'saving.' In contrast, in a gift economy, wealth is decreased by hoarding, for it is the circulation of the gifts within the community that leads to increase: increase in connections, increase in relationship strength."

It is hard to put into words the magic, songs and stories of giving shared -- that unfold and swirl under the roof of this bustling restaurant when Karma Kitchen is underway. It's infectious. You want to give back, unconditionally.

Come as a volunteer customer and feel for yourself. The smell, the stories and the kindness swirling around will make you hungry to help others and give back. Here's a tip from a soon-to-be-repeat customer:

1. Volunteers, sign up online early as there is a waiting list to serve
2. Eat at a community table and meet new friends
3. Visit and receive gifts from the Kindness Table
4. Say thank you
5. Pay it forward
6. Be ready to be inspired to be a chain in the circle of giving
7. Enjoy!

The generosity is spreading: Karma Kitchens are now also open in Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Buon Appetito & Cheers!

October 13, 2010

1000+ Volunteers Team Up to "Be The Change." What can YOU do?!

People talk about change. Some dream about it. Others take action and ARE the change.

In early October, more than 1,000 volunteers teamed up with Hands On Bay Area, a non-profit that inspires, empowers and enables volunteers to be the change they wish to see, for an appropriately titled "Be the Change Day."

From San Francisco to San Jose, volunteers worked on 17 projects across the Bay Area -- from sorting life-saving medical supplies that will be shipped to third-world countries, to beautifying sustainable community gardens. Everyone worked in unison with one goal in mind: to better the community.

At Sanchez Elementary School in San Francisco's Mission District, I met some "Change Makers" who tore down an old chain link fence and installed a new picket fence, while others prepped its sustainable learning garden for the young students.

"Change" was Ranjan Prasad's wish for his birthday this year. He picked Sanchez Elementary School because he is interested in supporting childhood education. Prasad and a handful of friends woke up bright and early to pull weeds and clean up the new garden. "Schools in San Francisco are in desperate need of help, so this is how I can give back to the kids, to the community," Prasad said.

Across the Bay, I discovered a hidden gem in the Gardens at Lake Merritt in Oakland. I was greeted with soothing sounds from a koi pond fountain and a lush green backdrop of colorful flowers and soaring trees. Beyond the green oasis, sounds of rakes, hand shovels and conversation buzzed like an orchestra of goodness. More than a hundred volunteers worked, laughed and inspired one another.

Myriam Garcia and her two young children Max and Paloma, took a break to tell me why they spent their Saturday morning working in the community garden. "I came to beautify the city where I grew up, where I work. This is my community," she said passionately.

"Volunteering means you do it from your heart, you're not doing it because you're getting paid." Garcia said she's planting the seeds of volunteerism early with her 8-year-old son Max and 6-year-old daughter Paloma.

Through volunteering she sees a shift in her children, who are learning an important lesson in civics. "You have to make them a part of what life is about… You don't pay people to beautify your life." She said her children are excited to give back. "Volunteering means you help others," Paloma said proudly.

Down south at Sunnyvale's Full Circle Farms, dozens of volunteers gathered to harvest food. "I just want them to come back, to be inspired to give back to the community they're living in," Shubda Garani, HOBA board member, said.

Volunteers told me their efforts will continue giving back long after the saws and shovels are put away –- and in Prasad's case, long before his birthday candles are blown out.

"People think they don't have money to give back, but they can give time," Prasad said. Only time will tell how Garcia and Prasad's ripples of kindness will billow through their friends, children and out into the community.

What can YOU do to be the change?!

October 4, 2010

Bullied to death -- and How the Power of Pink Could Thwart Suicide

(Courtesy: Tyler Clementi)

Everyone knows what it feels like to be made fun of – belittled, embarrassed, humiliated – but has it been so extreme that you actually contemplated ending your life because the shame was so heavy that suicide was the only option?

In September alone, four people were literally, bullied to death. All were believed to be victims of anti-gay bullying are now dead. How many other unknown teens are pushed to the limit, and take their lives?

This weekend, friends, family and strangers said good bye to 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman, Tyler Clementi, whose intimate encounter with another man was streamed live on the Internet by his roommate and another student. These two people, who allegedly provided the video content and splattered it on the Internet, probably thought it was funny – it was not. Tyler is dead. Police say three days after the video was broadcast, Clementi jumped off of the George Washington bridge. The two face legal, moral and consequences, including invasion of privacy and possibly up to five years in prison.

With easy, powerful technological advances and the Internet at our fingertips, someone’s life can be destroyed by the click of a mouse. I believe that everyone has the power to be more responsible. We have the power to teach the youngsters in our lives that teasing, taunting and terrorizing others is not acceptable.

Please read and share this story of how we can inspire compassion and tolerance. It’s about how two teens utilized the Internet and the Power of Pink to combat bullying…
A few years ago, two Canadian students, were moved to action after hearing about the bullying of a freshman at Central Kings Rural High School in Nova Scotia. The victim, a 9th grader, wore a pink polo shirt on his first day of school. According to CBC News, student bullies called the boy a ‘homosexual’ for wearing pink and threatened to beat him up.”

(Courtesy: CBC)

When seniors, David Shepherd and Travis Price heard about the news – something clicked… they were moved to make a difference. The two started a “Sea of Pink” campaign and using social networking to spread the word. They went to a discount store and bought 50 pink shirts, and mass emailed their friends urging them to wear them in solidarity the next day.

"I just figured enough was enough," said Shepherd.
The anti-bullying message created a wave of support. A sea of pink took over the classrooms and hallways. Hundreds – not just 50 – students came out decked in pink: polos, tees and tank tops.

The duo who led this sea of change say when the bullies student saw the support, it was a powerful moment. He blushed and smiled.

"Definitely it looked like there was a big weight lifted off his shoulders. He went from looking right depressed to being as happy as can be," said Shepherd.
As for the bullies – no one has heard a peep from them since.

The boys dubbed their campaign “Sea of Pink” support.

Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres posted a video in response to Clementi’s suicide and the other recent tragedies.

"My heart is breaking for their families, their friends and for our society that continues to let this happen," said DeGeneres, (in a not-her-usual) melancholy tone. "These kids needed us. We have an obligation to change this. There are messages everywhere that validate this kind of bullying and taunting and we have to make it stop. We can't let intolerance and ignorance take another kid's life."

Just like the Internet, your words and actions could spread the good and bad – They hold the power – you choose how to use them. Please use them wisely and take a moment to share this empowering story with a youngster in your life.

Imagine how just a bit of activism, however small, could create big changes. Think about what you, your friends and – your children could do to help save someone’s dignity – to save someone’s life. It could be the life of someone you know, of someone you love.