If you read between the lines of Tom Nazario’s story, you may come away with profound life insights.
Tom grew up in Spanish Harlem, a section of New York City where people struggle to make ends meet. But he says he didn’t realize his family was from the poor side of town because all his friends and neighbors were in the same boat. It wasn’t until he was older and experiencing the wider world, that he absorbed an important fact of life--that poverty, like privilege, is just an accident of birth.
Luck puts some children in homes where parents read to them, with access to good schools and medical care, and with successful role models in their lives to give them career advice and guidance. Others, like Tom, have none of that. But what Tom did have was an awakening to the reality of social injustice, to the inequities that exist everywhere in the world and, finally, to the conviction that where you begin does not have to determine where you end up.
“Much happens by way of chance or with the helping hand of others. Much, however, also depends on the opportunities given to us, what we want to do, what brings us meaning, and how we see ourselves and the world we live in."
Tom saw himself as a lawyer. So, after graduating from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, he headed to San Francisco to earn a law degree. He was laying the groundwork for what would become his enduring mission…to work on issues intended to assist those with few opportunities in life, those who are poor, voiceless and often forgotten.
“Helping one child or one mother or one family or one school or one village, somewhere in the world out of poverty is not that difficult and, in doing so, you will leave the world better for having been here.”
In each decade of his working life, Tom has tried to level the playing field for America’s most underserved people. In the sixties, he worked in the civil rights movement; in the seventies, his focus was on San Francisco’s inner city kids and the Street Law Project; in the eighties he wrote about the rights and needs of children in his book In Defense of Children. In the nineties he expanded his horizons internationally so that by 2007, he was able to gather all of his experience and knowledge to start his own non-profit foundation called The Forgotten International.
TFI collaborates with dozens of grassroots organizations in 9 countries around the world and in the United States to alleviate the difficult, sometimes deadly, consequences of poverty.
1.2 Billion people, one-sixth of world population, live in extreme poverty, on less than a dollar a day. 2.3 billion more live on less than 2 dollars a day. The majority of the most vulnerable poor are women and children.
“There are no safety nets in many parts of the world,” says Tom. “People live on the edge of life and death. 19-thousand children die every day because they’re too poor to live. It’s somewhat immoral to have this many people living in poverty and dying young because they’re too poor to live.”
Tom says India has the greatest number of poor people in the world….225-400 million living on less than a dollar a day. Yet it was there, in Mumbai, where he saw the newly-constructed, billion dollar home of Mukesh Ambani.
“It’s the most expensive home anyone owns on this planet. And you wonder about how someone can build that when people down the street are starving to death.”
The Forgotten International awards grants to organizations working to lift people, particularly women and children, out of poverty. It supplies needy communities around the world with basics, like clothing, shoes, school supplies, and medical equipment. It sends skilled volunteers abroad to share their expertise with NGOs aiding the extreme poor, and it publishes materials and documentary shorts on the plight of the poor worldwide.
In his quest to bring awareness to global poverty, Tom traveled to 10 countries around the world, visiting with about 50 individuals and their struggling families to ask how they manage with so little income. How do they get through their day, their life? What are their challenges, their dreams, their hopes for tomorrow? Their stories became the substance of Tom’s internationally award-winning book Living on a Dollar a Day: The Lives and Faces of the World’s Poor.
“It’s in our self-interest to be good to other people,” says Tom, “to build a content world, a more equitable distribution of wealth, where people feel they’re getting their fair share. If most people gave away more than they needed, if everybody did just a little, what a wonderful world it would be!”
To help that message trickle down to a new generation of changemakers, Tom has also co-authored a curriculum, to be published next year, entitled Doing Good, which will introduce middle and high school students to poverty-related issues and encourage them to think and act in a compassionate way towards others.
“Without compassion for our neighbors, for all the people and animals that share this planet, and for the planet itself, there is little hope for the world,” he says.
It is a notion brought home to Tom by the Dalai Lama, whom he befriended in 1999. His Holiness told him that compassion is more than simply being nice and respectful of others; to be truly compassionate, one must work to relieve the suffering of others. It is what The Forgotten International tries to do and it is the way Tom has decided to spend his retirement years.
“The work of helping others is not work at all, but a gift that brings joy to one’s daily life and an energy force that truly lights one’s heart on fire.”
In addition to his work as a law professor and with TFI, Tom has documented human rights violations against women and children worldwide for the United Nations and the US State Department, among other organizations.
His reports include the plight of Tibetan Refugee Children, Romanian children living in sewers, child soldiers in Rwanda and children forced to work as sex slaves in Thailand.
Find out about TFI’s Doing Good curriculum which introduces middle and high school students to global issues, compassionate thinking and the joy of giving.
Have TFI President Tom Nazario speaks at your school, organization or corporation.
Or volunteer and share your professional expertise. All the information you need is available at theforgottenintl.org