Seven Lessons From Neil and Dillan's Summer Internship

Sep 6, 2011

Few years ago, I had given a talk to couple hundred people. A whole youth contigent was shuttled into that space; they might've even been forced to join. :) It turned out that one of them says to his buddy, "When I grow up, I want to volunteer with CharityFocus." The other says: "That guy is actually my cousin. I think we can do it." Five years later, these two best friends, Neil and Dillan, wrote to us: "We're 14 now, and we're ready to step it up. We want to dedicate our summer as CharityFocus (CF) interns." And in that was our first lesson: sow seeds and trust. If you plant it, they will sprout when the time ripens.

Interns continued to teach us a lot throughout the summer. Technically, Amit, Kanchan and I were the mentors and Dillan and Neil were the interns -- but as someone said, "In CF, we're all interns." :)

A key lesson we learned was: when you meet people where they are, navigating their journey is gentle. One of the early projects that these high-school freshmen chose was a "Relay for Life" fundraiser; they designed giant 6 foot banners, spoke to skateboarding companies to gift them donated products, created a booth and held a raffle that raised couple hundred bucks. In their admirable youthful exuberance, not only did they create their own website but also made business cards with their logo! We were completely stunned at how much, and how quickly, these teens operated. Made us feel old. :) And proud too. Yet fundraising and promotion was counter to CharityFocus ethos, so we slowly started offering up an alternate view: "Money can do lots of good things in the world; but you can also do lots of good things without money. In CF, we focus on the latter." They immediately got it, and would make "spreading kindness" the theme of their summer.

On their own business cards were QR codes. "What are these for?" "Well, you just point your mobile phone to it, and you don't have to type in the website address; it automatically takes you there." Hi-tech! "What if we put these QR codes on each Smile Cards?" They got really excited about it. Within a week, (yes, in just seven days!) we had a major new experiment in the CF ecosystem of trackable Smile Cards, complete with a mobile app. More subtly, though, their narrative shifted from talking about "my card and my website that shows how cool I am" to "a Smile Card for you to practice anonymous kindness with others". It all felt like a very natural shift.

Next lesson: never estimate spiritual capacity by physical age. :) Part of their weekly assignment was to do a "step it up" act of kindness -- acts where you turn an internal fear into love. Initially, they did beautiful small things from using improv to make someone smile to connecting with a homeless man. They would also add "smiles" to stories on Smile Groups, which exposed them to lots of new ideas. Still, every week, they had to think up new things. One week, Neil writes that he stopped five people from bullying a kid! "Weren't you afraid they'll turn on you?" "Well, yeah, but I kind of knew one of them and when I told 'em to cut it out, they just realized that what they were doing was wrong." Another week, he saw a developmentally challenged kid that no one was talking to. "He was just so different that most people were just afraid. So my step-it-up act was to go up to me and connect. And because he was wheelchair bound and couldn't speak much, he was great with video -- and he even taught me the best dance moves!" "What if he didn't have any gifts to share with you?" [Pause] "I think everything has gifts. We just have to listen long enough." Wow. That kind of blew us all away. The list of kind acts continued, week after week. When one of them won the jackpot at an arcade (audio): "I came out with all these giant prizes and 200 coupons and things. Then, I noticed a little kid who hadn't won anything so I just went up to him and gave him everything I had. It was the best feeling ever. [Pause] Then I gave a Smile Card to his mom and ran away." :)

Fourth lesson: trust the ripples. We let the interns decide what projects they would work on, whether it was volunteering at Karma Kitchen or self-publishing a book or making a film. Sure, we helped them meet the deadlines they set, but outside of that, we had a lot of fun co-creating. One time they volunteered at Karma Kitchen and were so thankful that they made us an entire book (so cool!) -- and then subsequently, they thought of self-publishing a book of 50 stories "for teens". When Dillan shared how he loved to photograph, we invited him to Casa de Paz to document a event. He so loved what was going on, that when he found that Pancho's Mac (Pancho's home is Casa de Paz) was broken, he took it upon himself to change the hard-drive, mother broad, display, battery, charger and what not, with the help of his school's IT director. Not only that, they put the smile-card/flower photo as the desktop and left it all with a real boquet of flowers.

They intuitively started to understand the power of small. One time when he was riding his bike, he gave away his lunch money to a stranger in need. When Dillan was in Sequoia National Park vacationing with his family, he met a stranger while hiking and it ended up that the stranger had a Smile Card in his wallet! All of a sudden it all clicked.  At Karma Kitchen, they interviewed "Juan, the Hurricane Dishwasher" (who only spoke in Spanish).  Neil's mom also wrote to us one time saying how he was with his Uncle in Arizona and he said, "Neil is growing to be so service hearted. He's not only thinking of doing things for others, but he's also doing the dishes around the house!" Even his 11-year-old sister came up to me and asked, "Can I intern with CharityFocus when I'm 14?" (She's now started doing "Wisdom Comics".)

Fifth lesson: enjoy the journey. :) On their business cards, the print-shop mistakenly printed "CharityFocus Inters" (without the n) and they were a little down about it; but then we all just decided to coin a new word and since then, they were the CF Inters. :)   Both Neil and Dillan would try to come every week to Wednesday meditation -- even though neither could keep their eyes closed for more than two minutes. (For the first couple weeks, they struggled just to let go of their phones! :)) And then Dillan, who also completed his first triathalon this summer, famously wrote, "I've made a resolution: I'm going to conquer meditation by the end of summer." We all enjoyed that one. :) Just looking at their video blogs would totally elevate us, and then hearing their interpretations would crack us up -- as Amit often got jealous that he wasn't 14 anymore. :) And then there was the time when they were at 7-Eleven and thought of challenging themselves to tag someone right then; so they bought a Klondike bar, came to our home and left it in front of me (w/a Smile Card) while I was meditating. Very sweet, but what were they thinking -- that I would launch into a Klondike bar during meditation? :)

So long as there's a genuine connection, the rest will follow. Parents and teachers often look to change their kids but our big lesson (#6) was: moments of leverage will arrive when the time ripens. During a print run for a beautiful "social media" sign that Dillan had designed, we got to talking about the struggles of his personal life and why there is so much suffering in the world.  It was precious. Yet it wasn't choreographed and neither of us were looking for it. Similarly, as a part of the weekly reflection assignment, we read 'Where Children Sleep'. That really hit Neil in a deep place. A "very shocking and eye opening article," he reflected, "that made me realize how fortunate I am to have a bedroom."  Or when they produced an amazing video with a team of 9 volunteers!  "How was it working with volunteers?"  "It was hard to keep everyone motivated, because no one is paid."  "You mean, you get paid otherwise?"  "Oh yeah, you either get hours or money.  These are all professionals."  "Professionals?"  "Yeah, they're on the drama team." :)  "How did you keep everyone motivated?"  "Well, for one, I got my mom to cook them food. :)  But the main thing was just to keep everyone happy, so we just kept the conversations alive and shared positive things and kept it high energy."  Servant leadership in the making ... :)

For his 15th birthday, Dillan was really hoping for an iPad from his parents (which he didn't get :)) but we wanted to offer a kind of happiness that can't be bought, so Kanchan got the CharityFocus posse from around the world to blast him with thoughtful reflections, and Amit even arranged to have a fruit basket delivered to him. It was totally an assault of kindness. :) I think Dillan was in tears receiving all that love.  Earlier, during one of those unexpected moments of camaraderie, he had asked, "Do you think I can continue this internship after the summer too?" Now, his note ended with: "I hope to continue as an intern forever."

Inspired by the Be Selfish Be Generous video, this was their parting gift for us:

They also wrote us very kind notes.  Dillan wrote: "You guys have changed our perspective on life and showed us all the great things one can do with the gift economy. This is my best summer yet.   I honestly do not know the best way to thank you -- not a million hugs, smiles or dollars will be enough to thank you guys, the best three mentors in the world."  And Neil wrote: "I just wanted to say thank you for all of the hours and work that you have put into mentoring me, it has truly been a life changing experience. I have learned how to listen instead of just hear, and how to 'be' instead of just to live. I've probably learned more about others and myself than I would have hoped to understand in ten years."

The thing was, though, that gratitude works both ways.  That was our final lesson.  Practically every week, Kanchan would openly tell the interns, "I think I'm the one who is learning more from just being around you and listening to you."  It was really true.  After the formal internship ended in late August, we realized that we were benefiting so much from the calls ourselves that we should continue the weekly call.  And we opened it up.  9 folks RSVP'd in our first attempt last week.  We all wanted to be interns, to learn, to grow, to be curious, to not know our bounds, to love freely ... we all wanted to be interns, just like Neil and Dillan.

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