I had the honor of speaking at the National Summit on Family Philanthropy yesterday. The plenary was entitled, “Journey Through Trauma,” and for the first time, I was given the opportunity to speak about the relationship between personal trauma and philanthropy.
At first glance, they may seem quite unrelated, but for me, trauma and philanthropy have very often been inextricably linked. My heart, my memory opened up, and began pulling forth those examples of where the two have intersected in my life, from the moment I was asked to speak on the matter.
The first and most profound memory that my mind, my body began to play using the lining of my heart as its screen, came from my childhood. I had been raised by parents who firmly believed that we could do, be or have anything we wanted in this world, as long as we put our minds to it, and worked hard for it. As a result, my sister and I were ever encouraged to pursue our passions; things that lit us up supremely. For my intelligent, artistic and literarily inclined sister, that meant anything having to do with horses—drawing them, writing stories about them, and especially, riding them. It was her highest excitement, her deepest passion, her greatest joy.
Devastatingly, it was also what was responsible for her untimely death.
My sister was killed in a horseback riding accident at the age of ten. And suddenly, what was once our happy, balanced, family of four broke open a gaping hole, and shattered spirit. The death of my sister left us each—my mother, my father and myself—bereft in many ways. It left the majority of us adrift in a sea of grief. However, there were moments of incredible resilience shown by each of my parents during the black hole of time that seems to follow the death of a child.
I witnessed my father get up each morning, broken hearted, soul crushed, and take me on the hikes that he and my sister used to love doing together. I felt him put one foot in front of the other as he continued their tradition by indoctrinating me as part of the next generation of nature lovers.
I witnessed my mother get up each morning—short of life’s breath, heavy with the weight of tremendous sorrow after the loss of her first born—and breathe incandescent life into the memory of my sister by creating a community-wide writing award in her honor. I witnessed her create a place, a resource, for those siblings and families that had also lost children, or family members with the support of her civic-minded friends; both of which still exist and thrive today.
I witnessed both of my parents give useful and lasting items and elements to our public library in honor of my sister, so that children could enjoy what my sister so eagerly enjoyed during her time with us. I witnessed them turn my sister’s passion into purpose. I watched them use their own passion to fund and fuel a greater purpose that continues to help foster creativity and joy within their entire community to this day.
That is the essence of philanthropic spirit. That is the relationship between trauma and philanthropy that I so appreciated having learned from my family, my community when I was young, and that I have promised to perpetuate, henceforth, through my own experiences. Philanthropy is not just about giving financial support. It is so, SO much more. It is the desire to share, to collaborate, to give with a greater intent. It is the orientation we have to turn our personal passions—the things that we love to do for ourselves—into a purpose—that in which we open up, offer and invite others to partake...that which we do with and for those around us; that which is greater than ourselves. And so often we find the most powerful purpose among the emotional rubble of our own personal tragedy.
We all have our stories. We all share the beautiful privilege it is to be human, to experience the full range of human emotion. We all have the opportunity to look up from our own hobbies, passions, pursuits or pain, and offer a hand to those watching, to those excited by what we are doing, to those who might not otherwise get a chance to try what we love to do, and offer them an opportunity to join us. Indoctrinate the next generation of those who share our passions, of kindred spirits, like souls, who love what we love. It is a beautiful choice we all have.
We can all allow our own ‘Journey Through Trauma’ to have a happy ending by giving, sharing, loving beyond ourselves. Who knows...we just may experience the very best of philanthropy.
Polo REO Tate was born in Lansing, Michigan, where her family has deep ties to the community. Her Great Great Grandfather was Ransom Eli Olds (R.E. Olds), a pioneer and prolific inventor most notably responsible for inventing the first internal combustion automobile—the Oldsmobile. Growing up, [...]