More about the new book at

Monday, October 29, 2007

Human Warming

Giving from Shanghai to Guatemala to Chico
By, Alexa Leigh Valavanis

Shortly after the 21st century arrived I accepted a job across the ocean, on the central coast of China. The destination was a booming metropolis called Shanghai. At the time, Thomas Friedman’s book, “The World is Flat” hadn’t been released, and there were only a couple of places amid the bustling Shanghainese vendors to buy Big Macs (McDonalds) and Caramel Macchiatos (Starbucks). The prime-time reality show “Survivor” wasn’t there yet, nor was the National Basketball Association’s preseason. In fact, when I landed in the ‘Paris of the East’ the Canadian dollar was as it always had been – behind ours, and our Nation was not at war.

It felt like a different time.

I was just leaving the coveted shelter of academia, with a bachelor’s degree in communications and a four-year career as a “Wildcat” point-guard under my belt. Up to that point in my life, I’d had very little time to experience other cultures, contemplate globalization, glean the realities of poverty, or examine the morality of actions – as individuals and world citizens.

That would change.

After I finished a year in China working for International Kindergartens I took to travel. I journeyed throughout Southeast Asia to villages in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. In small doses I began to absorb the reality about the way most of the people on the planet lived – or survived. I became bound by the moral and ethical obligations I learned as a child, yet only then could begin to grasp. Throughout those first years abroad, I listened and learned about the abundance generated through simplicity and gratitude.

Asia broke wide-open a new hunger for humanity within me. I found my way to Central America where my heart was pulled to work. The lessons in this ancient Latin land echoed those of Asia yet were wrapped in very different colors, flavors and sounds. In Guatemala, I established a nonprofit foundation with a Nigerian doctor and three colleagues. Our foundation would strive to redefine the role, impact and sustainability of foreign-aid.

The highlands of Guatemala held me. The people overflowed with generosity and grace. During the next couple of years, I would travel throughout Nicaragua and El Salvador and be met with similar lessons in patience, compassion, and above all else, generosity.

The more I experienced there - the more I shared here. What resulted was an immense outpouring of compassion and eagerness from people who wanted to get engaged. When others heard about the challenges, injustices, or disasters facing their global neighbors they were moved to help; compelled by their internal compasses to do something.

Some people sent money while others prayed. Some people committed to our cause while others volunteered for new projects at home. But, overwhelmingly people met the needs with actions. It was then, that my belief in the power of philanthropy was solidified. Moreover, it was in these days that my understanding of human connectedness took root.

Today, we live in an interdependent world. One nation’s struggles deeply impact the rest of us. We are all vulnerable to changes in climate, the spread of disease and terrorist threats. We are more intertwined than ever before. Technology has bridged the natural divides and generated interconnectedness on a profound level.

We see each other. We hear each other. We impact each other.

Everyday I see evidence of this connectedness and the vast generosity of human-beings. People around the globe, and certainly here at home, are eager to help when they learn how they can make a difference. The statistics are staggering. Seventy percent of American households give some money to charity each year. In 2006, Americans gave almost two percent of our Gross Domestic Product (nearly $300 billion) to places of worship, emergency relief or to meet local community needs.

Philanthropy is becoming more and more hands on. People not only want to give, they want to do more of it. They want to share that experience with their family and friends. The great challenge is not in convincing people to give, but sharing with them a genuine opportunity to be effective.

Contemporary philanthropy is coining new phrases like ‘social entrepreneurship’ and ‘return on social investments’ for a reason. The standards for philanthropy are rising. Expectations are increasing. Transparency is a mandate, and accountably a must. Our billionaires are giving, our millionaires are giving, and the woman across the street that lived modestly her entire life - is giving to make our world better.

For the past three years I’ve had the privilege of working here, in Northern California as the CEO of the North Valley Community Foundation. I’ve witnessed firsthand the generosity of our local residents. Together, we are creating new ways to address the pressing social needs facing our communities. We are developing innovative strategies to mobilize resources to meet those needs, and achieve measured results. Our method is a hands-on, heart and mind approach to change. I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of it.

The more I experience and engage in philanthropy, the more inspired I become. It doesn’t matter what you call it or how you do it, there is no doubt that people are engaged in GIVING. Here and around the globe – people are GIVING. Perhaps, more than ever before, there is a movement of organized and effective generosity.

I call it, human warming!

[Published November 2007, UpState Business Journal]

Tuesday, January 2, 2007


Northern California Coast
I awoke this morning to a pearly grey dawn. For a moment the breeze held her breath and I heard the massive ball of flames rise above the horizon. One of the many forgotten priviledges of waking up on this part of the globe is the uninterrupted passage of time. Our hours aren't filled with bombings and bloodshed, hungry cries and human tragedy. Our minutes free from the search for shelter, food and safety. As the ancient war in the Middle East sheds new colors of red, I pray for peace.

A. Leigh


I found myself inside a gentle morning in November. Dawn and the cloudless sky above stood witness. My thoughts were tied to the tranquility of the surroundings. The trees wore twenty-seven shades of green. I heard nothing but silence and silence whispered back to me, quietly. My eyes found invisible doorways to ancient times, as I walked and walked, and the sunlight cast deep shadows on to the mountainsides of San Lorenzo, Guatemala.

The journey was a peaceful transition into the lazy afternoon, for even the bird's were slow to stir. So, you might image, when the unfamiliar stare appeared so abruptly in my path my mind was hesitant to digest the interruption.

His darkness frightened me. We stood there connected by the blade of his machete against my neck and the matching color of our eyes.

The quiet air held our breaths as we exchanged sudden movements atop the hillside. I heard distant screams and cries only later to realize they were my own.

It was a violent collision of our birthed realities. His dark skin carrying the burden of hunger and pain; my white skin reflecting all that was opposite his oppression.

Face to face, we stood divided.

Yet, I knew somehow, if either of us were to escape that dark abyss, we would be bound by light eternal.

A. Leigh

when an instant became infinity

i get so excited jumping from one cloud to the next my eyes change colors, believe me, i checked once. and, sometimes i spend the entire day following the footprints of raindrops or chasing the shadows of bluebirds - i don't even stop when my head starts to tingle and i think i might faint. sometimes the colors get so vibrant and intense they get all blurred together in my mind, but me too sometimes. and, sometimes when i shut off the lights i glow in the dark, you'd have to sleep over to know it's true. sometimes i don't even have time to explain it all because i'm racing falling stars, from one to another to forever, and i can't stop until i get there. sometimes everything smells like honey and tastes like caramel...and the moon spoons my soul before i fall asleep. sometimes it feels like magic. not like rabbit and the hat kinda magic, but magic magic. and sometimes, i think if i were to grasp even a teeny tiny glimpse of 'it all' i would instantly dissolve into light, which might be the trick; finding the moment with an instant becomes infinity. i think that's when butterflies get their designs, and ladybugs their dots, and humans their souls, maybe, but who knows for sure? sometimes it's so perfect i know for certain i have wings and can fly... because mosquitoes can fly and they bite... i don't even bite. sometimes i really like the colors here, and my senses turn into gigantic crayons and i walk the sidewalks in zig-zags painting the clouds in lavender and red. and, sometimes it feels silly to wait for anything - when i can breathe deeply and wade through it all -- even the big stuff that makes me feel so small.

A. Leigh

Fields of Green

He woke in a field of green with the soft concentration of the Latin sun against his back. The generous shade from the glossy coffee leaves dangled overhead and provided a subtle transition from his dreams to his day. The world was quiet save a few morning birds, as the final dew drops whispered on their ascent back to heaven. His hands were stained from yesterday’s labor. His jeans and shirt resembled the earth he worked inside. His teeth were dirty. His feet were sore. His morning thoughts still caught in the dream he’d had each night for the past two years.

In his dream, he walked for miles until he reached his village. It was here, where his wife and children worked to keep their modest hut, from tin-roof to dirt floor, clean and ready for papa’s return. He stepped onto the porch and the familiar smell of homemade tortillas and chicken soup dropped him to his knees. It had been too many days and nights of longing to let go of standing up. In the dream, his children wore clean clothing and smiles as they shared stories from school. He looked outside and noticed even the old avocado tree, which stood bent outside the kitchen window for decades, had a youthful sway. They ate and laughed, and carried on as the crescent moon begged for their attention. He told his family memories collected from the coffee fields; about the ripening fruits he named one-by-one in hopes their harvest would bring him home. They listened to their papa until the warm night bowed her head to dawn.

It was this sunrise which found him still, asleep beneath the coffee leaves, without his family or the youthful sway of the avocado tree. He looked up at the open sky, hung above Guatemala’s Highlands, and offered his daily promise to his wife and children. It was the promise of returning home with enough money for food and school for his babies - perhaps, a new life where they could welcome each sunrise together. Until then…he would work each day and hold them in his dreams each night.

Inspired by Juan Antonio – Coffee Field Worker in Fraijanes, Guatemala

A. Leigh

New Year

The right hand of the God has appeared extending the gift of a New Year.

May you keep time by the songs you sing, and dance wild with the heavens and seas. May the open sky offer you tranquility and the white moon, rock you to sleep. May you rename the world with your grace and light, so you may be called 'day' and your lover the 'night'.

A. Leigh


As I breathe in Belize I relinquish the impetus to cling to familiar. Drifting here - thirty-three shades of green staring back at me through the bus window. The humidity reminding me I am alive. I can't say with any definitive certainty where I come from nor where I will arrive. The river bends around my fingers. The banana leaves and palm trees stand still against the sky, shouting 'Gracias A Dios". 

All I can think of is a softer world; one where suffering fades like the stars into a cloudy night; where equality and integrity drive the social engine. And that's all crazy, that's crazy right? 

Today, on this 16-hour journey from here to there, sitting beside strangers who feel familiar, holding familiarities that now somehow feel strange - I think I'll choose this dream for awhile. We are more than a collection of staggering minutes in the same hour. Today if never again, let time be witness to change, even if only for the revolution in my mind.

I offer this prayer to the Caribbean sea...

"Might we all have days when we lose ourselves so completely that we find ourselves anew, awake and alive; willing to offer love and grace to all those who cross our paths."

A. Leigh