If you were to look at an aspen grove, you would see trees of different sizes standing near one another. Separate trees – at first glance. However, if you were to go beneath the topsoil – to dig deeper than the surface – you would see that the root system of all the trees is the same. Each tree is connected to the other, an interconnectedness serving as the perfect metaphor for how we exist as human beings. We may think we stand alone, but we are as interconnected as the aspen trees. What affects one of us affects us all, regardless of whether or not we feel it on a conscious level.
Understanding this interconnectedness reinforces the need to widen our circle of compassion. While there are many effective programs and organizations serving people, and while volunteerism is increasing, the needs still outweigh the current response. We have the ability to help everyone have a healthy experience of life. And while there is much to do to make this our reality, the simplicity of it all is clear. By understanding that love is a verb, not a noun, we can translate our compassion into action.
A simple shift in perception removes the boundaries – helping us to see how alike we all are. A shift in priority motivates us to not tolerate the tragic living conditions that continue to exist. We can make this world a place where every person has the opportunity to live well. To choose to do this is to live the possible life – to be fully human.
– Dr. Mark Bergel, 2001
In 2001, Dr. Mark Bergel was working as a health professional, part-time faculty member at American University, and consultant when he volunteered to deliver food to impoverished residents in the Washington, D.C. area. As he went home-to-home distributing food, he met families living without a secure food supply, without beds on which to sleep, and without access to basic health and wellness information. He was startled by the depth of poverty, poor health, and general inequalities he witnessed in the region.
With no seed money but a strong conviction that we could do better for those living in poverty – that we could end it – Mark decided to drop everything else in his life and converted his living room into a nonprofit office. He founded A Wider Circle with the mission of helping children and adults lift themselves out of poverty. His goal was to create an organization that would address “the whole person” – with programs that would not only tend to people’s tangible needs but also to their “inner needs.”
Using donated furniture and a handful of dedicated volunteers and health professionals, A Wider Circle furnished the homes of 774 children and adults and delivered 33 educational workshops at local shelters in its first year of service. He met with social workers, shelter managers, school personnel, and nonprofit leaders in the region, exploring how to best reverse the trends of more people getting into poverty than finding a path out of it. Interns from local universities – and soon universities from across the country – joined the team each season. With each passing year, the organization became a larger and larger part of the solution.
Today, A Wider Circle operates out of a 38,000 square-foot center, which it purchased in May 2015. The organization has 50 staff members, 15 university interns, and more than 15,000 volunteers each year. It is their energy and commitment that allows A Wider Circle to now furnish the homes of more than 16,000 children and adults each year and deliver educational programs to thousands of men, women, and children.
Though A Wider Circle has already served more than 160,000 children and adults – through its educational programs and the provision of urgently needed beds, dressers, cribs, and more – Mark does not go to sleep each night on a bed of his own. Rather, he ends his 15-hour workdays by collapsing onto his couch or floor, pledging not to sleep in a bed until every child and adult in this country has a bed in which to sleep. Since A Wider Circle moved to its current location in 2008, Mark has worked seven days a week, every week of the year.
Mark has been known to say that “as one of us goes, so go all of us.” Though this is a powerful idea that many of us espouse, few of us live and breathe it each day. Mark’s pledge to give up his own bed means that he can say to the hundreds of men and women calling each day who have been sleeping for years on the bare floor, “I know how hard it is” – and mean it.
The organization has come a long way since 2001 – and even since the first handful of years when it was run out of Mark’s living room with only a few interns each season. More than 500 calls per day now come in from individuals and families in need, people who want to help in some way, and from agencies of all sizes looking for assistance in serving their clients.
A Wider Circle has been called “the quintessential grassroots movement” and has been twice named “one of the best” by the Catalogue for Philanthropy. The organization is poised today to be a major part of the national movement to end poverty, to bring about an end to poverty for one individual and one family after another.
What’s in a Name?
|It’s more difficult than you might imagine to come up with the name for an organization that you hope will be responsible for helping millions of children and adults lift themselves out of poverty. That has always been the true goal here – however long it may take. And to do that, we are going to need each of us to shift our focus more toward those of us in need than we currently do. We know we can end poverty. If we were told that our lives depended on it, we would do it. Many lives do depend on it; in fact, I believe that all of our lives depend on it. And it is only by widening our understanding of how we exist and what we can do in this world that we will make it happen. That thought process made the following quote by Albert Einstein the appropriate place to go for selecting the name of the organization:
– Mark Bergel