Orly: Ever since childhood I’ve had a deep passion to unite people in a way like never before; to truly change the world. To help people see beyond the labels and connect with the heart of one another; recognizing that we are in fact a piece of the same puzzle. Like pieces of a puzzle we all may be different shapes and different colors, but each and every piece is the same size; no one being more or less important than the other. It is my belief that we are all unique, significant and special in our own way; each of us with something to contribute to this wonderful world that only we can give.
A bit about myself. I was a middle school teacher for 7 amazing years; years in which I learned as much as I taught. Kindness, compassion, empathy, character, values. These were the fundamental teachings that ensued both in and out of the classroom. As a teenager, I had gone through a severe depression in my tenth grade year after a fire broke out in my house. It was one of those years where everything that could go wrong went wrong. And while I was always super positive, believing wholeheartedly that everything happens for a reason, seeing my family, above all my parents, struggle hurt me to my core. Not wanting to be an additional burden and not knowing where to turn, I simply bottled up my feelings until they began eating away at me from the inside out. I was home from school for a couple of months and I remember crying for most of that time. What hurt the most is that during those two months not one person came to visit, not one person called to check in on me. The fire took away the materialistic possessions, but not hearing from people made me feel as though I was irrelevant, that if I weren’t here tomorrow no one would be the wiser. I was extremely shy as a teenager with super low confidence, but I always loved people and made it a point to go out of my way for people. Feeling like I was left behind made me feel as though I didn’t make an impact, as though I was insignificant and those feelings eat away at you in a way like no other.
After being forced to go back to school, I was not the studious, happy go lucky kid that had left a couple months back. Sitting in the corner, all in black, writing morbid poetry was now my place within it all. I was angry, hurt, confused and feelings of hopelessness consumed me. It was one morning while I was washing up that something shifted. As I was looking at myself deeply in the mirror, I no longer saw myself. That 4-year-old kid who believed she had the power to change the world was gone; it was as though someone had taken her from me. That feeling scared me most of all. It was that day, as a 15 year old kid, that I made a promise to myself. A promise that would remain in my heart until this very day. A promise that led me to teaching, that led me to start my organization, a promise that guides me each and every day. I promised myself to be there for others the way I had wished someone would have been there for me. To see others the way I wished someone would have seen me. Those next few years of high school were tough, to say the least. While I walked alone, it afforded me the chance to do something that most teenagers don’t get a chance to do, to do something most adults don’t get a chance to do. It afforded me the opportunity to fall in love with me for me. It was no longer about fitting into a certain click or acting in a certain way to impress someone. I was who I was for me and no one else and I found myself in that loneliness, I found my voice within that silence.
Then in my senior year of high school it had all come to a head and I was finally ready to step into the person I knew I was always meant to become. I’ll never forget it. I was on senior seminar, sitting in a session with my fellow peers and the teacher was discussing obstacles and overcoming adversity. For the very first time I did something I never did before. I raised my hand. I had something to contribute to the conversation. I opened my mouth and words poured forward from my heart. My peers, people I used to be intimidated from were listening to me and what’s more coming to me afterwards asking for advice. What I found was that the more I gave, the more I healed and the more I gave the more I healed. I became obsessed and in love with the concept of giving and understanding it’s very nature and how it transforms a person by providing the most coveted possession of all – PURPOSE.
I stepped into my own during my senior year, literally becoming involved in every after school activity and charity work as I could possibly handle. Soon enough I began mentoring at risk kids, speaking in front of crowds and leading seminars myself.
It was that same energy and motivation that led me to teaching. Understanding the importance of a child feeling and internalizing their worth, their inherent value regardless of how pretty they are, how smart they, how athletic they are, are or how wealthy they are. I wanted to be a mirror for those children, helping them see the true beauty that lies within them, a beauty that no one could take away. For me, teaching wasn’t simply about handing over facts and figures but educating the soul of a child. It was about breaking down the barriers of class distinction and showing the kids that whether you were the “popular” kid in the grade or whether you were the “loner” – everyone has insecurities; some just show theirs differently. It was once they were able to see each other in the same light that true connection began to form and that is exactly where growth and strength of character comes from.
Me: Tell us a little bit about your own nonprofit organization, Life Vest Inside.
It was through my years teaching that my non-profit organization, Life Vest Inside, came about, as you’ll read in the introduction of the book. Without going into the specifics and details, Life Vest Inside’s mission is to inspire, educate and empower people of all backgrounds to lead a life of kindness. We achieve this through inspirational media, technology, education and on the ground events. But more than kindness, empowerment is at the center of it all. The key is to empower people to recognize their value, that they do in fact matter and while they may be one in seven billion, the number that matters the most is that they are one. When you take a look at all of the vast social issues plaguing society today and you continuously ask the question of “WHY?” - what you find is that it all stems from a lack of self value, self worth and the feeling of lacking purpose. While there are many organizations and programs aiming to combat these issues, they approach them from the “anti” mindset. Bullying – anti-bullying. Drugs – anti drugs. Depression – anti depression. War – anti war. In a sense, they are utilizing negativity to fight against negativity, which will only lead to more negativity. The mission of Life Vest Inside is to prevent these issues from coming into existence by understanding the true root of the problem as opposed to placing a band-aid on the problem. Only when you understand the underlying root cause, can you truly create a long lasting change.
In today’s world of digital media, many people get sucked into measuring the purpose and value of their lives by comparing it to what they presume to be the norm on social media. I’m a big believer in the good of social media, however anything can be used for both good and bad. The issue begins when people become addicted to viewing their value through the lens of another or based on the number of likes and comments they receive after posting a picture. True value, true validation can only come from within a person. It is precisely because of this that when a person is engaged in an act of kindness and in an act of giving they feel so good. Because in that moment they are validated for the right reasons as opposed to what society tells them should validate them. In that moment of giving they catch a glimpse of their potential, their ability to bring goodness into the world. It is that feeling that provides a person with a sense of PURPOSE. And once someone is filled with purpose they now have the capability to give back to the world in a greater way. If we think about it, true empowerment and self-value increases the number of givers in this world. The more people recognize that they have something to give, the more likely we are as a people to tackle the greatest problems that the generation faces and actually resolve them.
Me: How did you come to be involved with the Pay It Forward Foundation?
Orly: I guess you can say that I experienced the Kindness Boomerang effect through the Pay it Forward Foundation. Pay it Forward has been part of my life for years and left an impression long before I came to know of the Foundation. I’ll never forget the first time I read the book and the first time I watched the film. It was as though someone literally peeked into my soul and vocalized all that I was feeling; the simple concept that each and every person matters and can make a difference in this world in an extraordinary way. The understanding that one act can create a boomerang of kindness. We won’t always see the impact or know that it was our positive actions that set in motion a wave of goodness. Within Trevor I saw a reflection of myself; a child who believed wholeheartedly in the good of humanity. I can say without question that Pay it Forward played a significant role in the intense passion and unwavering commitment I’ve made to pursuing a life of spreading kindness. The book was released during that period of uncertainty I was facing in high school and the film hit the stage when I had just began finding my voice in my senior year of high school, further empowering me to tap into my hidden potential. It’s no wonder that in my junior year I took my creative writing class very seriously and had a dream of becoming an author. Then in my senior year my dream further developed to wanting to direct for film. I wanted an outlet to share my voice and inspire others in the way I was inspired. You wouldn’t find me without a video camera in my hand throughout senior year; for me it was about capturing moments and creating dialogue with an audience that would inspire them to see something they never saw before.
It’s no wonder that when I went to college the following year I decided to double major in English and Film Production. I knew I was meant to share a message with the world but I was still figuring out how. I remember proclaiming in my senior year of college that I was going to make a film that would reach the world and then I would go into teaching. Turns out that life planned for it to be the exact opposite way. Through some array of circumstances I was given the opportunity to teach middle school right out of college. I’ll never forget walking into the classroom for the very first time. The sense of fear and uncertainly consumed me. Would I make a difference? Would I leave an imprint? From the very first day I fell in love with teaching and knew it was my calling. I wanted to become a Mr. Simonet for my students; a teacher who empowered, motivated and inspired her students to be the very best they can be. It was the most transformative years of my life and you can bet that Pay it Forward was a film I showed and discussed with my students; impacting them in the same way it impacted me those years before.
When I decided to shoot my short film, Kindness Boomerang, during my summer off from teaching it had been 7 years since I was involved in film and I was scared. I didn’t know if I had what it takes but I knew I had a message that needed to be shared. After shooting the film and returning to school, that 4-year-old kid started dreaming, but she started dreaming way bigger. I realized that if I was going to pursue my childhood dream I needed to go all in. I let the school know that I would be taking the following year off to see what would happen if I committed my whole self to this dream. In October 2011, I made the film public without knowing who would see it or how they would even stumble on it. Within a couple of months Kindness Boomerang went viral and the dream of making a film that would reach the world became a reality. And then it happened. Someone from the Pay it Forward Foundation reached out to me letting me know that the film had made its way to them and they were touched by it and wanted to meet. I’ll never forget the feeling of excitement I felt. It was then that I became acquainted with the work of the Foundation and had the privilege to email you Catherine to share how your work influenced and inspired me. It was the boomerang making its way all the way back around.
Several years later I had the great fortune to reconnect with the Pay it Forward Foundation through David Goodwin, the Executive Director. From our first phone call I knew that David and I would be long time friends. I felt his heart and he felt mine and it was clear that it was filled to the brim with kindness. I was honored to select the Pay it Forward Foundation as Life Vest Inside’s 1st ever Charity Partner for our annual worldwide Dance for Kindness event. Every year, to kick off World Kindness Week, Life Vest Inside organizes Dance for Kindness, a WorldWide FlashMob during which groups from all across the globe unite under the banner of kindness and join together to perform to the same song, same dance, all happening on the same day. 10% of all proceeds from the worldwide event, which took place in 50 countries, 100 cities, was gifted to the Pay it Forward Foundation to help them continue their amazing work. I’ll never forget the excitement I felt to have the honor and privilege to write out a check to a Foundation that truly impacted my life and the lives of millions around the world. In addition, the Pay it Forward Foundation gifted Life Vest Inside with 1,500 copies of their book to distribute in our Gift it Forward bags to locations throughout the US, helping to further spread the message.
It was soon after that David Goodwin reached out with an even greater honor asking me to serve on the Board of the Pay it Forward Foundation. And so the kindness boomerang continues.
Me: Please ask your own question, and answer it:
Orly: Being that Kindness Boomerang is a Lesson-a-Day book, how would you recommend people read it?
I welcome readers to make this book a part of their daily routine or to simply pick it up from time to time.
Like life, this book is meant to be enjoyed, savored and taken in little by little. It’s not a race to the finish, it’s about the journey, the experience, the reflecting in between the pages that makes the difference. Whether you read one entry a day in order, or choose to skip around; remember it’s not about what you read as much as what it helps you reflect on.
On our path to becoming the person we strive to be, it’s easy to focus on the gap from where we are to where we want to be. Be careful, doing so can oftentimes discourage us; make us give up before we even take the first step. Be sure to stop. Look back and see how far you’ve already come; the ways you’ve already grown, the impact you’ve already made. Utilize that and allow it to propel you forward, understanding that the best kind of growth comes from a place of positivity, a place of accomplishment, a place of strength.
This book isn’t meant to make you feel guilty for the things you haven’t done, the acts you’ve failed to notice, your shortcomings and failures. It’s meant to help you see that kindness has existed inside of you all along; that you’re greatest tool, the most crowning achievement isn’t dependent on awards, accolades or accomplishments. It isn’t based on your job, where you live, what you drive, your fame or your fortune. It’s simply based on the impact that you’ve made, the lives you’ve touched without even noticing it. Reminding you that your life vest, your ability to stay afloat in a world that sometimes seems to be pulling you downward has been inside on you all along.
Me: Many thanks, Orly. I'm sure my Pay It Forward enthusiast readers will be interested in you, your organization, your book, and your short film. I want to close by mentioning that they can also find you on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram.