Redefining Humanity in Uncertain Times
I’ve now been the Executive Director of Alliance for Smiles for one month, and what a wild ride it’s been.
A friend recently asked if I regret leaving my cushy job in tech with unlimited leave and catered meals to take a leadership role at a small, high-impact nonprofit just moments before the world was hit by an unexpected global pandemic.
Surprisingly, that was an easy answer. No.
There’s no regret. None. Even though the pandemic has forced us – for the health and safety of all involved – to cancel both a crucial mission to Myanmar and the annual fundraiser we rely upon for the organization’s survival in my first few weeks.
Instead of regret, I feel grit, tenacity, and a true commitment to weather this storm, doing what I can to help turn the tide. I feel fascination and faith in the power of human intellect and innovation to find effective solutions. Most importantly perhaps, I feel an abundance of hope and a resounding certainty that the compassion and generosity of people caring for one another can get us through the darkest and strangest of times.
Alliance for Smiles (AfS) is proof of this. Core to its existence and operations is the commitment of caring individuals with access to needed skills and resources, willing to travel halfway around the globe to help some of the most vulnerable individuals facing devastating hardships. AfS is a shining example of how incredible medical professionals and the communities that support them can truly transform the lives of people on the other side of the world.
Even now, in the face of this global pandemic, as AfS has been forced to pause temporarily on executing our own global medical missions, we are stepping up to deliver medical supplies, gloves and gowns to health professionals here on the front lines. We’ve also just introduced what we call the “Daily Good” to our social media platforms – sharing moments and images of the best of humanity to stay focused on the positive during this time. Such simple but powerful actions make me deeply proud to be a part of this organization.
It feels akin to what I experienced growing up in small town Oklahoma, where – in the wake of tornadoes and the aftermath of a terrorist bombing – I witnessed moving examples of people finding ways to support one another, overcome tremendous challenges, and reintroduce joy into each others’ lives.
I’ve since worked in many uncertain and rapidly changing environments – from refugee camps in Southeast Asia to small border towns in East Africa erupting in political violence and tribal warfare. Still, regardless of the place and people, I continue to witness people caring for each other and overcoming adversity time and again.
A new challenge is upon us now. This pandemic is like nothing we’ve experienced before. It’s truly global, fast-moving, and deadly. To protect our volunteers, patients – as well as their families and communities – there was truly no other responsible choice than to cancel our upcoming mission to Myanmar. We made that call during my first week with AfS.
My second week was also my last in the AfS office before we were ordered to “shelter in place” here in San Francisco.
My third week, we made the devastating call to cancel our annual fundraising gala and, like many other nonprofits and small businesses, are now left scrambling to determine how we will pull through financially to see the other side of this pandemic.
It’s week four for me now. Nothing is as I’d imagined. I work from my makeshift “office” on my dining room table and interact with my team only through the computer screens and text threads. When I signed the contract to take this role, we all lived in a much different world. Now it’s hard to remember a time before we’d heard the term “social distancing” and when grocery stores still had toilet paper.
However, as with any such challenge, I am up to the task of facing it and getting through, as I know we all are.
If my twenty years in humanitarian aid taught me anything, it is that we are resourceful and resilient. We adapt to changing workplaces, as we do to our changing world. We re-think and reinvent the way we operate as circumstance dictates. Most importantly, we continue to redefine what humanity means. We step up, we help out, we take actions and make decisions for the good of everyone – not just ourselves.
Do I regret taking this role? No. Not in the slightest. In fact, what a time it is to be alongside medical professionals and a compassionate and caring community, who believe that everyone deserves health and safety – even the most vulnerable among us – and are willing to go the distance to ensure they have it.
Pardon the double negative, but I’ve truly never regretted anything less.
Wishing you all health, happiness, and the cleanest of hands,
Jessica P. Hansen, MSW
Executive Director, Alliance for Smiles