Eighteen years have passed since I started writing down my thoughts. Back in the 1990s I was always starting with "Dear Diary" and would apologize if I didn't make an appearance for a day or two. Nowadays my entries are more about the essence of things and admittedly more sporadic, but one thing hasn't yet changed: the quote at the beginning of each of these 18 annual diaries. Michael Jackson has sung it: "If you want to make the word a better place, take a look at yourself, and make a change." I spoke to four blooming organizations without borders to help me achieve my self-development goal for 2016 — generosity.

Bikes Without Borders

Bikes Without Borders via Website

When Tanya Smith, the executive director of Bikes Without Borders, told me that she doesn’t own a car, I thought she was just leading by example. But when she mentioned that she and her husband load their three kids on a Babboe cargo city bike, I thought, Wow! That’s a revolutionary lifestyle. “Sometimes we get wet, but we don't mind. We're going to live longer for it and feel more connected to our neighborhood,” Smith says slyly.

One of the organization’s biggest ongoing projects is The Great Bike Recycle in Toronto. Donated bicycles are distributed locally through social workers, service organizations, community centers and shelters. Bicycles are also distributed to refugee sponsor groups, such as Lifeline Syria and CultureLink. “We hope to offer to marginalized community members not only an affordable mode of transportation in order to increase access to social services, job opportunities and school, but also an opportunity to lead an active, community-driven healthier lifestyle and contribute to building communities with a focus on health and environmental sustainability,” Smith says. 

It’s challenging for BWB to physically get the bicycles to remote communities of the developing world in an affordable and sustainable fashion. And even if the bikes get there, there isn’t a guarantee that the cyclist will later have access to maintenance and parts. “We like to source bikes locally in the areas we work in if possible, so that we are also contributing to the local economy," Smith explains. "For example, we purchase bikes from World Bicycle Relief in Malawi." But sometimes they are presented with credible and affordable ways to ship bicycles internationally. In fact, a few bikes are about to start their long journey to Nicaragua through Florida thanks to a group that organized a truck to pick them up. 

Translators Without Borders

Photo by Lucy Perry/Hamlin Fistula Relief and Aid Fund Australia via Flickr

Living in South Korea was an eye-opening experience for me when it came to communicating beyond language barriers. But when it came to my health, then body language, eye contact or little gestures of love and respect  just weren’t enough. I needed (and good for me I was given) an interpreter, who did all the communicating between my non-English-speaking doctors and me.

However, in developing places where Translators Without Borders works, patients aren't so lucky. Many with serious diseases such as AIDS just don’t understand the information about when and how to take their drugs. “The labels on the drugs are usually in English, French and Portuguese, but these citizens, who live maybe only a 20-minute drive outside the capital, don’t speak any of these languages and they have no other way,” Rebecca Petras, the deputy director of TWB, says. No other way except the volunteers of TWB, who are training people to translate in regional languages — a project called Community Translations.  

2016 will be a busy year for Petras and the volunteers worldwide. 100 X 100 Wikipedia Project is a big endeavor that aims to simplify and translate the 100 most-read medical articles into 100 languages. At the same time, other TWB volunteers are working with refugees in Greece and the Balkans and with organizations responding to the crisis, such as the Hellenic Red Cross and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). “The aim is to give the information that these travelers need in order to be safe. And to empower them through knowledge to help themselves,” Petras says. 

Clowns Without Borders

Clowns Without Borders via Website

In my family, the best laughs and our most cherished inside jokes are the result of the toughest situations we have found ourselves in. Sort of a “when life gives you lemons” perspective. Moshe Cohen, the founder of Clowns Without Borders, affirms this take: “It’s a good thing for families and communities to laugh together — to enjoy funny stories about their lives and to laugh about the problems they face. [Laughter] opens our eyes to another side of life that is easily forgotten and misplaced in difficult situations.”

CWB injects laughter into places where you wouldn’t be able to spot joy at first sight. One recent standout initiative are the daily shows (interactive plays, magic tricks and singing) for newly arrived refugees on the island of Lesvos in Greece. In October, CWB was part of the welcoming committee for three refugee camps and the harbor where 15,000 people waited daily for the ferry to the mainland and the chance to continue their journey.

CWB is currently planning where they will sprinkle their magic dust in 2016, but one thing is for sure: They are returning to Lesvos at the beginning of February. When I reluctantly asked about coulrophobia, the phobia of clowns, Cohen replied: "I have had the experience of having to reassure the audience that we are safe, not because we are clowns, but because we are from outside their culture and they are not familiar with us. Perhaps they imagine that everyone in our home countries wear red noses, I’m not sure. We are most interested in relating as fellow human beings."

Mindfulness Without Borders

Mindfulness Without Borders via Facebook

It’s free, it’s learnable and the more you practice the more you benefit. What is it? Mindfulness — the cultivation of the ability to see things as they are, rather than as they used to be or we wish they could be. "In an action-oriented world, full of deadlines, projects and constant distraction, moments of authentic human connection are harder to come by," Theo Koffler, the founder of Mindfulness Without Borders, says. "In today’s working environments, our productivity is based on what we accomplish, and much of our lives are in the 'doing' mode. Our minds are constantly planning, making to-do lists, checking off the to-do lists, remembering an event and how it could have gone differently, or just thinking about the past. The idea with mindfulness is to deliberately slow down and begin to pay attention to the moments."

Mindfulness is for anyone who wants to reduce stress, understand and regulate their emotions, manage pain and sleep better. To date, MWB’s programs have reached educators, administrators, mental health professionals and young people in North America, Singapore, Australia, Jamaica, Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda, Botswana, Israel and Pakistan. 

We finished the conversation with a few tips on how to develop our inner landscape: Set the alarm a few minutes earlier, and then lie in bed and reflect on one thing you're grateful for. Start your morning with a five-minute breathing practice. Slow down to smell the aroma of a hot beverage and pay attention to how it makes you feel. Notice the drive to work. Listen with openness to others’ perspectives. Take the time to say thank you and notice how your kindness affects others. 

By Maria Iotova

A wanderer at heart, when people ask her where she comes from, Maria says "it's complicated." She feels understanding people and reading books are the best investments in life. Her favorite artist is her dad, and these days she is fixated on making dreams come true.