When I was 19 I came home for a short period of time (August-December) to plan my wedding. I worked three jobs, hung out with my parents and led a small group bible study for high school girls. I don’t remember who said it or even what exactly was said but there was an idea presented to me that in the 5 months I was home I couldn’t make much of an impact. To their credit, 5 months is a short amount of time to be somewhere and I was busy working and wedding planning. After the 5 months were up I would get on a plane with my new husband and return to Ukraine to teach English. How could I serve at church when I wasn’t even there a whole year? This was a valid question. And honestly, not one I liked very much. Impact, purpose and meaning are the stuff that drive me. There had to be a way for my time home to matter, even if it was only 5 months.
In the work I do with Stories Foundation I get asked often what our impact is. This is another valid question. We are a 501c3 nonprofit organization which means in order to exist, we receive donations. Our Freedom Truck brings in an income that covers a large majority, if not all, of it’s expenses but we also are committed to giving a minimum of 10% of that profit away. In order to run a nonprofit and the admin that goes along with running a food truck as well as the awareness work we do (merch, awareness materials to give away at the truck, awareness events, collaboration with other nonprofits locally, empowering community members to do something in their community space, advocating for the work being done, mobilizing volunteers), there is a cost that comes with all of that and so we fundraise. We also have big dreams for the future of a community space that helps people change a culture that breeds human trafficking while being fed really great food. So when I sit in front of a potential financial donor and they ask me what our impact is, I understand that they want to know where their money is going, what it is accomplishing.
Impact is so very hard to count, isn’t it? I think about parenting and the countless hours, unfathomable amounts of money, not to mention the emotional investment required as a parent. And still, almost every mom I know would question if they are doing a good enough job. Is the investment working? Will my children follow my example? Make good choices? Contribute to society? Be healthy adults? In business terms, people are a risky investment in general. You can give and give and give and not see any fruit from all that labor, all those seeds for years to come.
Yet, we still invest in those around us, don’t we? We love our kids, feed them, clothe them, educate them, teach them. We hug them and chauffeur them to soccer games and swimming lessons. We bring them to youth events and play dates. We sit on the couch and wait patiently for words to be sounded out, a two minute book taking twenty to read. We love them and we pray for them. We give them our all and everything. With no guarantee that it will work, we do it anyways. Why do we invest in these little humans? Because we don’t invest our time thinking about a return. We invest in our children because we love them. We don’t think about the impact of our work, we have hopes and dreams for our kids but we aren’t calculating time and money spent and comparing that to our monthly goals, to see if our kids are giving back what we have so generously sown in. And if you are, I feel the need to tell you that if you continue down this path of parenting, you will be sorely disappointed.
The work Stories does is people driven work. When I am asked the impact question I think to myself, how do you measure the impact of awareness when those touched by human trafficking are in the neighborhoods and schools that surround the customers of our Food Truck? How do you know the return on the investment of a check to a nonprofit partner who is walking alongside someone who is vulnerable? How do you quantify a prayer time with leaders who feel invisible while they give voice to the invisible? How do you explain the return on investment when the work is culture change? When the victims are suffering alone in a jail cell of shame? When everyday the media messaging says that the very things that cause exploitation – both sexual and labor – are the things that will make us happy, fulfill us, but instead they shackle us to addictions where there is no support group to give relief and accountability, no words to give to explain the dark hole of emptiness that they led to?
I don’t know what the impact was from my 5 months in Minnesota the year I got married. I don’t have a chart nor could I write a book on what me intentionally interacting with people during that time produced. But I don’t believe it was wasted, the investments we make in people’s lives never are. Similarly, I don’t know what my investment in my children will produce. How can I quantify what pouring into another life is worth? Isn’t it priceless?
I listened to a talk recently by Carl Lentz of Hillsong NYC, he was speaking at Passion City Church and the challenge he gave to those who call themselves Christ Followers was to love one another. That when we love one another it will be so very attractive that everyone else will want in on it. One of the questions he asked was, if we polled people coming out of a mall and asked them if when they hear the word Christian they associate it with love, what would they say? You know just as well as I what the answer would be. He went on to say that we are associated with a lot of things. Political beliefs. Dress. Music type. Convictions. But love isn’t one of them.
As Christians we do love a lot of things. I think we love our families, our kids. We love our churches, small groups and bible studies. We love our comfort zone and comfortable things in life. We love our bank accounts, savings accounts, college funds and 401ks. We love our education, degrees, status. Our cars, skincare, homes, programs, social gatherings and jobs. But outside of our immediate families and chosen people, do we really love each other, let alone those outside of our church circles?
I have always been a pretty optimistic, glass half full, sunshine and rainbows kind of person. When I first started to share about human trafficking I thought that when people’s eyes were opened to the realities in our world, that they would want to act, to do something. I have found this to be half true. When people hear about human trafficking they are horrified, they say “thank you” and “good job”. But when they are asked to act and the cost is counted, the realization of what it truly means to sacrifice something they love for someone they don’t even know is added up, they back away. They don’t seal the deal. They ask about the impact.
I don’t know what the impact of my life will be, and you don’t either. None of us do. I don’t know what the true impact of the last 7 years of sharing about human trafficking, raising awareness, running the Freedom Truck, giving money away, what all of that equals. What do I know? There are things we are able to and do measure, I know how many customers we have served, how much money we have given away. I can share with you stories of people who have made different choices and had different conversations because of what we have done and where we have gone, but the return on investment? The true number of lives touched? I couldn’t guess. We can’t know the true impact of our words, time, energy or finances. Those who tell you they can, they are fibbing.
And for the future? A community space and cafe, that is going to take a really big investment. It is going to take people willing to love those they have never met and invest in the future to the tune of $400,000 – $500,000. Can I tell you I will earn that back? No, not with a giveback business model. What I can tell you? Lives will be touched. Every day. Awareness and education events will happen causing a ripple effect in our communities. Nonprofits will be encouraged and supported through the funds generated, volunteers empowered, connections made. Community members will be challenged to take steps of sacrifice. People will begin to walk out of shame and darkness into freedom. In the world I dream of? A culture shift will take place.
Is this impact tangible, countable? It’s not. But does it matter? I still believe it does. We can’t know how what we invest will multiply, but I believe that people – freedom – truly loving others – it is worth investing in. And who is really impacted when we choose to sacrifice and give to others? When we risk out of love for a stranger? Step outside of what is comfortable and choose give? Isn’t it the giver?
My memory of the 5 months before my wedding is sweet with interactions, friendships and fullness. Because living with intention, giving without receiving in return, this is where our own lives truly find purpose, fulfillment and satisfaction. It really is better to give than to receive. For those of us who call ourselves Christ Followers we can trust him and rest knowing that the impact will be more than we can ask, think, or imagine.