Over the next few weeks, we will be profiling the shortlisted nominees for the Advance Global Australian Awards in an attempt to familiarise our community with these remarkable individuals. Today we're shining the spotlight on Alison Thompson, a nominee for the category of Social Impact.
This article was originally published on Forbes / Leadership.
The gruesome headlines assault us daily: There are an estimated 20 million refugees today and more displaced persons than ever in recorded history. Over half of them are children. Another 2,500 people have drowned trying to migrate to Europe so far this year. Another border has been closed to the tragic victims of war, violence, poverty and famine worldwide.
Most of us want to help. Many of us simply shake our heads and send out a little prayer. Perhaps we find a cause and donate to it. Alison Thompson hops on a plane and launches herself into helping the people in crisis—raising money, dispensing supplies and love, making lives better—and inspiring others to do the same. She is a real life superhero.
For the past 15 years, Thompson has been working as a full-time humanitarian. Since last summer, her primary focus has been on the Syrian refugee crisis. Her mission has been to deliver Solar Puffs, which are basketball-sized solar-powered lights, into tent camps in Greece, where over 65,000 people otherwise spend their nights in a terrifying and often dangerous darkness. She also runs the non-profits Third Wave Volunteers, which organizes people to join to help out in crisis zones;WeAdvance, an NGO that aids Haitian women; andCTEC, an early-warning tsunami center, the first of its kind in Sri Lanka.
“My life purpose is about love, so being in a career to serve others and inspire others to join in the volunteer revolution fills me with a deep purpose that no other career could ever give me,” Thompson said when we spoke about her latest volunteer efforts. “Daily, I am surrounded by people who really need my help and love. Sometimes there are so many kids all trying to kiss and hug me at once that I fall over and roll on the ground laughing. Now that is working and living at the same time.”
To be clear, Thompson doesn’t make money off the funds she raises for the causes she champions. On the contrary, she forgoes a salary and any of the fancy accommodations typical of NGO leaders, choosing to live and eat with the locals when volunteering. Every dollar she fundraises goes directly towards buying supplies and bringing them to the places where they are most needed. But Thompson has cleverly figured out a way to support herself as she spends the majority of her time volunteering by working occasional paid gigs such aswriting a book, making a critically-acclaimed documentary film, and giving speeches, as well as through corporate and private sponsorships. I can think of no one who more fully embodies living her life on purpose.
Thompson said, “My main goal with each volunteer project is to identify the gaps in care and services available for those in need, and then find solutions for filling those needs. I surround myself with the experts—volunteers who are both locals and foreign nationals—to get the job done. My motto is ‘It’s easy to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but it is leadership to be in the wrong place at the right time.’”
Thompson got her start as a full-time volunteer within minutes after the World Trade Center towers fell during the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City. While most of the rest of the city fled, she strapped on her rollerblades and raced towards Ground Zero. That day, she searched for survivors. She then spent the next nine months putting her nursing skills and paramedic license to work in caring for the firefighters.
When the massive tsunami hit Asia in 2004, Thompsonjumped on a plane to Sri Lanka. There, she created and ran a large field hospital, helped rebuild a village and school, and co-founded CTEC, the first tsunami early-warning center in the country. She made the film The Third Wave from footage she and a local cameraman shot during their time working there.
Her experience in Sri Lanka showed Thompson that “there was room for everyone to get involved after a crisis. There’s a need for medical and non-medical volunteers who can do everything from carrying boxes, to handing out water, to teaching orphans, to building homes, to treating patients, to giving out hugs and smiles.” At that time, she also started Third Wave Volunteers to encourage others to help. The organization has since grown to include tens of thousands of people from around the world.
Some of the other disaster areas where Thompson has served include New Orleans after Katrina, New York after Superstorm Sandy, and Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. There, she ran a 65,000-person displaced persons camp with actor Sean Penn. She later got asked to serve as the first Ambassador to the Haitian Ministry of Environment, a role which gives her responsibility for reforestation and cholera initiatives.
Although Thompson only discovered volunteering as a career path in 2001, she has been dedicated to serving others throughout her life. Her parents traveled the world doing service work. She was inspired by them, as well as Tony Duke, the founder of Boys and Girls Harbor, and wealth manager/actor Mark Axelowitz, who has supported and encouraged Alison in her humanitarian work since 9/11. But “my husband Albert Gomez, whom I met while serving in Haiti, has been my most substantial inspiration,” Alison said. “After long, hard missions where my love gets all squeezed out, he fills me up again.”
Thompson reports that the greatest rewards of following a career path with purpose are all-around happiness in your job, relationships, family, health and spirituality. “I feel like I am one of the happiest people on earth,” she said. The greatest challenge is letting go of fear of the unknown and, in her case, finding a sustainable income. “But somehow while giving back to others, the universe has opened up and taken care of me. I’ve learned that love always wins in the end.”
In terms of finding and following your life purpose,Thompson has this advice. “Don’t define yourself by the one thing you studied at college. If you’re intelligent, you can have many careers. I didn’t really have a clue what I wanted to do after attaining my teaching degree. I don’t have ADD, but when a new path opened up leading me in a new direction, I took it. Don’t let fear get in the way. You will be so much more successful and happier in all parts of your life.”