Four people from diverse backgrounds discover they aren’t as different as they thought
Ancestry
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Ancestry


We're not just a nation of immigrants; each of us is our own walking family tree. At a time when so much seems to keep us apart, developing cross-cultural understanding through shared connections is an increasingly vital way to bridge our societal gaps. It's almost impossible not to feel empathy when we discover that our worlds are actually intertwined.

Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., the renowned Harvard professor and genealogy expert, met with four people from different backgrounds to discuss how genealogy can connect us with people across cultures."There's a curious and ironic relationship between identifying your ancestral heritage, which you think might divide you from other people, but finding that it only ties you to other people," Gates says. "Each of our ancestors has a story to tell and it's our job to find them and give them a voice."

Gates connected with Crystal Gonzales, a Hispanic educator originally from New Mexico; Darnell Head, an educator and African American Detroit native; Michelle Mardsen, an African American art teacher from Pennsylvania; and Paula Shagin, a social worker from European Jewish descent. While their backgrounds were different, they all had one thing in common – a thirst to discover their family's origins.

Ancestry


Through family history research on Ancestry, Mardsen discovered there were four Civil War veterans in her family, three of whom were people of color. "Two different sides of the tree were in the same tent together," she says, adding that these details give her "a sense of grounding."

Head never had access to his family history. His background is so complex he doesn't even have either of his parents' surnames. Now that he's become a parent himself, he recognizes the importance of knowing where he came from and the value of sharing his family history with his two boys. "In the black community, it's important for us to understand the struggles of the past so that we, in a way, protect ourselves from ever having to experience that again," he says.

DNA testing also gives us more insight into our backgrounds and can reveal stories that are unknown even to our families. "For us, that was affirming some of the things we heard about," Gonzales says. She found out that her family DNA results were 35% Native American, and on her father's side, 26% from the Iberian Peninsula.

Ancestry

As the group learned more about each of their unique family origins, they came to realize one undeniable fact: "We're more alike than we are different," says Head.

After all, how can we be divided if we share the same universal human experience? People from every corner of the Earth now call themselves Americans. "Everyone's ancestors have something that they've overcome," Shagin says. "Everyone came to this country for a reason. Getting here wasn't always an easy route, and everyone has a story."

"Ultimately, we're Americans," Gates adds. "And beyond that, we're human beings."

When you know what your family went through, history truly becomes personal and not just words on a page you have to memorize for a test. They're real events that happened to real people. Their migratory patterns shaped who you are today. Above all, you learn that even though history had its ups and downs, your family got through it all, and you're here today to set the course for tomorrow's generations.

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Some 75 years ago, in bombed-out Frankfurt, Germany, a little girl named Marlene Mahta received a sign of hope in the midst of squalor, homelessness and starvation. A CARE Package containing soap, milk powder, flour, blankets and other necessities provided a lifeline through the contributions of average American families. There were even luxuries like chocolate bars.

World War II may have ended, but its devastation lingered. Between 35 and 60 million people died. Whole cities had been destroyed, the countryside was charred and burned, and at least 60 million European civilians had been made homeless. Hunger remained an issue for many families for years to come. In the face of this devastation, 22 American organizations decided to come together and do something about it: creating CARE Packages for survivors.

"What affected me… was hearing that these were gifts from average American people," remembers Mahta, who, in those desperate days, found herself picking through garbage cans to find leftover field rations and MREs to eat. Inspired by the unexpected kindness, Mahta eventually learned English and emigrated to the U.S.

"I wanted to be like those wonderful, generous people," she says.

The postwar Marshall Plan era was a time of "great moral clarity," says Michelle Nunn, CEO of CARE, the global anti-poverty organization that emerged from those simple beginnings. "The CARE Package itself – in its simplicity and directness – continues to guide CARE's operational faith in the enduring power of local leadership – of simply giving people the opportunity to support their families and then their communities."

Each CARE Package contained rations that had once been reserved for soldiers, but were now being redirected to civilians who had suffered as a result of the conflict. The packages cost $10 to send, and they were guaranteed to arrive at their destination within four months.

Thousands of Americans, including President Harry S. Truman, got involved, and on May 11, 1946, the first 15,000 packages were sent to Le Havre in France, a port badly battered during the war.

Thousands of additional CARE Packages soon followed. At first packages were sent to specific recipients, but over time donations came in for anyone in need. When war rations ran out American companies began donating food. Later, carpentry tools, blankets, clothes, books, school supplies, and medicine were included.

Before long, the CARE Packages were going to other communities in need around the world, including Asia and Latin America. Ultimately, CARE delivered packages to 100 million families around the world.

The original CARE Packages were phased out in the late 1960s, though they were revived when specific needs arose, such as when former Soviet Union republics needed relief, or after the Bosnian War. Meanwhile, CARE transformed. Now, instead of physical boxes, it invests in programs for sustainable change, such as setting up nutrition centers, Village Savings and Loan Associations, educational programs, agroforestry initiatives, and much more.

But, with a pandemic ravaging populations around the world, CARE is bringing back its original CARE packages to support the critical basic needs of our global neighbors. And for the first time, they're also delivering CARE packages here at home in the United States to communities in need.

Community leaders like Janice Dixon are on the front lines of that effort. Dixon, president and CEO of Community Outreach in Action in Jonesboro, Ga., now sends up to 80 CARE packages each week to those in need due to COVID-19. Food pantries have been available, she notes, but they've been difficult to access for those without cars, and public transportation is spotty in suburban Atlanta.

"My phone has been ringing off the hook," says Dixon. For example, one of those calls was from a senior diabetic, she remembers, who faced an impossible choice, but was able to purchase medicine because food was being provided by CARE.

Today, CARE is sending new packages with financial support and messages of hope to frontline medical workers, caregivers, essential workers, and individuals in need in more than 60 countries, including the U.S. Anyone can now go to carepackage.org to send targeted help around the world. Packages focus on helping vaccines reach people more quickly, tackling food insecurity, educational disparities, global poverty, and domestic violence, as well as providing hygiene kits to those in need.

From the very beginning, CARE received the support of presidents, with Hollywood luminaries like Rita Hayworth and Ingrid Bergman also adding their voices. At An Evening With CARE, happening this Tuesday, May 11, notable names will turn out again as the organization celebrates the 75th Anniversary of the CARE Package and the exciting, meaningful work that lies ahead. The event will be hosted by Whoopi Goldberg and attended by former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter, as well as Angela Merkel, Iman, Jewel, Michelle Williams, Katherine McPhee-Foster, Betty Who and others. Please RSVP now for this can't-miss opportunity.

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The global eradication of smallpox in 1980 is one of international public health's greatest successes. But in 1966, seven years after the World Health Organization announced a plan to rid the world of the disease, smallpox was still widespread. The culprits? A lack of funds, personnel and vaccine supply.

Meanwhile, outbreaks across South America, Africa, and Asia continued, as the highly contagious virus continued to kill three out of every 10 people who caught it, while leaving many survivors disfigured. It took a renewed commitment of resources from wealthy nations to fulfill the promise made in 1959.

Forty-one years later, although we face a different virus, the potential for vast destruction is just as great, and the challenges of funding, personnel and supply are still with us, along with last-mile distribution. Today, while 30% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, with numbers rising every day, there is an overwhelming gap between wealthy countries and the rest of the world. It's becoming evident that the impact on the countries getting left behind will eventually boomerang back to affect us all.

Photo by ismail mohamed - SoviLe on Unsplash

The international nonprofit CARE recently released a policy paper that lays out the case for U.S. investment in a worldwide vaccination campaign. Founded 75 years ago, CARE works in over 100 countries and reaches more than 90 million people around the world through multiple humanitarian aid programs. Of note is the organization's worldwide reputation for its unshakeable commitment to the dignity of people; they're known for working hand-in-hand with communities and hold themselves to a high standard of accountability.

"As we enter into our second year of living with COVID-19, it has become painfully clear that the safety of any person depends on the global community's ability to protect every person," says Michelle Nunn, CARE USA's president and CEO. "While wealthy nations have begun inoculating their populations, new devastatingly lethal variants of the virus continue to emerge in countries like India, South Africa and Brazil. If vaccinations don't effectively reach lower-income countries now, the long-term impact of COVID-19 will be catastrophic."

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