Skip to main content

Natural Awakenings

Inspiring Change: Homegrown Heroes Are Making A Difference

Mar 01, 2010 03:00AM ● By Linda Sechrist

“If not me, who; if not now, when?” may well be the mantra of today’s conscious citizen activists, who feel led by an inner spirit to decisively achieve positive change in their communities.

In The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism, pioneering author, scholar and mystic Andrew Harvey inspires readers to become sacred activists and to participate in radically transforming the world. Awakened to our divine purpose, Harvey proposes, we each can become an effective and practical agent of change for social justice and sustainability. He urges us to find the particular focus that ignites our individual passion. In doing so, we will come to understand that, “Service is the road to profound and lasting joy.”

“When the inner joy Mother Teresa spoke of, the joy of compassionate service, is married to a practical and pragmatic drive to transform all existing economic, social and political institutions, a radical and potentially all-transforming holy force is born. This radical holy force I call sacred activism.”
~ Andrew Harvey, author and activist

Natural Awakenings has met scores of joy-filled travelers throughout our nation who have chosen this action-oriented path, becoming an inspiration to others far beyond those they help. Among them are these five “Homegrown Heroes,” who daily choose to shelter the homeless or abandoned, feed the hungry, advocate for animals and energize the economy. Seeing the world with eyes of compassion, they are making a marked difference.

Adam Bucko, Activist for Homeless Youth

During the 1970s and early ’80s, Adam Bucko, co-founder and managing director of The Reciprocity Foundation, lived in Poland under a communist regime that denied its citizens freedom of speech and opportunities for self-actualization. Dissatisfied, Bucko immigrated to the United States at age 17 and, in his quest for a purpose-filled life, spent time in several monasteries here and in Thailand and India.

One day, on his way to following a detached life of contemplation and prayer in a monastery in India, Bucko encountered a homeless child who lived on the streets of Delhi. The brief but meaningful interaction became for him a transformational experience. “It made me realize that while meditation left me peaceful, it put me in a sort of spiritual coma,” says Bucko, “and up until then, I was only feeling the edges of my life.”

The momentary collapse of an invisible, protective buffer between these two different worlds broke Bucko’s heart wide open. “It allowed me to understand that the pain of others was also my pain, and that my desire for spiritual liberation from the world ultimately prevented me from making true spiritual progress,” he explains. Bucko’s second insight was equally significant: The goal of spiritual work is not just to experience God but also to bring God’s presence into the world, so that we, as well as the world, can be transformed.

Today, this former monk is the spiritual driver of the Reciprocity Foundation, a U.S.-based nonprofit that enables homeless and high-risk youth and young adults to permanently exit the social services system and start meaningful, sustainable careers in the creative economy of fashion, design, marketing and public relations. Bucko, who is also a trained sociologist and veteran homeless youth program coordinator, says the foundation aims to build a national network of programs. Expanding from its current base in New York City, he has his sights set on cities such as Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle and Austin, Texas.

Contact The Reciprocity Foundation, 100 Church St., Ste. 1604, NY, NY; 347-546-2670;

Karen Day and McCabe Coolidge, Activists for Feeding the Hungry

While the recession whittles away at household budgets, Karen Day and McCabe Coolidge work to expand the ancient tradition of gleaning in their Floyd, Virginia community. They explain that in biblical times, the edge of a farmer’s crop was left unharvested to provide food for the poor. Through their Portable Produce project, begun two years ago, overplanted crops, as well as bruised or marked produce that can’t be sold, find new purpose.

During growing season, the qualifying produce picked and donated by local farmers graciously appears on the doorsteps of Coolidge’s Wildfire Pots pottery studio. There, volunteers separate and deliver it, along with donated freshly baked breads, to individuals and families who are without transportation. Surplus fruits and vegetables are canned or frozen. The project has already doubled in size, now regularly serving 60 recipients.

Impressed by the enthusiasm of the 100 community volunteers who have eagerly joined the effort, the duo explains their modus operandi in simple terms: “We pay attention to a problem and address it.” That’s evident in Day and McCabe’s initiation of three more local projects underway in the past five years to help feed the hungry of all ages: Healthy Snacks for Hungry Kids, Souper Douper Soup Circles and a local chapter of Empty Bowls, a national initiative. “We’re all about addressing problems when they are small, so that only small, manageable solutions are necessary.”

McCabe cites Dorothy Day (1897-1980), who started a soup kitchen in New York City in the 1930s as his inspiration, as well as Catholic Workers Communities, where he was active in the 1980s. Day’s activism began with an internship at Faithful Fools Street Ministry in San Francisco, inspired and co-founded by Rev. Kay Jorgensen, a Unitarian minister.

Contact Portable Produce, Wildfire Pots, Winter Sun-302, S. Locust St., Floyd, VA; 540-357-5657;

Susan Eirich, Animal-Human Interaction Activist

Susan Eirich, Ph.D., has been in love with animals for as long as she can remember. Her motivation for rescuing them, however, arrived unexpectedly. First, an unforgettable, scrawny kitten was dropped off at a farm she was renting in Kentucky; then, she made friends with a wolf-hybrid dog that led her to Jean Simpson, a wild-animal trainer who shares her deep connection with animals.

Together, the two women established Earthfire Institute, a 40-acre wildlife sanctuary and retreat center on the western slope of Grand Teton National Park, near Driggs, Idaho. “Earthfire was built to expand our sense of connection with all living beings,” says Eirich, “and to contribute to what we believe is the unfolding story of the transformation in humanity’s relationship to the community of life.”

Grounded by her daily interaction with foxes, bears, wolves, lynx, bobcats, cougars, coyotes, buffalo, badgers and other animals cared for at the Institute, Eirich seeks to help her own species share in the indescribable beauty of the human/animal eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart connection that she and her small staff experience. A moment-to-moment spiritual practice of communing with nature and listening in the silence for something larger gifts Eirich with an ability to give words to thoughts and ideas that come from a deep inner place.

“The directive that comes from the silence within is different and evolves in a way that I wouldn’t plan for if I was only working from the intellect,” she explains.

One of the best stories that poignantly conveys the sacred animal/human interaction experienced at Earthfire involves Thunder, a 17-year-old wolf that laid for several days unconscious in the wildlife garden, beyond the sight of other wolves, ready to slip away to the spirit world. The vet knelt beside Thunder and stroked his fur as he gave a merciful injection. In the second that the once strong and regal wolf died, as his soul passed from his body, all 30 wolves at Earthfire gave up their grieving howl.

“The vet was shocked to feel the sound resonate within his body,” recalls Eirich. “Even though Thunder’s pack was nowhere near the garden, they felt his passing and wanted to say goodbye and wish him well on his passage. This is what it’s like for humans and animals to live in a quiet, meditative space where, undisturbed, we can feel their essence and they can feel ours.”

Contact Susan Eirich, Earthfire Institute, P.O. Box 368, Driggs, ID; 208-456-0926;

Debbe Magnusen, Activist for Abandoned Babies

Debbe Magnusen felt bereft after hearing about an abandoned baby found suffocated in a trash bag close to her Costa Mesa home in California. As a compassionate woman who had already fostered more than 30 drug-exposed babies while raising two biological children, Magnusen chose to channel her anger and frustration into constructive action.

“As a foster mother, I had always hoped that unwanted babies would be brought to me,” she recalls. “But it didn’t occur to me until that moment that no one knew where I was or that I wanted to rescue their newborn.”

The insight led her to create a 24/7 crisis hotline in her Orange County living room in 1996. Within 12 hours, she received her first call, from a frantic, frightened woman who had hidden her pregnancy from everyone she knew. To date, Project Cuddle has helped rescue 663 unwanted babies. “No baby deserves to die before having a chance to live,” says Magnusen, who understands the desperation of girls and women who can be in labor while still denying that they are pregnant.

This tireless activist imagines herself in the place of every abandoned child and is inspirationally refueled each time she sees a newborn baby crying safely in a hospital. “For me, God is in every person,” says Magnusen, whose biggest lesson from Project Cuddle, now operating nationally, is the grace to be nonjudgmental. “I’m alive,” she maintains, “so that I can unconditionally love every scared girl or woman [who comes to me] through her ordeal.”

Contact Debbe Magnusen, Project Cuddle, non-crisis 714-432-9681 or [email protected]; crisis hotline 888-628-3353.

Troy Von Otnott, Political Activist for Sustainable Business

As a child growing up in New Orleans, Troy Von Otnott recalls members of his family embracing politics, interfacing with politicians and working on public policy issues. The lively discussions and debates sparked his curiosity about the political process and eventually led him to visit the halls of power in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Washington, D.C., for a firsthand understanding of how a democracy works. He remarks: “Although we live in a free enterprise society, government still controls how we function in life, particularly from a business standpoint.”

In his native city, politics is considered a contact sport, vigorously discussed around dinner tables. “We play for keeps,” explains Von Otnott, “and unlike other larger regional cities, the business community doesn’t run this city, the politicians do. If you want to get anything done, you have to understand how to function inside the political system.”

A self-described “half capitalist, half environmentalist,” Von Otnott sells solar products and avidly promotes the renewable energy business via his New Orleans-based South Coast Solar Company. A longtime political activist for clean energy, he has been actively involved with his state’s development of its renewable energy industry.

Von Otnott speaks monthly to groups around the state, encouraging his audiences to engage in the political process by demanding that sustainable business practices become the cornerstone of Louisiana public policy. “Citizens must learn to hold their political candidates accountable and let them know that renewable energy is an important industry that can generate the kind of jobs that can’t be exported,” he advises. In the end, he reflects, support for renewable energies supports the betterment of mankind.

Troy Von Otnott, South Coast Solar, LLC, 733 St. Joseph St., New Orleans, LA; 504-529-7869;

As we begin a new decade, let us see new opportunities to take fresh action on the issues we are most passionate about. With our collective vision and potential, we can go far in meeting today’s challenges and making the type of impact that Robert Kennedy envisioned in 1996: “Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he or she sends forth a tiny ripple of hope. And crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest of walls of oppression and resistance.”

Linda Sechrist is a freelance writer and the editor of Natural Awakenings’ flagship magazine in Southwest Florida. Connect via 239-434-9392.

Related Articles: A Conversation with Andrew Harvey, Direct Steps to Becoming a Sacred Activist

Subscribe to our national newsletter!

* indicates required
Global Brief
Health Brief