Melissa began today's "Foot Soldiers" segment with a fable about a starfish, meant to illustrate the power of doing even a little bit to make a difference -- even when the difference you're making appears to some as too small to bother. Marion Leary has known that power well, since she launched the website for her non-profit organization, Sink or Swim Philadelphia, a year ago Monday.
What Sink or Swim does is explained well by the PSA above, and by its description: it "assists people in Philadelphia and surrounding counties who are uninsured or underinsured with medical expenses using social networking to garner web donations."
Leary was Melissa's "Foot Soldier" today, thanks to a Facebook nomination from her aunt. Turns out that Leary isn't the only one in her family giving of herself. See my interview with her below.
LR: How did you get started, what were you doing before, what gave you the idea for Sink or Swim Philadelphia?
ML: I'm a nurse by background, and I'm still a nurse. I run a clinical research group at the Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania, and I would constantly see patients and family members struggling to not only worry about how to survive their illness, and how they're going to get better, but also worrying about how they are going to pay for their hospitalization. Repeatedly this would happen, and then a couple of friends and family members got sick and literally had to decide between food and rent or paying their medical bills. I couldn’t sit around and watch anymore, I had to do something. And so I started sink or swim. It's a Band-Aid, it's not a complete fix, but at least it's something. The idea is to give our recipients one month's respite where they don't have to decide between life necessities and getting well.
LR: What gave you the idea for the online platform?
ML: I don't know if you've ever heard of Kiva.org, they're a micro-lending organization where they try and help people in developing countries. I was a huge fan of that organization, and I really loved their platform. I thought it would be an equally successful platform for this type of organization that I wanted to start. So I modeled it somewhat after Kiva.org but on a smaller scale. And it's a really good way for people locally to crowd source and to actually help direct individual, instead of giving money to a big organization where you don’t know if the money is going to go to the person or the cause that you donate money for. With Sink or Swim you know that the money that you're donating is going to that individual who actually needs the help.
Marion Leary and one of the Philadelphians she helped.
LR: How long ago did you start Sink or Swim?
ML: It will be a year October 1st, so we're coming on a year.
LR: Does all of the money go straight to the recipient, or do you take some of it to run your business?
ML: We keep 10% of whatever is raised and we use it just for maintenance costs for website and outreach materials. But everything else goes to the recipient’s billing agency, hospital or pharmacy, so the recipients don't actually ever see the money, but we pay off their bills, pay for their medicines or procedures or whatever they need.
LR: Gotcha, so you're not handing them cash, but the money is going specifically to a cost associated with their care. How do you come up with where specifically the money goes?
ML: I meet with each of the recipients and we talk about what their exact health care need is. This month, [our recipient] Joe needs help with a wheelchair van. He's close to raising the money that he needs, once he figures out who he's paying for that van we hand the check over to that company, not to him. We do that to protect our donors and so that they know that the money we raised is in fact going to what they're donating for, and that the recipients aren’t going to take it and spend it on something else.
LR: What was the turning point that made you actually start Sink or Swim?
ML: Honestly I just kept seeing this problem on the news and at work, and hearing stories and - sort of like having a baby - it's never the right time, so you just kind of have to do it. I was working full time, and I was still in school trying to finish my master's degree, I had a new kid… It was hard to also start a new organization but i just had to. It’s always hard, but it’s harder for these people who are struggling. I just couldn't make that the excuse anymore. I felt like i had to do it.
LR: Are any of your family members involved in this type of work?
ML: I have a twin sister; she is a Philadelphia firefighter, and she started an organization about a year and three months ago called Red Paw Emergency Relief Team. They are like the Red Cross for animals.
They're the only ones in the country that do what they do.
LR: Like you were saying, it’s not a solution it’s a Band-Aid, but still it’s making a direct impact in specific people's lives in ways that you can see. That’s you, one person, helping once person each month. I guess that leads me to another question. Do you see small donations? Large donations? Do people get excited about it, what's the reaction?
ML: it's crazy! The generosity of random strangers from all over the country, and even all over the world - we've only had a few international donors, but still - I thought this would be local folks helping other local people but we've had donations from 25 different states, random strangers have donated large amounts to people they don’t even know. The generosity of people has really been one of the best outcomes for me from doing this. Sometimes it’s hard to see the best in the world. There's a lot of violence, there’s a lot of wrong doing going on, and this really has helped with my outlook on the human race, because people really are so generous.
You can follow Sink or Swim on Twitter at @SOSPhilly. Watch Melissa's "Foot Soldiers" segment below.
Marion Leary, a former critical care nurse who created the non-profit "Sink or Swim Philadelphia" is Melissa Harris-Perry's foot soldier of the week.