“… any woman who is at a corner in need of money or begging for food … that person has to be seen as each of our mothers. If we can see anybody in need as being our mother or our father or our brother or our sister or our child, then I believe it’s the first step in understanding what is possible in our lives, and that is really the question and the statement for which I live – what is possible?”
Toni Reece: Thank you so much, Mark, for agreeing to be part of this Project, and before we begin, can you please introduce yourself?
Mark Bergel: My name is Mark Bergel, and I’m the Founder and Executive Director of A Wider Circle.
Toni: Can you tell us what A Wider Circle is, please?
Mark: It’s a nonprofit organization that helps children and adults to lift themselves out of poverty. We provide all the basic need items families may have from beds, dressers, tables and chairs, to dish sets, pots and pans, and nonperishable food. We provide that all free of charge for anybody who comes into our midst, and we also provide educational programs. We have workshops on stress management, money management, job skills, nutrition, and general life skills.
Toni: Well, I think this next question will be pretty easy for you. When you think about inspiration, who do you inspire, and how does that happen?
Mark: I would say first my real mission in life, my job and life if you will, is to inspire those who are not in poverty to get involved and make it a priority to help everyone to have the opportunity to live well. So underlying all of the work I do really is to try to inspire those who have all that they need or have all the basic need items, I should say, and who have been given the opportunity to succeed or to live well – to inspire them to think about others and to think about their lives as being much bigger than just themselves.
Toni: Mark, how do you inspire people to think that way, to think differently, and to even really know that you are there and what you’re about?
Mark: I think we exist much differently than we think we exist. In other words, the lives that we all tend to lead are much smaller than they may truly be. In other words, we restrict our compassion to those few nearest us. We define ourselves as maybe being 5 foot, 8 inches, or 5 foot, 10 inches, or 5 foot, 3 inches tall, when if we really saw how we existed in this world, we would see that we’re intimately connected to others, that this is a web of life, that it’s only again a matter of perspective. It keeps us from seeing how we truly exist.
So, taking that picture and showing how any woman who is at a corner in need of money or begging for food, that has to be seen … that person has to be seen as each of our mothers. If we can see anybody in need as being our mother or our father or our brother or our sister or our child, then I believe it’s the first step in understanding what is possible in our lives, and that is really the question and the statement for which I live – what is possible?
Toni: How do you help other people to explore their own potential?
Mark: In a few different ways. I’ve obviously been fortunate to have been exposed to some great writers and to some people who have lived extraordinary lives, and I try to share the wisdom that I’ve learned with them, whether it’s in presentations or day-to-day conversations, or however it is that the word can be spread.
So I’ll find myself just as easily one night in a shelter for women who are escaping domestic violence, and I’ll be talking about stress management and meditation and how we can create a different life just by seeing it and visualizing it every day. The next night, I might be in a group where there’s 50 people who have, you know, funds to give to an organization, and it’s the same thing, trying to share with them that we need to see our lives as being bigger than just the day-to-day lives we currently live, and to understand that there’s tremendous opportunity we each have every day to create the kind of change that will give every kid a chance to succeed and every mom a chance to live well.
So every day I’m in a different environment, where as long as I am committed to this mission and I keep the vision kind of clear in my head, then, you know, there’s several ways to inspire folks. But I believe people really want more meaning in their lives, and so my job is to try to help them find it.
Toni: What really interests me about this is not only the gratification – and thank goodness there are people like you and organizations like yourself that you have created to help people – but what I really like is the dual purpose that’s going on, and really keeping that dual purpose forefront; and that’s one, the purpose of obviously who you serve, but also the inspiration and potential that you provide in others who are serving.
Mark: Well, there’s … it’s human connection first and foremost. That’s why poverty endures, because there’s not enough human connection. When we increase the sense of connection in our world, then poverty doesn’t have a chance.
There are so many more people who are not living day-to-day without their basic need items. In other words, most of the people have what they need, so if those folks can just say, “All right, I got mine, now I’m going to help other people to make sure they have their opportunity.” And that’s all it takes.
So, we can see that the mathematics are very simple. For every three of us who have it, there’s one who doesn’t. So if I had a sister and two brothers, and one of them was in need, the three of us would make sure the one had everything they need. That’s all we have to do – take that model and expand upon it. That’s it.
There’s a lot of things that can get in the way of seeing things like that, and so to the extent that we can, like a sculptor, just chip away at what keeps us from being more connected, and therefore leave us with this greater sense of connection, then we’ll be okay. Once we connect more to people, we’ll be okay.
Toni: What inspires you, Mark?
Mark: Well, I’ve been fortunate to have been able to get an education, and so in my education I was able to read about people who have lead, again, extraordinary lives, whether it was Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., or others who said, “This is it. This is what I’m supposed to do with my life. Whatever it takes.” That’s what inspires me daily.
You know, I’m very fortunate to be able to have a life where I can have my spiritual connection, which is of course a very personal kind of connection, dictate every part of my life; then that makes it real easy. So I like to connect to, you know, everyone around and I think … I’m lucky, I have a lot of people who work on this team as interns and volunteers and staff members, and their commitment inspires me.
Toni: Mark, what has … I’ve been saying this more and more, in these last batches of interviews in the first year of the Get Inspired! Project – what has become this unintended outcome is people like yourself talking about passion and purpose. Whether they’ve come up on it by accident and realized it, or it was an evolution. How did this happen for you? Where did the passion come from to fuel this purpose?
Mark: Well, it was both. It was always there, and then it was one moment, if you will, and it was when I was volunteering and I found myself in the apartment of a grandmother and a mother and two kids.
The grandmother reminded me of my own grandmother, who at the time was my best friend. She was still alive, and she was 80 years old. This woman, who had oxygen tubes in her nose and a walker, and her daughter was in very poor health and her grandkids were in poor health, but I connected with her the most and was talking to her for several minutes, and then she told me she was 35 years old.
And I just thought, that’s just unbelievable that poverty could leave people in that condition at such a young age.
So I left that apartment and I started driving down Georgia Avenue in Washington, D.C. and just pulled over to the side of the road and said, “That’s it. It’s so easy for us to end poverty for a family like that” and for every other family that I saw all around me the day I was volunteering. So that was my “ah-ha” moment, if you will.
Then when I thought about whether or not I should give up everything and commit to this life of service, I just cried and cried and cried, because I knew that was what I was supposed to do. So it took me a while, but I think probably the seeds were always there.
As I think back on my life, I always felt very strongly about inequalities and how it made no sense that we would live day-to-day allowing those inequalities to endure. Finally, at age 38, I had a moment where I could say, “Okay, everything else stops.” That’s what I’ve done.
So it’s really simple for me once I found that, and I cried many, many nights because I just … it was kind of a big step to drop everything else and make this my only priority. Fortunately, I had the space personally to be able to do that, and so I did.
Toni: I think the lesson here that I’m hearing, and I know that people who are listening to this interview all over the world, you know, they’re wondering, okay, here’s another example of someone who recognized what that was they were meant to do and had the courage to walk through the door.
Mark: Well, you know, I think when you’re lucky enough to do it, a lot of people do say it takes courage, but I think it just … you know, you’re lucky to have it. You’re lucky to realize it, and then to have the personal space in every way to be able to make that commitment.
But then it’s really just about keeping your life simple and saying, “Okay, I’m going to live simply because I know that my life can affect so many others, and that everybody I touch can affect so many others as well.” But I’m fortunate to have been able to have found that.
Toni: Right, right. Well, the final question of the Project, Mark, is what are you doing now to continue to explore your own potential?
Mark: I think, you know, I fall down so many times each day, and so there’s a couple of great sayings. “Fall down eight times, stand up nine.” That inspires me every day because I make so many mistakes. But I think it’s continually questioning what we’re doing and what I’m doing.
Then, I have to be authentic. So when I tell people there’s no limit as to what they can accomplish in life, I have to go right back and say, “Okay, there’s no limit as to what I can accomplish in life.” The end of poverty, or ending poverty, sounds like it’s an idealistic or even naive personal kind of mission to have. But when people, you know, protested for civil rights, women suffrage, all the great causes throughout history, always when the person started out and said, “I’m going to make that happen” other people said, “You can’t. That’s just the way it is. There are no equal rights. Women can’t vote.”
It’s the same with poverty. And so what allows me to explore this potential to end poverty is I think seeing what’s happened in the past and knowing that if we’re fully committed, if I’m fully committed, there’s no limit as to what can occur.
Toni: I really like that, I really do. You’ve zeroed in on poverty as far as where that starts, but yet, when you’ve explained at the very beginning of this interview how far that outreach is as far as even education and workshops and so forth, there’s much more going on here than trying to help someone out of poverty.
Mark: Well, it really is about living to our full potential, and when you do that, you realize that it just doesn’t stop. You can just keep going and keep going. And what one person can do and then five people can do, and then ten people … it’s just limitless. And that’s what we’re trying to build here, and that is the life to which I’m committed for sure.
Toni: Wow. This interview has been amazing. I am so grateful that you have shown up and you’re on the grand finale of the Get Inspired! Project. Mark, just for taking time out of this wonderful work that you’re doing to be part of this Project, we cannot thank you enough.
Mark: Toni, it’s my pleasure. I appreciate your reaching out.
Toni: Thank you, Mark. Take care.
For more information about Mark Bergel: www.awidercircle.org