Songs in the key of life

Imagine stepping out of your busy life for a year to travel the world. Sounds pretty amazing, doesn’t it? But what if that time away was spent helping others in need?

That’s exactly what Greenwich residents Anna and Ken Song did when they pulled their three children out of school to spend a year volunteering with nonprofit organizations in South Africa and the Dominican Republic, a trip they say was not only amazing but life-changing for their family.

Anna and I meet in her home where she tells me about her extraordinary journey, which left me humbled and gave me goose bumps throughout our interview.

“My kids say the thing they learned most is that community makes the biggest difference. You can be stripped of all the materials things, but if you have a community – people helping out and loving one another – that actually goes a long way,” she adds with a winsome smile that radiates warmth and kindness.

“There’s something wonderful about the give-and-take we all witnessed.”

About five years ago, her family had planned to spend the summer volunteering in Peru. They were all set to go, but a week before flying out, Ken, who owned his own hedge fund, announced to his wife that he couldn’t leave his company at its height. Needless to say, Anna was disappointed.

“I think that’s when both of us realized that it’s not ever going to be the perfect time. We kept thinking there’d be a perfect time, you work really hard and it will allow us to do these things we’d always planned.”

That, she says, is a complete fallacy.

Still, when their oldest child was in ninth grade (Stephen is currently a junior at Greenwich High School and sisters Julianna and Christine, a sophomore and third-grader respectively at Greenwich Academy), the couple realized they only had a few years before he’d be out of the house. So they decided to make the time. With that, Ken closed his hedge fund and the couple took their children out of school to embark on a trip they weren’t exactly sure what to expect from.

While they had always given money to various nonprofits, this time the compassionate couple wanted to give in a way that was more personal, working alongside the people they were trying to help.

“That was what we really wanted to do and spend time with our kids and infuse them with the understanding that the world is really big and you’re incredibly lucky. And don’t worry about half the things people are worried about here. … You’ve already hit the lottery of life.” As she adds, “That’s why we were willing to step out (of our lives) because we already felt these are all degrees of success, everybody here is more than fine.”

They started with lofty plans.

“Because Ken and I are both MBAs (she got hers at Harvard and he got his from Columbia, where the two met during their undergraduate work), we thought we could go places and do mighty work in the finance area. We’re going to do big projects where we can raise tons of money. We had all those plans and, of course, those were the ones that didn’t pan out.”

So in August 2011, the Song family stepped off the proverbial treadmill and out of their comfort zone to travel to a remote area of South Africa and volunteer at Lily of the Valley Orphanage, which serves more than 120 HIV-infected children. Of all the places they visited, it was there the Songs felt most profoundly moved.

“The big difference with Lily of the Valley is that for the first time, those kids are not going to die, they’re going to actually age out of the orphanage. Our kids are completely on fire and light up to make sure they have something. If it’s not academics, they need a life skill. I think our kids feel an urgency about this. They want to make sure that when these kids age out, they have a place because they don’t have family.”

In order to ensure that happens, Lily has embarked on two projects she hopes will build self-sustainability. Using hydroponics technology to grow plants without soil, the orphanage is able to grow tomatoes and sell them to food markets.

“Ken and I have been working throughout this year with a group of volunteers to partner with Lily on multiple levels to improve their business model, improve operations, help with their tomato branding and secure investors for their projects.”

And thanks to the Songs’ teenage son, who single-handedly raised $40,000 applying for numerous grants, Lily was able to spearhead a second project called aquaponics – a cutting edge method of growing crops and fish together in a recirculating system.

“It’s not because Stephen’s brilliant it’s because he’s writing applications and putting his heart into it,” his mom says proudly.

Aquaponics will help feed the entire orphanage and, if it works, provide a trade for the teenagers.

With their belief that every gift, no matter how small, can have an effect on a child’s life, the Songs established The Tabgha Love Foundation to benefit the children of Lily of the Valley Orphanage. (It’s named for the place where Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.) The family covers all operating expenses so that 100 percent of donations go directly to the orphanage.

Next on the itinerary was the Dominican Republic where the Songs traveled to Santa Domingo and Neyba to meet with the World Vision kids that their children had been sponsoring for 10 years. What they found there was shocking.

“I will say that they were blown away by the poverty and how what they thought was insignificant was life-altering for (the World Vision kids),” she says about her children’s reaction.

“It rattled my daughter (Julianna’s) sensibilities that people could live like that. But (the World Vision Kids) had a sense of community and they were happy. That’s what really shocked them.”

As a pastor’s daughter growing up in Bethesda, Md., Anna describes her childhood as being radically different from most people, including that of her husband, who grew up more traditionally.

“It was a different way to live. There was always someone living in our home. My father, being a pastor, spent most of his time not necessarily focusing on us but focusing on people who just really needed a lot.

One of the things that was profoundly different was we had the sensibility that whatever community you’re in should actually be impacted positively by you being there.”

That guiding principle has not only affected her family but her community, too.

In 2004, Anna co-founded Harvard Business School Club of Connecticut Community Partners, which helps nonprofits in the state with pro-bono consulting by HBS alumni and scholarship programs. Currently, she is most involved with Strategic Perspectives in Non-profit Management (SPNM) – a scholarship that sends a CEO of a nonprofit to an intensive, one-week program taught by leading Harvard Business School faculty and attended by nonprofit executives from around the world. Past SPMN scholarship recipients have included the Bruce Museum; High Hopes Therapeutic Riding in Old Lyme, Conn; Nathaniel Witherell; the Greenwich Historical Society, the Stamford Museum & Nature Center; the American Red Cross in Farmington, Conn.; and the Silvermine Guild Arts Center. (For more, visit hbsconnecticut.org)

“I think most people think of their lives as a trajectory of you’re learning, you’re earning and then you’re returning,” Anna says. “You’ve got to focus on those three areas and the returning is always at the end. In my life, I’ve woven the returning through and I firmly believe that makes a profound difference in terms of happiness, gratitude and thankfulness.”

For more about The Tabgha Love Foundation, visit nogifttoosmall.com

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