From Epiphany to Action

Fifteen years ago, in the wake of 9/11, former marketing executive Janine Maxwell had an epiphany that she couldn’t ignore. Will her story inspire you to pursue your own calling?

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” – Nelson Mandela

An epiphany is a sudden, striking realization. To me, it is also a call to action. In a moment, I’ll tell you how an epiphany led me to leave my comfortable home in Canada to become an activist and mother of 138 children in Africa.

But first, I’ll explain why 9/11 put me on this path.

My hope is that my story leads you to listen to your own epiphanies and inspires you to take action – whether it’s following a call to invent, build or to serve others.

My World Fell Apart

I was in New York on September 11, 2001 to meet with clients in a hotel directly above Grand Central Station. We all watched on TV as the second plane hit the towers, and saw people jumping from the burning buildings, one after another. Our hotel was evacuated due to a bomb threat at Grand Central.

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But, like so many of us, the trauma of 9/11 settled in my bones.

Fearing for our lives, we grabbed our things and ran. All I knew was that planes were falling from the sky. My husband was on a flight to Chicago, set to land that morning. And my two children were far away at our home in Canada.

After traveling 60 blocks on foot, my co-workers and I stayed at a kind stranger’s apartment that night, and made my way to New Jersey the next day. My husband’s plane had landed safely. My children were safe at home.

But, like so many of us, the trauma of 9/11 settled in my bones.

Finding the Meaning of Life

Back in Canada, I fell into a dark depression. For six months, I replayed the tragedy, wondering, why am I alive when so many did not survive that day?

About a year-and-a-half later, when some old college friends decided to travel to Africa to produce a film about street kids, I decided go with them. I knew I would learn something about myself. It’s like I was throwing a dart, trying to find my purpose.

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It turns out that pile of trash was made up of children, from age two and up, wrapped in garbage to stay warm.

My very first night in Zambia, I saw what I thought was a huge pile of trash outside. It turns out that pile was actually made up of children, from age two and up, wrapped in garbage to stay warm. We listened to their stories about being raped and beaten at night. The children told us that the only food they had to eat was what they could find in garbage cans.

I listened to dozens and dozens of stories of children who cared for parents dying of AIDS-related illnesses. Children washing their dead parents and burying them. Children selling their bodies for sex so they could afford a loaf of bread. Young girls becoming pregnant and drowning their babies in the river or latrines.

I was shocked. I remember thinking, this really happens. That’s when I had my epiphany. I thought, this is not okay. I couldn’t just walk away and do nothing.

I had to act.

From Epiphany to Action

“The future depends on what you do today.” — Gandhi

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That is what a true epiphany does. It moves you to do what you need to do.

I returned home to my normal life and my big, beautiful house in Canada. Here I was, driving my BMW to work in my designer suits. My first meeting was with the president of a major food company. One of their product lines was not as profitable as it should be, they said, and there was only a million dollars to fix this crisis.

They called it a crisis. One million dollars was inadequate. That was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard. At that moment I was done. I couldn’t stay in my job or my comfortable life in Canada. I had to help those children.

That is what a true epiphany does. It moves you to do what you need to do.

In 2006, my husband and I started an organization called Heart for Africa in the United States. Five years later we packed our bags and moved our family to Swaziland. There, we started our mission to provide a home for the orphaned and vulnerable children.

We started by taking in just one abandoned baby in need. Today, we are the legal guardians for 138 children under the age of six. We employ 280 people and feed 2,100 children every week.

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Today, we are the legal guardians for 138 children under the age of six.

We run a dairy farm and also produce our own eggs. Our babies are loved and cared for. They get the food and education and clothing they need. We get a new baby in need almost every two weeks. Because of severe drought, we recently received 12 children in just 16 days.

Despite our care, these children are not immune to illness or death from illnesses like AIDS-related pneumonia or drug-resistant tuberculosis.

As I write this, tears come. One of our babies just died yesterday. But some survive incredible conditions.

35 of our children were once dumped in pit latrines and left to die. One these babies was left in human feces for a full five days before someone brought her to us. She survived, and I am now her new mother.

[Learn more about Heart for Africa on Longitudes]

Don’t Shut Down Your Epiphany

Take it from me. That sudden, inspired idea you have? It’s a call to action. Now, of course, my epiphany knocked me over the head. Not every epiphany comes from a moment as significant as 9/11 or the tragedy I saw in Africa. Sometimes, they are quieter, and you have to listen closely.

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That sudden, inspired idea you have? It’s a call to action.

When you hear your own epiphany, make the choice to let that heartfelt idea lead you to make a change. It will not be easy: Many people you talk to about your dream will have an opinion. Some will try to sway you with their own agendas. You need to be true to you.

Don’t let fear, lethargy or criticism stop you from helping a neighbor; taking up a cause; changing your path. Move past all that and step into action. Make a plan and execute it to the best of your ability.

If I hadn’t listened to my own epiphany, I don’t know how I would still be getting up, putting on my fancy clothes and going to an office, knowing that children are dying every day. I would have died inside.

Now I know. When your heart is moved, you have to follow it. goldbrown2

 Click here to buy Janine’s most recent book Is It Okay With You? on Amazon.

The UPS Foundation has been a proud partner of Heart for Africa since 2012. Throughout the past four years, the foundation has helped provide building materials and security fencing for various parts of the property, including the El Roi Baby House. Additionally, UPSers travel to Project Canaan each year to participate in its short-term volunteer program. Check out the slideshow below for pictures from the most recent UPS volunteer trip.


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Janine Maxwell is the co-founder of Heart for Africa.

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Reprinted with permission of Longitudes, the UPS blog devoted to the trends shaping the global economy.