It seems that baby Rafaela definitely changed the world for her parents, Mark and Ismini Svensson. After she was born the couple decided to take a different path in life and dedicate themselves to giving back to our society. And yes, you guessed correctly, baby Rafaela is right there with them helping make our world a better place. But how did this young couple make the decision to drop everything they were doing and start Stay United?
StayUNITED is a non-profit organization whose goal is to empower communities through collaborative problem-solving. The main areas of focus are: education, environment and health & wellness. The non-profit was founded by Greek Civil Engineer Ismini Svensson and her husband Mark Svensson. The two met at Georgetown and were bonded by their love of charity and giving.
Stay United has begun a series of initiatives and programs including “H2O,” “4 Kids,” “50 Acts of Giving Back,””Roundtables,” “Gift of Music,” and “Scholarships.” In an interview with Ismini, we focused on the “50 Acts of Giving” project which they are currently undertaking. For this project, the two and their 6-month-old daughter, are traveling to all 50 States in the U.S. focusing in helping out with pressing issues and concerns unique to each community. The interview was conducted while they were on the road. Last time we spoke the couple and their daughter, Rafaela, had already travelled to thirty states.
What is the goal of your initiave “50 Acts of Giving Back” ?
50 Acts of Giving Back is an international initiative demonstrating the power of the social media in transforming the way social good can be performed in today’s world. Under the banner ‘50 Acts of Giving Back,’ my husband Mark and I are traveling to all 50 states in the U.S performing 50 acts of kindness. We invite citizens to join our journey through StayUNITED’s Facebook and Twitter pages and share issues of their concern affecting their communities. The goal of this initiative is to show how technology and the use of the social media can transform the way acts of social good can be communicated and replicated across the globe. We are grateful that our work and leadership was recently recognized by Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA33) in the United States Congress.
So far you furnished the homes of two homeless mothers and their children and organized a book drive to local schools in Nevada. How did those two acts of kindness go? How were they received by the communities?
We have visited thirty states so far. Some of our acts of kindness include: Furnishing the home of two formerly homeless women and their children in Los Angeles, California; Donating books and promoting the importance of literacy in Las Vegas, Nevada; Visiting patients suffering from cancer in Asheville, North Carolina; Bringing toys to seriously ill children at the Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas; Providing meals to the homeless in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and more. The reaction of the people we come in contact with is always extremely positive. Many times people have mentioned how inspired they are by our work. Seeing the impact even the smallest act of kindness has created, keeps us going.
Do you have any other organizations you work with that help you achieve your mission?
‘50 Acts of Giving Back’ is a self-funded initiative. Instead of having a fancy wedding, my husband Mark and I decided to use the money to travel across the U.S and perform acts of kindness. For us, this is our wedding and honeymoon. During this journey we support individuals in need as well as local organizations that are creating a positive impact in the communities we visit. All donations received during this journey support the StayUNITED 4 Kids program, which provides financial and emotional support to seriously ill children and their families in the U.S.
When did it start, how long have you been on the road and what are some challenges you have faced in implementing it?
We started this initiative in January 2013 when I was several months pregnant. In April, I gave birth to our daughter Rafaela, in Los Angeles, California. Now we continue our travels with her. It is a pleasure traveling and doing what we love as a family. It is amazing to explore our beautiful country, connect with people all across America, and help those in need. It has been a life changing experience for us.
How do you decide what those charities are going to be?
All of our acts of kindness are a result of our engagement with citizens online and in person while visiting communities. Based on the feedback and suggestions we receive, we decide what act of kindness we will perform next. This approach keeps people engaged and motivated to perform social good themselves. It is important for people to know that their voices are heard.
Your little daughter Rafaela is accompanying you to all your trips and she participates in the acts of charity. What are the hardships you and her may face since she is a baby? Is it hard for you to be on the road for so long and especially with your baby?
Rafaela is doing amazing. She enjoys the journey and spending time with both her parents. She meets a lot people along the journey, which definitely impacts her development and how socialized she is. Also, being able to see the country, all the different landscapes and cities, has a positive effect on her brain development. Many people comment that Rafaela is very alert for her age and always happy.
Ismini you are from Greece. What city are you from and why did you move to the US?
I am originally from Athens, Greece. I studied civil engineering at the National Technical University of Athens. I left Greece after finishing my studies and moved to the U.S in 2008. In 2010, I moved to Washington, D.C where I worked alongside members of the U.S government, meeting political leaders such as Vice-President Biden, former-President Clinton, and President Obama. I currently reside in Beverly Hills, California.
Are you planning any charities in the future to help Greece?
His Beatitude Ieronymos II, Archbishop of Athens and All Greece is a member of StayUNITED’s Honorary Leadership Council. We are planning to start a program soon to help the children of Greece under the banner ‘StayUNITED for Greece – Eνωμένοι για την Ελλάδα.’
How did you and your husband get involved with charity work?
Mark and I have always had a passion for service and helping those in greatest need. We met each other at an event at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. This common passion was one of the factors that brought us closer together in the beginning of our relationship. Service to others is what inspires us most in life and we feel fortunate to have the opportunity to do what we love together.
Where would you like to see StayUnited in 3 years from now?
StayUNITED has already been recognized in the United States Congress as a result of our initiatives that have improved lives in the United States and throughout the world. His Beatitude Ieronymos II, Archbishop of Athens and All Greece is the first member of StayUNITED’s Honorary Leadership Council, which we will be expanding. StayUNITED recently received the GuideStar Exchange Gold participation level, a leading symbol of non-profit transparency and accountability provided by GuideStar USA, Inc. Focusing on legitimacy, impact, reputation, finances, programs, transparency, and governance, GuideStar rated StayUNITED in the top 3% of most transparent and accountable non-profit organizations in the United States. I hope in 3 years from now, StayUNITED will be one of the most respected charitable organizations in the world.
Learn more at StayUnited.org