I had the pleasure of sitting down over Skype with John Marshall. John was making a temporary stop from his world travels at his brother's home in Andover, Massachusetts, while I was across the country in my office in Newport Beach. We enjoyed a long talk about how he transitioned from becoming a nine-time Emmy award-winning producer, to an author and philanthropist advocating for orphan children around the globe.
MV: John! Thank you so much for sitting down with me. Can you share with us your background, both personal and professional??
John: Of course. My hometown is in New Hampshire. My initial degree was in business administration, but I discovered I really didn't like business administration, so I eventually went on to build a career as a screenwriter and television producer. I have two children, a son who is 23 and a daughter who is 21. I loved being a father and tried to make the most of the short time we get to spend with our kids. When they were teenagers, we had reached a crossroads as a family, and decided to take a year off, traveling around the world and volunteering.
I spent time in some amazing places, but ultimately I fell in love with the children at the Good Shephard Agricultural Mission, a large orphanage in Banbassa, India. I eventually wrote a book, Wide Open World, about our time volunteering. After our year abroad, I realized I had discovered a new passion, which was to help discover and support orphan champions around the world—people on the ground, doing good work, to save and care for these forgotten kids. My non-profit, New Orphanage, is my way of giving back.
MV: What a trajectory it has been for you. I know you now spend the majority of your time traveling and continuing to support and serve at the orphanage in India, as well as some other orphan projects in Africa that you’ve helped found. What is your current lifestyle like? What have been the pluses and minuses for you?
John: Thanks to my book sales, it has been several years now since I’ve had to hold a traditional job. In that time, after my daughter went away to school, I sold my house and started traveling, ultimately finding my true calling with these orphaned and abandoned children. Caring for orphans has been the most rewarding work I’ve ever been a part of, but there have been some trade-offs. For example, my daughter is currently in college, and misses her childhood home to return to in the summers. My life is now full of adventure but much less stable, which can be hard on her. While I love her like few things on this earth, I love lots of kids and feel torn at times. How to have the maximum impact? How do I use my time effectively and still be a good dad? It’s a constant balancing act but we’re figuring it out.
MV: Tell me about your passion for orphans in particular. What about this cause is dear to your heart?
John: When I first learned about the plight of orphaned and abandoned children around the world, I wanted to save them all. UNICEF puts the number of such children at around 153 million, and that’s a really big number. To put it in perspective: If you were to stack 153 million dollar bills one on top of the other, that pile would be more than ten miles high! It would be hard to wash 153 million socks, much less feed and clothe and love 153 million children. Very quickly, I began to feel overwhelmed. When you look at the problem all at once, it’s easy to feel defeated before you even start.
But then I realized, that huge number is just made up of individuals. One child and one child and one child. They’re not statistics, not a faceless mass. These are children we are talking about. Like your children and my children and every child we’ve ever loved. So then I thought: If I could help one child, and then another, that would be a start. I found that when I focused on helping the single child and not trying to save the whole world, the process became much less about ego and more about service.
One person at a time is the way we connect, anyway. So I use my skills as a writer and TV producer to tell stories about individuals that might help inspire people, to connect with them emotionally. Big, faceless numbers never moved anyone. It’s always the story of one that motivates people to act. Like the single Syrian baby washed up on shore. It makes the crisis personal.
Here in America, we don’t see starving children begging in the street. Orphans in Zimbabwe or India might as well be on the moon for all the connection we feel with them day to day. But I guarantee, if you meet these children that live and struggle in these far off places, you will fall in love with them. So that’s what I try to do. I tell stories to make the world feel something and, hopefully, to act. In many ways, my years of experience in the TV business now feel like practice for this work. These children are certainly the best clients I’ve ever worked for.
MV: What do you think orphan children need the most?
John: I think they need what any child needs. They need what your son and daughter need, or what my son and daughter need. Yes, food, clothing, shelter, and education...but beyond that, they need someone to love them, care for them, spend time with them, encourage them. And they need just regular fun! At the Indian orphanage I visit, we spend time putting on a huge summer camp we call Summer Games that’s full of new experiences and late nights and a little friendly competition. Fun is what makes childhoods memorable and I love offering these kinds of memories to kids who began life without much play at all.
The truth is: serving these kids feels like the perfect exchange to me. If you ask them: Who gives more? You or Uncle John (which is what they call me), they would say that I give more. They don’t think they are giving anything at all. But if you ask me, I say the exact opposite. What these kids give to my life is infinitely more than valuable to me than what I am giving away. So it goes beyond win-win. Everyone feels like they’re giving nothing and everyone feels like they’re getting everything!
MV: What would you advise the average citizen who wants to help, but can't or won't leave their job to do so?
John: I would say to get involved with the cause that feels close to your heart. For reasons we don't understand, we all feel a connection to different causes. Perhaps some care about the rainforest or animals, even if they have never been to a rainforest or seen an endangered animal in the wild.
I was once asked at a book signing, "John, why don't you help children in America, instead of India or Africa?" And I said: "I’m not sure. Why are our hearts touched by something and not something else?" For whatever reason, I feel drawn in particular to those children, but if someone feels particularly drawn to children in America, go for it! They all need us. Whatever you feel in your heart, whatever small step you can take, just do it. There is so much collective need, like a giant ocean. If each person tackles just one drop, eventually we will get there. We are all part of the same team.
I started the New Orphanage project also in order to help people know which organizations they can trust. I have seen far too many charities and orphanages that were scams, where all the money went to corrupt adults, rather than to the children. Through the New Orphanage project, I personally visit and assess which individuals and organizations are reliable, trustworthy, and fiscally responsible, and help connect them to people willing to help. It is a way to expand my reach.
MV: Yes. If we all did our own part, the collective impact could be massive. My final question for you John. Can you share with me what inspires you?
John: What inspires me? Well, I think about how, these days, if you listen to the news, you would think the whole world is in freefall, that the end is near. But when you actually get out into the world, when you meet the world, you find committed, passionate people everywhere. And then I realize, this world is going to be okay. These people are my inspiration.
And of course, I’m inspired by the children of the world. Through no fault of their own, these kids were given a challenging start in life. Abuse, abandonment, hunger, fear. And yet, they are some of the most joyful kids you will ever meet. They are not just a reminder of all that we have, they are a reminder of what gratitude looks like, what unconditional love feels like and what a difference we can all make when we take the time to reach out and lift one of them up. They are my inspiration. No doubt.
MV: Thank you John, for your time, and for sharing your experiences with our readers!
To learn more about John Marshall, his project New Orphanage, his book, Wide Open World, and his upcoming book, Mission, please visit his website, www.johnmarshall.com.