Upper West Side philanthropist proves that we all can do our part to end poverty
(http://nypress.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Celeb_Betty-Swann_opt.jpeg)This holiday season, when you're buying gifts at Time Warner Center, seeing The Nutcracker, or paying for an overpriced tree, remember that there are people in the world who live on just a dollar a day. Upper West Side resident Betty Swann thinks about this staggering statistic every single day and has made it her life's purpose to feed and educate the poor in impoverished countries in Africa and the Middle East. In 2005, Swann had the idea to start picking up discarded pennies from the street and accumulate the money for charity. From that seemingly simple act came a whole campaign she named Pennies from Heaven, which aids people all over the world. "I've given away over a million dollars and it's people like Upper West Siders helping me," she said. Through her efforts, she's assisted 254 villages in third-world countries. Although she hasn't been to all of them personally, Skype and PayPal help her stay in contact. The 69-year-old has no intention of stopping her ministry and hopes to include Asia and Europe as part of her outreach in the future. "It makes me feel like I have found my purpose in life," she said.
You're originally from Texas and started your ministry by assisting women. How did that job come about?
My last child had left home and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I could have gotten a PhD, become a motivational speaker, or continued modeling and acting. Instead, in 1992, I was approached by a 4,000-member church, asking me if I would be their women's minister. During that time, I began taking teams of men and women to Belarus right after they came out from under Communism. We worked all over that entire nation for eight years, helping at orphanages, prisons, and hospitals.
What do you see when you visit these countries?
The first thing you see is that America is unbelievably rich. I realize we have poor people here, but even our poor are not poor like the rest of the world. In fact, I'm sure the rest of the world would think our poor is rich, because they have a place to live. Homeless people around the world live in the woods, nobody feeds them or helps them. And here, there are all these government options. In third world countries, people are hungry to become successful and educated. There are people there with PhDs, people very involved with technology, but there are also those who are very poor.
Which country surprised you the most?
Pakistan. The reason it did is because it's in the news constantly and you're seeing killing, burning, raping, looting, brutality, and hatred. People were very scared for us to go there, so we [Swann's husband is her Chairman of the Board] prayed a lot about it. I guess the thing that surprised me the most was how normal the people were. They were just living their regular lives.
When the villagers hear you are from New York, what do they ask you?
People in Africa wanted to know about Obama because I was there when he was running for president. They were excited that a black man was about to be elected president of America. Well, they've seen movies, so they want to know if the stuff they've seen is true. They want to know if we have poverty and crime, because their only knowledge of America, for the most part, is through TV or movies.
(http://nypress.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Celeb_Pennies-from-Hea_opt.jpeg)What role does religion play in your work?
Religion plays the biggest part in what I do. I am an ordained minister. I don't think of it so much as religion, as I do of that which comes out of knowing God's love for people and his intense desire to help people all over the world. I feel that same passion inside of myself and I know it is from him.
You said that your biggest goal is to educate the poor.
The more education people can get, the better chance they have of a better life. Education is the way out of poverty. In Pakistan, we started mobile Bible schools and educational centers to teach reading and writing.
What is your opinion on giving money to the homeless on the streets?
If I feel a tug in my heart towards a homeless person on the train or on the street, I give them money. I don't do it a lot because I want all my money to go feed these people in other countries, because they're worse off.
In Africa, you mainly work with women. What is life like for them?
I've been to Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, and Rwanda, and see that it's very difficult for women to get ahead. Women do the work of men in Africa. They work hard and have a lot of children. In some places, they're seen on the same level as cattle.
You also mentor young women in New York.
It's through Every Nation New York, a church here with locations on both the east and west sides. I'm mentoring young professionals who are very educated and want somebody to bounce their thoughts off of and also want to grow in their faith.
How did you get the idea to start your Pennies from Heaven charity?
I was out walking with a friend every day and saw dirty pennies, nickels, dimes on the ground that people had thrown away. I decided I was going to pick them up and save them and see what the Lord would tell me to do with them. I saved them for two years and I had $2.33. Well, I have a friend in Malawi who was a member of Parliament there. She's now the deputy representative of Malawi to the UN here in New York. Her district has a high level of flooding and drought, and therefore, intense poverty and hunger. So she wrote me and said, "Is there any way you can help me feed these people?" So I got a couple thousand dollars together and put my $2.33 in with it and thought, "Well, I'm just gonna use it on that." The next month, I started talking to people and sent out emails saying, "This is what I'm going to do, I'm going to get everybody in America helping me pick up pennies and feed people with what America throws away." I set up an account at Wells Fargo bank and it goes in there and we give it away. People do PayPal, send checks, and occasionally someone will mail me pennies.
How does the word spread about your mission?
It's through word of mouth and of course, when I was on TV for six years, I spread the word. People up here would write me from Pennsylvania and Florida since it was on a station in Texas that had an international satellite. What I discovered is that people from America are very generous, for the most part, and are very aware of how fortunate their lives are.
For more information on Betty's charity, visit www.penniesfromheavenus.com.