An entrepreneur and activist steers around gains and losses by giving back
Lorne A. Adrain says he has paired his drive to achieve with his desire to help others since childhood.
And indeed, as he built two companies in Providence, Rhode Island- including a financial-services boutique for entrepreneurs-Adrain racked up an impressive record of philanthropic initiatives and hands-on community service.
He even turned his offbeat idea of using block parties to build neighborhood community into a nonprofit group, campaign, web site, and, as he says with only slight hyperbole, "a new day in our national cultural calendar."
But that doesn't mean it's been easy for Adrain. A few years ago, Adrain hit one of those walls in life that tests everything a person ever believed.
In April 2002, Adrain's third and youngest child, a five-year-old sprite of a girl named Grace, died from a rare disease just days after getting sick. The grief was devastating. With the support of family and friends, Adrain somehow found a way to go on. Indeed, after a while, he worked harder than before, he said, on what he had been doing, including his dream for National Neighborhood Day and promoting social venture philanthropy.
How did he continue to give when he hurt so badly inside?
The answer lies in turning that question around, Adrain said. The meaning he got from giving to others, he said, kept the grief from devouring him. "If I had stopped trying to make a difference for others," he said, "I could have been sucked into a deep well of depression and despair."
Losing his daughter put everything in perspective. "In a way it helped me get out of my skin and refocus on what really matters in life," he said. "It led me to realize that my life is just a tiny ripple in the world. And realizing how fleeting life is strengthened my resolve to do what I can to make a difference."
Having adopted a daughter, Annabelle, last year, Adrain, who is 52 years old, and his wife, Ann Hood, a novelist, now have three children again in their Providence home.
Adrain says he still has his "dark moments." To fend them off, his Palm Pilot is programmed to open each day with an image of his daughter and a prayer he whispers. Part of it, he said, is an appeal to Grace for guidance: "Help me today Gracie Belle-to live and to love in a way that honors your spirit and makes you proud." He also prays some days "to know where I ought to be and what I ought to be doing."
In recent years that "ought to be doing" has included a variety of roles and projects. Adrain compiled and edited The Most Important Thing I Know , a collection of handwritten messages by notable people about life's lessons and inspirations. it is now an ongoing series, with four volumes in print and three more on the way.
In 2000 Adrain founded a company that provided Internet-based software and digital tools to track and promote corporate giving and philanthropy. And he has chaired the Rhode Island Special Olympics and co-founded the Rhode Island affiliate of Social Venture Partners, a national organization.
Adrain's business serves the insurance, investment and estate planning needs of wealthy individuals and families. Before he began that practice, he spent a decade advising start-ups and obtaining equity financing for them.
His success has given him considerable wealth, but that has not distracted him from helping others, he said. "So I have money, lots of it, by some measures -so what? I have opportunities to enjoy and change the world in more and different ways than I was able to before. It inspires me to think about the meaning of my life and act on that thinking."
When he had to scramble for rent money, life's meaning wasn't a huge concern. Now that he has "more than enough to pay the rent," Adrain says that how he allocates it "becomes one measure of what my life is about, and, over time, what difference it made."
Adrain's community service work is focused these days on National Neighborhood Day, which promotes neighborhood gatherings as a way to build local connections and community involvement.
Adrain conceived of the idea after September 11, 2001. The terrorist attack underscored the simple fact that we need each other. And that people need to weave the web of human ties that make up any community before bad things happen, so people can turn to those nets for support.
A few months later, Adrain and Hood threw a party for their neighbors. Guests swapped babysitter lists, planned a way to pool their garden tools, chipped in to plant trees in their neighborhood, and got to know each other better.
Its success inspired Adrain to think big. He brought classmates from Harvard Business School to the cause, and together they used the Internet, marketing strategies, and word-of-mouth to promote it. They signed up supporters including Boy Scouts of America, United Way of America, the national Methodist and United Church of Christ churches, City Year, Social Venture Partners, and others.
National Neighborhood Day was launched as an official nonprofit organization in 2004, on a budget of $35,000. Last year, the organization raised $170,000 in contributions. This year's budget is $250,000. Its web site address is www.neighborhoodday.org.
The event falls on the third Sunday in September. Tracking participation has been sketchy until now, but Adrain estimates that several thousand people in a handful of states got together last year on National Neighborhood Day to grill burgers, break wheels of brie or smash a piÃƒÂ±ata together. The nonprofit learned only in February, for example, that residents of Louisville, Kentucky, had held dozens of parties after local officials promoted the idea.
Neighborhood Day 2006 is set for September 17. This year, adoption has grown exponentially, with cities and corporate sponsors lining up, Adrain said. Based on that growth, he now thinks 500,000 people across the nation will gather on that Sunday to chow food and forge bonds.
The Rhode Island Council of Churches has been an enthusiastic supporter. "It is an easy and effective way for us to get to know one another in a world in which isolation and loneliness are epidemic," said Rev John Holt, director of the group.
Lewis Feldstein, a national neighborhood advocate, said ideas like Adrain's can reap huge benefits. "People who live in communities with a high sense of connectedness are happier, healthier, live longer, and are safer," said Feldstein. "Their schools work better and their governments are more effective.'
Notwithstanding his own example, Adrain says that people who want to make a difference don't have to go out and found a 501C3. "We can make a difference in big and little ways. The little choices I make every day, what I say to my children, how I treat people, all these can leave these anonymous ripples that influence or inspire others, and, as they are passed, still others. So I'm always wondering, how can I make these ripples?
I try to learn with every experience. My community work and my books have underscored for me the three most important things I know. We know these things so well that we almost forget them:
Life is simple . The more complex things become, the more simple truths stand out. The important things in life, the attitudes and behaviors that move the world, don't change. Take risks! Work hard! Be kind! Keep your promises! Be trustworthy! Maintain a positive spirit! Accept the responsibility to lead and to serve!. They're not always easy, but we know what they are.
Life is a gift .. I won the greatest lottery ever, the opportunity to have a life. To see a sunrise! To have a family and friends, to work and play! I won the chance to make a life. To plant a flower. To honor my parents. To help my friends and care for a stranger. To choose a career that allows me to help others fulfill dreams. Let's take this greatest gift and make it our greatest gift to all time.
Life is short . The pebble disappears beneath the pond's surface, but I marvel as its ripples carry outward. One day we will disappear beneath life's surface. But, if we care, we can generate ripples into the future. The little things we say and do every day leave a mark on our children, our friends, our neighbors. And their words and acts, in turn, influence still others. So our words and works do change the world in ways we may not know. Let's make good ripples on our pond every day.
Adapted from remarks Lorne Adrain gave upon Northwestern Mutual Life naming him its 'Most Exceptional Volunteer' of 1998.
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