Sylvia Bolling
Handout photo
Sylvia Bolling

Sylvia Bolling’s infectious laugh


One section of WORLD’s current cover story on Houston describes the career of poverty-fighting entrepreneur Sylvia Bolling. Much of what she’s learned over the years is valuable for other nonprofit managers: “Stay small and go deep. Ask something of everyone who comes. Find out what gifts a person has to give, and use them. Put existing providers to work, rather than starting all new programs. Stay almost always broke, so God can have His glory.”

Bolling knows how she avoided temptation: “If all of a sudden money had come showering down, I may have gone the regular way, ‘Let’s hire up a big staff. Let’s not worry about volunteers.’”

Visiting Bolling late in December, I saw how she asked something of everyone, and received. She showed me volunteers decorating the largest room of her Aldine Family Hope Center for the neighborhood Christmas party, and then explained, “Used to be during the first part of December our phone would ring off the hook. A man with a gruff voice: ‘You giving out toys over there?’ We changed all that.”

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Here’s how she changed it: “This year right after the summer program we started telling people they could sign up for toys in August: ‘You have from the end of August to the first of December to volunteer five hours for every child you want toys for.’ Then the whole family has to come for the Christmas decorating. Some places have the staff staying until midnight to get it done. Here everyone takes part.”

The effort not only emphasized personal responsibility and made things easier for the staff, but built community: “They came in at 10, opening prayer and all. … It’s the most wonderful thing. You see every race and every age. You see grandparents. People will tell you these dads aren’t going to come. They are on the ladder.”

Bolling knows that many poverty-fighting groups make things worse when they believe their major role is to distribute stuff rather than build relationships. She showed her lovingly decorated room and exulted, “Look what a community can produce together.”

I’ll now use one of those expressions I thought journalists should avoid: Bolling has a wonderfully infectious laugh. Listen to a segment from today’s The World and Everything in It radio program (see player below) and hear her laugh for yourself. But her message is serious: “Don’t just hand people things. [That creates] a downward motion. And people stay there. That’s why we harvest gifts and talents. You are not what you have in your pocket. … You do have gifts, if you are alive and breathing.”

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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