BEIRUT: Kindness inspired from the heart of decent humanity extended towards impacting genuine change is the pillar on which Paola Accari built Gestures from the Heart. Teary-eyed, highly emotional, and smiling, she is the personification of the values of this NGO.
Accari had an upbringing that revolved heavily on giving back; having lost her mother at the age of three, she and her siblings were raised by their two aunts and father. She grew with her roots deep in selflessness.
“My aunts took care of people, we used to distribute food to [the poor]. I don’t know my mom, but they used to tell me she was socially active and helped many people,” said Accari. Growing up, her two aunts passed away five months apart, and in 2011, she also lost her father.
“My dad passed on November 7, I was facing serious health problems. So, I felt I needed to do something or I will lose my sanity for Christmas,” she said.
As a way to deal with her grief, Accari, alongside her siblings, spontaneously decided to prepare 50 food packs as well as cook for 8 elderly people on Christmas Eve in Zgharta; they called it Christmas 2011. By the time Christmas came, the Accari family had managed to distribute food packs to 102 families, prepare a Christmas dinner for seven, organize a Christmas party, and distribute gifts for more than a 100 children.
“It was a way out of reality, to forget our loss. This always makes Christmas easier for me,” she said.
Distressed by the considerable number of people in need, and the dire situation they were in, coupled with the support and encouragement from the community, Accari decided to take an extra step forward and initiate Gestures from the Heart.
Gestures from the Heart strives to assist the deprived and abandoned elderlies, widows and children in any way they can to enhance their quality of life. The NGO breaks traditional boundaries as it welcomes all Lebanese citizens in need with open arms, lending a helping hand even for those in prison.
“It was after the first project where we had excess money left, so we distributed blankets in prisons as well as non-food items for nursing homes in Zgharta and orphanages. I would like to think we fulfill needs wherever it’s demanded,” she said.
As an initiative tackling the deprivation of basic rights, such as access to food, Gestures from the Heart created several projects in which they worked towards bettering others’ lives. They created the weekly event called Meal from the Heart, a lunch gathering that takes place each Saturday all year long for impoverished elderly people; although everyone is welcomed.
“It’s not only about feeding them. I consider them my family as much as they consider me theirs,” she told Annahar.
In addition, the NGO has been able to rearrange and clean four houses, and restored an elderly’s home.
“It was amazing. It was the first house we restored and put the pictures on Facebook. People started commenting that they wanted the house,” she added laughing. “They [underprivileged elderly] already live in misery and their lives are really tough, I really wanted to make a change. I wanted to show them that we are here for them and they are not alone.”
The home renovation process is challenging as old people tend to be attached to items even though they are damaged.
“They are afraid to lose their belongings. It takes a village to persuade the elderly to allow us to restore their houses,” Accari said.
In keeping true to the personal aspect of the NGO, Accari still doesn’t have a board that helps with management.
“It’s necessary to have one, but you know with an emotional person like me, I don’t want someone to refrain this feeling from me and put it in a framed way,” she said. “I just want to keep on giving generously, lovingly, I don’t want this to be ruined. So far I can’t complain, all the projects we wanted to make we have made.”
Gestures from the Heart is partnered with Foundation Sesame, a swiss donor foundation that supports associations, organizations, and programs in the field of social action in Geneva and Lebanon.
Another key aspect of Gestures from the Heart is the inclusion of young people within an environment rich with giving and kindness. Accari said the NGO has been “raising a generation to take care of elderly people,” and pointed out how some students who are now abroad act kindly to everyone they encounter, and always take an extra step.
She added, “they take care of homeless people on the roads, of the elderly. Generally, if you see a homeless person, you don’t really approach— [the young people] will help them, will buy food for them.”
Accari believes that growing old is challenging, and lack of mental preparation coupled with financial issues makes it even more so.
“What about when you lose everything and you’re at the mercy of the community, assistance, or whatever it is? That’s why Gestures from the Heart is about loving, after loving will come the food packs, the home restorations, whatever. But the main thing is love,” she said.
She recalled a conversation with an elderly who went for lunch almost every Saturday, in which after a summer break, he told her “daughter, after you left it was hard.” Not fully understanding what he meant, she asked him why, and he told her, “don’t you know you’re our only hope?”
“I spent four hours crying after that. You know what you’re doing is important, but you don’t realize how far it is. It’s sometimes very scary,” she added. Nevertheless, the moment of “weakness,” as she called it, was irrelevant in the face of the duty she feels towards helping others. “You cannot [leave]. It’s a moment of weakness, but at the end of the day it’s not feasible, not in any way, you cannot give up, it’s not an option,” she added with a determined tone.
With the revolution, things have been harder than usual for those in need, and in response to that, Gestures from the Heart will start cooking every day rather than once per week.
“I’m working really hard to get a huge quantity of food items, beside the 500 food packs that we’re going to distribute,” she said, adding that they will distribute other items such as diapers, carpets, and clothes. “For the time being in Zgharta, but I’m having messages on Facebook from Sidon, Aley, [and other places]. Once I get the food packs, I will definitely give them to people anywhere. We have to be there for each other.”
On December 21, 22, and 23, Gestures from the Heart will be packing food in Zgharta for distribution, and volunteers are welcome to help. Like all subtitles in the NGO on their website, everything is done from the heart; donate from the heart, food from the heart, an appeal from the heart-- to be part of it, volunteer from the heart.
Welcome to "NAYA," the newest addition to Annahar’s coverage. This section aims at fortifying Lebanese women’s voices by highlighting their talents, challenges, innovations, and women’s empowerment. We will also be reporting on the world of work, family, style, health, and culture. NAYA is devoted to women of all generations-NAYA Editor, Sally Farhat: Sally.firstname.lastname@example.org
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