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Friday, January 8, 2010

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: Melissa Kushner, Founder and Executive Director of Goods for Good

Melissa Kushner, Founder and Executive Director of Goods for Good, has spent her entire career dedicated to international development.   Whom You Know has featured Goods for Good:

She was first presented with the opportunity to travel to abroad to Malawi, East Africa with her mentor from the United Nations Fund for International Partnerships in 2003.  Melissa knew that she would be exposed to extreme poverty and wanted to do more than just visit; she wanted to contribute.  In preparation for her trip she researched the needs of the region and initiated a delivery program to an under-funded orphanage and community center serving children affected by AIDS.  

Melissa negotiated with several U.S.-based manufacturers to donate goods from their excess inventory, and raised funds from friends to cover shipping costs. In just a few weeks she was able to collect and deliver over two tons of clothing and educational toys to St. Mary's Orphan Care Center. Throughout the course of her stay in Malawi, Melissa saw first hand how something as simple as a pen and school uniform can mean the difference between a child being able to attend school or not. 

Witnessing the impact of her work and recognizing the long-term potential of this model, Melissa knew where her future lay.  Over the next several years, while continuing to work part-time and studying for her graduate degree, Melissa continued to coordinate shipments from New York to Malawi as well as Liberia and Pakistan.  She returned to Malawi on many occasions, including a seven-month stay during which she taught English in a rural elementary school and researched methods of care for orphans and vulnerable children. In 2006, three years after her first trip, she formally founded Goods for Good.

Goods for Good currently provides material support to 183 community-based organizations, orphan care centers, and public schools, which serve the needs of 54,000 orphans and vulnerable children across Malawi and Haiti. By providing school supplies, clothing, shoes, and health and hygiene products, Goods for Good ensures that a lack of basic materials is not a barrier to their achievement. 

Prior to establishing Goods for Good, Melissa served as a consultant for Hahn Associates, a New York-based development consulting firm, as well as a Project Consultant for Gay Men’s Health Crisis, focusing on strengthening health systems. These experiences provided Melissa with a deep understanding of multi-sector partnership building, health infrastructure strengthening, fundraising, field research, and program development. 

Melissa received her Masters in Public Administration with a concentration in International Development from New York University, and Bachelor of Arts degree in Urban Studies from the University of Pennsylvania.  She was recently featured on NBC’s Nightly News, in The Gap’s “Born to Fit” advertising campaign and will speak at the upcoming TEDx Atlanta Conference in January of 2010.  We are so pleased to present her as our latest Mover and Shaker!

Peachy Deegan interviewed Melissa Kushner for Whom You Know.
Peachy Deegan:What was your first international trip ever?  Where did you go and what did you do?
Melissa Kushner: I took a few international family trips as a child but I would say my most memorable international trip was my first trip to Malawi in 2004. I went to Malawi with my Mother and my Boss from the UN, Natalie Hahn. Among the many wonderful things that we did was visiting St. Mary’s Rehabilitation Center, an orphanage and community center in Malawi.  Prior to my trip I collected two tons of surplus clothing and toys for the orphanage and we delivered and distributed the items to the children and their caregivers. It was on that day that I realized the potential of Goods for Good and I have not stopped collecting surplus goods for development since. We have delivered over 120 tons and counting.

What inspires you to excel in international development? 
The potential I see in the orphans and vulnerable children with whom I work, as well as the motivated community members who care for these children despite their own poverty.

How do you approach manufacturers and what makes you successful in negotiating donations? 
When I first started out I basically sat with my Rolodex and called everyone I knew who could potentially help. My passion and belief in the cause is what gives me the courage to ask people for things, whether it be money or goods.

As your organization grows do you anticipate expanding to other countries?
The challenge of our model is that we have tons of goods but we are not in the business of just handing them out; we only place them in settings where they will impact the development of the child, their family and community. So expanding in the right way takes time. In 2009 we started to work with four schools in Haiti, but we’re growing slowly, purposefully.

What do you enjoy most about Goods for Good?
The knowledge that instead of hundreds of tons of valuable items being destroyed, they are changing the lives of thousands of children is deeply satisfying.

What or who has had the most influence on your pursuit of excellence? 
Natalie Hahn, my former boss at the UN, was really the catalyst for my entering the field of International Development and has been my cheerleader, friend and mentor ever since. From very early on she imparted to me the importance of striving for excellence in everything I do, whether it is a simple email, meeting with village chiefs or making a presentation to a high-powered individual.

What are you proudest of and why?
Development is not easy and doing it right is even harder. I have maintained my standards, doing what I believe is right in the right way, and of that I am truly proud.

What would you like to do professionally that you have not yet had the opportunity to do? 
There are so many pressing needs to be met and no one organization can possibly address them all. However, if organizations were able to partner and network more freely and get a clear sense of who is doing what, we would be able to more successfully meet the complex needs of our clients.

What is your favorite place to be in Manhattan? 
In my little apartment with my dog and husband.

What is your favorite shop in Manhattan? 
Economy Candy! Not only do I love candy the store is a real reminder of the diverse and ever changing fabric of the Lower East side and Manhattan. 

What is your favorite drink? 
Non alcoholic would have to be a frozen hot chocolate from Serendipity (gosh it has been too long since I have had one of those). Alcoholic drink would have to be some kind of champagne; I love bubbles.

What is your favorite restaurant in Manhattan? 
I thought this one over and there are so many wonderful restaurants in NYC but the place I always go to the night before I leave on long trips to Malawi is John’s Pizzeria on Bleeker Street, because nothing is better than a pie and a pitcher of soda.  

What is your favorite Manhattan book? 
I have been trying to get through the Power Broker’s 1500 dense pages for a couple of years. Finishing it is one of my 2010 New Years resolutions. I love urban planning and am fascinated about the things that do and don’t work in our city and many of those elements originated with Robert Moses.

What has been your best Manhattan athletic experience? 
I run along the West Side Highway about three times a week and the feeling I get from peering out at the Statue of Liberty never wears off. It makes me feel inspired and lucky to be where I am.

What is your favorite thing to do in Manhattan that you can do nowhere else? 
Get a latte on every corner...ok just kidding. I love to people watch I could do it for hours on end!

What has been your best Manhattan art or music experience? 
I am not sure I would call this my best but most memorable. In August of 2001 I went to an Executioners concert in the Plaza at the World Trade Center. That was the last time I saw the Towers.

What do you think is most underrated and overrated here? 
Underrated would have to be the diversity of our public parks and spaces. Sometimes New York can feel claustrophobic but there is such a wide variety of parks and settings where you can seek some respite.  I can’t possibly say anything negative about my wouldn’t be right.

Other than Movers and Shakers of course, what is your favorite Whom You Know column and what do you like about it? 
I dig Gotham Gadgets, especially your most recent post. I am obsessed with Seltzer. I am actually sipping one as I write this and have been contemplating one of those machines for a while. Peachy might have pushed me over the edge!

What else should Whom You Know readers know about you? 
I make fantastic banana bread. Once in Malawi we were having a big party at one of our programs and my friends and I baked 20 loaves of banana bread. It a great recipe for Africa because it does not require butter and you can pretty much do anything to it and it will turn out beautifully.

How would you like to be contacted by Whom You Know readers? 

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