It’s been nearly a decade since Budd MacKenzie first visited Afghanistan and saw a newly built school made possible by his fledgling organization, Lafayette-based Trust in Education.
Today, the non-profit group Wisdom in Action announced that MacKenzie is one of 51 people from around the world who will be honored at the organization’s Unsung Heroes of Compassion Awards event in San Francisco later this month.
The event, which will be attended by the Dalai Lama and emceed by actor Peter Coyote, recognizes individuals working to ease the suffering of disenfranchised people across the globe.
Since MacKenzie’s first eye-opening visit to Afghanistan, the 68-year-old attorney has returned to the war-ravaged country 16 times to monitor ongoing projects and come up with new ways to better the lives of thousands of rural Afghans.
“When you meet the people and you see firsthand poverty up-close…it was very difficult for me to just sort of go back to the life I’d been leading before that,” MacKenzie said.
In 2003, the longtime attorney founded Trust in Education to provide relief funds for residents in the villages and refugee camps around Kabul.
MacKenzie was inspired to get involved after reading “Charlie Wilson’s War,” a book detailing the United States’ involvement in the Soviet war in Afghanistan, including the government’s arming of Afghan Mujahideen fighters.
Those weapons later fell into the hands of the Taliban, which the U.S. continued to fund up until 9/11, MacKenzie noted.
“I began to get an appreciation for U.S. involvement in the region and realize the conditions that exist in Afghanistan are in significant measure consequences of our involvement,” he said.
“You have an entire generation that’s known nothing but war, and 98 percent of the population that doesn’t want to fight – they’re the victims of war,” MacKenzie said.
“We need to be anti-war but pro-victim and proactive in helping them rebuild their lives. We owe that to them.”
Wisdom in Action spokeswoman Elizabeth Share said she nominated MacKenzie for the honor because “he is representative of people who believe that every small action is worthwhile.”
“There is no way Budd MacKenzie and his organization can resolve the massive humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan right now, but that’s what’s so inspiring…that didn’t stop him from helping one person or 10 people, or one village,” she said.
Over the past decade, the organization has opened two schools and financed classes for some 1,500 Afghan students, including 1,000 Afghan girls – a remarkable feat in a country where the Taliban and other extremist groups long kept girls from getting an education.
Trust In Education opened an all-girls school in Afghanistan last October.
The organization keeps its schools and classrooms open by paying for teachers, school supplies and heating in the winter.
While education is the organization’s main emphasis, it also strives to address rural Afghans’ short-term needs, partially through regular, massive deliveries of rice and clothing with the help of the U.S. military, according to MacKenzie.
The most recent shipment provided enough rice for more than 300,000 meals for about 2,000 families, he said.
In addition, Trust In Education has distributed more than 400 solar ovens to help Afghan families cut energy costs, provide a way to safely cook food and sterilize water and eliminate some of the 2,000 deaths in Afghanistan annually due to smoke inhalation, according to MacKenzie.
As with most of the non-profit’s work, the solar ovens were assembled and funded by Bay Area volunteers. Trust In Education raises funds for these and other aid projects through a range of grassroots sources, from individual donors to donation drives at schools and rotary clubs, he said.
“More and more people and organizations are coming to me and saying, ‘How can I help?’” said MacKenzie.
Wisdom in Actions hopes to inspire a similar urge to get involved by shining a light on organizations like MacKenzie’s through the Unsung Heroes of Compassion event, said Share.
“We hope people will come away with awareness that whatever your entry point into compassion is, start there. But just start,” she said.
Wisdom in Action was created in 2001 to advance the work of the organization’s Unsung Heroes of Compassion award recipients worldwide.
About 150 people have received the Unsung Heroes award at the organization’s events in 2001, 2005 and 2009, according to Share.
This year’s honorees are doctors, nurses, teachers, non-profit workers and others. They hail from 18 different countries but most also work internationally, said Share.
Past recipients have included many Bay Area residents, such as Leslie Acoca, who ran a residential treatment center for drug-addicted children in Marin County, Emily Arnold-Hernandez, founder of San Francisco-based refugee rights group Asylum Access and Imad Aljanaby, an Iraqi refugee who helped create a community center for Iraqi expatriates in San Francisco.
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