Four years ago, you may remember, I went to South Africa to bring gifts to 50,000 children, many of whom had never received a present in their lives. It was the best Christmas I've ever had. During that time, I adopted ten children, ages 7 to 14, who had no parents or family to take care of them. They were living in four separate households, trying to fend for themselves. This is happening all over Africa.
I knew I couldn't save all the children. But I could manage to stay personally engaged with these ten. I enrolled them in a private boarding school and hired caretakers to look after them. Every Christmas I returned with gobs of presents. This past year, I bought them a big house and hired a decorator to personalize each of their bedrooms.
These are children who come from the most dire backgrounds. Thanda was 14 when I found her in a small shack taking care of her 8-year-old sister. She had to walk a mile for water. So many children have similar stories. But now Thanda and her sister are living in a big house in a beautiful community where they have been embraced by the neighbors. They have a normal life—playing soccer, taking acting classes, dance classes, you name it. Two of my girls just went to their first prom in a limo, no less. Their lives are so much better than when I found them. But this summer when I went to visit, I was in for a shock.
I walked in and surprised them—they had no idea I was coming. I found them all at the homework table off the kitchen, doing their work. That's a good thing. But when I sat them down in the living room for a conversation, everyone's cell phone kept going off—the latest "razor" phone that costs about $500. And the inner spark I was used to seeing in their eyes was gone, replaced by their delight in their rooms full of things. Most of the girls had long, braided hair extensions flowing down their backs—too much hair under baseball caps shading their eyes. No one felt comfortable enough to speak. And they could barely look me in the eye. I think they felt embarrassed. They could talk about what they owned—the latest portable PlayStations, iPods, and sneakers—but they couldn't speak of what they'd done.
I asked all the children, "On a scale of one to ten, where are you in your work level at school?" Nobody said ten. "Are you doing your best?" Nobody said yes.
I knew immediately that I'd given them too much, without instilling values to accompany the gifts. All kids want what other kids have—but it can't be given with abandon. That's a big lesson for me, coming not a moment too soon before I open my school, which will be home to 450 girls, future leaders of South Africa. I want to give them the opportunity of a lifetime. But I also want them to understand the value of that opportunity and not take it for granted.
What I now know for sure is that a gift isn't a gift unless it has meaning. Just giving things to people, especially children, creates the expectation of more things.
So instead of having a big Christmas with piles of presents for my ten this year, I'm having each of them choose a family that is where they were four years ago, and we'll do something wonderful for that family—pay it forward. You're never too young to get the lesson.