Community//

Social Impact Heroes: Shelley Callahan is providing basic assistance to children around the world so they can go to school and receive an education

First and foremost, listen to each other. We all need to get out of their comfort zones, have an open mind, talk to neighbors, read stories about different cultures, listen to opposing views on the news and work towards being empathetic often. Things are never black and white — we need to hear each other out so […]


First and foremost, listen to each other. We all need to get out of their comfort zones, have an open mind, talk to neighbors, read stories about different cultures, listen to opposing views on the news and work towards being empathetic often. Things are never black and white — we need to hear each other out so we can start to discuss the real issues that are keeping people in poverty and denying them access to fundamental human rights. Secondly, act based on what you learn. Donate to local shelters or a food bank — it takes a minimal amount of money to have a big impact on others. And lastly, encourage others to participate. It is going to take all of us together to see real change in the world.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Shelley Callahan. Shelley is the Director of Development with Children Incorporated, an international non-profit that provides basic assistance to children around the world so they can go to school and receive an education. Shelley is also the writer of Children Incorporated’s On the Road Series, which highlights stories of the impact their organization has on children, families and communities through its sponsorship program and special projects.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

In 2006, while I was in graduate school earning my Masters in Social Work, I started a non-profit organization with my friend Ward called Books on Wheels. Ward and I drove around the U.S. in a brightly painted school bus giving away books and repairing bicycles for free. It was a wild experience that taught me about socially responsibility and how to give marginalized populations a voice so their stories can be heard. During that same period, I started to volunteer at a medical clinic in Haiti with an organization called Friends of the Children of Haiti, and I found that I had a great interest in global philanthropic work. I made a conscious decision to look for a job where I was able to help the less fortunate in my community — and those in underdeveloped and developing countries — to offer long-term and sustainable solutions to social issues that they face, and that is precisely what I have been able to do with Children Incorporated.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Since we work internationally, Children Incorporated always has exciting projects in the works. When I first started, we were working on building an addition to a school in Bolivia, and I got to spearhead the fundraising campaign to raise money for the new classrooms. Our fundraising efforts were successful, and after the classrooms were completed, I was able to travel to Bolivia for the inauguration. I saw the children and the school administrators — and the entire community — celebrate, and this accomplishment was very special.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

My most significant mistake at the beginning was not thinking big enough. I believe that if you limit your ideas of what your company or organization can and should be, then you won’t get the same opportunities as if you imagine yourself competing with larger organizations. Be imaginative, and definitely don’t sell yourself short.

Can you describe how your organization is making a significant social impact?

Children Incorporated provides resources to children in need in the United States and abroad because we passionately believe that children everywhere deserve an education, hope and opportunity. We offer resources such as food, clothing, healthcare and education support to thousands of impoverished children every year to give them a chance at a better life. We also have many other special funds that support children and families during emergency situations or for needs that are typically outside of educational expenses.

Wow! Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted this cause?

I love a particular story about a boy from Kentucky who I will call Robert. Robert lives with his single father who is disabled, and his limited disability benefits hardly pay the rent. His father has no transportation and sometimes struggles to provide food for the two of them.

At some point during elementary school, Robert’s four front teeth had been knocked out, and he was desperately in need of a partial dental plate. When Robert’s father was told the cost of the partial plate, he told the dentist he couldn’t afford it. Years later, when Robert reached high school, he was still without his teeth, and he was unwilling to smile or talk to teachers or other students directly because he was so embarrassed. Thankfully, once we found out about Robert’s issue, we were able to pay for the partial plate, and now Robert smiles as often as he can to show off his new teeth. It doesn’t seem like a huge gesture, but it changes this boy’s life in a significant way.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

First and foremost, listen to each other. We all need to get out of their comfort zones, have an open mind, talk to neighbors, read stories about different cultures, listen to opposing views on the news and work towards being empathetic often. Things are never black and white — we need to hear each other out so we can start to discuss the real issues that are keeping people in poverty and denying them access to fundamental human rights. Secondly, act based on what you learn. Donate to local shelters or a food bank — it takes a minimal amount of money to have a big impact on others. And lastly, encourage others to participate. It is going to take all of us together to see real change in the world.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I define leadership as listening, taking action, focusing on the mission and being a role model for others. As a leader, I think the most important thing you can do is to work as part of a team while knowing when others need guidance — and stepping up to that challenge with confidence.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. Be patient — when I finished graduate school, I was on fire. I wanted a big job with a ton of responsibility, and I wanted to be a part of a team right away. That is not how it works, unfortunately. Everyone who interviewed me wanted to know where my 5–10 experience was. I was disappointed, but now I see that they were right. I needed to get out into the field and get my feet wet, and thankfully, I could do that by continuing to grow Books on Wheels to the point that it was my full-time job while also volunteering with some amazing organizations around the globe.

2. If you want something, be prepared to argue your case. I used to just ask for what I wanted without having anything to back it up — whether I needed supplies for the office or permission to visit a school in Africa, I never was ready for the inevitable, “Why?” question, and therefore the answer would often be no. Be prepared to give valid reasons if you feel you deserve something, even if it is just a stapler.

3. Write everything down. Even if you think you have a good memory, you don’t. Details are so valuable when you are trying to write a story or an article, or talk to a potential donor about your work. Small things make a big difference when it comes to being convincing or proving a point.

4. A good story goes a long way. No one wants to hear you spout your mission statement like you are reading out of a textbook. It’s the fastest way to lose someone’s interested in your organization. Instead, quickly explain the work that you do, and then move into a story about a particular child that you helped, or a country you worked in — it keeps people engaged and makes them want to get involved too.

5. Don’t decide what other people need. Living in poverty is difficult for people for many different reasons, and one thing that can make it harder is when well-intentioned individuals offer things to people they don’t need or didn’t ask for. One reason I love Children Incorporated so much is that we focus on each child’s needs so they are getting what matters the most to them, not what we think they might need.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I want to inspire everyone to get involved with a cause. It can within their town, international, small, big, can involved volunteering or donating or just making a meal for a neighbor. When I think about what kind of world I want to live in, I want to live in a world where we all take care of one another.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Try to do something new every day. It is rewarding for you and keeps your brain stimulated so you can come up with new and inventive ways to help the world.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Paul Farmer is a personal hero of mine. As the co-founder of the organization Partners in Health he has not only changed the lives of so many individuals in the world, but he also advocates for equality and equity in our society which often is lacking in both. He is also hilarious, which I admire when you are working in really desperate situations.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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