Twelve years ago, Laurie Ahern visited a psychiatric institution in Uruguay during a tryout for a new job. What she saw changed her life.
“They were the throwaways of society,” she said of the patients, who had mental or physical disabilities. “There was no getting out. Because they had a shortage of medications, they gave everyone electric shock therapy, with no anesthesia. . . . It was like [‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’] — they were tied down, held down, with a piece of wood stuck in their mouth. I was absolutely horrified.”
In a nearby orphanage, autistic children were kept in cages so they wouldn’t run away. “When I saw that, I had an epiphany — I said, ‘I have to come do this work.’ I couldn’t turn my back on what I’d seen.”
Ahern, a former journalist, took the job and moved from her native Massachusetts to the District. She is now president of Disability Rights International, whose mission is to shutter orphanages around the world, based on the premise that children can only thrive in a home with a family.
Ahern, 61, is one of six winners of this year’s Purpose Prize, which rewards the innovation and entrepreneurship of people 60 and over. Now in its 10th year, the prize is awarded by the nonprofit group Encore.org, which supports people in later-life careers. Ahern will receive $100,000 and the others will receive $25,000 each.
“When we started the prize, the idea was to show that innovation was not the exclusive province of young people, to demonstrate that older people were an undiscovered continent of innovation and just as much an asset to society as younger people,” said Marc Freedman, Encore.org’s founder and chief executive. The prizes are increasingly going to people doing intergenerational work, he said. “More and more, we’re seeing older people working to fight inequality in the next generation and creating a better future for future generations.”
It has been nine years since Belle Mickelson, 67, started Dancing with the Spirit, a nonprofit group that brings guitar- and fiddle-playing to children in remote Alaskan villages. The former science teacher had heard from a Native elder about a rash of teen suicides.
A lifelong violin player who became an Episcopal priest at 59, she now loads instruments into tiny propeller planes and brings week-long workshops to 700 students annually, helping them connect to their cultural roots.
As a teacher, she had seen how music helped children who had experienced a major tragedy. “That was how we got them back on track,” she said. “Once they had their confidence built up through music and art, then they had the confidence to tackle the science and math that they felt that they couldn’t do.”
Native Alaskans incorporated fiddling into their culture in the 1800s, when trappers and Anglican priests brought music that had originated in Ireland.
“The elders love coming to the schools” to play with students, said Mickelson, who is rector of a church in Cordova, Alaska. “It helps kids feel proud of themselves, proud of who they are.”
Often, her group ends up leaving instruments behind for the children to use until next year’s visit.
When Jamal Joseph started IMPACT Repertory Theatre in 1997, Harlem was in the middle of a crack epidemic. “There were crack wars, buildings were crumbling. Literally, there were blocks that looked like Berlin and London after bombing raids.”
Joseph, 62, a Columbia University professor and award-winning filmmaker, was familiar with street violence. Raised as a foster kid in the Bronx, he had spent nine years in prison for Black Panther-related activities, and his godson, famed rapper Tupac Shakur, had been gunned down in 1996. When one more youth, “a good kid,” was killed at a neighborhood party, Joseph had had enough.
In prison, he had written plays and directed theater, and the results had been striking.
“The gang violence went down. Men who stood on separate sides of the yard for years without talking to each other were now talking to each other. That’s when I saw the power of those plays. My community was crumbling. I saw that this was a different kind of prison. The bars were poverty and violence instead of prison bars, and why can’t I make it work here?”
The organization blends theater and community activism, and has served 1,500 middle and high school students since its inception. They study conflict resolution and leadership and write about bullying, gangs and racial profiling. They have performed at Lincoln Center and the United Nations as well as schools, nursing homes and prisons. Hundreds have gone on to college, including some who had dabbled in street crime before joining IMPACT.
“They’re able to sing and write about the way things are, but they’re also able to write about how it could be different,” Joseph said.
This year’s other prize recipients help farm workers, bring doctors’ house calls to homebound people and fund microloans.
The later-life careers of Purpose Prize winners often resonate with personal history. Part of what drives Ahern to travel the world to protect children from wretched treatment is that shewas abused as a child; as a college student, she suffered a breakdown and was institutionalized. She is determined to help the 8 million to 10 million children in institutions worldwide.
In Serbia, she came upon a 21-year-old with cerebral palsy who had not been moved from his crib in 11 years. “As far as I was concerned, it was torture, and I went to the U.N. representative in Geneva and he agreed,” she said.
Ahern received death threats in Serbia the day her report came out, but after the U.N. Committee Against Torture demanded that such treatment stop and the European Union threatened to withhold funds, the government eventually changed its practices. And in the republic of Georgia, after she discovered institutionalized children dying from an easily preventable condition, the health ministry began treating them and issued a letter of apology.
“I feel a huge sigh of relief,” Ahern said of the results. “It’s not easy to see a child, or a person, their humanity being crushed in front of my eyes. And the hurt goes deep because I can relate, and it makes me very angry as well. I might not save every child that I see, but maybe I can prevent this for the next generation.”