College of Mind-Body Medicine Faculty Member Pursues Research on Altruism and Service: Lisa Kelly, Ph.D.
What compels a person to leave the comfort of her home and travel to a foreign country, with one goal in mind … to make a difference in the lives of others. Dr. Lisa Kelly has been interested in what motivates people to transcend their own needs for comfort and safety to be of service to others. Lisa’s interest in this human potential for service was the subject of her Ph.D. dissertation on altruism, The Lived Experience of Altruism as Described by Moral Exemplars: A Descriptive Phenomenological Study (Mastain, 2007). As an interesting dichotomy, she once studied evil people and found that a person who is capable of committing unthinkable evil lacks empathy for other human beings.
Lisa experienced her own personal calling to relieve suffering in the world, and this passion inspired her to volunteer to work with children in an orphanage located in the Dominican Republic. As Lisa began to understand the significance of empathy in the development of human potential, she wanted her children to appreciate their own abundance, and to develop a more inclusive sense of empathy. In March of 2005, Lisa, along with her husband, Steve and their 12-year-old son, Danny and 17-year-old daughter, Ali, joined Orphanage Outreach to serve the children living in the Esperanza Orphanage. Although this was not the typical family vacation to Disney World, Lisa and her family lived an altruistic life for a week with the children and staff at the orphanage.
They slept under the stars with a tarp to protect them against the elements, and mosquito net for protection from malaria. The children in the orphanage attend school for about 3-4 hours per day, and the help of volunteers is crucial to their academic and emotional development. Lisa’s 12-year old son jumped in and began working with Ariel , a 14-year old boy. By the end of the week he taught Ariel how to spell his name, a proud achievement for both boys. One day the volunteer group loaded up the children in a bus, and drove three hours to the coastline. Although the children live on an island, they had never been to the beach. One can only imagine the joyful scene of laughing children in their underwear playing in the ocean for the first time.
Taking the family to another society that has less material wealth had some transformational benefits for everyone. It was the beginning of a more expansive service experience for Lisa, leading her to many connections with other altruists working with impoverished and homeless children in the slums of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. These connections brought Lisa back to the Dominican Republic many times as a volunteer, board member and ultimately, for a year, as the executive director of Dove Missions (see: Dovemissions.org). The experience of serving individuals in great need living in another culture changed Lisa, and touched her children deeply.
At the end of the Orphanage Outreach trip, the group was sitting in a circle and reflecting on their time working with the children living in the orphanage. Her son Danny simply said that it was “the best vacation he has ever had.”