Count Your Blessings

Count Your Blessings

Count Your Blessings
Words by Katie Alice Walker

“We always say ‘count your blessings,’” said Lisa Novak, whose husband, Ricky Novak, immediately chimed in to agree. “And to see your child really understand that is quite amazing.”

The Novaks and their 15-year-old son, Aidan, live in Atlanta and completed their Alys Beach home in 2018. Ricky is the cofounder of a private equity and consulting firm focusing on real estate and tax-related projects, but he and his business partner built the business from the ground up beginning in 2007, during the throes of a recession.

“It was a struggle, but with some blessings, hard work and a little luck, we hit a point when we realized we needed to start thinking about giving back and doing what we can to help others,” said Ricky. “Especially children,” added Lisa.

But the Novaks felt compelled to not only support nonprofit organizations through financial means; they took that support one step further, with the goal of supporting their giving through thoughtful and strategic personal involvement. They created a family mission of sorts to give back and serve locally in their own community and region and also internationally, beyond our own country’s borders. It was important for them to find organizations that funneled their donations primarily and directly to the work they were doing in the field, rather than using funds on organizational overhead.

“We hoped to identify organizations where our family would be able to get really involved. Giving your time is as important to us as giving financially,” said Ricky.

The Novaks met Adam Braun, the founder of Pencils of Promise (PoP), several years ago and were moved by his relatively simple motivation for forming the charity. “Adam travelled the world and asked kids a simple question: ‘If you could have anything in the world, what would it be?' Braun was in India and a child answered that he simply wanted a pencil so that he could do schoolwork,” said Ricky. “That’s not the answer that you’d get from most children but it really resonated with Adam.”

“Pencils of Promise can build a school in a village for about $25,000, which is unreal to see,” said Lisa, who traveled on her first Pencils of Promise trip to Guatemala in 2015 with Ricky and Aidan.

Pencils of Promise is a data-driven organization aiming to build safe schools, programs and global communities around the goal of education for all.

The Novaks, who are members of PoP’s advisory board, took special care to say that they appreciate that PoP doesn’t just give communities a school and then walk away. Rather, the organization engages the local community and its leaders. The community contributes 20 percent of the cost of the school to ensure that there’s a buy-in that will lead to success for the school and its students. The organization obtains its building supplies locally and employs local labor to build each school, and designs curriculum that effectively educates the children of the community PoP is working within.

“It’s more than building a school,” said Ricky. “The advisory board of PoP has made a commitment to cover all overhead for the organization. So all traditional donations raised by PoP go directly to building schools. And it’s working well because there is consistency at all of these schools. PoP continues to test and monitor to be sure that all of these programs are continuing to grow. There is a way to ensure that you are getting a return on your investment.”

The Novaks have reason to believe in PoP’s success; to date, the organization has built 531 schools in Laos, Guatemala and Africa, most extensively in Ghana, according to Tonya Ramos, CEO of PoP. All of the schools are still fully operational. The organization has also given more than 2,000 teachers in these countries support and has enrolled more than 100,000 students.

“We went to Guatemala with PoP five years ago as a family. We met with key community members and leadership that PoP has living locally to determine whether certain communities would qualify for a PoP school build. We saw the commitment of these people that wanted a school, and in another community we also helped paint a new school,” said Ricky. “And then we went to a third Guatemalan community where we were able to celebrate their school opening.”

It was a memorable moment for the Novaks. “I couldn’t stop crying. I’ve never seen such living conditions yet the people there had taken palm fronds and bougainvillea to make a carpet walkway. It was so beautiful and overwhelming,” said Lisa.

“We’ve been fortunate to travel all over the world, and we usually travel well, so we tried to prep Aidan that this trip wasn’t a vacation. We told him this was work and will be different than what you’re used to,” said Ricky. “When we were getting ready to fly back to Atlanta, Aidan looked at us and said this was one of the best vacations he’d ever been on. Even with different food and challenging jungle conditions. We knew we’d gotten something right.”

From then on, the Novaks have been unwaveringly committed to PoP. And to continue to meet their family mission, when they learned about Camp Southern Ground and its mission of bringing together children with different developmental needs and different backgrounds, they knew they’d probably found a local and regionally focused nonprofit to become involved in.

Camp Southern Ground is based in Fayetteville, Ga., near the Novaks’ home in Atlanta. The camp was started by Zac Brown, founder and front man of Zac Brown Band, a southern rock Grammy Award-winning group. After fundraising for a few years, the camp hosted its first campers in the summer of 2018. Brown himself had a childhood summer camp experience where he first learned to play a guitar, which clearly had great influence on the direction of his life.

The camp’s largest annual fundraiser, An Evening to Remember, is actually a relatively intimate affair for about 200 people who, while there, are also lucky enough to take in a performance by the Zac Brown Band. After the inaugural event, the party’s original hosts were looking for a couple to annually chair the event in the efforts to accelerate fundraising for the camp. Ricky and Lisa jumped on board once they learned more about Camp Southern Ground’s inclusive camp strategy.

“We bring typically developing kids and kids with neurodevelopmental differences together with underserved youth and children of military and veteran families together at camp,” said Mike Dobbs, president and CEO of Camp Southern Ground. “Each tribe at camp brings together a diverse group of kids who learn that we all have strengths and can learn from one another.”

Camp Southern Ground serves nearly 700 campers each summer for weeklong overnight camps. Campers explore nature and spend time outdoors, as well as eat garden-grown healthy food that keeps them fueled for fun. Arts and crafts, ropes courses and sports are all thrown in the mix, too, on over 400 acres of land.

“What was really cool was that kids from different developmental backgrounds are all sharing the same bunk room in their tribes, like family,” said Lisa. “It helps them gain an understanding and go back home to their own schools and they are more loving and inclusive. That really resonated with us.”

Camp Southern Ground sounded like such a good idea to the Novaks that they, of course, sent Aidan to camp there. “He’s grown as a leader and he loves it. And according to his counselors, when there were conflicts or challenges, he was always inclusive, and we’ve seen those same characteristics develop in Aidan. He won an award for leadership in eighth grade at his school that is awarded annually to the child who the other kids and teachers say is, among other things, empathetic and compassionate towards others. It was pretty special,” said Lisa.

Camp Southern Ground also offers two specific programs for veterans in the fall and spring when there aren’t summer campers. Warrior Week and Warrior PATHH (Progressive Alternative Training for Healing Heroes) are both aimed at caring for post-9/11 veterans and providing support in their transition to life after military service; both programs are offered free of charge to attendees, which is why fundraising is so important to Camp Southern Ground.

“Both of our fathers are veterans,” said Lisa. She and Ricky serve Camp Southern Ground by helping with An Evening to Remember, which raises more than $2 million for the camp each year.

“We’re very thankful for all the financial support we receive, but to have donors and supporters who want to be involved and want to get your hands dirty and be a part of our organization, like the Novaks, that’s what you want,” said Mike Dobbs.

Serving through giving their time and resources is something the Novaks say they can’t put a price tag on. Their advice? “Every action of giving time and talent, no matter how small your donation seems, counts. If you write even a $25 check and then post about the organization on Facebook and others see it, it builds,” said Ricky. “There is no such thing as an insignificant donation.”

Interested in learning more about either of these organizations? Of course the Novaks say to contact them personally, another indication of the family’s desire to help Pencils of Promise (pencilsofpromise.org) and Camp Southern Ground (campsouthernground.org) further the work they’re doing.