04/11/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Finding Charity in Everyday Life: The Goods for Good Project

This year, on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, the Huffington Post headlined with a powerful and inspiring quote from the reverend himself: "Life's Most Persistent And Urgent Question Is: What Are You Doing For Others?" It isn't a hypothetical question or a platitude -- it's a mandate for assuming a meaningful lifestyle that is about more than just ourselves and our needs. It's a call to live your life concerned with not just your own gain, but also the well-being of others.

The trick, of course, is just how to go about living for others in a time when merely paying the rent can seem like a struggle. But selflessness doesn't necessarily have to mean taking on hardship. It can come from everyday actions -- calling a friend simply to ask about her day -- or from high-impact efforts such as starting a charity or volunteering in a disadvantaged community. The trick is finding a way to use your individual skills/goals to make an impact, be it in your family, your community, or the world at large.

Melissa Kushner, a New Yorker who formerly worked for the United Nations, thought of a way to put her knowledge, connections, and skills to work to achieve a massive goal. Before a trip to Malawi in 2006, a thought occurred to her: American manufacturers are producing so much that we see huge surpluses in this country, while children in developing nations are without basic needs like school supplies -- which can make a substantial difference in a child's quality of life. So why not call U.S. companies and ask them to donate the products they have left over?

She began contacting friends at specific companies -- The Children's Place, Toys R Us, and more -- and asked them to donate their unused merchandise. Individuals, and even corporations, are often quick to do the charitable and selfless thing when the means to do it is presented to them. Kushner created the opportunity for companies to benefit others, and almost instantly, businesses were enrolled in the possibility. And the results have been astounding: Since 2006, Kushner and her organization Goods for Good have reclaimed and delivered 120 tons of school supplies, clothes, shoes, and other much-needed items to more than 500,000 children in Malawi and Haiti. Many of the goods were sitting in a warehouse gathering dust, or were slated to be destroyed. Now they can go directly to schools and communities where the difference they make is astounding -- one teacher noted that, after a shipment of pens and notepads was distributed to the children, school attendance increased 30 percent.

Last week, at Goods for Good's benefit auction at the Chelsea Art Museum in Manhattan, a sold-out crowd admired photos of Malawian children taken by photographer Brian Marcus. By the end of the night, more than $60,000 had been raised for more supplies. In a short speech during the event, Kushner admitted that when she began making those phone calls, she had no idea the impact her actions would make, and how large her idea would grow. But regardless of preconceived ideas, she made that crucial step from simply having a "I should really help" thought, and putting it into reality: making that first set of phone calls.