As many parents are prone to say, having a child changes your life. My son changed my life twice—when he was born and when I lost him at the age of 24.
Grief is something many of us have experienced, but we often address it alone. We see our pain and loss as unique, unexplainable, or individual, even if others can commiserate. When my son François died in a helicopter accident in 1986, my grief was overpowering. I spent two years living within it, swallowed by the solitude of losing my only child. More than anything, I felt at a loss for what to do.
Growing up, I never connected with the lifestyle my parents lived. Wealth and societal functions were not an identity I could relate to. As an adult, I sought out a career that interested me, and as a journalist, and later, filmmaker, I felt fulfilled. Outside of my career, I devoted my time to working with organizations like Doctors of the World, to further causes close to my heart like the advancement of children’s and women’s rights. But after François’s death, everything felt different. Most things that had been part of my everyday life lost their meaning. I knew I could no longer live the life I had lived.
As a search and rescue pilot, François had completed nearly 300 missions to remote locations throughout the world. Helping others had been his passion and his purpose, even if his life was short. I had always been involved in social causes but after his death, I chose to dedicate myself fully to the most vulnerable populations, who I saw as the world’s forgotten people with forgotten issues, in forgotten places.
With the support of friends and family, I decided to start a foundation that would support projects that were in the spirit of François’s passions and an international development organization devoted to breaking the cycle of extreme poverty.
To finance both, I auctioned off three-quarters of what I owned, including my film production business. With the $100 million in proceeds and support from others, I launched the FXB Foundation and FXB International in 1991, both named for my son’s initials: François-Xavier Bagnoud.
Through the foundation, I invested in institutions and launched programs that could change people’s lives, including a home for orphans living with AIDS in Washington, D.C., the FXB Center for Health & Human Rights at Harvard University, an AIDS policy coalition and FXB Palliative Home Care, a comprehensive package that has been adopted as an innovative policy by the French and Swiss governments.
In 1989, I pioneered the FXBVillage methodology, a proven, three-year program that provides families living in extreme poverty with the tools and support they need to become self-sufficient and give their children a future.
In each FXBVillage, we work with 80-100 families, approximately 500 people. The program offers participants funding and training to start a small business, integrated with three years of graduated support to address the key drivers of poverty in their lives: lack of food, education, health care, housing and, of course, income. As the ability of families to meet their basic needs increases, FXB gradually lessens financial support so that families can become independent and ultimately self-sufficient.
By the end of the three years, FXBVillage families have broken the cycle of poverty and can support themselves. A study by the Human Sciences Research Council showed that 86% of FXBVillage participants are still thriving four years after the program’s end.
Today, FXBVillages are active in eight countries across Asia, Africa and South America, and have empowered 82,000 people to lift themselves out of extreme poverty. But even seeing the impact we’ve had through our work, I am at times still overwhelmed by the severity of the problems we address. I question: How can we ever solve an epidemic like poverty that affects 1.2 billion people in the world? How we can help people overcome losses like losing both parents? How can we implement solutions when battling barriers like AIDS?
In moments like these, I remind myself of several things:
- This work will never be easy. Not only is poverty a complicated problem to solve, the challenges differ in each country. Our approach has been tailored to meet these unique needs, while staying true to a model we know works. But given the complexity of poverty, solutions won’t come quickly. It will continue to take unified efforts to eradicate extreme poverty.
- People care. While it’s sometimes easy to believe otherwise, people do want to help. From the friends and family that helped me launch FXB in 1989 to the assistance from agencies, governments and individuals over two decades later, I have continually been amazed by the support I’ve received. FXB is the organization it is today because people care about what we do.
- The power of one. It only takes one loss to dramatically alter your life, and it also takes one person to start making a difference in the lives of others. While we can’t solve the problems of the world overnight, helping one family, one mother or one orphan at a time does mean something. As the founder of FXB, it’s been important for me to see that our vision is realized in every family we touch. Still, 30 years after François’s death and all the lives we have impacted since, not a day that goes by that I don’t think of my son. I am thankful to say, though, that through the work we do, François has lived on. His life forever changed mine, and as a result, many others all over the world. While I would give anything of mine to have François back, I am thankful that his life provided an opportunity for me to discover a different and deeper purpose to my own.
Photography by Jillian Edelstein