Maybe it all started with National Geographic.
Marc Gold’s dad, Al, who knew a few things about photography, offered the boy a nickel for every National Geographic he would read.
Marc would have been about 8 years old, and the first magazine he picked up – at random, from the middle of a stack – had a big spread on India and the Himalaya Mountains.
The boy was fascinated, and he learned more talking to workers at an Indian restaurant in his hometown – the Atlantic City of the late ’50s. He listened to their tales about the mountains, and the wildlife – and the poverty. Marc got so into all the exotic stories that one night he had a dream where he was standing on top of Mount Everest, looking out and seeing millions of people spread out below him, all over Asia.
“They were saying, ‘Come here, help us. Help us!'” he remembers, back home in Atlantic City for a stroll on the Boardwalk during a recent visit.
Marc knew he couldn’t do anything – he was just a boy. But then, more than 30 years later, out of nowhere, he had a rerun of that dream. A week later, he was on a plane to India.
So maybe it really started with that dream.
Because when Gold got to India, he got to be friends with a refugee from Tibet, who brought Gold home to meet the family.
The guy’s wife was in misery with an ear infection, and Gold had enough money – it took just a dollar – to buy antibiotics that cleared the problem right up. Then he bought her a hearing aid, and he saw her face as it turned on, and she could hear her world again.
So maybe it started with that, with that look on the face of a stranger.
Whatever it was, Marc Gold came home from that trip and started a group he calls 100 Friends, his plan for raising money that he then travels around the world to give away, in small amounts, to people it can help in big ways.
Every little bit helps
In the world of charities, the money he handles is tiny – his total, in close to 20 years, is just bit more than $300,000, although it’s been growing lately. But he knows that money has changed lives in at least 23 countries so far, from Afghanistan to Palestine to Uganda to Vietnam and beyond, because he’s seen the results with his own eyes.
100 Friends has taken children who used to live in the city trash dump in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and paid for them to move to safe homes in local orphanages, including one Gold really admires, called the Center for Children’s Happiness.
Because of his growing network of friends in his home country, Gold – who spends six months a year in some of the world’s poorest places – can tell a story that sums up into this sentence:
“I got her something to eat,” he says casually, “and then I put her through college.”
The longer story has to do with him hearing a young woman crying in an alleyway in the Philippines. Gold asked what was wrong. She said she was hungry.
She accepted lunch, then he paid the $10 she didn’t have to take her back to her family. He learned there was a college there – and when he passed by the school with her, he found out it would cost $200 a semester, including books, to send the girl to nursing school, her lifelong dream. He signed her up and paid the bill.
“She graduated like three weeks ago,” Gold said, casually strolling the Boardwalk in a town where his father, Al Gold, made his career as the city’s official photographer, the man whose publicity pictures spread the image of a young, booming Atlantic City around the country and the world. And Marc’s sister, Vicki Gold Levi, co-authored a pictorial history of Atlantic City, called “125 Years of Ocean Madness,” that’s considered a must-have by the town’s fans.
Marc now spends the other half of his years in San Francisco, where he lives with friends and teaches psychology in a community college to finance his travels. But he makes sure to get back to Atlantic City every year, and he enjoys picking up hints of his hometown as he hits the far ends of the earth on other continents.
“Give me some kind of promenade by (water), and I’m Atlantic City’d again,” he says, grinning. And when he’s in the real deal, the Boardwalk is his place to be: “I like to walk from Maine Avenue to Margate,” the full, 6-plus miles of the wooden walk through Atlantic City and Ventnor.
Gold is already gone again, but his next big aid adventure will take him back to Asia, concentrating on Burma, which is still seeing massive suffering from the cyclone that devastated millions of lives last month. The military government has shocked the world by refusing offers of help from other countries, including shiploads of assistance from the U.S. But Gold is confident that his form of micro-philanthropy can beat those barriers.
“I go in as a tourist, they still want tourists to come,” he says. “I don’t have truckloads of supplies. … If it’s just me and my backpack, I won’t get stopped. You’re talking about 200 or 300 families I can help” – with cash donations of about $100 each, he hopes – “not a couple million people. But I can only do what I can do.”
And a lot of what he can do depends on the radically lower cost of living in the poor countries where he works, plus the network of trusted contacts he’s developed around the world. Gold likes to tell the story of a woman in Calcutta, India, who asked him to pay for a community center that would help some truly needy people, including the destitute children of local prostitutes.
“She said it would cost a hundred thousand,” Gold says. “I didn’t have that kind of money” – at that point, 100 Friends’ budget was $12,000 a year. “So I said, ‘I don’t have a hundred thousand dollars.’ She said, ‘Not dollars. Rupees.'”
That translated into $2,000, which the group could afford, and now that Calcutta neighborhood has a community center – which shows off the names of Marc Gold and 100 Friends on a plaque.
Advice from a special friend
But his travels and his work have put Gold in touch with people who help on a more wholesale scale, including the legendary Mother Theresa. He was lucky enough to meet her for a minute or so, also in Calcutta, her home base.
He told her a bit about 100 Friends, how small it is but what it tries to do. He also told her about a qualm he has with his own form of philanthropy, an objection he’s heard for years from others: It’s great that he picks somebody to help, but whenever he does, he leaves somebody else – lots of somebodies – out.
Mother Theresa answered him with a question.
“She said, ‘Do you know how to swim?'” Gold recalls. The old Atlantic City boy was surprised, but he said sure, he could swim.
So she asked what he’d do if he saw a boat sinking, with 100 people on it who couldn’t swim.
“I said, ‘I can’t save 100 people,'” Gold recalls.
“I know you can’t,” Mother Theresa said.
“But maybe I can save two or three,” Gold remembers saying, “or four.”
“Do what you can,” the saint said.
So he does. And maybe that’s how it really got started, with the knowledge that it’s OK to do what you can.
To e-mail Martin DeAngelis at The Press: MDeangelis@pressofac.com
Copyright, 2008, South Jersey Publishing Company t/a The Press of Atlantic City