I believe that each of us has an obligation to leave this world a better place than we found it. Linden Longino is trying to do exactly that.
Longino, a retired Atlanta banker, could be enjoying the well-earned fruits of a successful career but, instead, he has devoted the past two decades to trying to bring a little peace on earth and some goodwill to people in a world in bad need of both. How he is doing it is unique — with children and art.
The program is called International Paint Pals, which Longino started in 1995 with the Carter Center and which is now an independent nonprofit.
For 20 years, International Paint Pals has involved more than 200,000 kids from as young as 5 up to the age of 19 from 125 countries in art projects promoting peace, friendship and human rights.
Longino describes his organization’s mission this way: "Children everywhere have natural seeds of tolerance and peace in their minds and hearts. Our goal is to nourish these seeds."
One of the ways to do that is through art.
Paint Pals volunteer Jackie Durant says the children’s creativity is endless.
"Their artwork is all over the map, literally. An exploded bombshell with an occupied bird’s nest in it, guns with their barrels tied in knots, countless doves and peace symbols, a tank converted into a school bus, flowers growing out of a discarded war helmet, the world as a jigsaw puzzle. The artistic quality ranges from ‘refrigerator’ art to near professional, but the messages are delivered loud and clear."
I have had the opportunity to see a number of paintings from children all over the world — much of it a war-torn world. Some of it will take your breath away. One 12-year-old from the Middle East painted a closed eye on one half of the painting with trees and birds and blue sky in the background. In the other half, the eye is open, and there is smoke and rubble and destruction. In other words, it was a world this child imagined could be and then the world as it really is.
For the 2015 World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in Barcelona, Paint Pals, with the help of Atlanta-based Friendship Force International and volunteers, collected almost 3,000 paintings and drawings from kids in 91 countries. The exhibit was highly praised by former Nobel Peace Prize winners who suggested the exhibition go on tour to give others a chance to see peace through the eyes of a child.
"A continuing world tour of the Nobel work is very important for us," Longino says. "We are talking with Israel and the Palestinian areas, Egypt, Russia, England and other countries, in addition to several U.S. locations."
Paint Pals exhibitions titled "My Dream of Peace" are currently underway in Amman, Jordan, and Kabul, Afghanistan.
Laila Kakar, a teacher in Kabul who is involved in the exhibition there, says, "I know you can understand the hard conditions we live under in Afghanistan. We all want peace. The children suffer the most. This exhibition gives some of them a little hope that their cries for peace will be heard somewhere."
Sadly, before the exhibit could even open, terrorists detonated a car bomb in Kabul and killed at least 64 people, including women and children, and injured more than 300. Undaunted, Longino says the exhibit will go on as scheduled. Terrorists can kill innocent people but they can’t kill a child’s dreams of peace. No way.
"A true peace movement must begin from within today’s children," Longino says. "A dream? Yes, but does anyone have a better idea? Has anything else worked? It took me awhile to realize that the core of my own program is not about art and exhibitions. It is about getting inside children’s hearts and minds. Art is simply one messenger. This is the essence of our current exhibitions in the Middle East. War-minded adults are a lost cause. Peace will take at least another generation or more, and this small art initiative is just one drop in the bucket."
The song says, "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me."
Linden Longino is living the lyrics. Maybe, just maybe, a future generation will decide war is not the answer and will choose to live in peace. If so, this good man’s dream will have become a reality. And that, friends, is how you leave the world better than you found it.