The Importance of Community

There’s a certain richness in community, of being part of something that yields a sense of belonging. Where neighbors truly are neighbors who look out for each other. Or so thinks Dr. Margareta Claesson. She learned early on what community means, and it has shaped her life her learning and her giving.

Claesson, a Foundation fundholder since 2005, grew up in the suburbs of Stockholm, Sweden, and spent weeks every spring and fall between the ages of 10-18 in a children’s hospital dealing with juvenile diabetes. She remembers the attention she received from the doctors and nurses while there.

“I often felt like I was totally trapped,” she says. “The kindness and attention the doctors and nurses showed me made me feel that I was truly cared for.” They often arranged for someone to take her on walks in the parks or on visits to a museum. Later in life after she had moved to the United States, she wished she could have told her caretakers how she appreciated their attention. Her attempts to reconnect were futile as they had passed on and the hospital no longer existed.

She saw a lesson in the amount of time she took to reach back to her care team, and she realized that giving back is something one shouldn’t wait to do.  She and husband Dr. Knut Schmidt-Nielsen knew fellow Foundation fundholder and board member Mark Kuhn, who helped them see that giving back can leave you with a profound feeling of gratitude. But it can do something else too, it can be fun and very interesting.

Kuhn and wife Cynthia introduced them to Triangle Community Foundation, where Claesson now advises the Schmidt-Nielsen and Claesson Family Fund. Her husband passed away in early 2007, but Claesson excitedly continues their tradition of giving to local, smaller causes. She targets education, and organizations that “help to self-help,” values that she and her husband both espoused. Claesson admits that she didn’t know much about philanthropy to begin with, but she feels much more confident now. “I didn’t understand it all, and that was okay” she said. “The Foundation has given me a terrific, basic education.”

Claesson doesn’t worry about what her philanthropic legacy will be. In fact, she says it doesn’t even matter. “I’ve lived longer than anyone thought I would, because of my diabetes,” she expresses. She is happy to be here still, being able to meet wonderful people, learning through attending Foundation gatherings such as Triangle Donors Forums where she hears directly from the nonprofits she wishes to support. It’s important for her to see organizations collaborating and learning skills that will help them function better.

But beyond grants from the fund, she keeps in focus a vision of what community is. “In a community, everyone is responsible for figuring out how its citizens can best be a part” she says. “That’s reciprocated by the community’s members who then give back to make it better and stronger. It’s the process of give-take that actually gives so much. And by being engaged, your own life gets much more enriched.”

Claesson says that she owes part of her commitment to engagement and interest in giving back to her late husband, who was a physiologist and always curious about how things work, how nature and animals work. He even wrote a book about this, The Camel’s Nose: Memoirs of a Curious Scientist. Claesson gained this same sense of curiosity (through osmosis, she says), and ties it back to community. Her advice?

“Find what interests you the most, what makes your heart tick. Education and learning don’t have to be formal – the things you hear and read and the people you meet are what help you live better. Notice what surprises you,” she goes on to say, “Especially when meeting and learning from others. It’s the surprises that feed back to curiosity. If we keep interest in the people around us, if we realize each individual’s values and abilities, then we can help to promote those. If we realize we’re a community that can help each other by sharing skills and being aware of common values, we can live better.”

Good words for such a time as this.