Helen Hobart is a California girl from Chico. When hearing the highlights of the 77 years of her life, an obvious pattern emerges of a woman devoted to the service of others. She trained for the Peace Corps in her early 20s, and over the years, she worked as a board-certified chaplain, social worker, community organizer, and activist who became a Buddhist later in life.
“There is something in me that knows that ALL people matter. There is not a hierarchy of who matters more,” Helen says of how she looks at the world, a place where she has had many memorable adventures.
The native Californian began her journey out into the world at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. “I wanted to join those people who wore black turtlenecks and asked deep, philosophical questions,” she reflects with some amusement.
It was the Vietnam War era, the age of flower power, political protests, and cultural disruption. Helen recalls going on a field trip with the Peace Corps to San Francisco, where she felt drawn to the hippie culture and stayed for a year to work in a preschool and volunteer with the American Friends Service Committee. “I had the most wonderful time! Everyone was really into peace and social justice.”
She then hitchhiked around the world for more than two years on a quest to find her spiritual teacher, “like so many of us were doing.” In Sri Lanka, she met a Buddhist monk, a German refugee, “whose wisdom changed my life,” she says.
Her world travels eventually landed her in England, where she lived for six years with her first husband, a Brit. After coming full circle and moving back to California with her husband, they became deeply committed to social activism and led a large interfaith organization for justice in Central America and stopping the nuclear arms race. “We did a lot of good work together. But our marriage broke up because we were trying so hard to save the world.”
Today, Helen still lives in the Sacramento home where she raised her two daughters and where the eldest of three grandchildren was born. First Nations Development Institute is grateful to the benevolent donor for her continued support to various projects, such as “Stewarding Native Lands” and “Native Youth and Culture Fund.”
“First Nations hit all the right buttons for me because they use the money for community-building, collective action, and empowering others,” she explains why she donates to this organization. “I am honored to be helping a group that is leading the way toward healing the harm that domination culture has brought to the Earth. It really speaks to me.”
A big heart for helping Natives and other underserved communities
The mistreatment of Native Americans throughout history has always been a source of sadness for Helen, whose British ancestors, she has been told, sailed on the Fortune into Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621, following the Mayflower. “I grew up in a household where my father believed that white Anglo-Saxon Protestants were given the job to bring order and civilization to others.”
But Helen had far different ideas, rejecting the colonialist ideology of her heritage. “I resonate more with the spiritual gifts of Native people and our reciprocal relationship with the world around us. That is also what draws me to Buddhism.”
In her ongoing efforts to help repair the generational harm done to Natives by her ancestors, Helen became involved in a donor group of like-minded women who met monthly to discuss the Indian Child Welfare Act and other contemporary Native issues. Facilitated by First Nations Development Officer Marisa Page, this cadre of warriors called themselves “The Power Puff Girls.”
“Helen is a wonderful and beautiful human being. The camaraderie of this group has brought us closer together and I know that she is caring, compassionate, and cares deeply about her loved ones, her community, and everyone who comes into her life, like me,” shares Marisa. “I am happy that we have her as a friend and ally, and I appreciate her dedication to our cause and all the amazing work she is doing to help others.”
Helen said she was moved to tears by the group experience. “It was an incredible honor to listen to everyone’s story and have that kind of honest conversation.”
When she was asked to help an Afghan family get settled in Sacramento, Helen did what she does best: She jumped right in, inviting friends to help. “I felt a lot of joy when everyone involved, including the refugees, became a circle of giving and receiving,” she says. Eventually, the family of 11 moved to Chicago for good-paying jobs and a better quality of life. True to form, Helen has kept in touch. “I just went to see them in May, and it was the most joyful reunion.”
Her work in the Buddhist community
This compassionate philanthropist shows no signs of slowing down her good works and generous spirit, despite a few health setbacks. “I am not done yet,” says Helen.
She was involved with contemplative Christianity for much of her life and worked at hospitals as a board-certified chaplain. Now, Helen follows a Buddhist path in the tradition of Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who encouraged mindfulness, compassion, and nonviolence, and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., according to the New York Times.
These days, Helen volunteers at the Sacramento Dharma Center (pictured above), a dedicated space for meditation-based Buddhist groups. She helps run the family program there, open to all families who wish to live in kindness, where children and parents gather to play, socialize, and learn from one another.
As the lifelong humanitarian says, “It’s just a little bit of heaven once a month.”