Thousands of people look forward to Lisa Rueff’s daily social media posts spreading love and light into the world. A Sausalito-based humanitarian who’s endearingly nicknamed “Chief Love Warrior,” Lisa has been waking people up to the power of love in her community and around the globe for more than 22 years.
From serendipitously helping a man with late stage cancer design a keepsake necklace to gift his mom before he died to raising funds to build an orphanage in Haiti, Lisa continually inspires people by acting with love in the face of both tragedy and triumph.
Early Influences and Young Adulthood
How does one become a Chief Love Warrior? For Lisa, it starts with family.
Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, Lisa and her sister Karyn loved helping out in her parents’ Southern Linen stores. They especially liked greeting customers as they came in. In addition to a strong work ethic, her parents taught them the importance of being kind and considerate to everyone, both the customers and staff.
Lisa describes her parents as “the most giving, thoughtful, leading-with-love people.” In fact, her 84-year-old dad still volunteers in nursing homes multiple times a week, singing to patients and bringing them joy.
When she was 11, Lisa and her family visited Walt Disney World’s Epcot, a theme park celebrating human achievement and cultural heritage around the world. When Lisa visited “Japan,” she was mesmerized by the architecture, aesthetic, calligraphy and culture. Their Japanese tour guide invited her to someday visit his country and teach English there. Lisa promised him she would.
When she graduated from the University of Hawaii with a focus in Japanese studies, Lisa made good on her promise and moved to Japan where she taught high school as well as at the School for the Visually Impaired in Hiroshima. The students there trained to become shiatsu massage therapists. The schoolmaster taught Lisa that “hands are extensions of our hearts” and massage is a way of expressing love. Lisa soon became a shiatsu massage practitioner and discovered her own gift for healing.
Then, in 1995, a 6.9 earthquake struck the nearby city of Kobe. The damage was devastating. She immediately volunteered to help and experienced firsthand the power of one person making a tangible difference by simply holding a hand and extending an open heart.
“I was so devastated by everyone who had lost homes, who had lost lives,” she said. “It felt rewarding to go from feeling helpless to seeing how I could impact and uplift people.”
After living in Japan for a year, Lisa ventured to remote regions of Southeast Asia and India to travel, volunteer, and work. While in India, Lisa was immediately transfixed by yoga’s healing and therapeutic powers. Soon she began her training in yoga, meditation, and additional massage techniques. When Lisa returned to the United States, she combined her passions for travel and yoga and started YogaVentures, leading humanitarian-based travel and volunteer group retreats around the world.
In January 2010, when a catastrophic 7.0 earthquake almost destroyed the poor Caribbean island of Haiti, Lisa again felt a strong desire to help. As a volunteer, Lisa spent time in the port town of Jacmel on the southern coast of Haiti. There she met humanitarian Bonite Affriany.
A registered nurse, Bonite had returned to her homeland of Haiti to run a children’s food program. After the earthquake, she worked tirelessly in a tent city feeding more than 300 people each day, administering healthcare, and distributing food and clothing donations.
“From the moment I arrived at Bonite’s center, I felt a surge of inner strength and purpose,” Lisa said. “With Bonite it was very hands on. She was doing so much more than the bigger organizations like the United Nations and Salvation Army, where there was a lot of waiting for bureaucratic signatures.”
“I witnessed firsthand how providing joy, hope, and peace through my personalized touch of yoga, interactive art experiences, and playful activities turned frowns and tears into smiles and laughter,” she said.
This experience opened a new path for Lisa, who could not wait to come back to Haiti with her yoga students to aid further.
A few months later, she brought a group of yogi volunteers back to Jacmel to assist Bonite. While the group sorted jeans, three girls between 10 and 12 years old arrived. Their parents had perished in the earthquake and they were escaping an abusive relative caretaker.
“They looked like they had been through hell and back,” Lisa said. “Bonite warmly ushered them in, fed and bathed them.”
Over the next three days, the volunteers witnessed a complete transformation of the girls. The combination of love from the women at the center, the company of the other children, and nourishment changed them from “frightened little deer in headlights” to joyful, playful kids.
One day, Bonite grabbed Lisa’s hand and they walked outside. “She said, ‘You see up there, that hill? That’s all my property. I have permits to build a children’s home, and it’s my dream, but I don’t have the money. Inshallah[God willing], the money will appear.’”
Jacmel Children’s Center
Lisa returned to California with a mission to raise the funds for Bonite’s dream. She and her then husband Phillip Schneider embarked on a massive grassroots fundraising campaign, approaching family, friends, and the community with their story.
They enlisted the help of the yoga instructor community to co-host several fundraising events. I attended one of these events in Marin, and it was an astounding experience: the intense, loving energy was palpableas hundreds of attendees packed into the community center for a two-hour yoga class led by twelve instructors each teaching for 10 minutes.
Lisa and Phillip also worked with their friend and actor, Misha Collins, co-founder and board president of Random Acts, a non-profit organization that aims to “conquer the world one random act of kindness at a time.” Misha empowered his community to take part in the fundraiser. He also served as an ambassador for a number of YogaVentures trips, encouraging his fans to join him on the humanitarian trips to Haiti to support the center.
Eventually, Lisa and her community raised more than $500,000 and Bonite began construction. In October 2014 the Jacmel Children’s Center opened its doors. Today, the thriving Center is home to 27 children.
As the children’s center took shape, Lisa served in several other philanthropic roles. From 2012 to 2013, she facilitated trips for Virgin Unite, Sir Richard Branson’s foundation, which connects entrepreneurial leaders around the world to create lasting change and transformation. She also served as Executive Director of Do It for the Love, Michael and Sara Franti’s philanthropic foundation. Do It For the Love gives people battling life-threatening illnesses, children with severe challenges, and wounded veterans the opportunity to meet their favorite musical artist.
Lisa’s entrepreneurial spirit combined with her drive to give back have led to some truly unique endeavors. In 2015, Lisa created Sparked, a board game designed to inspire soulful and uplifting conversations, juicy surprises, and laugh-until-you-cry moments. In 2017, she started Collective Hearts, a unique heart-shaped jewelry line inspired by the simple belief thatthere’s a need for so much more love in the world. A portion of the proceeds from both of Lisa’s businesses benefits the Jacmel Children’s Center.
Chief Love Warrior
Over time, Lisa affectionately earned the nickname “Chief Love Warrior” from her community. It’s a fitting moniker: from as far back as Lisa can remember, she’s been fueled by love.
“Ultimately we have two choices: love or fear. But whatever the question, love is always the answer,” she says.
Above all, Chief Love Warrior Lisa Rueff delights in connecting people and empowering them to find their purpose and passion.
Her Message for Mindful Littles (and Bigs)
1. Always try to see the best in everyone (including yourself!) — everybody wants to be seen, heard, respected, and valued.
2. Each of us has talents, dreams, and experiences that no one else has, which makes us who we are. The more we hone in our uniqueness and intentions, the more passionate and engaged we’ll be to give back in the work we do.
3. Be open to new opportunities. Try to let go of expectations and just follow the dots because you never know where they will lead.
Lisa has kindly offered a 10% Collective Hearts discount to our readers (code: MINDFULittles). Follow her on Instagram for a day-to-day dose of heartfelt inspiration and check out her retreats to Haiti for a truly unique volunteer experience.