Making the world a better place
Photo: iStockphoto
I want to tell you about a very special person in my life. Her name was Dr. Margaret Zassenhaus, and she was my hero—not only because of her uncommon courage, but also because of her unvarying kindness.

Dr. Zassenhaus was our family physician. I remember days when Mom would squeeze all five of us girls into the car to visit the doctor. We looked forward to visiting her, as she happily greeted us at the door with her thick German accent and ushered us through her waiting room and into her office. Our visits always went well until the smell of cookies came wafting through the air. Once we began to smell the cookies, one of my sisters would begin to cry, then another and another, and before long, all of us would be in tears. The doctor's mother would come into the office with a plate loaded with warm, freshly baked cookies. You see, Dr. Zassenhaus, in her gentle and kind hearted way, had asked her mom (who lived with her above the office) to bake us a treat on the day of our vaccine shots—a reward for what we would endure. But my sisters and I had come to know the routine, and although we loved the cookies, we knew that that smell meant…THE SHOT!

Margaret's compassion also manifested in every large and small action—in the way she extended her friendship, joined community boards, cared for patients and listened to them. She shared stories of the people who inspired her, like Albert Schweitzer and Mahatma Gandhi, and taught us that every human being mattered; that even the smallest gesture could affect the world in a constructive way.

Margaret was gentle and kind, but she was also courageous. Born in Germany, she was under the rule of Adolph Hitler during World War II. As a young medical student assigned by the Gestapo to monitor Norwegian and Danish political prisoners, she took it upon herself to smuggle in medicines, carry out letters and, ultimately, save many lives. After the war, Margaret learned that her mother, too, had been part of the resistance, although neither of them had confided in each other about their involvement during the war, as to protect one another if the worst happened and they were to be found out.

When I was a girl, I asked her, "Were you scared when you saved the lives of all those men?" and she replied, "Of course, I was very scared! But I was the only one in a position to help, so I did what I could do." I have come to learn that that is all any of us can do.
A basic, wonderful truth about all people is that through our choices and actions, we can and do make the world a better place. We don't have to do huge things to make a big difference. Even the smallest kindness has the power to resonate through this sometimes difficult and troubled world. The loving actions we share make miracles happen. The greatest miracle workers are disguised as mothers, fathers, grandparents, neighbors, sisters, friends, daughters, nurses, teachers and volunteers.

Individual acts of kindness and generosity of spirit change the world. Kindness is magical, contagious. A single smile brings on another smile; a good morning invites another greeting. Thoughtfulness, consideration and care enhance our well-being and others' too. Civility and respect are the foundation for any relationship to begin and grow.

Without kindness in our lives, our world can quickly turn cold, empty and negative. Kindness gives us hope, it connects us to each other and it reminds us of the beauty that lives in each of us.

Being kind requires only a desire to contribute to the world in a positive way. Simple acts of kindness and generosity of spirit require little effort, yet they touch our lives deeply and have a huge effect. We have all had days where nothing seems to go right, yet, then, out of the blue, someone holds open a door, yields so you can pull your car out on a busy street, or says, "You look pretty today!" These simple actions change a negative moment into a positive one. When we are shown kindness, we feel we belong, we feel connected, we feel that we matter.

Allow these inspirational stories to remind you of the many ordinary people who have accomplished extraordinary things because they wanted to make a difference (and believed they could). Look around and recognize friends, family members and neighbors who transform the world by their acts of thoughtfulness, compassion and care. Celebrate your own purposeful actions, as you participate in your homes, schools, communities, towns, states, country and the world. Your positive, creative responses to social issues matter—they and you and can change the world for the better.

There is great power in living consciously, with the goal of celebrating and helping one another. The smallest of efforts can yield positive results.
I recently read about a wonderful woman who lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. Having been homebound while battling lymphoma, she felt lonely and in need of someone to talk with. She reasoned that there must also be other lonely people stuck inside without companionship. She called the county aging services and asked them to help her reach out to other seniors who might want to chat on the phone, have someone check up on them or simply get a call to say hello. Shortly after her inquiry, they gave her the name and number of another woman who needed just such a thing. What began as a single call and a lone volunteer, has grown into a program called The Life Care Bank, with 350 volunteer callers and even more people at the other end of the line.

Following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina—one of the worst natural disasters in our country's history—a group of people in San Francisco began The Blanket Project. Their mission is very simple—to let those directly affected know that we Americans across the country are concerned about them. The Blanket Project reminds us that the making of blankets and quilts is a time-honored tradition in which love and care are stitched into an object that gives warmth, comfort and shelter. The Blanket Project envisions every survivor of Katrina enveloped in blankets sewn with wishes, prayers, love and support. This grassroots effort invites each of us to make a quilt or blanket to cover someone in kindness. Hundreds of blankets have been made and shipped to the Gulf Coast, and thousands more are being made. Children are making them in schools, women are making them at book clubs and families are making them at home. Anyone can make a blanket, even you.

One woman had a friend who saved her family but lost everything else—her house, job and lifestyle—in the storm. Wanting to help her, a friend went through all her own photographs, finding many pictures of the woman and her family taken over the years. She gathered them in a book—a treasured memento to share. Her gift was an act of kindness that helped soothe her friend's aching heart.

Covering someone in love is a prevalent practice. In another national program called Project Linus, women lovingly craft handmade mittens, blankets, hats, gloves and scarves that are donated to local hospitals and schools to be given to children in need. The ladies in this group are "blanketeers" who provide love, a sense of security, warmth and comfort to children of all ages who are very ill or otherwise in need of a lovingly made gift.
There is no end to the many ways in which people can reach out to help others. Our friend Marty participates in the annual Polar Bear Plunge. Men and women dive into the Chesapeake Bay when the water temperature is a freezing 32 degrees to raise money for Maryland's Special Olympics. As supporters each year, we are sent a hilarious picture of Marty freezing his *** off. In spite of the really uncomfortable temperature, he is always smiling as he "dives for dollars."

A woman I know rounded up her friends and started crafting handmade bears. Called "Dale Bears," each is fashioned primarily from donated clothes, jewelry and other castoffs. Then it is given a name and a story. For example, an old dishtowel from Santa Fe becomes a bear named Tucson, who sports a feather necklace and turquoise earrings (and makes pottery in her spare time). These stuffed animals for grown-ups are "beary cute," and since all the proceeds from the sales of the bears go to a nonprofit group—The House of Ruth, whose mission is to end domestic violence—they make a difference in the lives of many women.

I recently learned about a group of women and girls who have named themselves GEM (and all the girls are gems!) and are collecting shampoos, soap and miscellaneous personal care items (you know, all those bottles we collect from hotels and motels) to make basic self-care bags for women who are being sheltered from abusive husbands and boyfriends.

A story of the power we possess when people work together recently brought me to tears. CBS Evening News covered a human chain made up of 30 people who were rescuing five beachgoers from a riptide in Bloomington Point Beach, Prince Edward Island. The five swimmers were enjoying the afternoon in the water when suddenly the rip yanked their footing out from under them and pulled them, quickly and without warning, into deep water. The swimmers could have drowned, but bystanders linked their arms, formed a long line and, after nearly an hour, managed to pull every one of them to safety. Strangers and friends pulled together, connected, arm by arm, and found the strength to rescue all those people. Imagine a world where this loving, thoughtful, intuitive, innovative and powerful force was used to solve all our problems.

My friend Maureen was ready to retire, but didn't want to stop working. She wanted to do work that mattered and that made a difference, so she started an organization called Our Journey. Asking friends and family to give what they could, she raised enough money to travel to and live in South Africa for a year while working in an orphanage with babies with AIDS or HIV. Most of the little ones are without parents, and most are without hope. Maureen provides both parenting and optimism to those precious children. Her online journal connects her to friends and supporters, helping to keep us on "our journey" together.
Creative acts that positively affect our society happen all the time, everywhere—from Rosa Parks, who stood for what she believed in by sitting down on a bus, to Osceola McCarty, a cleaning woman who, over the course of her lifetime, saved and eventually donated $150,000 to the University of Mississippi for a scholarship program. Miss McCarty, who left school in sixth grade, said, "I want to help somebody's child go to college." Her act of kindness touched the hearts of people all over the world and inspired others to give. Genesio Mortacci left $2.3 million to a small university in Great Falls, Montana, after having spent his life working as a janitor and dry cleaner. He had a passion for education and tending his roses and tomatoes. He was quoted as saying, "If you don't need it, you shouldn't buy it." He thought kids needed an education, though, because his gift has purchased it for many for many years.

The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore is a treasure that celebrates and educates its visitors to the power of the creative spirit. The museum's founder and director, Rebecca Hoffberger (a visionary in her own right), has created an entire wing to showcase people whose creative acts of social justice have touched many lives. That building is named after James Rouse, whose visionary ideas helped to flame renewal and development of cities across the country. He's gone now, but his visionary approach to urban development helped to plant the seeds of change and the idea that our cities and towns ought to be places where people can grow live on.

The museum displays works by people who have no formal training in the arts but have an innate desire to express and to share their unique perception of the world. Artists like Ester Nisenthal Krinitz, who, at the age of 50, began creating 36 magnificent needlework and fabric collages depicting how she survived the Holocaust. Meticulously stitched, these works of art narrate a young girl's terrifying experience and her will to live. Ester never dreamed they would be exhibited. She only did it for her two daughters. Gerald Hawke created magnificent sculptures by gluing thousands of single matchsticks together. Gerald believed that each person is like one matchstick—capable of providing light—but that when people work together, their light becomes most powerful, bright and brilliant.

Stories, images and art fill the interior and the exterior of this museum with the power of the human spirit. It is not a static holding place for objects, but a living museum that encourages creativity, self-expression and action. Over the past several years, the museum has hosted a mentoring program with kids from the local high school. The kids worked with a master ceramicist and mosaic artist to completely cover the outside of the museum in beautiful cobalt blue glass pieces, chards of discarded pottery and broken mirrors. The walls symbolize the beauty that can be seen in all things, even discarded, broken objects. The lesson is reflected on the walls for all to see: When we value potential in things and in people, they will come to value it in themselves.
The educational goals, authored by Hoffberberger of the American Visionary Art Museum, are a call for creative action that each of us can apply to our own lives.

1. Expand the definition of a worthwhile life.
2. Engender respect for and delight in the gifts of others.
3. Increase awareness of the wide variety of choices available for all—particularly students.
4. Encourage each individual to build upon his or her own special knowledge and inner strengths.
5. Promote the use of innate intelligence, intuition, self-exploration and creative self-reliance.
6. Confirm the greatest hunger for finding out just what each of us can do best, in our own voice, at any age.
7. Empower the individual to choose to do that something really, really well.

Wangari Muta Maathai plants trees. In 1977, she planted nine trees in her backyard in Kenya and founded the Green Belt movement. She planted the trees to stop soil erosion and provide wood for cooking fires. She has been arrested, imprisoned and beaten for her efforts, and she has also won the Nobel Peace Prize. Wangari has organized more than 100,000 women in Kenya and surrounding countries to plant 30 million trees, so far. One tree at a time, these women are planting for a brighter future for themselves, their descendants and their country.

Sometimes cities can touch their residents in artful and healing ways too. When 18-year-old Tiffany Grant lost her life in a car accident at an intersection in downtown Baltimore, her mother simply could not go near the place, as it increased her feeling of pain and loss. But something unexpected changed that. The city erected a red-and-white street sign that read, "Tiffany Grant Way." The sign helped ease the mother's pain a little, and she was thankful.
Sadly, in many parts of America, funding for art and music classes has been cut, leaving kids who express their voices without words few opportunities for self-discovery and development. Yet all over the country, people and organizations recognize the healing properties of creativity and the arts and are doing something about them. In New York, an organization called Free Arts mentors kids through the experience of painting murals and making sculptures, fostering their self-discovery.

We all have the power to make a difference in others' lives. Through our intention and actions, we choose to bring positive experiences into our lives and make them for others. We can all do something. Do what you can. Do what looks like it needs doing. Do it your own way. Do it because you want to. Do something because you know you can.

Be a mentor. Teach someone to read. Sit awhile with someone who is lonely. Volunteer. Serve food at a shelter. Make art with kids. Compliment someone. Listen to what someone has to say. Visit a friend who is sick. Wave to the women sitting in the window at a nursing home. Tell someone you are thinking about her. Be a role model. Work with Habitat for Humanity to build a house. Lend a hand at the local fire hall. Use your money generously. Walk for what you believe in—peace, breast cancer research, life. Comfort someone when he is sad. Walk your neighbor's dog. Participate in a food drive. Bake something or buy something from a bake sale. Clean your closet and donate the clothes you don't wear.


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