Ordinary people doing extraordinary things
When Susan Boyle appeared as a contestant on the TV show “Britain’s Got Talent” in April 2009, she was 48 years old, had a thick Scottish accent, and her only singing experience had been in church choirs and karaoke bars. Lack of oxygen during her difficult birth had left her with a severe learning disability, and at school other kids had bullied her and called her “Susie Simple.” Despite her modest appearance and experience, Boyle won the talent competition and received a recording contract. Her debut album became the UK’s best-selling album of all time, and three years after her initial television appearance her estimated net worth was £22 million.
Randy Pausch, a professor of computer science and human-computer interaction and design at Carnegie Mellon University, learned in August 2007 that his pancreatic cancer was terminal and he could expect only 3 to 6 more months of good health. The following month, Pausch gave an inspirational and upbeat lecture titled, “The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” Pausch’s lecture became a YouTube phenomenon, which led to numerous media appearances and a best-selling book that has been translated into 46 languages. In both the lecture and the book, Pausch focuses on how he achieved many of his childhood dreams and enabled the dreams of others, and how people can lead happier and more fulfilling lives. But it was his courage, humor and positive attitude in facing his own death that inspired people he most. Pausch died in July 2008 at age 47.
In 1995, when Craig Kielburger was 12 years old, he read about a Pakistani boy named Iqbal Masih, a slave in a carpet factory, who had been murdered for protesting and speaking out against the exploitation of children. Kielburger adopted Masih’s cause and, with the help of a few classmates, founded a charity called Free the Children. With no money and no adult backers at first, this young Canadian boy set out on a mission to rescue children worldwide from slavery, desperate poverty and backbreaking labor. Despite some initial setbacks, Kielburger never gave up. Today, Free the Children is the world's largest network of children helping children. It is a $30 million a year charity that operates in 45 countries and has two million volunteers—nearly all of them under the age of 18.
When she was in the third grade, Katie Stagliano planted a cabbage seedling as part of a school project and, with special care and attention, grew a 40-pound cabbage. She decided to donate the remarkable vegetable to a local soup kitchen, and she was so moved by the friendliness and gratitude of the hungry people and staff at the charity that she was inspired to do more. She founded Katie’s Krops, asked local organizations for help with fundraising, got her school involved in growing and harvesting vegetables to donate to the hungry, and enlisted the help of a master gardener. Today, at age 14, Katie is still actively engaged in the fight against hunger.
As experienced foster parents, Danielle Gletow and her husband Joe saw how little was sometimes needed to make a foster child’s wish come true—and how difficult it often was for those children to get what they needed because they had no parents or close relatives to ask. She founded One Simple Wish in December 2008 to match foster children with unfulfilled wishes and people who want to help. Since then, more than 4,000 wishes have been granted. Most wishes cost between $10 and $100—more expensive wishes can be funded by combining funds from multiple donors—and all are submitted by approved social service agencies and caseworkers.
Since 1990, Mona Rutger, a secretary in Castalia, Ohio, has been nursing wounded wildlife back to health. During that time, Rutger estimates that her group, Back to the Wild, has rescued more than 42,000 injured, orphaned or displaced animals. About 60 percent have recovered enough to return to the wild. Twenty-some years ago, Rutger took the training needed to become a certified wildlife rehabilitator, and then turned her backyard into a sanctuary for wild animals who needed help. Her phone hasn’t stopped ringing since.
Mozart could play and name notes on the piano at age 3; Alma Deutscher could do it when she was 2. Mozart was writing songs when he was 5 years old; Deutscher started composing when she was 4. Deutscher has mastered both the piano and violin, and now she has written a short opera. She’s only 7 years old. Most musical prodigies excel at playing music—that’s their gift—but it is Deutscher’s unusual ability to create and improvise classical music that really makes her stand out.
After Taryn Davis’ 22-year-old husband was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2007, she struggled with grief, survivors’ guilt and feeling ostracized. To help deal with her grief, she contacted other young widows and started videotaping interviews with them. Those sessions evolved into The American Widows Project, which has offered counseling and connecting to hundreds of young war widows online.
Helen Ashe and Ellen Turner
Twin sisters Helen Ashe and Ellen Turner grew up poor, but their parents always taught them to be generous with whatever they had. In 1986, the sisters founded the Love Kitchen in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the basement of a small church. Their goal was to provide meals for those they call the five Hs: the hungry, the homeless, the helpless, the hopeless and the homebound. That first day, they prepared 22 meals. Today, they serve more than 2,000 meals every week and the sisters, now in their mid-80s, are still going strong.
Derreck Kayongo, a native of Uganda, was surprised during his first trip to the United States because his hotel room was supplied with new bars of soap every day, even though the old soap was barely used. The experience gave Kayongo the idea for the Atlanta-based Global Soap Project, which collects lightly used hotel soap, recycles it to create new soap, and sends it to impoverished nations worldwide, where it is helping to improve personal hygiene, prevent disease and lower child mortality.