By Elizabeth Svoboda
Feeling discouraged? Here are a few everyday people whose generosity will inspire the socks off you, from the author of the new book, What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness.
The Man Who Used His Own Body As A Crash Pad
In 2009, veteran Texas skydiving instructor Dave Hartsock was in the middle of a 13,000-feet-high tandem jump with Shirley Dygert, a grandmother and first-time diver, when he discovered that neither of his two parachutes would open all the way to stop their free fall. Red alerts screamed through his brain as he struggled to untangle the parachute lines. They fell thousands of feet, then a few thousand more. With just seconds left to go before impact, Hartsock opted to use control toggles to rotate his body so that he'd cushion Dygert, absorbing the brunt of the force when the two of them hit the ground.
Hartsock's quick thinking saved Dygert's life. While she sustained some injuries, she recovered and is able to function normally. But Hartsock paid a monumental price. The fall paralyzed him from the neck down, most likely permanently, and he now needs help to do things as basic as getting dressed or taking a bath. Dygert, who has kept in touch with Hartsock since the accident, sometimes tears up when she thinks about what a sacrifice her instructor made for her, saying, "How can somebody have that much love for another person?"
Would Hartsock have made the same heroic choice if he'd known what was going to happen to him? Absolutely, he says. "When people do a tandem, they don't know about body position -- they're just looking for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Shirley sure didn't know how to do it without hurting herself. Better me than her."
The Girl Who Stood Up To The Bullies (All Of Them!)
Photo: Courtesy of Jodee Blanco
It's hard to imagine a middle-school experience more hellish than the one Jodee Blanco endured. The target of numerous bullies in her class, Blanco scarfed down protein bars in the bathroom at lunchtime because other students wouldn't let her sit with them in the cafeteria. School athletes stuffed her mouth with snow, a teacher berated her for standing up for disabled kids and a popular guy offered to sign her yearbook and then scrawled obscenities across the page.
Years later, as an adult, she found the courage to write a book about her teenage experiences called, Please Stop Laughing at Me: One Woman's Inspirational True Story, which made The New York Times' best-seller list and generated a groundswell response. Bullied students who'd read the book reached out to her through letters and e-mails. Some even confided they were thinking about suicide.
School after school invited Blanco to share her story. After hearing firsthand about the devastating toll bullying was taking all over the U.S., she resolved to draw on her own pain to help kids by creating an anti-bullying program called "It's NOT Just Joking Around!" In presentations, Blanco acts out belittling scenes from her own life to drive home the very real consequences of bullying. She also performs one-on-one interventions to help resolve specific conflicts between students. But in her most courageous -- and uplifting -- move yet, she's made peace with many of her past tormentors. "If you're going to help others survive that which you endured," she says, "you have to be able to forgive."
The Teenager Who Saved The School Bus
As 17-year-old Graceanne Rumer stepped onto the school bus home from Calvary Christian Academy in Philadelphia one January afternoon, all she could think about was how exhausted she was. She knew she had to study for upcoming midterms, but she wished she could just go to sleep for a while.
Barely five minutes had gone by when Rumer suddenly realized, "Oh my gosh, the driver fell over." The driver had passed out at the wheel and the bus was careening out of control. Though she'd only started driving a couple of weeks before, Rumer knew she had to do something. There were dozens of kids on the bus, some of them only in first grade. She rushed forward, grabbed hold of the wheel and steered the bus to the side of the road, pulling a U-turn to guide it out of oncoming traffic. "I couldn't reach the brake pedal because the bus driver was right in front of me," says Rumer, now a student at Penn State University. "I just put it in park. The bus stopped right before hitting the guardrails."
The significance of what Rumer had done didn't fully register until she spoke with the family members of the students she'd saved. "The parents there -- some of them had three kids on the bus. They were all hugging me." Rumer remains humble about her feat despite the kudos she's received. "A lot of it was just a big miracle. I don't consider myself heroic in the least."
The Woman Who Helps War Victims Rebuild
As a driven businesswoman, Victoria Trabosh's goal in life was to make the cover of Time. At a professional meeting in Portland, Oregon however, she was introduced to a Rwandan woman named Rita Ngarambe. Their initial chitchat quickly turned into a more serious discussion, in which Ngarambe explained how her people had lost hope after the 1994 genocide. That conversation, Trabosh says, planted a seed. "I went back home and said, 'I'm going to go to Rwanda.'"
While in Rwanda, Trabosh met people who'd suffered unimaginable losses -- a widow who lived with four of her children in a 42-square-feet mud hut, a young boy whose siblings were raising him because his parents had died. Determined to reach out to survivors and their children, Trabosh started the Itafari Foundation after she returned to the U.S. Itafari means "brick" in the Kinyarwanda language, reflecting her desire to help the people there rebuild.
Over the past eight years, Itafari has raised nearly a million dollars and most of that money has gone toward helping Rwandans become more self-sufficient -- paying orphaned children's school fees, for instance, or supplying loans to family heads so they can start their own businesses. The foundation has transformed hundreds of lives, including that of a woman named Claudine, who lost both her parents in the massacres. With Itafari's help, Claudine was able to build a house for her family and send her two children to school. "When someone has gone through a genocide, they need to know, 'Can you help me with my dreams?'" Trabosh says. "Our work is empowerment."
Though still recovering from a recent heart attack, Trabosh continues to promote Itafari's mission and the potential of the people she serves. "I watch their success and I say, 'Anything is possible.' I was optimistic before, but I am so focused now. I am so clear that there is greatness available to all of us."
Elizabeth Svoboda is the author of What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness.