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Real Life Lessons From Real Life DoGooders: Empathy Is the First Step to Serving Others

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My personal hero is Sargent Shriver and has been for some time. He epitomized living with purpose and showed up to life every day with drive and gratitude. Although I often fall short, I try to emulate his example daily. It's surprising to even myself that I hold someone I have no connection with in such high regard and credit for inspiring me to strive for my highest ideals.

Shriver accomplished so much. He sewed an infrastructure of social mobility and international alliances into the fabric of American culture. He is a giant of the Greatest Generation and single-handily founded or directed programs like Head Start, VISTA, Jobs Corps, Community Action, Upward Bound, Foster Grandparents, Special Olympics, the National Center on Poverty Law, Legal Services, and the Peace Corps.

As my role model, I have read about and analyzed his life thoroughly. I've derived what made him so successful was his power to empathize. While addressing his former Alma mater, Yale University, at its 1964 Commencement, Shriver advised: "Break your mirrors!! Yes -- Shatter the glass. In our society that is so self-absorbed, begin to look less at yourself and more at each other."

Despite the privilege of being part of the Kennedy dynasty, he strove to always relate to the disadvantaged. Two of our former DoGooder Spotlights share Shriver's power to identify and teach us the real life lesson of that the first step towards serving others is empathy.

Elizabeth Davis grew up with numerous advantages that helped her succeed at the prestigious Vanderbilt University. There, she learned about the Rwandan genocide and how more than a million people were killed during the course of the crises. After graduation, she immediately moved to the country and volunteered with a variety of grassroots organizations that served street children.

Through her experience, David began to see herself in the eyes of many of the Rwandan females. She decided to open a college because she wanted to provide educational opportunity that empowered Rwandan women to thrive with sustaining careers. Akilah Institute for Women opened its doors in 2010 to serve those affected by the 1994 genocide and offers diplomas in Hospitality and Business Management and Entrepreneurship. All students participate in internships at eco-lodges, high-end hotels or safari lodges to secure a career in the country's burgeoning tourism industry.

Davis aims to create a transformational model for higher education in women that can be replicated in countries around the world. When asked what drives her, she explains she sees herself in those she helps: "I was born to a well-off family in the right country, and young women born across the world were denied the same opportunities. I do what I do out of a sense of obligation."

Like Shriver and Davis, Megan Gunderman has dedicated her career to extending educational opportunities to those who lacked the resources that she had as a child. While traveling through Tanzania to research and complete her degree in International Relations and Geography, she volunteered at an orphanage. She was shocked to learn many of the institutions could only accommodate a certain number of children before they were pushed out. Kids, as young as seven-years-old, were often left to fend for themselves in the streets.

Gunderman noticed that children in the country were seen as number instead of individuals. While there, she developed a love for three triplets who were living in the orphanage and risked being pushed out. "I wanted to find a way to add value to their lives in the long-term," Gunderman says. "I loved the idea of using education as a tool to help themselves out of a circle of poverty."

Reaching out to family and friends, she raised enough money to send the triplets to a safe environment at an African boarding school. Ultimately, this sparked the idea for The Foundation for Tomorrow (TFFT), a nonprofit that provides scholarships for African orphans to attend boarding schools in their home countries. Today, the nonprofit has given 82 children scholarships at boarding schools through the country.

Like Shriver, Davis and Gunderman inspire me so much because they recognize that while they have been given so much, they have a responsibility to give back. Who would think that these privileged American girls could relate to African women and children that grew up a half a world away? It proves that integrating and actually empathizes with those in need usually reveals ways to help. Shriver understood this when he created the Peace Corp.

In January 2011, Sergeant Shriver died at the age of 95 of Alzheimer's. His son Timothy explained at his funeral that before his father lost his mind to the crushing disease, he begged his dad to summarize his life on a napkin. After much persuasion, he relented and shared the following words, which have now become sort of mantra to me:

I'm a man who was born and tried to live committed to be to be open to all people, no matter their differences nationality, race, religion or geography. I am a man full of energy and health. I'm a man who takes his responsibilities seriously. I'm committed to do everything I can to succeed. I'm a man who tries to be original and creative. I'm a man unencumbered by the past and by existing hierarchies. I feel free to invent. I believe the world was and is created by God. I believe the world is good beyond description. I believe that we human beings seeking life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness do so because God has given us those things. I believe we have a responsibility to God to do whatever we can to do good things for people, especially the poor. I believe in ideals. I believe the world can be better if we only focus on achieving our ideals. I believe any failure to achieve our ideals should only result in a rededication to them. I believe in faith, hope and love. I believe they have the greatest power.

A life well lived... and it starts with empathy.

You can read more about the life of Sargent Shriver in his son's new book: A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver By: Mark Shriver