Heroes You Should Know: Shelia Fedrick

shelia

Alaska Airline flight attendant Shelia Fedrick didn’t board the plane that fateful day in 2011 thinking she’d become a hero.  But soon after the flight from Seattle to San Francisco took off, Fedrick noticed the young girl with dishevelled clothing and greasy-blonde hair.  She looked like she’d been through hell.  Next to her was a well-dressed, much older man.  Fedrick’s instincts told her something was wrong, so she attempted to strike up a conversation with the two.  The girl remained silent while the man became defensive.  At that point, Fedrick devised a plan.

She went to the bathroom and pasted a note for the girl on the mirror.  Fedrick then returned to aisle 10 and whispered to the teen—whom she guessed was around 14 years-old—to visit the bathroom.  Once there, the girl found the note asking if she needed help.  The girl wrote on the note that she did.

Fedrick then notified the pilot, who quickly contacted law enforcement officers in San Francisco.  They were waiting for the man at the terminal when the flight landed.  He was questioned, taken into custody, and arrested.  And the fourteen year-old was saved from sex slavery.

Five years later, Fedrick and the girl she rescued—now a college student—are still in touch.

The International Labor Organization estimates that there are currently 4.5 million people trapped in the sexual slavery worldwide.  In 2016 2,000 people were arrested for human trafficking by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and 400 victims were freed.

Airline Ambassadors International, an organization that teaches flight attendants to look for signs of sex trafficking and provides training on intervention, is doing its best to ensure that there are more Shelia Fedricks in the not-always-friendly skies.  To date over 1,000 flight attendants have received this special training.

All angels fly.  And at least one wears a uniform.

Shelia Fedrick is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Listening to Hummingbirds

colibri

In Hispanic culture the hummingbird has historically symbolized a messenger from the otherworld, who brings a message from the dead to the living. So when Robin Reineke decided to found a non-profit organization that helps bring closure to the family and friends of missing immigrants, Colibri (‘hummingbird’ in Spanish) was chosen.

Founded in 2006 in Tucson, Arizona, within the County Coroner’s office, The Colibri Center for Human Rights assists families mostly in South and Central America discover the whereabouts of missing loved ones. Colibri takes information from families who’ve contacted them about their loved one, and then works to connect the missing person with forensic evidence collected from searches in the desert.

The Colibri database has detailed information on over 2,000 active missing person cases, including everything from dental records and photographs of scars and tattoos to articles of clothing and jewelry. It also has information on 2,500 bodies (900 of which remain unidentified). Colibri will also conduct searches in the desert themselves, and is committed to working with anyone, regardless of nationality or citizenship status.

For United States citizens, the search for a missing person is relatively easy. But for those living outside the U.S., searches across international borders is far more complicated. Some families are foreign nationals living in Central America or Mexico, and are turned away by government officials who don’t have the time or inclination to search for undocumented immigrants. Still others are themselves undocumented workers living in the United States, and are afraid to file missing persons reports with authorities.

The actual number of annual migrant deaths is nearly impossible to verify because of the number of people who remain missing. What is known is that between 1998 and 2013, over 6,000 men, women, and children perished somewhere in the unforgiving desert just north of the Mexican-American border alone. And in 2014, over 300 deaths were officially reported. Harsh weather conditions are often the cause, but U.S. Customs and Border Protection reports that many also fall prey to violence—to sexual assault, human trafficking, and forced labor.

Reineke shares, “I can’t tell you how many families have said that the pain of not knowing is far worse than knowing and being able to begin to grieve and move on.”

Colibri offers a service to families of missing migrants, but it serves a larger purpose as well. It puts a human face on the immigration issue, challenging citizens to see children of God and not just policies.

Colibri collects pieces of the shattered hopes and dreams of those who sought a better life at all costs and against all odds in the Land of Opportunity. Here are stories that cry out to be heard, still. Because every life is precious.

Listen to the hummingbirds.

I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

If you’ve done it for the least of these: Maurice Rowland and Miguel Alvarez

mm

 

When the Valley Springs Manor, a residential home in Castor Valley California, had its license to operate revoked on Thursday October 24, 2013, the state inspectors were supposed to insure a transition plan to a new home for the nineteen older adults, many of whom were either bedridden or suffering with dementia.  Valley Springs had previously been cited for safety violations, under staffing, lost medical records, and not having enough food, or access to prescribed medication, for the clients.

 

When an inspector came by the next day and found that the facility had still not closed its doors or found new homes for their residents, she promptly fined the manor $3,800 for not being in compliance, gave her final report to the cook on the premises, and left for the weekend.

All but two of the staff members at Valley Springs Manor had left on Thursday.  But after arriving at work Friday, and surveying the situation, Maurice Rowland and his childhood friend Miguel Alvarez knew they had to stay.

 

Rowland, the cook who had only been working there for three months and hadn’t been paid in over a month, and Alvarez, the custodian who had just been hired three weeks earlier and had not been paid at all, understood that this was a critical situation as there was no way the nineteen residents could possibly care for themselves.  Who knew if life-saving help would come in time?

 

For two days, Rowland and Alvarez ministered to the nineteen vulnerable and fragile older adults.  They cooked and cleaned for the residents, bathed and toileted the residents, found and administered the proper medications to the residents, and kept the residents calm and safe.

 

On Saturday afternoon Rowland had to make calls to 911because two clients appeared to be ill and running temperatures.  The dispatcher who took the call then contacted Alameda County sheriff deputies to investigate, and by the evening the evacuation of the patients had begun.

 

As a result of the Valley Springs Manor nightmare the Residential Care for the Elderly Reform Act of 2014 was enacted, protecting the health, safety, and security of residents living in residential facilities.

 

The cook and the custodian were in the right place at the right time.  Of course so were several other people, including people who had far more training and education in care of the elderly, who left.

 

The takeaway?  When you’re talking about heroes, what will always matter more than what’s on a resume is what’s in a heart.

 

Maurice Rowland and Miguel Alvarez are heroes you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

‘Listening very much’: The real point of Advent

christmastree

Holiday.  You’ll read that word a lot in the next several weeks.  We know what the term means to many nowadays:  time off from work, vacation, a chance to get last minute shopping done, parties, lots of food.

But what did it originally mean?  Halig (Holy) daeg (day) was a Middle English word, first used in the 12th century.  It marked special days set aside by the Church.  General work was suspended in order to frame, consider, and celebrate “holiness”.

Holy days help us understand what holiness really is—and how we too can become holy.  In the Christian world, every Sunday is considered a Holy Day—the Sabbath.   And of course we have days like Easter and Christmas to remind us why we have a faith.  Most believers will make some effort to get to church on these days at a minimum.

But if it’s just about Church attendance, we’re missing the point!

Do you see signs of holiness in yourself, and in those around you?  My guess is that you’d know it if you saw it, or experienced it, even though you might not call it “holiness.”  It’s found in love, and gentleness, and goodness, and sacrifice, and faith, and joyful humility.  I’ve been blessed with many examples in my life, but I want to focus on an example from my seminary days which still stirs my heart.

For a couple of years, I lived next door to a beautiful Chinese family.  Grandma Yen, the matriarch, was well into her 80’s when I first met her but still very much in love with Jesus.  One day she knocked on my front door to ask a favor of me.  Would I be willing to read her favorite Bible verses while she recorded me?  I agreed, thinking Grandma Yen was wanting to practice her English, and quickly affirmed her desire to become more fluent.  With a smile, she politely corrected me stating that it wasn’t about her English, it was about her spiritual life.  As she explained it, because she didn’t have a strong command of the English language, the recordings would challenge her to “listen very much when God talks to me.”

Grandma Yen has been in Heaven for twenty-two years now, after a lifetime of listening very much to God’s words to her, and then following His directions.  I think of her every time the Holidays Season rolls around.  She will always serve as an example of holiness for me, and provides a clue for how we can all stay connected to the original meaning of the Holidays.

During this Advent Season, this season of waiting and preparation, may we all listen “very much” to the words of God, and what He’s trying to tell us…and help make this Holiday Season truly holy.

Living “thank-you”:  The virtue of gratitude

grateful

“Gratitude is a sickness suffered by dogs.”

-Joseph Stalin

 

“A man’s indebtedness is not virtue; his repayment is. Virtue begins when he dedicates himself actively to the job of gratitude.”

-Ruth Benedict

 

As a child, Ioseb Jughasvili was routinely beaten by his alcoholic father.  At seven years-old he contracted smallpox, which left his face badly scarred.  By age 12, he had been in two different horse-drawn carriage accidents which resulted in his left arm being permanently disabled.  He somehow found his way to the Orthodox Seminary at age 16, but was eventually dismissed because of unpaid debts to the school.  After leaving seminary, he became increasingly political and ended up being sent to prison in Siberia seven times.

 

What happened to this emotionally, physically, and spiritually scarred man?  What did he do with his immense pain, and rage, and shame?  He decided that he’d spend his life gathering and keeping power, absolute power.  That way, he’d never have to be indebted to anyone, never have to be vulnerable again, and never have to admit weakness or need.  He even changed his last name to the Russian word for “steel” (stalin), in case someone missed the point.

 

So what in the name of everything good does Joseph Stalin have to do with gratitude, the virtue he considered “a sickeness suffered by dogs?”  As a cautionary tale, a lot!

 

Remember, we learn about virtues by studying life stories…and not just the happy ones.  And the monsterous ways Stalin channeled his pain, hardened his heart, and learned to deny the good in himself and others should speak to all of us.

 

Of course you don’t need to have anything close to a Stalin-esque childhood to feel beaten up by circumstances beyond your control; betrayals, injustices, illnesses, rejections.  And you also don’t have to be responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people like Stalin in order to do significant harm with your suffering.

 

Life is difficult, and pain is built in to human existence…always has been, and always will be.  No one gets a free pass;  read the paper, watch the news, look in the mirror.  And this is why gratitude is so essential.  It helps us return again and again to the positive, and protects us from being victims of pain, and resentment, and despair….and becoming increasingly inhuman in the process.

 

Gratitude is an attitude of thankfulness and appreciation for life and those who give to us, and celebrates generosity of spirit.

 

It shares the same word stem as “grace”, and helps us recognize gifts and blessings in our lives, even in the most difficult times.  And as we feel grateful and then act as ones who have been cared for, what we do with pain changes.  This is when feeling becomes virtue.

 

I have been given the gift of life, and I will work to protect life.

I have been given the gift of love, and I will love as many people as I can.

I have been given the gift of talents, and I will use my talents to make the world better.

I have been given the gift of forgiveness, and I will forgive those who hurt me.

I have been given the gift of freedom, and I will use my freedom to set others free.

 

Gratitude is not just about saying thank you, it’s about living thank you.

 

 

Heroes You Should Know:  The Syrian Santa

 

rami

Most children would identify Santa’s home as the North Pole, but there is growing evidence that it might actually be in Finland.  Because that’s where 44 year-old Rami Adham lives.

Five years ago, the Finnish national who emigrated from Syria in 1988, watched in horror from the safety of his home in Helsinki as footage of Aleppo was shown on television.  The graphic images of sorrow and agony produced by the bloody Syrian civil war moved Adham to do something.  That ‘something’ turned into a plan that sounded like a Christmas cartoon:  to smuggle toys, along with water, food, and medical supplies to the refugee children of Syria, starting with Aleppo—his birth city.  But unlike a holiday cartoon, if Rami was caught he would be killed.

Since his decision in 2011 Adham—who has six children of his own—has flown to Turkey and then slipped over the mountainous border into Syria on thirty occasions.  He visits refugee camps in several different locations, and each time he carries with him hundreds of toys.  His sack, which can weigh up to 170 pounds, is stuffed with Barbie dolls, teddy bears, and even Buzz Lightyear.  During Ramadan alone, the ‘Syrian Santa’ smuggled in more than 700 toys.   On some trips it’s too dangerous to drive so he walks—up to eight miles.  Depending on the location of the camp and the means of transportation, each trek can take between eight and sixteen hours.

All this effort and risk just to bring toys?  For Rami Adham, toys are exactly what’s called for because they remind the children that they still have childhoods, and that they haven’t been forgotten by the rest of the world.  Today as many as 3 million children live in Syrian refugee camps.  Some go to school, but most work.  And death is everywhere.  In June, while visiting Aleppo, six orphaned children were killed while Adham was there.

To facilitate collection of toys for his trips to Syria, which now average one every two months, Rami has established the Finnish-Syrian Association.  Additionally, the ‘toy smuggler’ has now set up a Go Fund Me campaign to build a school for the refugee children. In just two months, Adham has been able to raise over $66,000 of the $110,000 needed.

Santa appears to have traded in his red suit for mountain fatigues, presently has a brown beard, and now works year-round—but he most definitely still exists!

And a weary world gives thanks.

Rami Adham is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

In The Beginning…

john-fishing

In honor of Down Syndrome Awareness Month, I am posting the introduction to the book Jenni and I wrote about life with John Michael, entitled Hidden Graces.  Now 22 years-old, John Michael has become my “professor of love”—he is a gift I could never have imagined or deserved.  He is beautiful in every way, and the world is blessed to have him in it.

“Whatever did not fit in with my plan

did lie within the plan of God.”

-St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

 

I remember the call like it was yesterday.  It woke me from this wonderful dream about my beautiful wife and my brand new, perfectly healthy son.  “We need you to come back to the hospital.  We believe your son has some genetic issues we need to discuss with you and your wife.”  The pediatrician sounded like she was a million miles away.  Of course she was already distancing herself emotionally…what news to have to give to a first-time father who six hours earlier was sent home with the promise that everything was fine.  The doctor gave the phone to Jenni, without telling her anything about “genetic issues”.  “Ross, what’s going on?”  All I could mumble was, “I’ll be there in twenty minutes and we’ll figure it all out.”  I hung up the phone and collapsed into a chair.  Figure it all out?  The doctor was talking about Down syndrome.  I don’t know how I knew, but I didn’t even have to ask.  My head started to swim, and my breathing suddenly became very shallow.  I tried to tell myself that the doctors could be wrong, and that there was no way two healthy young parents could have a child with Down Syndrome.  Besides, throughout the entire pregnancy none of the screens or ultrasounds had picked up any sign of problems.  This couldn’t be.  But as I sat there in our kitchen, looking out at the start of a bright sunny day, I knew that the doctors were not wrong, and that two healthy young parents could have a Down’s baby, and that not all screenings and ultrasounds pick up irregularities in a pregnancy.  Most of all, I was overwhelmed by the realization that my life had just taken a sharp turn and that nothing would ever be the same again.

John Michael Porter, miracle, mystery, perfect gift of God was born with strawberry-blonde hair, blue eyes, and 47 chromosomes.  In addition, he had two major heart malformations and needed his first heart procedure at three days old to save his life.  Over the next two years, he would have pneumonia and two more open-heart surgeries.  If John Michael had been born twenty years earlier, he would not have lived to see his second birthday.  The technology that saved his life had not yet been developed.  I know without a doubt that I would be a very different person if I had lost my baby boy.  I would still believe deep down that giftedness was best defined by I.Q. tests, and the formula for success was a good education coupled with a high paying job, and that “retarded” people couldn’t be teachers.

I’ve found that this is the worldview of most people in our society—especially if they haven’t experienced the beauty of a special needs person face-to-face, and heart to heart.  People who carry this bias are not bad, they’re just mistaken—like I was mistaken for the first thirty years of my life.  Some lessons can only be taught in the context of a relationship.

God has opened a new world to me through John Michael, one that is very much like an elegant tapestry.  It is rich in its balance of colors;  lights, darks, and many shades in between.  It is textured with interwoven threads, and imbedded with a design too complex to make sense of up-close but wonderfully clear with the proper perspective.  It is both beautiful and lasting.  My chapters are a heart-felt offering of what I have been taught in relationship with my first-born son, and I believe in the relevancy of this book because each story points to the deepest story…the story of God’s love.  And God’s love applies to everyone, whether they have a special needs child or not.  This book is about seeing with eyes of faith.  It is about recognizing hidden graces, understanding natural wisdom, and celebrating the poetic beauty of a simple life.  Hidden Graces is a personal tribute to John Michael, and to all special needs people who have so much to teach the world.  In addition, I trust that these reflections honor my wife, my love, and my soul-mate Jenni.  She is my partner in this journey and the finest person I’ve ever known.  Most of all, this book is a gift to God, in thanksgiving for His faithfulness and generosity.

Heroes You Should Know: Shyam Bihari Prasad

 

shyam

 

On a cold November morning three years ago, as Shyam Bihari Prasad entered his Hanuman Hindu Temple in Vasant Kunj New Delhi, India to pray, he was approached for the umpteenth time by the neighborhood’s poor children, begging for food.  But this time, as he gave them biscuits from his own lunch, a thought crossed his mind.  Instead of giving them charity that would last a few hours, why not offer something that would last a lifetime?  So the retired business manager decided to try something new—something that could truly alter the lives of these children.  Education.

 

He had discovered that the youths were either not able to go to school, or were frustrated in their learning by the limitations of the over-crowded and underfunded school system.  So he set up his own school, for any child who wanted to learn.  The sidewalk outside the Temple became his classroom, and his supplies initially consisted of one mat.  But what he had in abundance was the time and the patience to offer one-to-one instruction for each student.

 

So, from 8:00 to 11:00 A.M. five mornings a week, Prasad would teach children of all ages a variety of subjects.  At first he had to bribe them with chocolate and toffee to attend, but soon the students were coming on their own—the incentive to learn from a caring adult was enough.  Prasad earned the nickname “Uncle”, and his ‘school’ grew to thirty students.

 

The locals, noticing the charity work, began donating food and school supplies—mats, tables, chairs, textbooks, pencils, notebooks and paper, and easels.  Several adults even took over some of the teaching load.

 

Presently the ‘sidewalk school’—stronger than ever—includes lessons in Math, Science, Spelling and Writing (of Hindi, and English).  And as distracting as the constant honking of cars and chatty foot traffic must be, the eager students stay amazingly focused.

 

Along with higher test scores, Prasad has also observed an unanticipated benefit of his kindness—his children, at first verbally and even (on occasion) physically abusive toward each other, have become increasingly empathic and kind in their interactions.  They’re not only learning to be better students, their learning to be better human beings.

 

Prasad is motivated by the goal of giving these under-privileged youths as much of an opportunity for success as the children of the wealthy.  But wherever his students end up, they will have learned that they are lovable, and loved.  And that’s the most important lesson of all.

 

Shyam Bihari Prasad is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Heroes you Should Know Welles Crowther

Genius always gives its best at first; prudence, at last.   -Seneca

wellescrowther

Welles Crowther worked for Sandler O’Neill Partners on the 104th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center.  And that’s exactly where he was on the morning of September 11, 2001 when the plane hit.  Undaunted, Crowther, with a red bandanna covering his mouth and nose to protect him from the smoke, sprang into action.  Witnesses report that he worked with a combination of intensity and calm to rescue people, re-entering the building three times.  He is directly responsible for saving the lives of at least 18 people.

The fact that he made it out of the inferno three times when so many didn’t make it out at all is remarkable enough.  But that he went back three times to help others is the epitome of heroism.  Six months after the South Tower collapsed, the body of this hero was finally recovered in what had been the lobby, along with members of the New York Fire Department with whom he had joined forces.  They were trying to go back up once more with a “jaws of life” tool to free victims trapped under rubble.

Courage?  Crowther was the very embodiment of it.  But I want to focus on another virtue he displayed that day:  prudence.

Prudence is about putting “first things first”; it is the virtue that guides sound judgment.  Some might quietly and respectfully question the “sound judgment” of a man who would go back into a collapsing sky scraper three times.  Back up the stairs as people rushed out.  Back into the smoke, and fire, and horror, and death.

Three times.

But prudence isn’t about playing it safe.  We’re talking about virtue here, not the basic rules of accounting.  Welles Crowther went back again, and again, and again because it was who he had become.

Crises don’t make or break people, they reveal people.  And long before September 11, 2001 became synonymous with both evil and heroism, Crowther was figuring out what it meant to make good decisions, judgments that were based on more than just emotion, and ease, and self.  In the home and in the classroom, on the athletic field and with friends, as a boy scout and eventually an investment banker and a volunteer firefighter…in a thousand little ways, he learned to put first things first.  He learned to focus and stay focused on what was most important, most essential at any given moment.

“Genius always gives its best at first; prudence, at last.”

In the last hour of his life, Welles Crowther made the sound judgment that saving lives was what he was supposed to do…first things first.  Not because he had to, but because he could.

And the demons shuddered, and the angels bowed.

Welles Crowther is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

 Heroes You Should Know: Piotr Malachowski

 

piotr

 

Olympic athletes are blessed with a unique set of gifts, both physical and mental.  To be the best in the world at events that demand cat-like agility, Herculean-strength, marathon-endurance, and decades of machine-like discipline is worthy of respect.  But what if you combine all of these qualities with the empathy of a saint?

 

You get Piotr Malachowski.

 

Malachowski, a  6’4”, 290 pound two time Olympian won the silver medal in the Discus at the Rio Olympics last month.  But instead of adding the medal to his collection of awards, he decided to auction it off, in an effort to pay for the surgery of a young Polish boy he’d never met.  The child’s mother had written a desperate letter to Piotr as time was running out.

 

Three year-old Olek Szymanski has retinoblastoma, an eye cancer that effects children 5 years-old and younger, and he needed surgery to save his eyesight and his life.  The cost was estimated to be $126,000 and needed to be done in a special ophthalmic oncology clinic in New York.  Some money had already been raised, and Malachowski was hoping to raise the rest of what was needed—$84,000.  So he posted an online challenge to the world:

 

“I invite everybody to join the bidding. If you help me, my silver medal may be more valuable for Olek than gold.”

 

After one week, the bidding had risen to $19,000, a significant amount, but still far short of the olympian’s goal.  And then Polish billionaire siblings Dominika and Sebastian Kulczyk stepped up and bought the medal for the full price.  And just like that Olek was on his way to New York.

 

As an added bonus, as if there was a need for one, more than 120,000 people have now also donated to Malachowski’s charity site SiePomaga, dedicated to raising money for children with catastrophic health crises.

 

Poland won eleven medals at the Rio Games, but all of them combined didn’t outweigh the significance of the one silver medal that saved a little boy’s life.

 

Sometimes the greatest champions finish second.

 

Piotr Malachowski is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.