These heroes, like most others, do not have x-ray vision or superhuman strength. They're busy people like the rest of us. They come from all different walks of life. In fact, the most common thing among them is they don't believe they’re anything special - they are just trying to serve the best way they know how.
Succoring Children in Poverty Naranjargal Thompson, Age 37 Homemaker Highlands Ranch, Colorado Falcon Park Ward
During the harsh winters in Mongolia's capital city of Ulaanbaatar, when the temperature regularly drops below -10° F, you're likely to see several children running around in rags. If you opened the sewer grates, you'd find hundreds more - huddled against the pipes in order to keep from freezing. Some of them choose life on the streets to escape abuse and neglect; some are the lost children of nomads, unable to find their families. All of them live with nearly no food and even less tenderness. These are some of the five thousand abandoned street children of Ulaanbaatar, the children Naranjargal (Nara) Thompson strives to help.
"I've worked with them and I've seen their suffering. And then also I've seen resilience. It's just amazing how those children - abandoned, surviving by prostituting and begging - can turn around and smile and be happy," says Nara, her voice full of tenderness. "This is what God is. It's about loving, forgiving, touching, serving."
Her name means "joyful sun" in Mongolian, and a pleasant warmth certainly radiates from this passionate mother of three. "I feel like the things that I have are just too much," she says, "so I should give more, and I should think of others more. If I do not show my love, what is it to me?"
Nara started her "projects" after joining the Church and leaving Mongolia to attend BYU. Following the example her mother had given, Nara found ways to serve the less fortunate, eventually settling on helping children. Her projects got bigger and bigger, until she merged them into Care 4 Kids Worldwide (care4kidsworldwide.org), her foundation. When she's not caring for her three boys, volunteering at their school, or serving in Primary, Nara divides her remaining time among ill children in America, orphans in Ukraine, and street children in Mongolia. But it is with the children in her homeland that Nara's heart most resides.
"Words cannot describe their destitution," she says, explaining that around 90 percent of them are sexually abused and live with disease of some sort. Because they are not technically orphans, these children do not qualify for government aid. And yet, despite being used and rejected, she continually sees their boundless love. For example, when Nara brought food and clothing last August, one four-year-old boy, who accidentally received a clothing package for an older child, refused to let Nara exchange it for clothes that fit - he planned on giving them to his mother when she "found" him. "When we see them suffer, we want to blame - their parents, the government," says Nara. "But they don't! They just shine through."
For now, Nara has found a station where about 60 children can stay and receive food. The ultimate goal is education, but basic needs must first be met - and she relies heavily on others to meet these needs. Valentina Anderson, co-founder of Care 4 Kids and Nara's "right arm," is a particular help to her, as are her supportive husband, parents, and in-laws. "It really boils down to all my friends and family and neighbors - and people I meet on the plane," she says. "It's nothing to do with me; I just know how kids live in poverty and they need things. Even in the United States - it might not be poverty we speak of in Mongolia or Russia, but it could be poverty of loneliness or incurable disease."
"I'm not trying to be an example to others," she continues. "I can't; I have my own faults. I'm just trying to live the gospel so that my children can see it and remember it. I'm an ordinary mother of three young children that loves the gospel and feels fulfilled to serve."
Uplifting Youth with Disabilities Trey Sexton, Age 17 Student Knoxville, Tennessee Farragut Ward
He learned the lesson at just 5 years old: people with disabilities may act differently than others, but that's where the difference ends. Asked by his kindergarten teacher to keep an eye on a classmate with Down syndrome, Trey Sexton played with the boy. "At first he definitely seemed a little different, but getting to know him, he was just a little kid like me."
This memory stirred nearly nine years later when Trey was at a University of Tennessee basketball game with his dad. When a group of people with various disabilities played basketball at halftime, twenty thousand people cheering them on, Trey said to his dad, "I want to do something like this for my Eagle project."
The project, Hoops for Hope, turned out to be more involved than expected. Trey wanted to provide a unique day during which children with Down syndrome would play basketball with their heroes on the UT basketball teams.
Gradually Trey recruited the support he needed. The first people to get on board were Bruce Pearl, head coach for the men's team, and Ken Johnson, director of operations, who were both eager to make the project a success. Trey also worked closely with Kelly Brickey, executive director for the Down Syndrome Awareness Group of East Tennessee. "I was most impressed by the fact that Trey came up with this idea on his own," Kelly says. "We get a lot from people with siblings or family members with Down syndrome, but he didn't personally know anybody with Down syndrome."
Trey also recruited sponsors to set up a scholarship for children with Down syndrome in the Knoxville area, through which the kids could participate in sports and dance programs. Through local businesses and radio stations, Trey was able to raise $10,000.
More than a few times, his dad recalls, "he was told that there was no way he could pull this off; he was just a thirteen-year-old kid." The Boy Scouts of America even initially rejected the plan, saying it was too complex for such a young boy. And yet Trey pulled it off spectacularly.
A wave of appreciative letters, e-mails, and phone calls came in; families said it was one of the best experiences they'd ever had with their children and begged for the opportunity to participate again. "I'd already been thinking it would be cool to try and do again," says Trey. "After getting all that, I knew it could be awesome for them." With commitments from the coaches to keep it an annual event as long as they had the say-so, Trey committed to do it again. The second Hoops for Hope event took place in 2009, with $6,000 raised for the sports scholarship.
Trey will continue to organize Hoops for Hope (hoopsforhopetn.org) until he goes on his mission, at which point his younger sister will take over. He also hopes to introduce the program in the Provo area when he attends BYU, and he'll participate in Tennessee as often as he can. It's just not something he can let go. "Having done this the last two years, any doubt I could have had that people with Down syndrome were different is just gone. They just have so much love to give if you're just willing to be their friend."
The next Hoops for Hope event is set for August 21, 2010.
(Re)Building Smiles Kelly Lineback, Age 47 Dentist Olathe, Kansas Stanley Ward
Teenagers with missing permanent teeth are commonplace on the Caribbean island of Roatan. Its prevalence doesn't make the situation any easier for natives, socially or professionally. It was to this reality that Kelly Lineback first visited the island, hoping to use her dental training to help Roatan islanders.
The vision started with Diana Demke, a friend of Kelly's who lives part-time on the island and always looks for ways to help the branch in Coxen Hole. Diana illustrated the situation for Kelly; together, and with the help of a local woman Kelly knows simply as Nurse Peggy, they were able to arrange for Kelly to come down and do dentistry.
That first year, 2005, it was just Kelly, her family, and the Demkes serving from 7 A.M. to 11 P.M. and stopping for only a few hours in the afternoon. "We were exhausted," says Kelly. It was evident that there were problems just one dentist couldn't address in a month's time, let alone a week, so Kelly set to work sharing her vision with others.
Kelly returned to Roatan with three more people in 2006, including her nephew, who distributed hygiene kits for his Eagle Scout. In her third year, 2008, she brought two more dentists, Sloan Jorgensen and Jacob Laudie, one hygienist, and another Eagle Scout family. This year the project had five dentists, two hygienists, and two Eagle Scouts.
Over the years, other helpers have included the missionaries, who keep the medical records; branch members, who clean the equipment, and the Millsap family, who arranges for everyone on the trip to have a complimentary stay at their resort, Banarama.
The difference just a few years have made is astounding. "You get these kids coming in with their four front teeth completely rotted," says Diana, "and [Kelly] fills those and does beautiful composites, and these kids are thrilled! They have smiles again."
Having just completed a very successful fourth trip in last month, Kelly is hopeful for the future. In past years, "it was almost pick-and-choose with patients. They might have ten things you can do, but we might only choose three, because there's still forty people in line," she says. But this year, with so many professionals, they were able to help hundreds more.
It just goes to show, Kelly says, that "you don't have to be in this big organized group that goes through a humanitarian organization. If you have the desire, you can make a lot of difference on your own."
Strengthening Iraqi Families Joan and Fareed Betros Producer, retired colonel and business developer Greenville, South Carolina Simpsonville Ward
In 2003, Joan Betros took a job to help Iraqi women improve women's and children's television programming. After all, it would give her a rare opportunity to be in the same place as her husband, Fareed, while he was on active duty in the military.
But during one meeting with the women, her real purpose in Iraq became evident. Joan spoke with a woman named Siham about the potential of Iraqi women to heal the nation; Siham just wished they could be more organized. "Madame Betros," she said, "you seem to be organized. Do you have an organizational model we could use?" The question stirred years of memories in which Joan, a long-time visiting teacher, had learned families' needs and given service. She put Siham's hand on her heart and told her she did indeed have a model; if she had permission to share it, she would make sure the women understood it.
"I felt as though I went into Iraq for a professional course," Joan says, "but I came out with a totally different attitude of what I was really there for."
And so, in 2005, Joan and Fareed founded Women for FUTURE (Families United Toward Universal Respect, womenforfuture.org) with a guiding light from Siham: "To heal our nation, you must heal our families, and the women are the key." Using modified versions of the visiting teaching and family home evening models (called "family guide program" and "family unity gatherings," respectively), FUTURE has taught women methods for uplifting the war-torn country from the inside out; after the visits, they report back to supervisors on what families need most - from basic aid to education.
These women have also gotten to participate in FUTURE's Hugs for Healing, which allows Gold Star Mothers (American mothers who have lost a child in the service) to meet with Iraqi women and interact as mothers. "I've found that when women get together and do that, it crosses all borders," says Joan.
The women of Iraq are, little by little, reaching out more into their communities. Some of the biggest changes are those that have happened inside the heart. Fareed says one of the biggest breakthroughs was Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish women starting to work together. The women are also realizing, he says, "West can meet East - we can learn from them and they can learn from us. We're not there to change them; we're there to help them grow, and honestly, we grow right along with them."
"We're just facilitators with a vision," says Joan. "I'm hoping that we will be there to build the tapestry of the family back together again; that these incredible, powerful women will be able to use their talents, their intellects, their service-oriented natures to make that a better place to live and heal the nation."
Shortened from the original version, featured in LDS Living's July/August 2010 issue. Click here to learn more about all the people and causes we featured.