Get Social

Why I Believe Each of Us Can Make a Difference

May 6, 2021
My mother’s life, and mine, have been possible because one person cared enough to help

I have a picture in my mind that stays with me in everything I do.

It is a picture of a six-year-old little girl standing on a dock, holding the hand of her four-year-old brother.

They are getting ready to board a ship bound for a country that neither of them knows – where people speak a language neither of them speaks.

They are not traveling with their mother or their father, but instead with a woman who will keep them safe until they arrive at their destination.

The year is 1939, and the little girl is my Mom. The little boy, her brother, is my uncle.

They are bound for America because the Nazis have invaded Vienna. As Jews, the only way their parents can save their lives is to make the heart-wrenching decision to send them from Austria to the United States, where they will live in an orphanage on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, hoping the separation will not be for too long.

I heard that story from the time I was old enough to listen.

I always wondered about the woman, a family friend, who brought my Mom and her brother to what would become their home for the rest of their lives: America.

With that one act of kindness, she gave my mother the gift of life, freedom and opportunity. With that one act, she also made my own life possible.

Imagine the responsibility she took on by caring for two children, who had never been away from their parents, on a journey fraught with peril and uncertainty. Imagine her courage, her humanity.

With that one act of kindness, she gave my mother the gift of life, freedom and opportunity. With that one act, she also made my own life possible.

Throughout my career, I have often been asked why I do what I do. Why did I decide to make a career in the “helping professions?” What has inspired my work as an activist for human rights, social justice, children's rights, education and to take on leadership roles in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors?

The answer always starts with the lesson my Mom taught me – a lesson proven true to her by the woman on the ship: that one person – you, me, any one of us – can make a difference. That story is a big reason our entire family became activists.

Walton Family Foundation executive director Caryl Stern and her mother, Manuela (Manny) Stern

My Mom fed the hunger within me to make a difference from an early age.

From the moment our arms were strong enough to hold a sign, my Mom reinforced that if we were not part of the solution, we were not just "part of the problem" – we were the problem.

She understood the value of freedom and taught my brother and me the responsibilities of that freedom. We not only had the opportunity to stand up to injustice – it was our obligation to do so.

Every single person has one thing they can to do to help fix a problem, big or small. Change is hard, but it is possible.

Our childhood was filled with experiences that gave us the privilege to understand the satisfaction of standing up and giving back, as well as my religion's obligation of “Tikun Olam” – of leaving the world better than we found it.

My Mom taught us how important it was to be part of something bigger than yourself and lead. In this month of May, as we celebrate Mother’s Day, I honor her as I hope my children honor me: by standing up, taking action and acknowledging the change I can help to bring about.

I take those lessons to heart in the work we support at the foundation. I am in awe of the passion I see in the leaders who show up with purpose every day determined to make schools better for every child, create a healthier environment and improve the quality of life for people in their communities.

This work is never easy, particularly now, during one of the most difficult moments in our history. It can be easy to check out, throw up our arms and get buried in the despair that change is too hard.

My lived experience tells me that’s not true. Every single person has one thing they can to do to help fix a problem, big or small. Change is hard, but it is possible.

Gandhi said, “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”

Over the next few weeks, we look forward to sharing stories about the people who are committed to lifting others up, bringing people together and being part of the solution.

They are on the front lines, shaking the world and making it better.

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