“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it.

Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Howard Thurman

American author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader

Where do our passions—those causes we care most deeply about—come from?  How does the seed of the cause become planted in our soul?  How does it grow and come to have a strong presence in our life, even years later, often compelling us to give of our time, our talent and our resources in service to this purpose?  In short, what is the story behind our cause?

Following a career spent in service to children and families as an elementary school principal, I have come to know and to better understand my passion for empowering young people by helping them discover their cause, their courage, their voice, and their leadership potential to act on it.  I trace my passion for empowering young people back to a tragic event that produced an inspiring response from an unlikely source.  Here is my story:

Twenty years ago this spring, our school district was devastated by a school shooting at one of our high schools.  Two students were killed and 25 students were injured.  This event shook the entire community.   Within just a few days, three fifth grade students (11-12 years old) at my school came to me, their principal, to say that they wanted to do something positive in the wake of this tragedy.  They wanted to write a Peace Pledge, and they wanted to read it over the school intercom.  These were quiet, mild-mannered students, so their earnestness immediately caught my attention.  I saw in the students’ request a determination to plant seeds of hope and healing in our school community.  And I saw in the students the initial emergence of a passionate cause and the first signs of their leadership potential.  It was an easy call to approve and support their request.  The students wrote the words that came from their hearts (see the pledge, below) and they led the entire student body of nearly 600 students in reciting the pledge together in a school assembly.  In doing so, they set in motion the transformation of the school culture.  The pledge became the foundation for a more peaceful, kind and respectful culture at the school.  It was recited by all students each school day for the next 15 years, and it is still spoken by students once a week today.

Following the emergence of the Peace Pledge, other students, staff and parent groups came forward wanting to develop and lead complementary programs.  These included a school-wide character initiative, a peaceful problem-solving process and a wide variety of visual art projects, including quilted wall hangings and a character-themed totem pole.  The music teacher wrote a school song and taught it to all the students, and we began monthly assemblies to celebrate our strong sense of positive school community.   Collectively, all of these programs redefined the school’s culture and the social climate for nearly two decades, and they were all inspired by the Peace Pledge, written by three fifth graders in the aftermath of a community tragedy.  Service can multiply upon itself.  Perhaps it is contagious!

What lessons we can learn from this story?  I think one lesson is that sometimes the very best service work we can do as leaders (or as parents or grandparents) is to empower and encourage others to discover and act upon their passion for the common good—to enable and support them in finding their cause, their voice and their courage and to help them put their vision to work in the schools, communities or organizations of which they are a part.  The recent rise of vocal leadership by young people in the wake of the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida is another compelling example of youth finding their voice and mobilizing others for action around a passionate cause that arose in their midst.  As elders, we cannot deny—and must support—the powerful young voices for positive change in our society wherever we find them.

My passion for empowering young people to discover and act upon their purpose was sparked by those three fifth grade students 20 years ago.  While it was easy to say “yes” to their request for permission to act on their wish to do something positive in the wake of tragedy, it has taken me some time to more fully understand the notion of discerning and acting upon one’s passionate cause(s) in a community setting.  In cultivating a service mindset, I believe it is important to:  

  • Discern your passion—that which you feel called to do; that which you care most deeply about; that which you cannot ignore.
  • Strive to understand the story behind your passion.  How did it originate?  How did it grow?  How did it come to have a strong presence in your life today?  This is important, because the story is the driving force behind the service.
  • Determine how you feel called to act on your passion.  Will you act on it with money?  Time?  Skills?  Words?  In other ways?  On your own?  With others?  Just once?  Intermittently or continually over time?  The answers to these questions will likely determine your impact—and perhaps your legacy.
  • What are the opportunities for acting on your sense of purpose and calling to this cause?
  • Might this action become part of your legacy—that which you become known or remembered for?  Will your passion and your action allow you to define, develop and intentionally live out this cause as a legacy of service to others? 

In response to the formative lesson I learned from three fifth grade students 20 years ago, I continue to try to find ways to empower young people–by mentoring, by writing letters of affirmation and encouragement, by helping to fund college scholarships for students beating the odds to succeed, by beginning a program to fund social-emotional learning initiatives in local schools and by spending “intentional time” with my grandchildren.  If we can pass the lessons and values we have learned in our lives on to those who follow us, we can help make the world a better place, even after we are gone.  That seems like a worthy legacy.  To achieve it, we must first come to understand our own passions and the stories behind them.  

“There is something in every one of (us) that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in (ourselves). It is the only true guide (we) will ever have.”  (Howard Thurman)

The Centennial Peace Pledge  

To honor the students who have lost their lives to school violence, the students of Centennial School pledge to be violence free.  We will not be verbally or physically mean to others, we will not gossip or spread rumors, we will respect everyone and their abilities, we will show respect by using kindness.

Stan Paine, SI Service Committee