Friday, November 11, 2005

Praise is heaped on unsung heroes

Dalai Lama presides over ceremony

Express Staff Writer

At the Ritz Carlton, Rachel Humphrey (left) and Nancy (right) chat with Dencehn Tsering, the Asian Program Director of the Global Fund for Women. Express photos by Dana DuGan

Primarily known in the country as a maker of fine wines, Dick Grace is himself a kind of hero. During a luncheon last week at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco, Grace hosted His Holiness the Dalai Lama and 48 people who were there to be honored for their work around the globe.

The first Unsung Heroes of Compassion event was held in San Jose in 2001, and also was hosted by Grace. This event on Sunday, Nov. 7, marked the second time Grace pulled together a list of remarkable people, ranging from educators to clergy to doctors to film makers. His Holiness the Dalai Lama held each honoree's hands and whispered words of encouragement as they paraded one by one across the stage in the Ritz' ballroom.

With the small sparkling ring of a chime and a polite bow, actor and Buddhist Peter Coyote opened the proceedings.

Coyote introduced Grace, who he said, "was like a mushroom. One day it rained and he was there." Many people in the ballroom laughed at the imagery and, indeed, it appeared in speech after speech to be true. Grace comes into a person's life with a will and a mission and, according to the many stories told, won't take no for an answer, especially if it involves someone in need.

Grace asked all the heroes and the approximately 12 honorable mention heroes to stand. He then asked everyone who had ever performed an act of compassion to stand. Slowly the entire audience rose.

"Now, I ask you to pledge to turn the rheostat of compassion two or three degrees higher."

He introduced one of the 50 Unsung Heroes honored in 2001, the Rev. Glenda Hope, who he called "my dear, dear friend." Hope is known as the Mother Theresa of the Tenderloin because of her work in that San Francisco neighborhood with the homeless, prostitutes and AIDS victims.

She then introduced French born Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard is an author, a renowned photographer and often accompanies the Dalai Lama to France as his personal interpreter.

"We all have the ability to put ourselves in service of others," Ricard said. "It is harder to live in a small bubble of self-centeredness (where we are never satisfied). If we can break it by being in service of others, we gain a sense of fulfillment. Have an openness to others, and let love and compassion reign in your heart."

Ricard's short and impassioned talk preceded His Holiness the Dalai Lama's entrance. Unlike his visit to the Wood River Valley in September, His Holiness was more subdued and relied on his interpreter more. He is at the tail end of his long visit in the states and had spend the previous two days talking to scientists and a public audience at Stanford University.

"It's a great honor for me to be able to be here for the second time for the 50 Unsung Heroes," he said. "This award seems to function to the honorees to continue to pursue their work." He reiterated his message of compassion and said that people must think more holistically. "Compassion is a universal religion. It is very useful and essential. We must fulfill genuine love and compassion within us."

Even before His Holiness visited the Wood River Valley on Sept. 11, his work and vision have been an example to many in the valley. Among the Wood River Valley residents who attended the event were Ann Down, Nancy and Rachel Humphrey, Andrea Friesen, Eloise Christensen, the Sherpa family (originally from Nepal) and Jay Blumenkopf.

Blumenkopf accompanied another former Unsung Hero from 2001, Arlene Samen, and Peter Takeuchi of One H.E.A.R.T. They met with the Dalai Lama the day before to discuss the organization's work in Tibet for women and children.

Before the honorees were introduced Grace looked out at the gathering for someone to help hand out prayer scarves.

"I looked for someone who it would mean the most to," he said later. "I chose the right one."

In fact, he asked a surprised Lhakpa Sherpa, of Ketchum, to come on to the stage with His Holiness, Coyote and Kavita Ramdas, CEO of the Global Fund for Women. In traditional Nepalese wear, she remained on stage during the ceremony distributing scarves to His Holiness, who then placed them around the neck of each honoree.

Former valley resident and ski movie maverick Warren Miller was one of the honorees for his fundraising work.

"There is no limit to the amount of good a person can do if they don't care who gets the credit," Miller said.

Former Major League Baseball All-Star Rusty Staub's foundation has helped children in need for 20 years. His eponymous foundation also raised and distributed $112 million to families of New York police, firemen, Port Authority Police and EMS Personnel lost on Sept. 11, 2001, and continues to assist them.

Two of the honorees passed away before the ceremony. African-American activist MaVynne Betsch died in September, and Robin Needham perished in the Indian Ocean tsunami last December. Needham was honored for his work with CARE in Nepal, while his wife Lucy was honored for her work with Unicef and other non-government organizations in Southeast Asia and Africa.

Bogaletch Gebre is a national hero already in her native Ethiopia. She was the first female to complete her education and go to college in her area and eventually joined the faculty at the university and received a Fullbright Scholarship. Among her many accomplishments, she founded Parents International Ethiopia and the Women's Self-Help Center that helped to eliminate Female Genital Cutting in Kembatta.

The youngest hero, a cancer survivor, is 10-year old Ben Duskin. Together with Eric Johnston and thanks to a match up made by Make-A-Wish Foundation, they created an interactive game called Ben's Game that helps young cancer patients deal with the disease.

Marlene Sanchez, 25, is the executive director of the San Francisco-based Center for Young Women's Development, an organization that was responsible for giving her a reason to survive her own hard knock life 10 years ago. Her father, who had once been in prison, accompanied her to the luncheon, his face beaming with pride. Sanchez is an outspoken advocate for reforming a system that punishes and oppresses impoverished youth rather than offer aid.

Jake Scheideman, 37, a bike shop owner and member of Rotary in St. Helena, Calif., wandered into a poor town in Nicaragua in 1990. His brief time there has blossomed into a lifelong commitment through his Field of Dreams Project to the town of Emplame de Boaco. He eventually returned to build a baseball field. He has gone on to work on other building projects, and is currently working on building homes in the impoverished area.

"This award just kicks starts the foundation, now we've got the engines running," he said. "Dick whispered to me on stage, 'just don't stop.'"

Like many others, his mother and wife wept quietly through the presentation. The amount of good works and proof of compassion in action made it difficult to believe that terror and hate could even have a foothold in a world populated by people such as these.

The heroes came from all over, including Burma, Nepal, Tibet, France, Vietnam, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Mexico, Canada, Hong Kong, Africa, Haiti, India and the United States, but their compassion knows no boundaries.

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