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Recent headlines on famous baseball figures and their performance-enhancing drug abuse should not come as a shock to us. The challenge facing parents and fans alike is dealing with yet another wakeup call being sent to all of us regarding values, celebrity, and what it means to be role model in today’s tabloid world. How is it that the famous, the infamous, and the notorious — including sports “celebrities,” have assumed positions in our collective minds as role models? When did the line blur between heroes, role models, and celebrities?
Our children, teens and young adults need not be crestfallen at the demise of a favorite athlete, if they are made aware of a world full of real role models. Unfortunately, very few of these authentic role models ever get any airtime or magazine covers. For our future generations, we need to more clearly distinguish between role models and celebrities.
A role model is defined as a “person whose behavior, example, or success is or can be emulated by others, especially by younger people.” Acceptable behavior used to be based on two elements that seemed to be broadly shared by teachers, parents and society in general — good values and accountability. Behavior and consequence were direct reflections of one another, at least for the most part.
Check your headlines today — accountability has been severely watered down and we have made heroes and role models of gang bangers, drug dealers, movie stars, corrupt politicians, predatory business leaders and out-of-control actors and musicians.
We need to look beyond the television, the tabloids, baseball stadiums and sports arenas to actually find the thousands of people worth emulating. And they’re not hard to find. In Russia, where journalists risk their lives to report real news, Anna Stepanovna Politkovskaya was a journalist and human-rights activist well known for her opposition to the Chechen conflict and Russian president Putin. She was arrested, subjected to mock execution by Russian military forces, and poisoned. Yet, she survived and continued her reporting. Anna received numerous prestigious international awards for her work before she was shot dead in the elevator of her apartment building in October, 2006.
Dan Eldon, a Reuter’s photographer, was stoned to death in Somalia, Africa, by an angry mob reacting to the UN bombing raid on the suspected headquarters of a warlord. He was 22. When Dan was 14, he started a fund-raising campaign for open-heart surgery to save the life of a young Kenyan girl. At 15, he helped support a Masai family by buying their handmade jewelry, later selling it to fellow students and friends. In high school, Dan held fund-raising dances in his back yard. There, scores of students paid an entrance fee, which went toward Dan’s latest charity. Always looking for a way to raise funds, he also produced colorful t-shirts of his own design.
By age 16, Gerson Andrés Flórez Pérez had already dedicated his life to achieving peace in his home country of Colombia. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and honored for his years of work for peace in Colombia and in the world. One need not die to be heroic or a role model, just act with conviction in support of values and behave accordingly, whether there is a camera watching or not.
At 14, William Kamkwamba of Malawi, Africa learned that he would no longer be able to continue his schooling. His family couldn't afford to pay the school fees, so William took on the task of educating himself. Using books as guides, William designed a power-generating windmill using mostly salvaged materials: wooden poles, broken pipes, old shoes, copper wires, and his father's old bicycle. With no electricity in his village, all lighting was done by candle. William's windmill provided electric lights for his family.
Anthony Leanna at age of 10 started his own community-service project called the "Heavenly Hats Foundation." Anthony decided to start "Heavenly Hats" after spending a lot of time in hospitals when his grandmother had breast cancer. He saw so many of the patients that lost their hair and wanted to do something to help. Anthony and his "Heavenly Hats" program have donated more than 50,000 brand new hats (almost $1 million worth) to more than 150 hospitals and clinics.
Look for heroes like this written up in the daily newspaper. When you learn their stories, seize them and use them to inspire your children. Let them know what it takes to be a real role model. Go to the library to check out books on role models and heroes and read them to your kids. Go online and visit some of our favorite hero/role model websites: myhero.com; heroes.com; family.samhsa.gov/be/ and giraffe.org, which features a Kids Only section.
The world is full of adults and children making a difference. Tell your child one person can make a difference, tell them about the “domino effect” – how one person can inspire others and create great change. Share stories about those that inspire you doing community service in your hometown. Discuss real role models and what it actually means to be a hero in your home for our future, for our communities.
Ironically, in closing, let’s circle back to sports to find a compelling role model who said: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” Who said that? Why, Jackie Robinson, of course. Now there was a role model.
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