Tracey Wooten, a teacher at Apex Friendship High School, gave her students an assignment to annotate a series of articles about the nature of heroism. She also had them read excerpts of The Epic of Gilgamesh
and Oedipus the King
. Armed with insight on the heroic, the students were then asked to interview someone they admired and write a persuasive letter nominating them for an “Unsung Hero Award.”
When Wooten asked me if I would judge the letters and select the top three, I thought that Thanksgiving week—especially this one, in a fraught post-election moment—was a perfect time to salute the kinds of everyday heroes who seldom receive much attention, but whom we need more than ever. I found the students’ strength of conviction inspiring; their versions of heroism all revolved around the thankless service of others, a value of the utmost importance. And the writing was often impressive (third place winner Cassie Deering made me look up “fugacious”).
Read on for the top three “Unsung Hero Award” letters and a note on why I selected each one.
FIRST PLACE: Abby Russell
Judge’s note: I selected Abby Russell’s nomination of Thomas Russell because of the clarity of its perspective, the depth of research into Thomas Russell’s life, and, perhaps most remarkable, the ability of a teenager to perceive and appreciate what a parent sacrificed for her—no small act of heroism itself, at an age when many of us were still embarrassed by our folks at best.
I am writing to nominate Thomas Russell for an “Unsung Hero Award.” As his daughter, I have been able to see and experience the positive ramifications his strong-willed determination has had on our lives. He grew up in a low-income household among a community that wasn’t the ideal place for a child. However, despite the hardships he faced in his childhood, he pushed through to make a better life for himself and his kids.
Thomas grew up in Swannanoa, a small mill town in western North Carolina with a whopping population of about 1,800 people at the time. He was surrounded by negative influences, from his parents’ unhappy divorce, which affected the children’s already unsteady home lives, to kids at school pressuring him to steal from the general store. He had so many chances to succumb to negative ideas or behaviors that were all too common in Swannanoa, as many of his friends and family did, but he never did.
As stated in Ray Cotton’s article “Where Have All Our Heroes Gone?”, “We need heroes that last, who walk on the earth, and yet have that something within them that carries them beyond the frustrations and failures of everyday life.” This describes Thomas perfectly. He is an astute and levelheaded individual, with the ability to push past his negative experiences and use them to his advantage. He says, “We didn’t have much of anything, and had to make do with what we did have. I think that would be a generous description, really. So I decided that I was not going to let my kids grow up that way, and I had to seek some opportunity to be better.” He acknowledges that the things he’s gone through in his early life were less than ideal, but he realized the real solution to his problems was that he needed to get out. And it was not going to be easy.
When the time came for Thomas to begin his college career, he had one obstacle left: finances. He had to work two jobs all summer long to save up enough money to try to pay for his first semester. He received a partial scholarship for basketball and aid from App State, but when he showed up to school, he was told he didn’t have enough money. However, as in many situations he’d faced before, he found a solution to something that seemed impossible. “I had to figure it all out on my own, which was important because it made me realize I could do things on my own,” he says. “I found a way to go to college, and was the first person in my whole family to go.”
He graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. He now stands proudly as a director of operations for a McDonald’s franchise. Cotton describes most heroes of the world as people who “are not the showy, dramatic type of heroes, but they exhibit the quiet, often unnoticed kind of heroism of people who have the courage to do what needs to be done.” Thomas did what needed to be done. And now, because of his drive to make a better life, I am here, typing in my lovely bedroom filled with things he couldn’t have dreamed of having when he grew up. That marks a true hero—someone who takes an undesirable situation, looks at it from a different perspective, and molds it into something beneficial.
Thomas persevered through incredibly trying circumstances, but managed to pull through for the sake of himself and his young family. From working his first job behind a cash register to being responsible for more than 850 corporate locations in six different states, he has become the epitome of success. It’s not just his business achievements that matter, though. The reason I am recommending him for this award is for what he’s done for my mother, sister, and me. He not only fought his way out of a rough childhood, he’ pulled ahead for the sake of our family, in the hope that we could have something better.
Apex Friendship High School
SECOND PLACE: Danielle Faith Lomi
Judge’s note: I selected Danielle Faith Lomi’s nomination of her aunt Melanie for its moving frankness, its unflinching look at hard aspects of life, and its equally unflinching focus on redemption and hope, on the parts of both the student and the subject. Melanie’s heroism is the definition of “unsung,” but it's also the sort that makes the world go round.
I am writing to nominate Melanie Hamilton for an “Unsung Hero Award.” My aunt Melanie is my personal hero because she never ceases to amaze me. Although she has had many bad things happen to her, she always helps others before herself and has a smile on her face all the time. As Philip Zimbardo writes in “What Makes a Hero,” “We are all born with tremendous capacity ... and we get shaped by our circumstances.” Melanie is a constant reminder that people should never give up and should always work to be the best person they can be.
The main reason I am nominating her is because she is a successful entrepreneur. Melanie, despite many difficult challenges, focused on making the world a better place for children and families. Melanie’s college interviewer asked why she wanted to go to college and she answered, “I want to live up to my full potential." Remembering that important day now, she says, “Right then, I knew that college was going to be life-changing.”
Melanie opened Great Beginnings Preschool in Milford, Connecticut, in 2004, with one goal in mind: to better the lives of children. She not only wanted to give kids a head start on their education, but also to show them that school is a place of opportunity and fun. She wanted others to have the supportive experience that she did not have. “I had a bad experience at preschool myself,” she says. “When I was young I remember the teachers being mean to the kids and I hated going to school. One day my mother got a call from the school saying that they couldn’t find me and she found me walking down the street back towards our house. It made me determined to show kids that learning is fun and exciting.”
After graduating from UNC-Greensboro with a bachelor's degree in child development, she worked full time at a preschool and was not impressed. She says it was upsetting for her to see some of the teachers being rough and mean to the kids. This made her want to create a place where children could be cared for, inspired, and taught to love learning. The preschool became a magical place where children could come every day and find new, exciting things to learn and share.
The preschool also helped support my aunt when my cousin Billy, Melanie’s son, was born with cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Billy had a stroke at birth on October 24, 2005, and our family was heartbroken. Melanie’s entire life changed the day Billy was born. She had to care for him through countless doctor visits, tests, and procedures. The preschool allowed her to keep Billy with her and care for him for the first four years of his life. When it was time for Billy to go to public schools, my aunt took extra courses in special education and parent leadership so that she could help Billy and work with his teachers and therapists to build a program for him at school. My aunt has worked tirelessly to make sure Billy can learn to read, count, and enhance his vocal skills.
My aunt Melanie is one of the strongest people I know. She has faced many hardships that not many people experience. In 2011, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer and, through genetic testing, it was determined that she inherited the BRCA2 gene, which would make her cancer extremely aggressive. After a lot of contemplation, she underwent a hysterectomy. In the same year, her house in Milford was completely flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. Melanie, her husband Jason, and my cousin Billy had to find a place to live while the house underwent a complete renovation. The house was finally finished in 2012, only to be destroyed by Hurricane Sandy just six weeks later. Devastated by the loss of her favorite mementos and treasured photographs, the last thing Melanie wanted to hear was that she would need surgery. The chance of her BRCA2 gene causing breast cancer was extremely high. She had a double mastectomy on March 12, 2013. Although it saved her life, the surgery had a negative effect on her emotionally.
“It was hard for me to view myself as a woman after losing a part of myself,” she says. “It was extremely difficult for me to accept what I looked like, and I felt like what I looked like defined who I was as a person.” Although it would be very hard for anyone to conquer these losses, they are not the reasons that my aunt is a real-life hero. She is my hero because she has never once let her struggles stop her from doing what she loves to do. Even when she was recovering from her surgeries, she was helping kids at the preschool by lesson-planning during her bed rest. Melanie not only had to be brave to get through her surgeries and take care of Billy, but she continuously encouraged all of us to be better people and to care for others. Every year she urged families at Great Beginnings to donate to the homeless even when she was displaced herself.
No matter what is going on or how stressful it is, Melanie comes to every event and puts her family above all. She always makes time to visit with friends who need her and to laugh, even with difficult challenges in her life. Melanie loves big parties and decorating for holidays. She loves celebrating and having fun. She was at every one of my dance recitals, birthdays, and celebrations. She is always cheering someone up or cheering someone on. When I asked her what she wants her legacy to be, she said, “I want people to know that I always fight the good fight, and I don't give in when people would try to pressure me into doing what I knew was wrong.”
Melanie is very deserving of the “Unsung Hero Award” because of all the caring and generous things that she does for others, and for the amazing example she set for me by always being strong, positive, and determined. Melanie has helped hundreds of families and continues to be a positive force in her community. She has bravely faced significant challenges in her life, and she still finds happiness and joy daily through working to be the best person she can be and caring for others.
Danielle Faith Lomi
Apex Friendship High School
THIRD PLACE: Cassie Deering
Judge’s note: I selected Cassie Deering’s nomination of her friend Camille because it represented something unusual and valuable, a young person’s recognition of everyday heroism in another young person. I also thought Cassie’s letter was written with striking ambition and confidence.
I am writing to nominate my best friend, Camille Mariani, for an “Unsung Hero Award.” After knowing Camille for more than ten years, I have been amazed to see her continue to demonstrate her dedication to helping others, especially people with chronic mental illnesses. Her actions weren’t fugacious ones to gain recognition and fame, nor were they without risk. Camille acts of her own volition to see those struggling with mental illnesses succeed and interact with others as normally as possible. She also has the “uncommon courage,” a main characteristic Ray Cotton ascribes to heroes, to protect others with these illnesses from people who refuse to accept them into society. These small actions made a lasting impact on many different lives, which is why Camille is the true definition of a hero.
Camille didn’t get the sudden urge to be a heroic superstar over the course of a day; I would say she was born with a sense of compassion and a caring soul to go along with it. Camille was exposed to mental illness at an early age when her father was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She had to get accustomed to caring for others who were incapable of fending for themselves. During the first week of fifth grade, when Camille noticed that a new girl named Rose was being bullied for being “strange” and “annoying,” she quickly stepped in to parry her tormentors with denigrating words and report the incident to the teacher. When asked why she had done this, Camille answered, “It seemed like the right thing to do. I couldn’t just sit there and let people take advantage of someone who couldn’t defend herself.”
As Philip Zimbardo says in “What Makes a Hero?”, Camille was using her “heroic imagination, a focus on one’s duty to help and protect others” to keep Rose safe. Eventually, Camille was informed that Rose suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism that makes speech and communication difficult. This didn’t prevent Rose and Camille from becoming good friends. Whenever another student would tease Rose for being “retarded,” Camille would stand up for Rose, no matter how violently the other person was behaving. Even though there was a high risk of getting beaten up herself, Camille ignored the risks to her safety and protected Rose. That shows the mark of a true hero, one who acknowledges the risks and costs of a situation but proceeds to do the right thing regardless of the possible consequences. Best of all, after seeing Camille treat Rose with respect, patience, and kindness, other students began to slowly accept Rose into the school’s community and made her feel welcome and accepted.
Protecting her vulnerable friend from bullies, however, wasn’t the only thing Camille did to help Rose. Camille also gave Rose opportunities to talk to her about whatever was bothering her any time. Listening to others is an extremely complex task. It requires one to put aside his or her right to speak freely and put time and effort into hearing someone else’s dilemma and empathizing with that person. It requires extraordinary patience and understanding, even when the person listening may lack the energy, mental space, or time. Difficulty listening to others is intensified when it involves mental illnesses. One must accept the potential to accidentally make that person violent and dangerous to herself or other people. This can be immensely challenging for adults, let alone a ten-year-old girl. However, despite this challenge, Camille continued to listen to Rose whenever she needed someone to talk to, maintaining a close friendship with her and overcoming the social and mental barriers that made conversing difficult. In doing so, Camille helped Rose acclimate to life at school to the point that Rose began to make friends on her own and have regular conversations with people she didn’t know as well.
Being a hero doesn’t necessarily involve the act of throwing oneself on a grenade during a fierce battle. That is a more extreme form of heroism. Many fail to realize that the more common type of heroism goes mainly unnoticed: the little things people do to make others’ lives better, the small acts that take willpower to initiate. In Camille’s case, she had the inborn courage to stand up for someone who couldn’t defend herself and to be a kind face encouraging her to come out of her shell. It takes extreme bravery to take to do something no one else will do, which is an action a hero must perform constantly.
Apex Friendship High School