A Holocaust Survivor and a Kenyan Boy

20 07 2010

Director Jennifer Arnold, Chris Mburu, Hilde Back, Jane Wanjiru Muigai during the Sundance Film Festival - Credit: Matt Carr, Getty Images

For Chris Mburu, a young, rural Kenyan student, the opportunity to make something out of his life would’ve ended if not for a small act of kindness.

Hilde Back was a young girl and a Jew who was helped by a stranger to escape from Nazi Germany to Sweden. She never saw her parents (who did not survive the Holocaust) again after leaving. She never forgot the kindness of that stranger and of the people who helped her once she got to Sweden. Hilde eventually became a school teacher on a modest salary, but sponsored…for about $15 a month…a young Kenyan student.

Because she paid his fees to go to secondary school, which his parents could not afford, that student…Chris Mburu…went on to eventually graduate from Harvard Law School and become a human rights lawyer for the United Nations. Inspired by Hilde’s generosity, in 2001 he decided to start a scholarship program to help other bright Kenyan students who can’t afford school fees and to name the scholarship program after her. With help, he tracked Hilde Back down and the two are now fast friends. She never knew that her small gift each month made such a difference in the life of one boy…and is now making a difference in the lives of countless other children.

Kimani, Ruth, and Caroline - Credit: http://asmallact.blogspot.com/

HBO is now airing an incredibly moving and important documentary film entitled A Small Act about this story and “the ripple effect one small act can have.” The world premiere of the movie was in January 2010 at the Sundance Film Festival. Jennifer Arnold wrote, directed, and produced this film.

It features three students…Kimani, Ruth, and Caroline…who are the top students in their school and who all have no hope of progressing in school due to the lack of ability to pay the $40 per month fees unless they get one of the coveted Hilde Back Education Fund scholarships.

I mostly subscribe to  HBO because of their documentaries. They are thoughtful, well done, and carry powerful messages. The message is easy to see in this one. So many of us think we don’t have the ability to make a difference in the life of another person so why bother? We may think we are barely scraping by ourselves and what little we could give just isn’t enough. This story shows that a small donation made monthly totally changed the life of Chris, who has gone on to change the lives of Kimani, Ruth, Caroline and so many more and they have all pledged to change the lives of students who come after them.

A few other ripple effects and how you can learn more:

Watch the trailer for the movie, and if you have HBO or if the film is being screened near you, watch the entire film. It will move you…hopefully to make your own small act.

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Don’t Stop Believin’ – Formerly Homeless Journey Lead Singer and Harvard Student

5 10 2009

The early 80s Journey song “Don’t Stop Believin” was sung on the Oprah show today by their amazing new lead singer (and formerly homeless person in the Phillippines) Arnel Pineda, who was discovered by one of the band members in a video Arnel posted on YouTube. Arnel, who had to fend for himself on the streets after his encouraging mother died when he was 13, is a testament to the power of those words, now living a life he says is way bigger than he could ever have imagined.

The song provided a perfect setup for the story of Khadijah, an African-American young woman who was homeless from the time she was six and slept with her mother and sister in bus stations, on the streets, and in many Khadijah - Homeless to Harvard (Oprah website)shelters. She attended 12 schools in 12 years and was encouraged by her mother to better her life through education. She took this advice to heart, studying hard, and spending a lot of time in the Los Angeles Public Library reading every book she could.

When Khadijah was in the 10th grade, she was determined to finish out her schooling at Jefferson High School, and got up at 4:30 a.m. every day to make the two-hour trip from Skid Row in Los Angeles to school. In May she graduated with honors and is now a freshman at Harvard University. Here’s part of the essay she wrote as part of her admission process. You can read the entire essay at Oprah.com:

Being homeless has given me the skills I need to succeed on the pathway towards my higher education pursuits and life-long goals. My experiences have made me a dedicated student both inside and outside of the classroom. I do not let anything stop me from achieving my goals. Hearing such negativity where I have lived has enabled me to focus on my goals and remain optimistic, even when faced with grave adversity. Having to depend on myself for food has enabled me to take charge of my education. I have learned to be resourceful and diligent and I am confident in saying that I am a very self-motivated and determined individual that will stop at nothing to receive an education. When I go to college, I know that this acquired knowledge and skills will enable me to succeed in whatever I do.

Oprah was so moved by Khadijah’s story that she invited Khadijah to accompany her the next time she visits the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa and tell her inspiring story to the girls there.

Arnel and Khadijah…two formerly homeless people with little to hope for. They both had mothers who believed in them and encouraged them, they both believed in themselves, and they both were willing to work hard to achieve their dreams.

No matter what your situation, no matter how hard or hopeless it may be, don’t stop believing. You never know what miracle is waiting for you!

Here’s Arnel and Journey…





Taking Chance Home with Dignity – Lt. Col. Strobl’s Personal Experience of the Cost of War

21 02 2009

The stirring HBO movie “Taking Chance” brought tears to my eyes. It shows the reverence, dignity, honor, and respect with which soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are brought home.

Starring Kevin Bacon and premiering today on HBO, it was shown at

Michael Strobl - Credit: PBS.org

Michael Strobl - Credit: PBS.org

Sundance Film Festival and competed for the Grand Jury Prize. Kevin plays Lieutenant Colonel Michael Strobl, who volunteers – out of some seeming guilt at not being in Iraq himself – to escort the body of 19-year-old Private First Class Chance Phelps home.

PFC Chance Phelps

PFC Chance Phelps

Chance was killed in Iraq on April 9, 2004. Strobl and those who assisted at each point along the way with transporting the body of PFC Phelps were deeply impacted and respectful and the cost of war was felt by all.

Lt. Col. Strobl is a Desert Storm veteran and served in the Marine Corps from 1983-2007. He daily read the list of Marines killed in Iraq and came across the name of PFC Phelps, who was from his home town in Colorado. That made his decision to serve as an escort for Phelps’ body personal and something he felt he had to do.

He kept a journal on his experience of escorting PFC Phelps home and from this came an article for the Marine Corps Gazette, which was published in July, 2004. I cannot access that article, but found a shorter version of it, which was published online at OrthodoxyToday.org in May, 2004. The article was widely circulated on the Internet and touched many people. It was given to Executive Producer Brad Krevoy when he attended the funeral of a friend’s son, who was killed in Iraq. He contacted Chance’s family and they agreed to allow the story to made into a film. Stobl went on to co-write the screenplay for the movie.

From the HBO site for this film:

‘Taking Chance’ chronicles one of the silent, virtually unseen journeys that takes place every day across the country, bearing witness to the fallen and all those who, literally and figuratively, carry them home. A uniquely non-political film about the war in Iraq, the film pays tribute to all of the men and women who have given their lives in military service as well as their families.

The life and death of Chance Phelps have touched a lot of people. The Chance Phelps Organization sponsors Run4Chance races and gives the proceeds to the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, which helps them to “…continue [their] vital mission of service to our wounded and critically ill Marines, Sailors and their families.”

Here is a short HBO clip on taking the story from script to screen. Kevin Bacon, Lt. Col Strobl, and others are interviewed about the story and the movie. HBO will be showing this many times . I hope that you will check out the schedule and make a point to watch it. It is incredibly moving.

Coffins of Soldiers Killed in Iraq

Coffins of Soldiers Killed in Iraq being Taken off Plane at Dover Air Force Base - Credit: AFP, Getty Images

UPDATE: On 2/26/09 Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that photos can now be taken of flag-draped coffins of soldiers if the family of the deceased soldier agrees.

UPDATE 4/5/09: For the first time in 18 years, the media today witnessed the return of a soldier killed overseas. You can read about it here.

UPDATE 7/16/09: Today it was announced that this movie is nominated for an Emmy Award for best made for television movie and Kevin Bacon is also nominated for an Emmy Award as best actor in a made for television movie.

UPDATE 1/17/10: Today Kevin Bacon won a Golden Globe for his role in this movie. The movie was also nominated for a Golden Globe award.