Pam has a confession to make: “I wasn’t always a nice person,” she says. “In my 20s, I was focused on looking perfect and acquiring a nicer house and car. Even after I started working at the Southwest Transplant Alliance [STA], an organ-donation agency in Dallas, in 1995, I considered it just a good career move, not a personal mission.”
About a year later, she met Jennifer, who had received a donated kidney and had started volunteering with STA. The two quickly became close, if somewhat unlikely, friends.“I grew up on an Oklahoma farm and connect everything to my Christian faith,” says Jennifer. “Pam is a secular New Yorker. Still, our spirits connected.” Pam adds, “Jennifer became my surrogate mother. She was loving and compassionate, and she taught me to see the good in people.” When Pam revealed she was estranged from her mom, Jennifer encouraged her to make peace. (After seven years of silence, they did, in 2001.) And during Pam’s divorce, in 2005, Jennifer helped her remain friends with her ex.
Last year Pam saw a way to repay Jennifer’s kindness. Doctors had told Jennifer that her transplanted kidney had begun to fail. She had been put back on the donor waiting list, but her odds of getting a kidney soon weren’t good.
When Pam learned that Jennifer needed a donor, she immediately stepped up. She telephoned Jennifer at the church where she works and announced she had found a match for Jennifer’s blood type. “It’s me,” Pam said, then hung up before Jennifer could argue. “I sat at my desk for a moment thinking, Did I really just get this call?” says Jennifer. “Tiffany, the youngest of my three children, was so excited when I told her the news.”
The family’s happiness was short-lived. Two days later, Tiffany, who had battled lupus since childhood, unexpectedly died of related complications at the age of 24. Afterward Jennifer found one of her daughter’s last wishes written in her journal: “God, please fix the kidney my mom has, or give her a new one.”
This past January, Tiffany’s wish was granted. Jennifer received Pam’s kidney, and both came through the surgery without a hitch. “I’d been worried,” says Jennifer. “Pam had never had an operation in her life.” For her part, Pam shrugs off the praise she gets for her sacrifice. “To be honest, I wouldn’t give just anyone a kidney,” she admits. “But I would give Jennifer both of mine if I could.”
Jennifer says she’ll never forget this exceptional gift. “Because of Pam, I’ll be able to stay on this earth—with my three beautiful grandchildren—a while longer.”
2 of 5Katherine Wolkoff
‘Beth Helped Me Find My Purpose’
Leticia de la Vara (at left), 33, nonprofit consultant, Phoenix
“Help! I don’t know what I want to do with my life,” Leticia told Beth when they first met, in 2004. The single mother of a one-year-old girl, Leticia felt trapped in an entry-level job. “I knew a college degree was crucial, but I didn’t know how I would find the time or money to go to school,” she says.
About a month earlier, Leticia had called the Fresh Start Women’s Foundation, a Phoenix-based resource center, which paired her with Beth, a volunteer mentor. And thus began a life-altering friendship.
With Beth’s support, Leticia obtained financial aid and began taking evening and online college classes. “It was tough attending school, working full-time, and caring for my daughter, Pilar,” she says. “But when I got overwhelmed, I thought of Beth. While mentoring me, she counseled a Somali refugee family and volunteered with the Girl Scouts! If she could find the energy to do all that, I told myself, I could, too.”
Beth says, “Some people are born good singers. I was born with a passion to help people. But I’m not flawless, as the drivers I’ve cut off on the highway will attest.” She adds, “It’s easier to help someone who is motivated. And Leticia had so much potential.” Sure enough, Leticia graduated in 2010 with a B.A. in nonprofit management and landed jobs consulting for Hispanic advocacy groups.
Although Beth has mentored other women, she says, “my connection with Leticia runs deep.” The two socialize and even work out together (both love boxing). And in 2009, when Beth and her husband became parents, adopting their seven-year-old foster son, she looked to her protégée as a role model. “Parenting made me feel insecure,” says Beth. “I tried to emulate Leticia, who was raising Pilar with such intelligence and grace. Now Leticia is my coach.”
3 of 5Katherine Wolkoff
‘Janine Made Me Look At The World Differently’
Rebecca Brown (at right), 36, senior policy advocate, New York City
Janine Jackson, 46, program director, New York City
When Rebecca met Janine, in 1995, “I found everything about her intimidating, from her stunning good looks to her no-nonsense demeanor,” says Rebecca. The college sophomore had just gotten an internship at the media watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), and Janine was her new boss. “I often felt tongue-tied when I was around her,” Rebecca recalls. Then, one day, Rebecca was asked to fact-check a book that Janine had worked on. In one chapter, Janine took a local newspaper to task for exacerbating racial stereotypes and for playing fast and loose with the facts. “It was an eye-opening moment,” says Rebecca. “That such poor reporting could make it into print made me question the profession of journalism.”
Rebecca went to talk to Janine about her concerns. From that point on, the pair regularly had substantive, thought-provoking chats: They would pore over newspaper articles together and discuss not just what each story said but also the assumptions it made about people and the larger culture. Through their conversations, Rebecca felt herself becoming more aware.
For example, while riding the New York subway one day, Rebecca watched as a dapper businessman pushed his way through a crowd of people, including a heavily pregnant woman, to grab the last seat. “Pre-Janine, I would have registered this act as simple rudeness,” she says. “But because of our talks, I understood that this man’s attitude—that he was more important than anyone else—was related to larger societal ills. When individuals act selfishly, it doesn’t bode well for anyone.”
Rebecca realized that she wanted a career in which she could positively effect people’s lives. With Janine’s support, in 2002 she graduated with a master’s degree in urban planning. About three years later, she was working at the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that helps to exonerate wrongly convicted prisoners through DNA testing. (Janine has remained at FAIR.)
It’s been many years since Rebecca was Janine’s intern, but the two still meet up often. “We talk, we laugh. Sometimes Irish whiskey is involved,” says Janine. Rebecca says Janine remains her role model: “Most people are riddled with contradictions. They act well in one realm of their life, then operate very differently in another. But not Janine. She remains steadfastly connected to the essence of who she is and makes me a better person by example.”
4 of 5Katherine Wolkoff
‘Jill Showed Me How to Live With My Learning Disability’
Margaret Babyak (at left), 32, clinical social worker, Fairfield, Connecticut
Jill Lauren, 50, learning specialist and author, New York City
Jumbled letters. That’s all Margaret saw when she stared at the chalkboard. In 1986, at age eight, she was diagnosed with dyslexia. Although Margaret’s teacher was aware of her learning disability, she kept calling on her to read aloud. “She didn’t understand how agonizing it was,” says Margaret. As a result, Margaret would feign sickness or hide in the bathroom. She was teased mercilessly by other kids.
Then one morning she was pulled out of class to meet a new learning specialist. “I thought Ms. Lauren was the most wonderful woman in the world,” she recalls. “She had a way of talking to me that made me feel special.” When Margaret admitted her terror of reading aloud, Jill suggested she say something to her teacher. For days they practiced what Margaret would say. Then Jill stood with her as she asked the teacher either not to call on her or to assign her a passage in advance so she could practice. It worked.
“I couldn’t believe an authority figure had listened to me,” says Margaret. “It reinforced what Jill had told me: I could control my own life.” Jill continued to teach her for the next three years. And even after Margaret moved on to middle school, Jill’s empowering advice stayed with her: In sixth grade, when she was assigned to a class for kids with behavioral issues, she went to the principal’s office and asked to be placed in a mainstream class.
Every school year, Margaret met with her teachers and requested help. “At first some chided me for using my dyslexia as an excuse for underperforming,” she says. “But I always asked.” And when a high school teacher told Margaret to get a retail job rather than apply to college, Margaret didn’t listen. “Jill drilled into my head that I could succeed at anything,” she says. Indeed, Margaret went on to earn a master’s degree in social work.
Margaret, in turn, had changed the trajectory of Jill’s life. “When I met Margaret, she didn’t know what a learning difference was,” says Jill. “I explained that sometimes smart people have difficulty processing information in one area but can develop strategies to address it. Margaret listened and said, ‘This should be in a book for kids.’ ” Jill never forgot that suggestion. Eight years later, she wrote the book Succeeding With LD ($17, amazon.com) and dedicated it, in part, to one particularly “smart and courageous student.”
Margaret still struggles with her dyslexia. “An e-mail that takes most people 10 minutes to write will take me 30,” she says. “But in the end I will get it done.” And each time she attempts to tell Jill, who has a private practice teaching kids with learning disabilities, how much she has helped her, says Margaret, “Jill turns it around. ‘No, you’ve helped me!’ So after all these years, I’ve found one thing this wonderful educator needs to learn herself: how to take a compliment.”
5 of 5Katherine Wolkoff
‘Susie Taught Me How to Open Up’
Jeanne Muchnick (at right), 49, writer, Larchmont, New York
Susie Sigel, 50, special-projects producer, Larchmont, New York
At seven months old, Hannah was listless and unable to swallow even an eyedropper of formula. Her mother, Jeanne, thought it was stomach flu. But the news from the doctor was far worse: Hannah had glycogen storage disease (GSD), a rare metabolic disorder with no cure. Hannah would need to drink a water-and-cornstarch mixture every three hours, even overnight, to stabilize her blood sugar. Missing or being late for just one drink could result in a hypoglycemic seizure, or death.
Because of GSD, Hannah walked and talked late. She had to be coaxed to eat, since the cornstarch filled her up. “I felt alienated from other moms,” says Jeanne. “All I could think about was keeping Hannah healthy.” Fearful that Hannah would be treated differently, Jeanne disclosed the illness only to her close friends and Hannah’s teachers. But the secrecy began to make Jeanne feel isolated.
Then one day, when Hannah was in kindergarten, her friend Natalie and Natalie’s mom, Susie, stopped by for a playdate. When numerous alarm clocks went off, indicating it was time for Hannah’s drink, Jeanne was forced to explain that her daughter was ill. “I was shocked that such a sparkly little girl had a dangerous disease,” says Susie. “And I was amazed that Jeanne had endured this without complaint.” Over the years, the two women grew close. Susie felt compelled to do something to benefit GSD research, but she didn’t want to invade Jeanne’s privacy. How do I shed light on the disease without upsetting Jeanne? she wondered.
In 2005, when Hannah was 12, Susie approached Jeanne about throwing a fund-raiser. Jeanne was reluctant, but after prodding, she said yes. “I realized how much good we could do for GSD,” she says. Susie helped orchestrate the event: a catered dinner for 100 and a silent auction. There, for the first time, Jeanne stood up and spoke about her daughter’s illness. “I explained that Hannah had been hospitalized 32 times and that fights with the insurance company had left my husband and me financially drained,” she says. “It felt wonderful to be open and honest, and I was astonished by the out-pouring of support I got in response.”
The event raised $44,000 for GSD research. Jeanne figured that was enough. Not Susie. “So what are we going to do next?” she cheerfully asked Jeanne the following day. In the last several years, Susie has helped Jeanne organize three more fund-raisers herself—something Jeanne would have once found unthinkable: “I’d still be hiding the truth if it weren’t for Susie. Instead, I’m working to find a cure.”