It is a rare occurrence in life to encounter genuinely warm-hearted people. Those who naturally put the needs of others in front of their own are truly hard to find.
However, at an event raising money for different military organizations, I had the opportunity to meet four of them.
Valor Worldwide, the military media company running the show, brought in a panel of four different philanthropists to discuss a selection of different topics, as well as how they each used their athletic or military background as a platform to become a difference maker in their respective communities.
Former Seattle Seahawks wide receiver and Super Bowl champion Doug Baldwin has transitioned from the NFL to a life of philanthropy.
He runs an organization called Family First, which gives families a chance to improve their living conditions and receive services that they would not otherwise have, such as medical, dental and a variety of educational classes.
“Something we’re really focused on is giving the children a chance to breathe, so they can think about things outside their immediate survival mode,” Baldwin said.
Nate Boyer took the football field in a slightly different fashion, teaching himself how to be a long-snapper after serving as a Green Beret. His newfound football skills led him to walk-on at the University of Texas, and eventually try out with the Seattle Seahawks as a 34-year-old rookie, where he found himself in the same locker room as Baldwin.
He now co-founds an organization called Merging Vets and Players (MVP), involving both of his former passions.
“We’re bringing together combat vets and former professional athletes and having them find purpose, identity [and] that camaraderie they miss when the uniform comes off,” Boyer said.
Kirstie Ennis, another panelist, is as tough as they come. After joining the Marines at age 17, she lost her leg in Afghanistan in a helicopter crash. Now she climbs mountains.
Ennis’s goal is to become the first female amputee to climb the tallest peak on every continent, climbing each mountain for a different cause. For example, she recycled old military prothstetics, and then donated them to amputee orphans in third world countries on her way to Everest.
In addition to her athleticism, she is also heavily involved with MVP, given her military background.
“When I got out [of the marines], I had no idea what I was going to do, who I was going to continue to serve,” Ennis said. “Then I was introduced to MVP, and that really reminded me that there was still a life of service after service, that I could still find a purpose with helping other people.”
The final panelist and moderator of the discussion was ESPN’s Kenny Mayne, who does a lot more than simply talk about sports.
Mayne ruined his ankle playing football when he was younger, and still lives with the pain today. However, after finding a brace that nullifies the pain, he can now stay active and actually enjoy himself.
“I considered cutting my leg off about six or seven years ago, but the amputation guys steered me to a better therapist, and from there I learned about the braces, and here I am now,” Mayne said.
The brace changed his life to a point where it motivated him to create Run Freely, an organization does this precisely that focuses on helping veterans get through their injuries.
“We get to call the veterans and turn and say ‘guess what you’re running next week,’” Mayne said. “We had one girl from New Mexico [who] came in a wheelchair, [and] left Seattle [walking] through the airport.”
Since each panelist has followed their own unique path through life, they have each taken away different morals from their experiences.
Boyer’s main benefit from his time as a green beret was his major gain in self confidence.
“I was lost, I had no purpose or direction and I didn’t really think I mattered,” Boyer said. “I didn’t appreciate myself or the people around me until I was part of something where I had a specific mission, and I was around other people that were pushing me forward.”
Ennis, on the other hand, was the complete opposite.
She was unusually full of herself as a child and failed to see the bigger picture. The Marines taught her that there was something out there bigger than herself.
Rather than the military, Mayne gained most of his inspiration from his father.
Mayne shared that his dad would walk up to homeless people and start conversations, completely ignoring the social status quo.
“There’s a story behind each person, and I think humanity is such that we should look at them as real people,” Mayne said.
From his many years in the NFL, Baldwin took away a similar lesson.
“I think the biggest lesson for me was to treat human beings like human beings, and actually see them,” Baldwin said. “All humans want the same thing, they want to be seen, and I think if you actually see the individual, the human being, and you treat them as such, you show that level of empathy.”
Towards the end of the event, each panelist described what they believed to be the most important advice that high school athletes should walk away with.
Ennis and Mayne focused on the sheer importance of perseverance, whereas Baldwin and Boyer revisited the topic of self-examination.
“Embrace failure. Period.” Ennis said. “It is okay to stumble and fall. That is the opportunity to become better faster and stronger.”
Boyer reinforced the idea that high schoolers should not make the same mistakes he did when he was younger.
“Follow your fears,” Boyer said. “Because when I was in high school, I did not. I was worried about what everybody else thought, and in just a few years, none of that matters at all.”
Looking back on the event, I immensely enjoyed getting to meet and talk to the panelists. However, it took me awhile to realize that however impressive they may be, they are still human beings. What sets them apart is that they sincerely care about whatever they set their minds to, and find a way to create opportunities.
Their backstories, accomplishments and hardships are living proof that if you strongly believe in something, believe in yourself and believe in others, anything is possible.