Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Meet the Pearson Prize National Fellows

The Pearson Prize is a student leadership award that recognizes and provides support to exemplary students who are distinguishing themselves by leading public service efforts in their local communities. This post is part of a series of blog entries highlighting Pearson Prize National Fellows . Recently, we asked Greg Woodburn, a Pearson Prize National Fellow for 2010, what issues or initiatives he is passionate about and the most rewarding experience he’s had in his work.

Greg, what cause(s) are you passionate about and why?

I am passionate about providing opportunities for youth to discover their passions, live them fully, and in turn share those passions with others. At the heart of this is the idea that we cannot ensure everyone will get to the same finish line, but we can – and should – give everyone the chance to chase after their dreams from an equal starting line of trust and encouragement.

I care about these causes because I believe in transforming adversity into opportunity.

Understand, my journey in social entrepreneurship did not begin with a business plan, but rather when nothing went according to plan. I have been a competitive distance runner since elementary school, even competing in several national championship meets for cross country and track. As a high school freshman, however, I suffered a hip stress fracture and was sidelined for my sophomore year as well.

Devastated by my injuries then, today I consider them true blessings. They made me realize how deeply I love running and all it has given me: improved health, self-esteem, new friendships. During my long road to recovery I empathized with underprivileged kids who couldn't enjoy running and its rewarding journey – not because of injury, but because they could not afford running shoes.

I have endeavored to help others live out their passions – and improve education and health, which are likewise essential to empowering others – through my 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization Give Running.

Give Running uses running to instill in disadvantaged youth the character traits and skills that serve as a foundation for success in the classroom, community, and life.

Among other endeavors, we promote a love for running – as well as the many benefits and opportunities running fosters – by collecting, cleaning, and then distributing new and used running and athletic shoes (more than 11,700 to date) to disadvantaged youth in Third World nations and local inner-city communities.

Give Running is also expanding to hold youth “Pyramid Running Camps” that include leadership development and community service components emphasizing the broader application of lessons and skills learned through sports. Thus, in addition to teaching kids about well-balanced training, nutrition, and injury prevention, we will also work on public speaking, teamwork, problem-solving, and setting life goals. Indeed, the name “Pyramid Running” underscores the fact that Coach John Wooden's Pyramid of Success and other teachings will be at the heart of these camps; and that the camps are about using the character traits running fosters to create a foundation from which to build upward towards success in all aspects of life.

This Winter Break I will be returning to West Africa – this time Ghana – to lead Give Running's inaugural International Pyramid Running Camp.

Giving has brought me great joy in hearing from orphanages in Africa that the lives of many kids have been redirected from violence and drugs towards education and family, not merely because shoes are often part of the required dress code to attend school, but also simply by reminding youth, through a pair of gift shoes, that they are loved. Giving has enriched me with deeper perspective in realizing my hip injury was not calamitous but actually wondrous.

The more I have grown with Give Running and addressed these causes, the more I have realized we all have the potential to make a difference; little acts truly add up, just as a marathon is run one step at a time. This in turn has instilled in me even greater passion for helping others – for providing people with a worthy avenue through which to give back and run forward.

What is the most rewarding experience you've had in your work?

Traveling to Mali in West Africa was certainly a humbling and life-changing experience – to learn about my experiences there with Give Running, please read my article in Business Today Magazine.

I would like to share with you another story that, in a different sense, hits closer to home.

There are two brothers in Southern California. They have a single pair of shoes between the two of them that are too small for the older brother and too big for the younger brother.

But it's the best they have, so they make do.

What is more, the shoes are falling apart to the point that duct tape is holding them together.

Still, it's the best they have, so they make do.

And part of this “making do” is that the brothers alternate days going to school. They switch off days wearing the worn-through shoes so they can attend school.

Thanks to Give Running, each brother now has his own pair of shoes that fits him so they can both attend school every day with the comfort and confidence they deserve.

Indeed, I have never been more proud of Give Running than in an act of helping those in need – but this act encompasses far more than the moment when we give shoes to brothers. This act is the donation of the shoes by two of our community's anonymous everyday heroes. Who knows, perhaps the two people who donated the shoes were brothers or sisters themselves.

In a larger sense, there is no single moment that is most rewarding, because each part of the process depends on the commitment, effort, and enthusiasm for the other components of Give Running.

For instance, people often assume cleaning the shoes is a gross chore, but I often look forward to it and greatly enjoy it. As I handle each pair, I try to think about the person who will receive this pair of shoes and the smile it will evoke; I also reflect on the person who generously took the time to donate shoes to benefit someone they will never know.

While the giver and receiver of each pair of shoes may not meet face-to-face, through the shoes they nevertheless meet “foot-to-foot.” It is moments like this, when I am reminded of the souls touched by the soles – whether that be in learning about new aspects of Give Running's impact or washing a pair of shoes in the sink – that still give me goose bumps.

I also want to briefly share the story of an anthropologist who chose a most unlikely form of field study. Rather than conducting a project, say, on gorillas in Tanzania, he spent a year with kindergarteners in the sandbox.

Among countless life lessons, the big take-away he discovered was that the kind of learning we don't lose takes place in creative play.

When we creatively play, not only do we hold on to what we learn, but we cannot hold it in! We have to share it with others, and live it through our lives! That is why using running to teach disadvantaged youth about the foundations of a successful life is so powerful.

And that is why, in closing, I want to ask you to play creatively. Run. Paint. Play the violin. Whatever your passion is, live it. Live it to the point where you cannot hold it in. And then overflow.

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