The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee advances human rights through grassroots collaborations.
Celebrating the Real Heroes with CNN
December 4, 2012
I have been fortunate enough to spend the past couple of days in Los Angeles in support of Malya Villard-Appolon, a UUSC partner. She has been on a quest to become the 2012 CNN Hero of the Year on behalf of her organization KOFAVIV (Women Victims for Victims), a rape crisis center in Haiti. While Malya didn’t win the grand prize, the journey has been remarkable and I think it’s just the beginning of more good things for KOFAVIV.
The CNN Hero of the Year contest culminated in an awards ceremony Sunday night, which was just incredible. I am still pinching myself. I am not ashamed to admit that I was a bit starstruck when one of my film heroes, Susan Sarandon, strolled past my seat on her way to the stage (she actually made eye contact, and we smiled at each other!). But what impressed me most was that everyone there seemed to be well aware of who the real heroes we were there to celebrate were. Someone tweeted to CNN during the show about how rare it is “at a Hollywood awards show to hear stars say ‘It’s not about me.’ And mean it.” But there really was a palpable sense that there was something different about this show, about setting aside the tinsel of Tinseltown and getting down in the trenches to honor the nitty-gritty of the best of what it is to be human.
There was something so affirming about the attention and spotlights being directed to shine on these everyday heroes who are transforming tragedy into hope on a daily basis and shining a beacon for the rest of us of what can be possible. It was also so encouraging to know how many UU supporters had been sending in their votes daily for Malya. And even though she didn’t win the ultimate prize, as a finalist she’ll receive $50,000 to further KOFAVIV’s work. And beyond that, I am confident that this experience will open doors for KOFAVIV’s work to reach a whole new audience of potential supporters who will choose to become heroes in their own ways by supporting the work of KOFAVIV and Malya.
As exciting as it was to share my memorable moment with Susan Sarandon (memorable at least for me!), the highlight of the night for me was just before the show began, when I went to offer Malya a final wish for good luck. She was seated front row center in this huge auditorium surrounded by celebrities, decked out like a queen and smiling like a Buddha. I knelt to talk with her and was suddenly too overcome to speak, and we just looked into each other’s eyes. Our eyes began to glisten with tears. All we could do was shake our heads and connect in a heartfelt hug. For my part, I was remembering when we met, shortly after the earthquake, and she was living in the depths of grief and loss and despair — but what she never lost, remarkably, was her fierce determination to continue the work, from the tent she was now sharing with her extended family in a camp for displaced people.
Working in the trenches of human rights, UUSC staff often experience a lot of the “dark side” in the tragedies our partners are struggling with. Even for the most optimistic of personalities, things can often feel so upside down and backwards from what they ought to be, as if the wrong people are being consistently rewarded for the wrong things. But there are those moments, like last night at the CNN Hero Awards seeing Malya in her place of honor, when for a couple of hours at least, all is right with the world.