A Gift to Change the World, One Step at a Time
By Chandra Hanlin '84 Peters
Each year, Punahou students return to school following their winter break to find another gift waiting for them: a guest speaker, bringing a message of inspiration for service and a calling to use their unique gifts to make the world a better place.
The Spirit and Service Speaker Series was created more than 10 years ago, as Punahou was exploring how two specific parts of its mission – to "develop moral and spiritual values" and to "develop social responsibility" – might interconnect in a more intentional way.
According to Chaplain Lauren Medeiros, the speaker series predates the creation of the Luke Center for Public Service. While there were many service projects occurring across campus, they lacked coordination. There also was a desire to connect the "how" with the "why" of student and faculty service. "We didn't want to just talk about doing good things, or being a good person of faith, but a combination of those two ideas," said Medeiros.
Soon after, Chapel staff attended a conference on the spiritual roots of service. There, they connected with Kent Koth, then-director of the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University. Koth's subsequent visit to Punahou served as a catalyst for conversations that contributed to the structure of the Luke Center. He was a gifted speaker who shared, in chapels, an inspirational story of how one individual could impact the world. Medeiros remembers considering with former chaplains John Heidel and David Baumgart Turner '75, "What if we had a regular series of speakers who came to share their stories of spirit and service?"
January presented an ideal time to focus on this topic. Traditionally, people use the start of the new calendar year to rededicate themselves to improving themselves or their environment, and the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday encourages a commitment to making the world better for all people. A speaker series focusing on spirit and service at this time is the perfect option, providing a common story of inspiration to students and faculty from kindergarten through grade 12.
Koth, the inaugural speaker of the new series, shared his message that while some people feel called to service through their faith, others find meaning in life by engaging in service. Here was the intersection of spirituality and social responsibility.
Most recently, Punahou was blessed by a visit from Erin van Wiltenburg, who spoke about her trip to Africa when she was just 19 years old. Many of the children she met there did not have access to education, and the harsh reality of their plight moved her to action. Van Wiltenburg began making small but fundamental changes in her own life once she returned to her home in Canada. She paid attention to the things she had been blessed with and made more intentional choices about what she ate and purchased while listening to her heart urging her to help in some way. Among her talents was a seemingly insignificant love of running long distances. She finally connected the voice of her soul with the soles of her feet, running across Africa to raise funds for schools and libraries for African children. She and friend Reuben Jentink covered daily distances of 26 miles, ultimately running the equivalent of about 100 marathons in 120 days. Their efforts resulted in funding for educational programs in Africa through the nonprofit Room to Read.
Excerpted from her journal after her 69th marathon, Erin wrote: "I can't help but wonder what I am doing here. I am running across Africa to be able to fall asleep at night, knowing that I have done everything I can for this cause, but every day I realize there is another school-less community, another 80 orphans in the next town. Sometimes I want to stop running just so I don't have to see any more. Is that shirtless, starving boy 13,000 km from my hometown, my neighbor? Something deep within me says yes. God has breathed a passion for these people that runs through my very soul. In my head, this makes no sense. But in my soul, I get it. I don't know who my neighbor is, but clearly God does."
Although inspirational, the beauty of van Wiltenburg's message wasn't her extraordinary accomplishment. It was the understanding that a person's gift need not be extraordinary at all. It can be as simple as running. But when those simple gifts are used with the intention of helping a neighbor, they become something extraordinary. That's the message that the chapel and the Luke Center hope this speaker series sends to our community each January.