Fifty-one honorees gathered together on Sunday to be acknowledged by the 14th Dalai Lama in recognition of their contributions to humanitarian efforts. These 24 women and 27 men, ranging in age from 16 to 85, are working in 18 countries worldwide. Among them were seven residents of the Napa Valley: Craig Bond, James “Alex” Alexander, Paula Dhanda, Susan Dix Lyons, Robert Hampton, Sandra Hansen and Luc Janssens.
“It was truly humbling and inspiring,” said honoree Bond, from St. Helena, who was recognized for his work with children through the nonprofit St. Helena Choral Foundation. Bond said, “I was overwhelmed, especially meeting so many others who were being honored. They are doing incredible work.” Bond paused for a moment, reflecting. “It was a once in a lifetime event,” he said. “And it motivates me to do more.”
The event, called Unsung Heroes of Compassion 2014, was held at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco before a jam-packed ballroom with 700 guests, and broadcast through a live webcast to more than 900 screens around the world. Nominees were gathered by Dick and Ann Grace of Grace Family Vineyards and the Grace Foundation, and organized by a new nonprofit called Wisdom in Action. It was the fourth Unsung Heroes of Compassion celebration; previous ceremonies were held in 2001, 2005 and 2009. The Graces had traveled the world meeting nominees after Dick Grace was inspired by a personal request by Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama.
“This event is like a rheostat of humanity,” Dick Grace said, “... of humanity and the compassion that we are striving to inspire. It’s not about celebrity, but about service to our fellow human beings. The true unsung heroes are the millions of people in the world to whom these honorees serve: people without resources that struggle day-in and day-out just to survive. These honorees are their representatives, brought together to remind and inspire us about the work that we must still do.”
Grace said, “If this event can do anything, it can help us all see the goodness in the hearts of people who are working — often without support or compensation — to provide medicine, food, shelter and education to those without resources in a world distracted by material concerns. It is an appeal to goodness.”
The event was co-hosted by Dick Grace, actor Peter Coyote, Father Greg Boyle, American Indian Elder Grandmother Agnes Baker Pilgrim and Zen priest Furyu Schroeder. The entire event, quietly chaperoned by FBI agents, was a reminder of the government’s concerns over the Dalai Lama’s security. But, according to Grace, their presence could not dampen the spirit of the event. “The joy in the room was iridescent,” Grace said.
The Dalai Lama spoke for approximately 20 minutes before greeting each honoree. He spoke about the progress and the challenges that he sees in the world, and praised Grace for creating an organization that brings such dedicated individuals to wider attention. “The reality is,” he said, “that we are social animals and each of us depends on the community within which we live. It’s as if we are all part of one body, so what happens to others affects us, too. We have to take care of each other.”
Though the celebration was not billed as a fundraising event, the contributions and sponsorship donated by supporters enabled Wisdom in Action to provide small honorarium to each honored individual to support their projects. But this and previous Unsung Heroes celebrations has inspired a growing group of sponsors who wish to make the work of Wisdom in Action more sustainable.
Led by Gary and Yucca Rieschel, the concept is to invest and fund the Wisdom in Action organization to permit more frequent events. But that, according to Gary Rieschel, is not all. “The idea is to help the nonprofit transform into a ‘service platform’ for past and future honorees. There are now 200 of them, but that number will grow. We want to help create ‘best practices’ for these humanitarians,” Rieschel said, “to help provide support, and to help link organizations together in collaboration, essentially to provide them with the services they need to help them more efficiently perform their important work.”
But for the honorees themselves, Sunday’s event was seen more as a milestone on their individual journeys of commitment and service. “Every one of us questions why we were chosen,” said Chris Waddell, a past Unsung Hero from 2005 who works with the disabled. “‘Why me?’ we ask. We’re humbled and in awe. We all feel overwhelmed by the honor. But this is not the end.” Waddell spoke from his wheelchair before the assembled honorees the night before the event. “No. This is the beginning. This is your ‘graduation ceremony,’ in preparation for all the work you will do in the days and years to come.”