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Everyday Heroes: Spreading good in New England and beyond

Deborah Sweet, founder, WE’VE GOT YOUR BACKpack

When Betsy Blumberg Maxwell nominated her neighbor, Deborah Sweet, as an Everyday Hero, Maxwell described Sweet as a “foster parent extraordinaire.” Sweet and her husband, who live in Holliston, Mass., have welcomed foster children into their home for 14 years, have adopted two children out of foster care, and are in the process of adopting a third. 

Sweet also founded WE’VE GOT YOUR BACKpack, which collects new backpacks and school supplies each fall for foster children and families in need in Northeastern Massachusetts. 

Sweet collects backpacks for some very important reasons. A former teacher, Sweet understands that children are more likely to succeed at school if they have proper educational supplies. She also knows that for many foster children, backpacks are more than just a place to store pencils and notebooks: “Backpacks can also be a lifeline for children transitioning into foster care, replacing the trash bags that too many children are still asked to stuff their limited possessions into,” Sweet says. 

But there’s another reason Sweet helps out: Because it feels good. “It makes me happy that something relatively small that I can do might help relieve someone else’s burden or help them to find their own moment of joy,” she says. 

Phyllis Arnold Rand, volunteer, American Red Cross

Phyllis Arnold Rand of Lewiston, Maine, another 2021 Everyday Hero, describes a similar feeling. Rand has done volunteer disaster relief work for the American Red Cross for over 10 years. When disaster strikes, Rand leaves her family, friends, and full-time job as a water quality coordinator for a local utility to rush to the aid of those affected by hurricanes, wildfires, and floods. 

Although Rand rarely meets the people directly affected by disasters because she works behind the scenes, being part of a relief team makes her feel terrific. “Just knowing, within myself, that I played a part in helping them get back on their feet is very gratifying,” she says. 

Do good, feel good

Sweet and Rand are not alone in noticing the feel-good benefits of volunteer work. In fact, the positive emotions that bubble up in the hearts and souls of people who help others is so common that psychologists actually have a name for it: “Helper’s high.” 

Research shows that people who serve others experience a long list of positive emotional and physical benefits, including better mood, greater self-esteem, improved health, and even increased longevity. 

“There’s lots of evidence that we get a well-being boost by doing things to help others,” says Laurie Santos, professor of psychology at Yale University and host of The Happiness Lab podcast. “Becoming a helper can be a way to improve our own personal happiness.”

And the benefits of helping don’t stop with the people directly involved — they can also spread to others. Not only do Sweet, Rand, and all of our Everyday Heroes feel great when they serve others, but their actions are likely to inspire others to do good as well. 

A landmark 2010 study looking at the contagiousness of cooperative behavior found that a generous act by one individual can inspire exponential amounts of generosity in many other people, moving from person to person to person.

“As a result, each person in a network can influence dozens or even hundreds of people, some of whom he or she does not know and has not met,” according to James H. Fowler and Nicholas A. Christakis, the study’s authors. 

The idea of kindness being contagious doesn’t surprise Maxwell, who nominated Sweet as an Everyday Hero. Maxwell recognizes Sweet’s positive influence on others — including herself. 

“Deb helps me look at my students from a trauma perspective,” says Maxwell, who is a second-grade teacher in Needham, Mass. “Her example is a reminder that I don’t know what many of my students have been through, and how those events may be contributing to their behavior in my classroom.”

YOU can be an Everyday Hero

Let these Everyday Heroes inspire you to help others. It might be easier than you think. 

Roughly 90% of Americans say they would like to do volunteer work, according to the Stanford Center on Longevity. And yet, only about one-quarter of people actually do something. One of the reasons people hold back is that they aren’t sure how to help. 

Fortunately, there are some simple steps you can take to become an Everyday Hero in your world: 

Ask around. What needs exist in your neighborhood, church, school, or hospital? Who needs help? Once you start paying attention, you’re likely to find people who need an Everyday Hero in their lives.

Do what you love. Consider volunteer work that aligns with your values and interests. For example, if you care deeply about environmental justice, help out with a group like Speak for the Trees, which plants and cares for trees in underserved and under-canopied neighborhoods in Boston.

Look online. Sites such as Just Serve, VolunteerMatch, and Catchafire help you find opportunities that match your skills, schedule, and interests. 

Don’t let a busy schedule hold you back. Some opportunities allow you to make a big impact in a small amount of time. For example, you can emulate Everyday Hero Joanna Suprock by giving lifesaving blood donations in as little as an hour or so every eight weeks. And many organizations offer remote volunteer work. 

Keep it simple. You don’t have to work with an organization to be an Everyday Hero. Rake a neighbor’s leaves, donate to a winter coat drive, or buy a bag of groceries and drop it off at a local food pantry. It can be that easy.

Think of service as a gift to yourself as well as to others. Helping can give your own life meaning — which is never a bad thing, especially in challenging times like the ones in which we live. “Even if I am only able to help one other person while I am here in this life,” Sweet says, “I can say with certainty that my time has been well spent.” 

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