Considering the way he was raised and the career path he’s followed, Mark Shriver seemed destined to write a children’s book. After all, his mother founded Special Olympics for young people with disabilities; in college, Mark tutored underprivileged kids to give them a better chance at success in life; and for 18 years he’s worked to bring food and education to American youngsters in poverty through Save the Children.
All those experiences, combined with the faith and values he was taught by his parents, gave Mark an awareness that some of this country’s greatest people are the unheralded helpers in our families and communities. And so, Mark has now written a Seek-and-Find book for children called “10 Hidden Heroes” (illustrated by Laura Watson). We discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below).
In each spread of the book, a brief rhyming message encourages children to look for a variety of different heroes in the illustrations.
Mark explained, “I think in America, we spend so much time consumed by power, wealth, fame, and celebrity. And I’ve always felt that character and goodness make a big difference. That’s what these heroes are doing. They’re doing a lot of the essential work that doesn’t get paid a lot of money. They’re not the Super Bowl winning quarterback [or] the corporate CEO with a private jet and multiple houses. But these are the folks that make our communities whole: Moms and Dads doing their good work day in and day out, the person at the grocery store, the kid in the neighborhood who is cleaning the snow off of cars for senior citizens. And I just wanted to get that message out, especially during COVID…You see in the book a number of folks leading that aren’t necessarily perceived as leaders. So, Special Olympics athletes, Best Buddies participants, kids that are in a wheelchair or have a disability, participating in raising money for the homeless, or helping those that are hungry. Those role models need to be celebrated as well.”
Both Mark’s parents – Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Peace Corps founder Sargent Shriver – attended Mass together every day, so his own Catholic faith was impacted by the way they practiced theirs. That’s why the book implicitly celebrates the Corporal Works of Mercy, which include feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless,and visiting those in prison.
That last point found inspiration in the work of Mark’s own daughter, Molly, who “graduated from Boston College and is doing a lot of work in criminal justice reform. You’ll see in the book, there’s a tutoring program for people that are in prison. And we wanted to show that people that are in prison have made a mistake, but we believe in redemption and forgiveness. There are people that are tutoring inmates in prison on how to read and how to do a good job when they get out of prison.”
The book, published by Loyola Press, also takes an ecumenical approach to the good that is accomplished in the world by people from different religions. Mark believes it is important to recognize “the positive difference faith can make when we put aside our differences, our animosities, trying to separate ‘us’ from ‘them.’ And I think all the great religions are trying to pull us towards God.”
Regarding his own work helping those in poverty, Mark notes that he never had a “Saul on the Road to Damascus” moment that inspired him. Instead, said Mark, “My parents very consciously [educated] us from the get-go. Doing outreach, delivering turkeys around Thanksgiving, bringing us out even on vacations to see what was going on across the country that we were visiting. So we were exposed to not just sitting on a beach, but actually understanding what was going on in that community. [There’s also] the work that I did in Upward Bound – an education program for kids that are struggling, but have great skills – when I was in college at Holy Cross…They were really smart kids, and with some additional assistance, could realize whatever their dream was, whether it was to be a doctor, or a stockbroker, a lawyer, a parent. They don’t need a handout, they need a hand up. With that support, they could pursue their own dreams, and that really got me fired up on this issue.”
Mark works frequently with actress Jennifer Garner, who he calls “a great advocate for children who are poor in this country, [helping them get] high-quality early childhood educational experiences extended to them.”
By the age of four, notes Mark, American children who grow up in poverty are 18 months behind children who grow up in better circumstances. That makes a big difference in their social, cognitive, and emotional development. Mark and Jennifer are focused on investing in children who are poor and giving them the same opportunity to enter school, ready to learn.
COVID made that mission even more necessary. Mark said, “Many children rely on breakfast and lunch from their public school. And when the school is closed, kids go hungry. So we pivoted from a heavy emphasis on academics, to an emphasis on academics and food because Save The Children believes you have to fill the bellies and fill the minds. You can’t have a kid who’s fed not be academically stimulated and challenged. You can’t have a kid academically stimulated and challenged if they’re hungry because they can’t focus…It’s in rural America where there aren’t the resources that you see across the country, so it’s challenging work, but it’s been hugely rewarding because kids can pursue their dreams if they’re given that helping hand…As Pope Francis says, you’re planting seeds and watering. You never may know what seed you’re planting and how it looks when it grows up. But that’s a really great business to be in, helping kids.”
Mark – who wrote a Christopher Award-winning memoir about his father, as well as a book about Pope Francis – finds great inspiration and guidance in the pontiff’s words, and he does his best to be guided by his Catholic faith. He recalled, “When my wife [Jeannie] and I got married almost 30 years ago, the Gospel was the story of building your faith on bedrock. And when storms come, the ones that are built on mud are just swept away. Jeannie and I try to do that every day, have that relationship with God…My parents reminded me every day, not in words, but by the fact that they went to Mass, and they knelt down every day and asked for help, and guidance, and forgiveness. That’s a pretty powerful example for me. I’ve tried to incorporate that into my marriage, and into my life, and into our relationship with our kids. Again, I struggle with it because I’m not perfect. But it’s the foundation.”
Ultimately, Mark hopes that children and their parents read “10 Hidden Heroes” and see in it the acts of selfless love that point us toward God. Mark concluded, “It’s about acts of mercy and acts of connection between human beings. From a religious perspective, that’s what I think Jesus asked us to do: to love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, all your soul, all your might – and love your neighbor as yourself. That’s what everything’s built on. All the teachings of the prophets are built on that. So these are all tiny acts of love, as Pope Francis says. And we’re just trying to celebrate the people who do that who don’t get a lot of recognition…That’s what ’10 Hidden Heroes’ is about. Trying to lift up and celebrate those people.”
(To listen to my full interview with Mark Shriver, click the podcast link):