Mark K. Shriver, 10 HIDDEN HEROES

Mark K. Shriver, 10 HIDDEN HEROES

“So many people in America focus on the concept of greatness, on power and prestige, and celebrity and money. I’m really interested in the folks who do the small things that make our communities click.” Mark Shriver joins Zibby to discuss the everyday heroes who inspired his children’s book, Hidden Heroes, as well as the lessons he continues to learn from his illustrious parents and the mentalities he hopes he has imparted on his own kids.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Mark. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss 10 Hidden Heroes.

Mark Shriver: Thank you. Thanks for having me, Zibby. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. What made you write this book? By the way, my son and I sat on my bed and spent hours finding every little thing and then going through — thank you for the answer key and everything at the end. What made you write the book?

Mark: I don’t think I can say anything that’s — let just stop the interview based on that first comment that you and your son spent so much time reading and looking for the heroes because that’s really what it’s all about. The idea came about at the beginning of the pandemic, but I’ve always been really more interested in goodness than in greatness. So many people in America, we focus on the concept of greatness, on power and prestige and celebrity and money. I’m really interested in the folks who do the small things that make our communities click, the crossing guard that keeps our kids safe when they go to school, the guy who drives the trash truck and how he helps keep the community clean, the people who recycle and compost, all the small gestures that, I think they make our community whole. That’s what the book is really about. It’s a fun way of finding hidden heroes. It’s kind of Where’s Waldo? On each page, there’s not just one guy dressed in a goofy outfit, but there are people of all races and abilities and backgrounds and faiths doing these small acts of love, as corny as that is. It’s these small acts of love that really came to the forefront at the beginning of the pandemic. I hope that will continue to be celebrated after we get through this pandemic. Those are the people that are, in my mind, real heroes.

Zibby: You’re absolutely right. It’s kind of like a mix of a Richard Scarry book, one of those where you have to find all the little things, and an activity book and all of it. I feel like nobody has done exactly what you’re doing, exactly what you’re saying with all these different ways of really appreciating. It’s basically like an ode to — it’s appreciating so many people from Special Olympics, people who do races. It’s just amazing, people from the science lab. This is what makes life worth living anyway, right? It’s the people who take care of other people in some way.

Mark: Yeah, I think all the great faiths talk about that, whether it’s Islam, Judaism, Christianity. They talk about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting those in prison, about repairing the world, about bringing us all together. Ultimately, I think that’s what’s really important. Again, in America, we celebrate the Super Bowl-winning quarterback, the CEO who has a private plane and five houses, or the celebrity who just made a hundred million dollars. In my mind anyway, those things are fleeting. Having met and interacted with a lot of those people, a lot of those people are, honestly, pretty miserable. I wrote a book, Zibby, on Pope Francis. He has a great quote in the last couple of months about the hidden saints who live next door, who perform little acts of love, tiny acts of love that change the world. When I first read “the saint who lives next door and little acts of love that change the history of the world,” that’s a lot of big language. Ultimately, I think he’s right. It’s these small acts.

You mentioned the Special Olympics athlete. Somebody said their kid said, “Why is the Special Olympics athlete a hero?” We purposely put in the book a Special Olympics athlete from Israel arm in arm with a Special Olympics athlete from the United Arab Emirates. A couple years ago in the UAE, in Abu Dhabi, we had the International Special Olympic Games, a stadium filled with eighty thousand people cheering the athletes from all around the world. The UAE doesn’t recognize the country of Israel. Yet when the Special Olympics athletes from Israel walked into that stadium, they got a standing ovation. There is the Special Olympics athletes leading the way. They’re teaching us acceptance. They’re knocking down these walls of misunderstanding and prejudice just because of where you’re from. That’s why the Special Olympics athletes are hidden heroes. They’re not only great athletes and great competitors, but they’re showing us how to really love each other and how to build a stronger community.

Zibby: This is all obviously very true and amazing. How did you get involved in this? Why take your time to do this message? I know you lead Save the Children. How did you become so invested in helping others?

Mark: My mom and dad really were wonderful role models for me, and still are. I learn from them to this day even though they’re both no longer with us physically. They’re definitely with me emotionally and spiritually. I learn from them how to interact with our kids, how they interacted with me when I was twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three. Our youngest daughter is sixteen. They helped us not only when they were alive when we were raising our children, but obviously still today. They did these things on a great, big scale. My father started the Peace Corps under President Kennedy. My mother started Special Olympics, which, as we talked about, is all around the world now. My father created Head Start Legal Services, Job Corps, VISTA, all these programs under President Johnson. What really impressed me the most about them was the way they treated everyday people, not just the president of the United States or cardinals or senators or governors or bigshots, so to speak, but how they interacted with the waitress at their favorite restaurant or the guy at the US Air counter who I know still today. Edwin Debus tells me about how my father — he had Alzheimer’s — so polite to him when Edwin helped him through the airport security. They treated people well every day. Those are role models for me.

I got into working with kids in college. Came out, worked with kids who are charged as juvenile delinquents in Baltimore City. Now I’ve been at Save the Children for almost eighteen years. I can’t believe it. We run programs all across America and around the world, but here in America focused on education and, since the pandemic hit, on feeding kids. So many kids in our country rely on school for breakfast and lunch. It’s amazing, Zibby, that the richest country in the history of the world has to feed so many children because they’re food-insecure, which really means they’re hungry. Save the Children is feeding kids. We’re filling their bellies and filling their minds all across rural America. This book seemed to be almost a natural transition from that. I’ve just been involved with children and interacting with kids and trying to effect systemic change or investment, public dollars in children, for my whole career. This was a fun book to do. We did it as a family during COVID. A lot of those heroes, Zibby, are ideas that our children put in there, my wife Jeanne suggested as well. Writing, Jeanne made really strong edits to it. It was a family affair. It was fun. I hope people have fun, as you are doing with your son, but also, they have great conversations about what constitutes a real hero these days.

Zibby: There were some where I feel like I found some heroes, but they weren’t in your list at the end.

Mark: That’s correct.

Zibby: I was like, I don’t know, I call that a hero, but it looks like I was wrong. Forget it.

Mark: No, you’re right. We slipped in a couple extra heroes on some of those pages. I’m like, wait a minute, we’re on three hidden heroes, but there’s five here. We had some fun. We’re not playing by the rules that closely. There’s some fun ones in there. I’m glad you found them.

Zibby: I’m a rule follower. I’m like, I have to get this right. Perfectionist or something.

Mark: Sorry.

Zibby: That’s okay. It’s all right. We got past it. I love that you said that, your parents, obviously with modeling what they did in their life and with how they treat everyday people everywhere. Every interaction is just as important. How do you as a dad make sure to do the same with your own kids?

Mark: I wrote this book on my father after he died eleven years ago. It’s called A Good Man because I think he was ultimately a good man in addition to being a great man. It’s harder, in my mind, to be a good man when no one’s looking. These celebrities or politicians or people in the public are great in public, but when they’re in private, they’re not as good. My daughter, who’s about fourteen, said to me at the end of it, “I’m going to write a book on you too when you get old, Dad.” I said, “Thanks. What are you going to call it?” She said, “An Okay Dad.”

Zibby: I was thinking she going to say mediocre or totally average.

Mark: You got to the punchline before I did. I’m trying. My wife and I try every day to model that behavior, but to also do it with a lot of fun. My parents, people say, how did they work until they were in their mid-eighties and my father almost into nineties? I said, I don’t think they really thought they were going to work. I think they found so much joy, which is different than fun, but they found so much joy in their work that it really wasn’t work. I think they really believed that God is in every interaction and that God is in not only this conversation; when you go to the restaurant, you talk to the waitress, God is in that interaction. I know it sounds a little corny. I’m not trying to evangelize to anyone here, but I think they really believed that every day was a chance to make the world a little bit better. That got them fired up. They went to mass for Catholics. They went to mass every day, got on their knees. They realized they weren’t God, which is a pretty big deal because I think a lot of people in America anyway, particularly men, think we’re God-like. We’re not. My mother and father knew it. They knew they needed help. They knew they needed their associates, they colleagues, people all to make the world a little bit better. Jeanne and I, my wife and I try to do that every day. We are not doing it. It’s a struggle. I think if you show that joy, your kids figure out what brings real joy and meaning into your life, at least I hope. I hope that they find work that is fulfilling and fulfills their souls as well because you’re going to pop out of bed if you’re doing that kind of work. If you’re not, you’re going to be dragging your butt around.

Zibby: It’s true. It’s a gift to be able to do what you love. It’s very energizing.

Mark: It’s huge. We try. I drive the kids nuts about five times a year. We go and pick up trash on the road right around the corner here. We recycle it. We compost in the backyard. I have a barrel that we put all of our vegetable scraps in, fruits and vegetables. There’s a powerful story the pope told about, when you see a homeless person, do you walk in the opposite direction or do you look them in the eye and give them a dollar or two dollars? Do you ask them their name? That had a profound impact on me about six years ago. I work in Washington, DC. For the most part, frankly, I tried to avoid homeless people. I thought, they smell. They’re mentally ill. I’m too busy because I got really important stuff to do at Save the Children. In reality, I’m not that busy. You can always take two minutes to be kind to people. You learn from them. We try to model that behavior with our kids as well. Slow down and appreciate the human being in front of you rather than think you’re more important or be nervous. My mother — then I’ll shush up, I promise.

Zibby: This is your interview. Don’t shush. People aren’t here to listen to me.

Mark: I’m rambling. My mom started Special Olympics. She would often have Special Olympics athletes over at our house playing games with us, playing sports. She had someone actually help in the house, Goldie, who had developmental disabilities. Some of my friends as we got older were like, “I don’t want to hang out with people who have developmental disabilities. I’ve never met anybody like that. What are they like?” It’s completely natural because we grew up with people like that. There were Peace Corps volunteers in our house. All of my family’s exposure to that, to those people of all different backgrounds, of all different skills, of all different nationalities almost became second nature just because my parents involved them in our lives. We try to do that with our kids as well, expose them to different faiths, expose them to people of different backgrounds, different colors. That’s what makes the world so exciting and joyful.

Zibby: Wow. I don’t know if you have met the author Kelly Corrigan or not.

Mark: Yes.

Zibby: Have you seen her book that’s coming out now? Are you doing an event together or something? You should.

Mark: We are not doing an event. She’s a pal. I’ve done a couple of events with her, and other speaking arrangements. She’s a pal. She actually blurbed this book on Amazon. You can see her endorsement of it. She’s wonderful. She sent me a copy of her book too. It’s fantastic. Sorry, I cut you off.

Zibby: No, no. I interviewed her yesterday, for the second time actually. I adore her. I feel like you used a different means to the same end. Her philosophy, still through kids, is asking questions because that’s how you get to know those people, the same people you’re talking about. Take it a step further. Find out about them. Then you’ll realize your commonalities or what’s interesting about them or whatever. I feel like these two books should be sold as a Raise Empathetic Kids package. If you want to raise empathic kids, take these two books.

Mark: Thank you. It’s a huge compliment for me. She’s a fantastic writer. She’s got so much positive energy as well. Thank you for reminding me. I’ll reach out to her. I haven’t talked to her in a couple of weeks. She’s right. My mom used to say that if you’re sitting with somebody and you find them boring, that’s your own fault because everybody’s got a great story. Everyone has got something to share. If you can’t get that from them, that’s because you didn’t ask a question. You weren’t curious enough. You weren’t that engaged. It puts a little pressure on you at cocktail parties or at dinners. She’s a hundred percent right. Everybody’s got a story wherever they’re from. Everybody’s got something that they can teach you and that we can learn from each other. You have to ask those questions. You have to be curious. You have to probe. That’s what makes it really fun. That’s what makes life fun. That’s why I think my parents were so joyful. My father not only asked questions, but he listened, which is really hard to do sometimes, Zibby, right? People, they want to tell you their answer right away. They want to jump in and interrupt you like I’ve done to you a couple times already. To really listen and to hear what people are saying from their perspective is hard. My father said it was the hardest thing to do. Learning these things from my parents is still so helpful in my life.

Zibby: First of all, I have to say, I’ve done 600-some-odd interviews, and I’ve never spoken to anybody who has spoken so much about their own parents as role models as you. Whatever they did, they did something right along the way. What a testament to their parenting and your relationship to have them so infused in every moment, so top of mind and everything. I’m sorry for the loss, that they’re not with us. It’s obviously a huge piece. In terms of asking probing questions, what am I missing about your life? What big thing did we not discuss? There must have been something, some moment, something somewhere that is part of your big story or small story.

Mark: It’s a great question. I didn’t have any life-changing experience like Saul on the road to Damascus, getting knocked off his donkey and seeing God. I’ve had a number of defeats, which I think I learn a lot from. You talked about the loss of one’s parents. So many of us have to go through that pain. They’re not physically here with me in this room. I got promoted up to our son’s room when he went back to college. They’re not in this house, but they’re in my heart. As I said earlier, you learn from them. I’ve learned from my defeats as well, as painful as they are. I ran for the United States Congress. I was in the Maryland State Legislature for eight years and ran for congress, lost a very, very close election, a couple thousand votes. That stung. Our boy at that point, Tommy, was six years old. I used to listen to U2, the band. They had a great song at that point called “It’s a Beautiful Day.” I used to sing it to him all the time. We walked out of the restaurant where we had breakfast the day after the loss. The wind was whipping. It’s chilly. Little Tommy had a lisp. He put his arms out and he stopped us, my wife Jeanne and I and our daughter Molly. Emma wasn’t born yet. He said, “Dad, it’s a beautiful day.” I’m like, you know what? It is. I lost yesterday. Today’s a beautiful day. It’s time to roll. If you can keep that every day is a beautiful day kind of thing going on — sorry, I get a little choked up when I think about that little kid. It’s a beautiful day. There’s pain in it. I’ll go back to Pope Francis for a second, Zibby. He talks about mercy. At first, I thought mercy was writing a bigger check, being nice to somebody. Really, what mercy’s about is accompanying people on their journey in life, to listen, to see the beauty in every interaction, and be with people in moments of joy, but also moments of sadness. Little Tommy at that moment was saying, it’s a beautiful day. Let’s roll. Let’s celebrate what we have. That was good. That’s good stuff.

Zibby: See, I wouldn’t have known that story. That was the greatest thing. That makes me rethink how I’m living my day today. It’s a beautiful day today. All the bad stuff, it’s all perspective.

Mark: It is. You’re right. It’s all perspective. We’re coming out of a tough twelve, thirteen, fourteen months here with a lot of pain, a lot of economic pain, a lot of emotional pain, a lot of racial pain. I think we can come out of this stronger if we all realize the pain we’ve been through collectively and work together rather than go back into our tribes or into our corner or be a democratic or a republican, or gay or straight, or conservative or liberal, all that. Labels are easy to assign to people. It’s knocking down those labels and really getting to know each other that’s hard. That hard work is joyful work. That’s beautiful. I think it is. I hope it is.

Zibby: It is. Yes, of course, and so important, essential. More than important, mandatory.

Mark: That’s what 10 Hidden Heroes is about. It’s really about trying to elevate those people who are doing that work. They don’t get paid a lot of dough. They don’t get to end up on the front page of the newspaper or on television. They’re doing the good, hard work of keeping our community whole. That’s what this book is about. It’s not a preachy book. It’s supposed to be fun, but to raise up those people and their work they do.

Zibby: Last question for you. What advice would you have for aspiring authors now that you’re a children’s book author, all of your other books, everything? What would your advice be?

Mark: It’s really hard work, as you know, Zibby. It’s tough. It’s lonely. I’m reading this book that Robert Caro wrote. It’s called Working. It’s really good. He’s written a couple of books in his life. They’ve all won the Pulitzer Prize. It took him years and years and years to write because he kept digging around asking questions, trying to get the full story to be as objective but as comprehensive as possible. It’s a lonely job. Somebody said to me once, everybody’s got a book in them. I’ve got a couple friends who have written and self-published. They don’t sell as many books as they want to sell. That’s okay because you’re getting your voice out there. If you have that story, you got to get it out of you. Sit down. Struggle with it. I wrote the book on a pad of paper and typed it up and then went through. Editing, editing, editing is relentless, eight, nine rounds of edits. Every word, if it’s written really well, makes a difference. In a children’s book in which there is literally forty or fifty sentences, every word makes a difference. I think that’s true if you’re writing forty words or fifty thousand. If you’re writing and you’re struggling, go for it. Keep at it. Stay positive. It’s hard. It can be really lonely. When you write something that you think is great, wow. For me, I don’t know that I’ve written anything great. I wrote the other books, wrote often Saturday morning at six o’clock in the morning and would come up at nine and be so fired up that ten sentences went together. My wife thought I was crazy. I guess I was because it’s just great to get that out of you, out of your heart, out of your soul. I hope if anybody’s watching who’s struggling in writing, stay at it because it’s worth all of the hard work. Don’t worry about how many people buy the book because that’s not really what it’s about. It’s about getting your thoughts on paper and leaving them forever, really.

Zibby: Is that all? Wow, Mark, thank you. Thank you so much for this really deep and emotional and meaningful conversation inspired by 10 Hidden Heroes. I’m not surprised, but delighted. Thank you for your time.

Mark: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it. I hope I’ll see you soon. Thank you.

Zibby: Me too. Bye.

Mark: Buh-bye.

Mark K. Shriver, 10 HIDDEN HEROES

10 HIDDEN HEROES by Mark K. Shriver

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