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Little by Little Fills the Big Tin:
Reflections on Leading a Hero’s Life

by | Jun 28, 2022 | Barron Prize Winner, Character Qualities, Guest Post

This month, we’re delighted to share inspiration from Ashley Shuyler Carter, one of our very first Barron Prize winners who now serves as a judge on our selection committee.

Ashley’s reflections are excerpted from a letter she recently wrote to a teacher and her class in Nigeria. The teacher had contacted us to share her young students’ study of heroes and to ask if they could possibly connect with one of our Barron Prize winners.

We knew that Ashley, founder of AfricAid, was the perfect, wise person to be in touch with them, and she embraced the opportunity. Below, she shares with the students her thoughts on the heroic potential in each of us and offers some tips for embarking on the hero’s trail.

Ashley Shuyler Carter

Ashley Shuyler Carter

I was honored to be one of the first recipients of the Barron Prize back in 2001 when I was 16 years old, soon after starting AfricAid. I started the organization after visiting Tanzania as a young girl, at the age of 11. During that trip, I met many young people my same age who did not have the opportunity to go to school, and I stayed in touch with many of them. Because I deeply valued my own opportunities for education, I decided to start AfricAid several years later with a mission of supporting girls’ education in Tanzania. Today, the organization supports mentoring programs for thousands of secondary school students across Tanzania.

My work over the past two decades has strengthened my belief that each of us really can act heroically to make a difference. In my experience, being a hero is all about having a big heart and noticing a need that exists in the world around you — and using the talents, interests, and resources you have to help meet that need. One of my favorite quotes that represents this is, “Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.” (Frederick Buechner)

In my opinion, anybody can be a hero and make someone else’s life a little better, or the world a better place. That may be simply by offering love to another person when it is needed. Or it may be by using a talent to create change on a larger scale. But all of us have the capacity to be a hero in someone else’s life. And it is the biggest gift to have the opportunity to play that role. For me, I have learned so much from all of my friends and partners in Tanzania. They have taught me about love, about laughter, about resilience, and about deep and lasting friendship. I am so fortunate to have been given the opportunity to develop relationships with so many people through my work with AfricAid.

That’s not to say that being a hero isn’t challenging. Often, trying to make the world a better place comes with setbacks or disappointments. For me, I was told by an adult when I was 11 years old that I was too young to make a difference, that the world’s challenges were too complicated. When I heard that, I spent some time crying and feeling helpless. But other adults in my life encouraged me, and I continued to believe that I could make a small difference in the lives of others, even if I couldn’t solve the biggest challenges in our world.

Ashley created AfricAid, a non-profit organization committed to helping African girls receive an education.

Ashley created AfricAid, a non-profit organization committed to helping African girls receive an education.

So I took a very small first step and asked friends and neighbors to contribute money to send just ten girls to school. One of my favorite Swahili sayings is, “haba na haba hujaza kibaba” — “little by little fills the big tin.” If I had focused on solving big problems or sending thousands of girls to school, I never would have taken that first, small step: raising money to send ten girls to school. Along the way, I learned that adults are often inspired to see young people trying to make a difference. And soon, I had lots of adults who believed in my passion for helping other girls have the chance to go to school. That helped me see that my youth could be an advantage — that it could inspire people in a way that some adults had trouble achieving.

It has taken over 20 years to grow AfricAid from that first small step into what the organization offers to thousands of young women today. Although it has not always been easy to remain patient, I have come to learn that lasting change takes time, patience, a willingness to learn and grow, and a deep well of love for others and the work you are doing.

To young people like my 11-year-old self who was determined to make a difference, I offer this: Believe that you can be a hero, and consider these ideas for getting started:

  • Find that place where your joys, interests, skills, and passions can help another person, a group of people, or the environment
  • See your youth not as a disadvantage, but as something that can be tremendously inspiring and insightful to others
  • Start with a first small step; don’t become overwhelmed by trying to solve all challenges at the same time, but see what you can achieve first by taking one small action, by showing one person compassion and kindness, by making the world around you just a little bit better
  • Although it’s challenging, remain patient! Your first attempt may not be successful, but you can always try again, knowing that heroes always make mistakes and experience setbacks along the way

The important thing is that you continue to hold love for others in your heart and believe that you have the ability to make the world a better place, one small step at a time.