Do you ever ask yourself, “Am I making a difference?”
Every once in a while, we meet someone who has made a significant, positive impact on the world. That happened for me recently, when I met Marion Stoddart. Marion is 83 years young. Fifty years ago, she was an ordinary housewife and mother of three in the ordinary town of Groton, Massachusetts when she wondered what she should do with her life. A recent transplant from Nevada, she felt very out of place in New England. But she was inspired to befriend the Nashua River, which at that time was named one of the top 10 most-polluted rivers in all of the United States. And oh, what a friend she became to the Nashua.
At first she was often known as “that crazy lady from Groton” who had the audacity to suggest that the mills and factories stop dumping sewerage and waste into the Nashua. She even received death threats. But she educated herself on water pollution, laws, policies and the legislative process. She educated others too, and found allies for her cause. In 1969 she founded the Nashua River Watershed Association, which became a model organization for similar environmental causes across America. It took countless meetings, mailings, phone calls and petitions over the next few decades to clean up the Nashua. It was anything but easy. But Marion persevered. She had vision, commitment and a knack for leadership.
Over time, she went from being known as a gadfly to being recognized as a pioneering environmentalist hero. She received the United Nations Environmental Programme’s Global 500 Award (1987), and was profiled in National Geographic (1995) as well as in an award-winning children’s book, A River Ran Wild, by Lynne Cherry. Furthermore, she was a National Women’s History Project Honoree as “One of the Women Taking the Lead to Save our Planet” (2009). She also founded a worldwide travel adventure business for women over the age of 40, one of the first of its kind.
Marion is one of those people whose life has made a big difference, in a positive way. Her life work continues to create ripple effects. The other day I was wondering, what would the Nashua River look like if not for her? Today that river is a source of recreation, a subject of community pride, and a home for lush vegetation and wildlife such as moose, mink, great blue herons, large-mouth bass, and countless other critters. Plus, how many people has she inspired along the way? Hundreds, if not thousands.
There’s even a documentary film about her and the river restoration, called Marion Stoddart: The Work of 1000. The filmmaker hired me to promote it; so, thanks to Marion, I have a consulting gig. Fifty years later, Marion is still making waves; nowadays her mission is to teach others her methods for successful civic engagement. Using the film as a springboard for discussion, she’s traveling to civic groups, high schools, universities and businesses across the US to share her leadership strategies. I know she is helping to shape the next generation of civic leaders; only time will tell what impact they will have on the world as a result of her influence.
Throughout my life I’ve yearned to make a positive difference, wherever I am. I’ve had high aspirations. And yet, many times I’ve had the feeling I am just a cog in the machine, or someone shoveling you-know-what against the tide. I bet that you, dear reader, have felt the same way at some point in your life. Sometimes that feeling is just a perception; maybe we actually are making a valuable contribution to our work, our family, and/or society. But sometimes I think we need to listen to that feeling because our intuition is telling us the truth.
When I’m not making a positive difference at work, home or in my community, it’s best for me to find a way out of that rut. Of course, that’s easier said than done; ego, fear or just plain fate often gets in the way. Sometimes I’ve chosen to move on, but other times The Universe gave me a serious nudge (case in point, when I got thrown from a horse two years ago, broke my back and was nearly paralyzed) or knocked me out of my orbit (when I lost a job).
Lately I am feeling more inspired than ever to make a difference. I am pursuing career opportunities carefully, so I won’t spin my wheels or waste my precious time (or anyone else’s). I want to create good, lasting ripple effects.
Thank you Marion, for being a role model and reminding me that one seemingly ordinary person can indeed make an extraordinary difference. There’s hope for me.