We tried something a bit different in choosing this year's Most Inspiring Person. In the past, we had two final selections--one made by Beliefnet's editors and one "people's choice" winner chosen by our readers. This year, the process was collaborative. The community and the editorial team nominated a large field of candidates, editors picked a slate of 12 inspiring people, then through daily votes on the site the readers narrowed down that field to the final three, and the editors made the final selection of Victoria Ruvolo.
The surprise was that, thus empowered, Beliefnet's readers systematically knocked all of the most famous candidates out of the running. Victoria Ruvolo, the Long Island woman who urged a judge to deal leniently with her assailant, got more votes than Rick Warren, the mega-preacher and best-selling author who is now giving away most of his money to help fight disease, illiteracy, and poverty in Africa. David Rozelle, an American soldier who lost his foot in Iraq and then returned to combat, beat out rock star-activist Bono, despite his work with world leaders to combat global poverty and injustice.
Of course, the perversity of this year's process is that it forced people to vote against some tremendously inspiring people: the Iraqi voters, who risked their lives for freedom on election day; Rosa Parks, whose pivotal role in the civil-rights movement was highlighted this year of her death; Akbar Ahmed and Judea Pearl, who have responded to the murder of Prof. Pearl's son Daniel Pearl by joining forces to teach interfaith understanding; Donyea Goodwin and Mable Brown, who showed both guts and compassion in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; and Amma, the spiritual leader whose acts of loving-kindness have generated so much to help the victims of the tsunami.
We were especially impressed by Capt. Ian Fishback, the West Point graduate who reported on prisoner abuse and torture in Iraq. Capt. Fishback faced a painfully difficult decision: If he went public, he risked rejection by his fellow soldiers and the end of his military career. But Fishback noted that the oath he had taken to uphold the Constitution was sworn before God, and so he had no choice but to speak out about the abuses. Significantly, his two biggest champions have been supporters of the war: writer Andrew Sullivan and Sen. John McCain, both of whom argued that degrading American values would harm, not help, our war on terror. "[Fishback] had the courage to stand up and say what he thought was best for his country," McCain told Beliefnet. "He had his country's interest above his own ambitions."
The three finalists selected by our readers Alex Scott, David Rozelle, and Victoria Ruvolo have one thing in common: Each was an "ordinary" person who, when faced with difficult circumstances, did extraordinary things. Each exhibited qualities we wish we had, but fear we don't.
If Victoria Ruvolo can manage to quell her anger, summon such wisdom, and sense gratitude in the wake of such a calamity, can't we do the same in less difficult situations?
When Alex Scott was four years old and battling cancer, she opened a lemonade stand to raise money for cancer research. Soon, her friends joined in and opened lemonade stands in her name. On June 12, 2004 she raised $40,000 at her stand and supporters around the country raised $220,000. A few weeks later, Alex died, but her cause didn't. Her parents set up a foundation to continue the child-led fundraising efforts for pediatric cancer research, which in 2005 raised $3 million. Her story begs us to ask ourselves: If one four-year-old child can do so much, can we really be pessimistic about our own ability to make a difference?
After Capt. David Rozelle lost his right foot in combat in June 2003, he'd certainly earned retirement and the nation's gratitude. But Rozelle wasn't done. He worked tirelessly in rehabilitation until he was so proficient using his prosthetic foot that he could compete in a triathlon. This year, he met another goal he'd set: returning to active duty to help Iraqis gain freedom and security. By going back to Iraq, he became the first amputee in recent military history to resume a dangerous command on the same battlefield on which he was injured.
But in the end, we selected Victoria Ruvolo of Lake Ronkonkoma, New York, as our Most Inspiring Person of 2005.
Part of what so moved us about Ruvolo was the excruciatingly random nature of her tragedy. It could have happened to any of us. Nov. 13, 2004, Ruvolo was just driving home from work when her world collapsed. A group of teenagers had stolen a credit card and gone on a joy ride with some of the items they'd bought. They thought it would be amusing to throw a frozen turkey into moving traffic. The turkey smashed through Ruvolo's windshield, shattering her face and nearly killing her. She spent a month in a medically induced coma, had extensive cosmetic surgery to reconstruct her face, and was released still dependent on a tracheotomy tube to breathe.
In the face of such suffering at the hands of another person, most of us would be filled with deep, unquenchable rage. Ruvolo instead consoled the teenager who had done this to her, Ryan Cushing. And on Oct. 17, 2005, at Cushing's sentencing, she asked the judge for leniency and read the following statement: "Despite all the fear and the pain, I have learned from this horrific experience, and I have much to be thankful for.... Each day when I wake up, I thank God simply because I am alive. I sincerely hope you have also learned from this awful experience, Ryan. There is no room for vengeance in my life, and I do not believe a long, hard prison term would do you, me, or society any good."
"Kindness and giving is the best way--you get so much more out of life when you give."--Victoria Ruvolo
She was firm with Cushing, pointing out that he deserved some punishment. She said she was giving him a second chance and challenged him "to seek an honorable life."
Ruvolo was raised a Catholic and describes herself as "a spiritual person." A lot of people say they're Christian or practitioners of a particular faith and yet few of us come close to embodying the ideals of our faith. Ruvolo is one of the most Christian Christians we've come across in ages.
"I want to see him grow up and become a good part of society. I always thought you treat people the way you want to be treated," she told Beliefnet. "Kindness and giving is the best way--you get so much more out of life when you give." Instead of dwelling on what she'd lost, she chose to focus on what she'd gained and to take strength from the blessings in her life.
Victoria Ruvolo's humanity puts everything into perspective. If she could forgive Ryan Cushing for what he did, can't we forgive our friends or enemies for wrongs much less heinous? If she can manage to quell her anger, summon such wisdom, and sense gratitude in the wake of such a calamity, can't we do the same in less difficult situations? We look at Victoria Ruvolo and we all feel ennobled, empowered, and grateful. That's why we choose Victoria Ruvolo as the Most Inspiring Person of 2005.