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UNESCO Webinar Inspires Empathy Event in Dover, Del.

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Several civically-minded universities held a webinar where they announced a new partnership. This project is centered around the role of empathy and kindness in global recovery amid the Covid-19 pandemic, severe political polarization, and racial injustice. Inspired by the discussion on the real impact of empathy and kindness, a local non-profit in Dover, Delaware is putting words into action.

During the webinar, which streamed live on @NUIGalway's Facebook page, empathy researchers shared findings from various studies and examined the impact of these findings for our world today.

Empathy, not to be confused with sympathy or pity, is “… the capacity to understand what someone is feeling. Empathy goes much further than pity, it is when you walk in their shoes…Empathy is what enables support to happen between people and between civic society, " said Dr. Pat Dolan, UNESCO Chair NUIG. 

Highlighted as a cornerstone of strong relationships, empathy can be learned and has real effects for our communities' well-being. Dr. Mark Brennan, UNESCO Chair Penn State stated, “community is just one big relationship and it thrives and grows when empathy is in it. The reality is from a tangible, practical, measurable sense, individuals in places that have more empathy they tend to have more fulfilled lives, they tend to take care of people better, they get through tough times but also create a place that's more caring and that there's more social support."

Caring for our neighbors and extending social support in our communities is always important, but right now it is essential as we continue to face the struggles of a global pandemic, continued racial injustice, and division along party lines. Dr. Kate Berardi shared that she has found that these acts of empathy and kindness go much deeper than surface-level and as such have been identified as “foundational in human well-being and foundational in navigating initial stages of disaster relief, limiting suffering, protecting the vulnerable, and building after crisis."  

This is a powerful finding with powerful implications. No matter your age, your circumstance, or your job, you play an essential role as a helper in your community—and the most powerful tool at your disposal is empathy. It is that simple, and that powerful.

No one is more famous for his recognition of the importance of 'the helpers' than Mr. Fred Rogers who famously recalled “when I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'" 

Dr. Dana Winters, who works at the Fred Rogers Center, provided insight into how all of us can make decisions and choices as helpers. She reiterated a piece of the final commencement speech that Mr. Rogers gave to a 2002 graduating class at Dartmouth College in which he challenged the graduates to "stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive: Love that conquers hate, Peace that rises triumphant over war, and Justice that proves more powerful than greed."

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A group of young men pose together.

​Green Beret Project volunteers and participants.

There was one man listening into the webinar who took these words to heart, and decided to do something about it. Justin Downen is an F.B.I. agent, former U.S. Army Special Forces Green Beret, and the founder of a non-profit organization in Dover, Delaware called the Green Beret Project (GBP). GBP works with young people from underserved communities to provide a variety of different programs including mentoring, tutoring, job and skills training, and CrossFit. Downen is supported in this work by a variety of partners from the local neighborhood, schools, and businesses. One essential partner to this work is Adam Kramer, who after serving a 7 year sentence for a drug crime has committed his life to helping young people identify their own unique gifts and thrive. 

Through a large network of community volunteers, the GBP works with young people and their families to support them in whatever they may need. As many social service organizations experience, it is often not easy to itemize all of their activities—they do what is necessary for the well-being of those they work with. That often means that Downen and GBP volunteers will babysit children so parents can work, cook meals to drop off when money is tight, and serve in the ever-challenging role of teachers-aid in virtual learning. This also has meant that families whose children are in GBP will help support the volunteers when they can, including babysitting for volunteers' kids when they are working on GBP duties.

In many ways GBP is constantly fulfilling its role as a 'helper' and doing so with empathy and compassion in Dover neighborhoods. Yet, after hearing about the expansive evidence on empathy during the webinar, Downen, whose rate of ideas and enthusiasm is only trumped by what he accomplishes in a day, decided to host an “Empathy Event." The Empathy Event, taking place on December 23​, will include a partnership of GBP volunteers and youth, the Dover Police Department, Delaware State Police, Delaware National Guard, and FBI agents who will distribute donations to four neighborhoods in the Dover area. These donations will include gifts for the holidays, food, and protective gear and safety supplies to fight against the spread of the pandemic. This event is an opportunity to put the evidence and ideas of the webinar into practice, and it brings together people from all over Dover to support one another at this challenging time.

Contact the GBP to get involved with the Empathy Event. 

The UNESCO Chair's Program promotes international cooperation and networking between universities in order to address significant social issues around the globe: https://en.unesco.org/themes/higher-education/unitwin

The webinar launched a partnership between the UNESCO Chair's Program at The Pennsylvania State University and the National University of Ireland at Galway, the Joseph R. Biden, Jr. School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Delaware, and the Fred Roger's Center at St. Vincent College. A full recording of the webinar is available: https://fb.watch/2rkJyyr_C9/

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