The Alana Shepherd effect: How kindness and grit changed the world

Mason Lecture speaker urges students to volunteer, ignore the naysayers and be kind in all endeavors

Matt Weeks | Feb. 25, 2019

Shepherd Center co-founder Alana Shepherd urged University of Georgia students to volunteer, rely on themselves and be kind in all they do — traits that helped her change the world. She delivered her remarks at the Mason Public Leadership Lecture Feb. 19 in the UGA Chapel.

Shepherd and her family co-founded Shepherd Center in Atlanta to treat spinal cord injuries. What began in 1975 as a six-bed rehabilitation unit has become a world-renowned, 152-bed facility on the cutting-edge of medical science.

But Shepherd was never content with only operating the center. She spent her life fighting for the recognition and rights of disabled people. Her advocacy resulted in the addition of lifts to the MARTA bus system, making Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport one of the country’s most accessible, and changing the funding and administration of the Olympic and Paralympic games forever.

She gave students three pieces of advice on how to live meaningful lives.

“First, I want you to enrich yourself, give of yourself, volunteer,” she said. “Often, we hear people speak of volunteering in terms of giving back, and truly all of us have that obligation to our community. But I hope you will understand that first and foremost through volunteering, you give to yourself. The excitement of new people, ideas, and challenges, and the joy of knowing something good and significant has taken place in part through your efforts only enhances your personal growth.

"If you are like society as a whole, there are some of you who volunteer a lot and many others who think it’s something you always meant to do. It’s time to turn those good intentions into action and make volunteering a lifetime practice.”

Shepherd, along with her husband Harold and son James, founded Shepherd Center after James suffered a paralyzing spinal cord injury in 1973. Frustrated by the lack of state-of-the-art rehabilitation care in the Southeast, the family galvanized support to open a specialty facility.

“When you get involved with a nonprofit, you can be sure that leadership opportunities will come your way. Step up to the ones that match your skills and give you a chance to grow new skills. Organize a fundraiser. Rewrite the bylaws. Serve on the board,” she said. “How we use time is nothing less than a mirror of our deepest and dearest priorities, and that’s a mirror we all need to look into on a regular basis.”

Shepherd’s second piece of advice was aimed at female college students in the audience, but she implored men to consider it as well. 

“To you young women, I urge you to take charge of your own lives, be in command of your own affairs, be prepared to support yourselves,” she said. “Forge ahead toward your own goals, not stridently but with a gracious determined confidence that goes much further than shrillness or belligerence ever will.”

Shepherd also told students how she fought to bring the 1996 Paralympic Games to Atlanta. Her efforts led the International Olympic Committee to decree all cities seeking to be the site of future Olympic Games must include plans and proposed financing for the Paralympics as well as access to the same sites and athletic facilities.

Finally, she challenged students to be compassionate in the face of adversity.

“Be kind and caring in all that you do, even when it’s not needed or comfortable. Let me be more precise: There are going to be times in your life when someone goes through a tragedy, maybe a death in the family, an accident or injury, or some other desperate situation that seems awful and is awful. You may be caught between the feeling that you ought to do something and the fear that you don’t know what to say or you might make a fool of yourself,” she said. “Nobody expects you to bring pearls of wisdom. You don’t have to spend hours, just a few minutes will do. And you don’t have to come every day, just often enough to keep in touch.”

The results, she said, will speak for themselves.

“When you’ve done enough to touch somebody’s life, you’ll have the most amazing mix of feelings,” she said. “There’s power in your presence. You have no idea how much.”

The Mason Public Leadership Lecture is supported by a grant from Keith Mason, an alumnus of UGA’s Terry College of Business and School of Law who serves as principal for KWM Capital Management in Atlanta. The lecture features prominent business leaders who have contributed significantly to their communities or spent time in a public service role.

It is part of the Terry Leadership Speaker Series presented by the Terry College’s Institute for Leadership Advancement. The institute was established in 2001 to develop values-based, impact-driven leaders who serve their communities and organizations.


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