10 Reasons to Love Our Country

What makes America so great? Discover our country's strength, spirit and goodness through these amazing individuals.

By Reader's Digest Editors
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    Best Green Speed Demon

    "Life is short. Race hard. Live green." Leilani Münter's motto sets her apart from the race-car pack, as does her champion status and distinction as one of her sport's few women. "You can care about the earth and love fast cars too," she says.

    Münter, 33, who's both a stock-car and open-wheel driver, has made it her mission to "green" big-time auto racing -- which, at 100 million strong, may have the most enthusiastic fan base on the planet. Her goals: renewable biofuels and recycled tires for the cars and recycling programs at the tracks. For doubters, she has a message: "Never underestimate a vegetarian hippie chick with a race car."

    Not at 200 mph, certainly.

    Münter raced horses as a kid in Minne­sota. "I've gone from one horsepower to 800," she jokes. She studied biology at the University of California, San Diego, where after class she'd drift down to an old stock-car track and a friendly team owner who encouraged her to drive.

    She began her racing career in 2001 and has racked up 28 top-ten finishes.

    Before every contest, she buys an acre of rain forest ($100 from the World Land Trust) to compensate for the 22 gallons of fuel she uses per race. She has also climbed a 252-foot windmill in Abilene, Texas, to push for alternative energies and spoken to the Cleantech conference in Washington, D.C.

    If she wins her points on biofuels and recycling, she says, she'll pursue another dream: to speed around the track in an electric car, currently not allowed.

    Crazy? "The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world," she says, "are the ones who end up doing it."

    Best Call to Duty

    Why would a 52-year-old husband and father of three trade a private cardiology practice in Dallas for an Army medic tent in the Middle East? Jerry Grodin's family and friends were puzzled. But for Grodin, it was always in the cards. He'd wanted to enlist since he was a boy, inspired by his grandfather, a Jewish immigrant from Poland who took in soldiers during World War II, and his father, who fought in that war. "I grew up believing that there is no purer citizen than the citizen soldier," Grodin says. "You have to do something bigger than yourself."

    Medical school had kept him out of Vietnam, as had his young children during the Gulf War. Then came 9/11. "I thought, If I don't do this now, I'm never going to do it," says Grodin. In Iraq, over three tours of duty, he treated mass casualties as bombs exploded nearby -- saving limbs, hearts, and lives in 36-hour stints.

    "If my grandfather knew how I had served my country, he would be filled with pride and love," Grodin says. "Back home since January, he knows his father and grandfather were right. "The people I served with, made me a better person."

    Best Twist on Outward Bound

    Validus Preparatory Academy, a public high school in New York City's South Bronx, takes a get-up-and-do-it approach to learning—and life. When studying evolution, ninth graders examined cell phones from the past 20 years to see how features have adapted. Outdoor science and social studies classes may have kids testing water in the Bronx River or mapping the history of a nearby park. In an area with soaring rates of asthma and diabetes, students get a gymful of cardio equipment.

    Validus, founded in 2005, is an Expeditionary Learning School, affiliated with Outward Bound and funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In June, the first class of seniors graduated, with 80 percent expected to receive diplomas and many bound for college. That's a proud accomplishment in a city with a 55 percent graduation rate and a neighborhood among the country's five poorest congressional districts.

    The hands-on method is key, but so is school size. With only 432 students, Principal Brady Smith knows everyone. "Crews" of students and advisers meet four times a week. Social worker Andrea Hines is "like our Dr. Phil," says Thaddius Mcfarlan, 15—able to solve any problem.

    "This school feels like a family," says Juliris De La Rosa, 18, a 2009 grad who's headed for Lehman College. "The teachers push you to figure out what you want to do in life. They even help you find a summer job." Adds Ahmed Hunt, 19,?"I think they'd probably find a kidney if you needed one."

    Pictured above are education all-stars De La Rosa, Smith, Hines, Hunt and Mcfarlan.

    Best Plunge

    Ten years ago, Cody Unser was playing basketball when she fell short of breath, developed a crushing headache, and felt her legs grow numb. The next morning, she was paralyzed from the chest down. The diagnosis: transverse myelitis (TM), an autoimmune disease similar to multiple sclerosis.

    Unser, now 22, approached her disability with a maturity beyond her years. "Being paralyzed at 12 gave me the gift of discovering what I'm capable of," says Unser, the daughter of race-car champion Al Unser Jr.

    At 13, she launched the Cody Unser First Step Foundation, which raises awareness of TM and funds research on paralysis.

    The same year, she went scuba diving for the first time. Something clicked as she felt her body become weightless in the water, and she decided to help others experience the same freedom.

    In 2002, she started Cody's Great Scuba Adventure, which organizes diving trips for people with disabilities. The program's military branch, Operation Deep Down, trains and certifies disabled veterans. "I'm an accidental philanthropist," she says.

    If Unser does move her legs someday, she has three wishes: "Walk on the beach and see my footprints in the sand. Dance to ZZ Top's 'She's got legs, she knows how to use them.' And jump on my bed again."

    Best Farmer's Friend

    Three questions for Willie Nelson, singer, songwriter, and cofounder of Farm Aid, which has raised $33 million since 1985 to support independent farms. Nelson will headline the 22nd annual Farm Aid concert this fall.

    Q.If you could correct one misperception about family farmers, what would it be?

    A. That they all live in the Midwest. Farmers are everywhere -- urban, rural, and suburban -- and they all need us to buy the food they grow, or they won't survive.

    Q.What was your reaction when you heard that the new White House chef, Sam Kass, is a big fan of using locally grown food?

    A. I think it's wonderful that the Obamas are serving fresh, local farm food. But I'm looking beyond the White House. I'm looking for this administration to help ensure that everyone has access to fresh food -- and that we have family farmers on the land to grow that food for us.

    Q. What can the average person do to support family farms?

    A. Find farmers in your community and buy from them directly so there's no middleman. Take your kids to a farm so they won't think food comes out of a box. Tell your town's supermarkets and restaurants you want to eat food that's grown nearby, and let your local school know you want your kids to eat family-farm food. Tell your politicians too. We all need to work together.

    "Family farmers are a national resource. They're great Americans and true heroes." -- Willie Nelson

    Best Science Project

    Dr. Susan Love, 61, thinks studying women (who get breast cancer naturally) instead of lab rats (which don't) holds the key to not only curing but preventing the disease. "People say, 'Oh, breast cancer will always be with us.' Why? Why does it have to be?" she says.

    So Dr. Love -- surgeon and bestselling author of Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book -- launched the Army of Women, which aims to change the focus of breast cancer research with one million healthy women volunteers. Healthy people are hard to recruit, but they're needed to understand the disease. "We keep looking at the same risk factors, as if one more look will tell us something new," she says. "We're like the guy looking for his keys under the lamppost because that's where the light is."

    More than 275,000 women have signed up online, where scientists can tap them for studies -- fast. Within a week of sending out an e-blast seeking 5,000 women with a sister who'd had breast cancer, researchers had 2,400 volunteers, something that would've taken the usual scientific channels four months. A second e-blast filled the quota. Says Dr. Love, "That's the way we're going to change things for the next generation."

    Best Movie With a Mission

    Three college friends from San Diego headed to Africa in 2003 with a camcorder and a vague plan to make a movie. Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole, then 24, 21, and 19, created a movement instead.

    "We thought our film would be about despair, but what we found was hope and joy," Jason Russell says.

    Every night in northern Uganda's Gulu district, they saw the streets fill with barefoot kids carrying mats on their heads. Some 30,000 night commuters walked three hours to find a safe sleeping place far from the rebels -- other children who had been abducted and trained to kill by the Lord's Resistance Army, a guerrilla movement seeking to overthrow the government. Masses of sleeping kids, filmed from overhead, became a central image in the resulting 55-minute documentary, Invisible Children.

    Back home, most viewers asked one thing: "How can we help?"

    The guys then established a nonprofit group and sent out volunteers to screen the film at high schools across the country. In six years, they've raised more than $20 million -- almost entirely in donations of $20 or less. The money has paid for scholarships, housing, and an awareness campaign. U.S. students also traveled to Gulu to help rebuild schools. "Thanks to the young Americans who were inspired by the movie," says Russell, "the children of Gulu are no longer invisible."

    Best Unsung Heroines

    The 1,102 fliers in the Women Airforce Service Pilots logged 60 million air miles testing bombers and transporting troops from 1942 to 1944. Still, they received little recognition for helping the United States win World War II. The 38 women who died in training accidents or crashes weren't awarded medals; the government didn't even pay for their funerals, because, officially, they weren't part of the military.

    It's different now. The Air Force began integrating female pilots into its ranks in 1976. And this year, the 17 women in the U.S. Senate cosponsored legislation that would award the Congressional Gold Medal to the 300-some women pilots who are still alive and to the rest posthumously.

    Former WASP Betty Blake (pictured above with an Air Force captain), 88, thinks a medal would be nice. But it's the memory of her service that matters most. "I was so excited to fly those beautiful planes," she says, "and to be able to do some good during the war."

    Best Acts of Kindness

    Debbie Tenzer got tired of hearing friends bemoan the state of the world. "Instead of worrying about big problems I couldn't solve, I decided to look for the small ones I could solve," says Tenzer, 55. Now, every Monday on her website, doonenicething.com, she recommends a good deed and profiles people who do them.

    She's onto something: Not only has her "kindness movement" attracted followers in 90 countries since 2005, but recent studies show that giving to others releases the hormone oxytocin, a natural joy booster and stress buster. Three kind acts from her new book, Do One Nice Thing:

    For wounded soldiers: Send a handwritten postcard for them to read upon arrival at the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. Mail yours to 21st TSC, Medical Transient Detachment, Attn: Soldiers' Angels, Unit 23203, APO AE 09263.

    For the planet: Save landfill space by recycling used library, membership, and gift cards instead of throwing them away. Send them to Earthworks System, c/o Halperin Industries, 25840 Miles Road, Bedford, Ohio 44146.

    For sick kids: Comfort them with DVDs when they're undergoing chemotherapy and other treatments in pediatric hospitals. Send movies to Kid Flicks/Barta, 11755 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1450, Los Angeles, California 90025.

    Best Group Service Project

    We've got to do something, Randy Thomas thought as he stood in a dingy corridor of Beaumont Middle School in Portland, Oregon, watching downcast students shuffle by. "It was the looks on the kids' faces," says Thomas, the district's maintenance director. "They just weren't excited."

    How could you blame them? Budget cuts had winnowed his staff from 26 to two. Stairwells and classroom walls were stained, faded, and peeling; weeds and grass had run wild outside.

    Thomas approached the district bosses and his parish's pastor, and that summer, 1,200 volunteers from his church converged on Beaumont with rakes and paint. "I got there when school opened that year," Thomas recalls. "The kids were all shocked, saying, 'Who did this?'"

    That was just the beginning. Thomas approached local evangelist Luis Palau, a Billy Graham protégé with connections to congregations throughout the city. With Palau's backing, Thomas's humble idea has blossomed into a citywide endeavor -- called Season of Service -- with five main targets: homelessness, the environment, public schools, hunger, and health.

    Last year's six-month project mobilized 550 local churches, 68 nonprofit organizations and local businesses, and 27,000 volunteers to tackle 300 community projects.

    The 2009 season is in full swing. "I've been around a long time, and I have to tell you," says Mayor Sam Adams, "this is very inspiring."

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