Mr. Rogers documentary imparts the power of kindness

By Marty Wiggins
Women’s Fund of Smith County

As you may know, 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the long-running PBS show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.  As part of marking this milestone, the feature-length documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” opened at limited theaters on June 8 to glowing reviews.  I checked the Rotten Tomatoes film ranking web site a few days later to find that the movie had achieved a 99 percent approval rating from the critics, and 98 percent from audience members.  I don’t think I’ve seen a more highly-rated film.

Fred McFeely Rogers – who became nationally beloved as “Mr. Rogers” – was born on March 20, 1928 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.  After earning a bachelor’s degree in music composition, he later graduated from Pittsburg Theological Seminary and was an ordained minister in the United Presbyterian Church.  He was drawn to children’s television not because he found it interesting or inspiring, but because he hated what was being broadcast to kids in the 1960s.

Rogers decided to do something about it.  The man ultimately known for his cardigan sweaters, tennis shoes and warm smile became an activist, embarking on a mission of love for preschool children through the medium of television.  Instead of talking down to kids, he worked to speak directly to them with the view that children are people with complex feelings.  He tackled difficult subjects, such as death and divorce, knowing that life changes affect kids just as much as adults.  He relayed that everyone is a special individual, and that acceptance and a sense of community are essential to life.

Fred Rogers died in 2003 at the age of 74.  So, what has sparked this national interest now in a man who reached out primarily to children from 1968 to 2001?  We all know that memories and images from childhood can stir up feelings, but the documentary’s clips of Mr. Rogers have evoked surprisingly deep emotions. As one reviewer of the Won’t You Be My Neighbor? stated, “The main goal is to convince us that while kindness and empathy are in short supply today, it need not be that way.”

As noted earlier, Fred Rogers was an activist, especially as viewed in the current façade of political correctness.  His messages based on the directive to love your neighbor reflect his belief that love is an overwhelming force that can unite the world.  He also continually reminded children and adults that each of us make choices in how we view our communities and each other.

On this point, Rogers said: “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility.  It’s easy to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’  Then there are those who see the need and respond.  I consider those people my heroes.”

Some of those heroes in my own life are the 270-plus members of the Women’s Fund of Smith County.  Through this charitable giving circle, women have a voice to together say: “It IS my child, it IS my community, it IS my world, it IS my problem.”

There is tremendous power in that collective voice, as Women’s Fund members pay annual pledges that subsequently fund grants to Smith County programs that enrich the lives of women and children, thus helping transform our community.  Since 2009, more than $1.4 million has been awarded to area agencies that are working to provide opportunities, care and hope for so many others.

Through the grants process, Women’s Fund members have the joy of seeing that “together is better” through the collective impact of their giving and grant-making votes.  Few of us alone could ever make a grant of $30,000 or $100,000, but we feel a personal connection to the grants awarded and the people served.  Equally important is the learning that is embedded into the grants process, as the Women’s Fund monitors the ongoing pulse of our community.

In short, the more we know, the more we can respond.  As Women’s Fund members, we are pledging our dollars and our responsibility to the women and children of our community and to addressing the problems they face.  It all comes down to caring.

For everyone who wants to make a difference, these words of a wise man should be considered:

“There are three ways to ultimate success:

The first way is to be kind.
The second way is to be kind.
The third way is to be kind.”

That man was Mr. Rogers.

--Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is playing in select theaters across the country this summer.  Watch for the DVD release in the months ahead.

 The Women’s Fund of Smith County is a giving circle of more than 270 women, who collectively provide high-impact grants that benefit women and children.  For information on membership, please call 903-509-1771 or visit www.womensfundsc.org.  Marty Wiggins is a Past Chair of the Women’s Fund Board of Directors and professionally provides fundraising counsel to charitable organizations.

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