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Special Event

Millennium 2000: Modern Day Heroes

Aired January 2, 2000 - 2:12 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JONATHAN MANN, CNN ANCHOR: You may not know their names or recognize their faces, they're just ordinary people like you and I. But what they're doing with their lives is extraordinary. Their unforgettable stories of generosity and vision will inspire you and touch your heart. They would say they're no one special. We'll let you decide whether they're the angels among us.

They're people you'll probably never read about in the papers, nor will your kids study their lives in history class.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: But they have contributed mightily and selflessly toward improving our way of life.

Anne McDermott introduces us to some of this century's unsung American heroes.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANNE MCDERMOTT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Frank Gorgie and his pals like to get together to swap war stories. And Gorgie, a World War II, has some good ones. He interrogated the infamous Rudolf Hesse.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Heil, Hitler.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MCDERMOTT: Other times, he'd slip into civvies, sneak behind enemy lines, risk his life to spy for his country. That's what they did in the super-secret U.S. Army counter intelligence corps. And nearly 60 years later, Gorgie still chokes up remembering himself as a young soldier who wasn't even allowed to tell his mother where he was.

FRANK GORGIE, WORLD WAR II VETERAN: And so it was, you know, it was heart-rending. Anyway...

MCDERMOTT: Anyway, he kept the secret of his service for years, at the request of the Army and also because he feared old enemies.

GORGIE: And they might come and get -- if they couldn't get me, they'd get my kids. So I figured, I'm going to wait and get married later. MCDERMOTT: Well, Gorgie waited until he was 50. And now, with the kids finally grown, he feels he can talk about the counter intelligence corps. And what he wants to talk about isn't the danger, but how he simply did his job.

GORGIE: I was very proud of it, because I felt I was completely trusted. You didn't get into CIC unless you were absolutely loyal to this country.

MCDERMOTT: Larry Aubry did a difficult job, too. He helped desegregate Los Angeles' Fremont High School back in 1947, because his mother wanted him to get the better education offered there. This contribution of Aubry's to civil rights never really became known, because Fremont didn't legally bar blacks. But Aubry knew they were not exactly welcomed.

LARRY AUBRY, WORLD WAR II VETERAN: I was at Fremont when Fremont -- when there were tar babies hung in effigy. I was there. There was only a handful of us there, right? They hung tar babies from trees, OK? And there were signs on the front: no niggers.

MCDERMOTT: Still, he found a place in the band and on the track team. But then as a senior, a counselor told him not to apply to college. Well, he did anyway -- and graduated. Fremont, it seems, taught him not to give up.

AUBRY: I went there and I did persevere, despite the odds.

MCDERMOTT: He's spent much of his life working in civil rights. His take on today?

AUBRY: It's not that we haven't made any progress, it's just that we haven't solved, by any means, solved the problems.

MCDERMOTT: Theo and Niko Milonopoulos have made a job for themselves, a difficult job of trying to get grown-ups to listen to them about this.

They remember how scared they were when two would-be robbers went on a shooting spree in North Hollywood near their home years ago. And they'll never forget the brutal killing of Ennis Cosby just a month before. Mostly, they remember the gunfire -- how it frightened, then angered them.

THEO MILONOPOULOS, CHILDREN'S ACTIVIST: We think that it's outrageous that we have to live like this.

MCDERMOTT: The twins, now 12, decided to do something. And figuring that banning guns in the city would never work, they are attempting to ban the sale of ammunition.

MILONOPOULOS: We, and thousands of other kids in our city, are afraid of being shot.

Stop the guns and bullets and killing of kids. MCDERMOTT: But getting officials to listen to kids who cannot vote isn't easy. But as they continue to speak out, they have begun to attract the attention and support of some grown-ups, like Lorna Hawkins.

LORNA HAWKINS, COMMUNITY ACTIVIST: I've lost two sons in 11 years, one to a drive-by shooting. They were looking for somebody else -- big deal -- and the other one to a car-jacking, where he was shot with a AK-47. Now I have no more sons. But there's a lot of other sons out here. There's a lot of other kids that need your help.

MCDERMOTT: The city police commission and police chief have already endorsed the measure, but it's the city council that counts, and Theo and Niko's plan might not get to them for months, if ever, and there's no guarantee their controversial plan would ever pass. But the kids won't give up, they say, because even as they've been working to stop shootings, shootings have continued.

MILONOPOULOS: If these bullets continue to be fired, there will be no future for us.

MCDERMOTT: They want a better future, just as frank Gorgie did, just as Larry Aubry did.

Anne McDermott, CNN, Los Angeles.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ALLEN: Inspired? Well, just ahead on our millennium coverage, we'll visit with the founder of an organization dedicated to assisting the poor and underprivileged.

MANN: Her work in the Middle East was born of her own tragic experience during the Second World War.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ALLEN: We are continuing our focus now on people who are devoting their lives to helping others.

MANN: One person who has overcome several enormous obstacles to become an inspiration to people is Trudi Birger. She's the founder of Dental Volunteers Israel, and joins us now from Jerusalem to tell us about her program and about herself.

Thanks so much for being with us.

You had a childhood of unspeakable horror, and yet you found a way to find love, and a life-saving kind of love, and courage it in. Can you tell us about that?

Trudi Birger, I'm not sure if you're hearing this, but the story you have to tell is so extraordinary.

TRUDI BIRGER, DENTAL VOLUNTEERS ISRAEL: Yes.

MANN: Do tell us about your childhood.

BIRGER: Yes. I am first a Holocaust survivor. I was brought up in Frankfurt, in Germany, a very spoiled girl and I fall into the most cruel life in the Hitler's time. Already, 1934, when Hitler took over, he already started to murder the Jews, the unguilty people, and we had an incident, and they wanted, the Nazis wanted to murder us in a Mercedes car.

Then already the parents had decided to escape, and we escaped to the Gangpanz (ph) to Mamel (ph), and from Mamel, Hitler was after us. And we had to -- we escaped to Kovno (ph), to Lithuania, the main city of Lithuania. And there, the Lithuanians and the Germans, they murdered the Jews in the most cruel way.

MANN: And you were put into a concentration camp, I gather.

BIRGER: Yes, later, First we have been in the ghetto Kovno and Slobotca (ph). And later, we have been taken to the concentration camp Strutoff (ph). There, I went through this horrible time. I explained in my book, "A Daughter's Gift of Love" -- which came out already in 14 different countries, translated, in 12 languages. It's very difficult now to talk about the whole story. But I was also in the crematorium. I was wounded at my left leg. And they decided to amputate the leg or to burn me down in the crematorium. So I was already inside before the oven. As far as people know, I'm only the one in the world who survived this time with a big miracle. I'm talking about it; in the book, I wrote about it. And I survived, and I have my leg today. And I'm here.

MANN: You are not only here, you not only have this extraordinary story of survival, but with your life, you have turned toward others, toward helping others. Tell us about the work that you have done, the help that you have shared with so many people.

BIRGER: Yes. I gave a vote to myself already in the concentration camp, that if I shall survive this terrible time, I would like to devote myself for children. And no child should suffer in life.

Whatever I did, I -- 35 years ago, when I was pregnant with my son, I adapted 50 families, and including 500 children. I helped them to become somebody. I helped them with the help of others. But in doing my daily visits to those families, I saw terrible dental problems, and we have to check ourselves; if we have pains, we have to go to a dentist. What about those poor people? Israel has no dental insurance and no preventive care is provided in any school system or in the television. So those poor people, what should they do if they have dental problems?

I understood that 1980, 20 years ago, the government closed all the dental clinics, and there was no way to get dental care, so I decided I'm going to establish a dental clinic, and...

ALLEN: And your work has done remarkable things for children there. I'm curious, after what you survived, you decided so early on to do good things with your life. Why do you think you didn't become angry and bitter toward people on the Earth?

BIRGER: Could you repeat your question?

ALLEN: Why do you think that you opened your heart after such a horrible experience? Many people become very bitter, and very angry, and that tends to dominate their life.

BIRGER: In contrary, I became very enthusiastic. I had such a desire to help poor people, and this gave me so much satisfaction that I'm happy every day that I could help so many people and so wonderful results I see.

So I was always optimistic, also in the concentration camp, and these are the reasons I'm going on to help, since 35 years I left my career as a microbiologist, and I am volunteering about 14 hours a day in order to help children and also their parents. In this children's dental clinic in Jerusalem, I started without a penny and without a dentist. And we are celebrating very soon 20th anniversary in an International Dental Congress. All dentists around the globe can come to celebrate with us, but we treated 40,000 poor children, Jewish and Arab children alike. Each side is a joy for us, and we treat every day about 150 poor children. So the children are referred to us by the social departments, from the old city and new city.

MANN: It is, of course, a new millennium. Do you have any wish, any hope for those children or for yourself for this new century?

BIRGER: I wish many people could follow my steps. First, I want to wish a happy New Year to all the people around the globe. And I think we have to consider, and to control ourselves, if we can do more, sure, everybody can do more. This is my message now to the world. There are so many rich people, and there are too many poor people. So let's stretch out the hands for the poor. And let's all help the poor and the sick people who are so lonely. And to think, every one of us can do the same, whatever it is.

MANN: Trudi Birger, in Jerusalem, we thank you so much for your story.

After a short break, we'll have more millennium 2000 coverage, including a talk with another woman whose own struggles have been a catalyst for helping others.

ALLEN: Her personal battle with a crippling disease is spurring her to write about individuals who suffered and are now part of the healing process. We'll meet her in a moment.

ANNOUNCER: Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Heroism feels and never reasons, and therefore is always right."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MANN: Our next guest is also a profile in courage, and really and extraordinary role model for others. ALLEN: After being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a decade ago, she has dedicated her life to helping others overcome personal setbacks. Jackie Waldman is the author of a book called, "The Courage to Give." And she joins us now from Dallas to talk about her story and her book.

Welcome and happy New Year, Jackie.

JACKIE WALDMAN, AUTHOR, "THE COURAGE TO GIVE": Happy New Year, Jonathan. Happy New Year, Natalie.

ALLEN: Thank you very much. Tell us how your life was before you were diagnosed.

WALDMAN: Before I was diagnosed, I was leading the seemingly perfect life. Ever since I was young, I depended on my legs, ballet, drill team cheerleading, dancing at my high-school prom with this great-looking guy who ended up becoming my husband, we danced at our wedding. And it was a very active life, jogging, aerobics, I started my own company. So my legs -- I really depended on them for my happiness, for who I was.

ALLEN: And how did you react when first told of your diagnosis of having multiple sclerosis?

WALDMAN: Natalie, I was devastated. I was so scared, so sad, so angry, and I decided that I was going to do everything in my power to get my legs back. I tried every treatment possible. We have been to doctors upon doctors. I tried conventional medicine. I tried alternative medicine, acupuncture, chiropractic, protein diets. We even traveled all the way to Israel to let me participate in a trial study.

ALLEN: And how are you doing today?

WALDMAN: I'm doing really well. But, the reason I believe that I turned the corner was the -- after Israel, when I got back and that treatment didn't work either, I was at my lowest point. And I thought I had tapped out all my reserves, physically, emotionally, my hopes were really down. But when I saw "Schindler's List," I realized the one reserve I hadn't tapped and that was within myself. And, seeing that movie really was my turning point.

MANN: It sounds like from there, at least in your book, that your legs were not healed, but your soul was, in a way, and that healing looked toward other people and what they were doing. Tell us about some of the heroes that you met.

WALDMAN: Well, the people in my book, they are my heroes, because these people all have had things happen to them, physically, or emotionally, and when they reach out to help others they have that courage to put aside their own circumstances and to be able to reach out and help someone else and make a difference, make our world better. And ultimately, they helped themselves. I read about these kind of people, I hear about a Trudi (ph) and I -- they're role models for me. I know I can do this. They even helped me believe that even though I may have a disease, or someone may have something happen to them, we all have something to offer.

A kind gesture, a kind thought, we're all capable. We all are worthy. And the really funny part about this whole thing is, when you can let go of that single focus you've got, I have got to cure my disease, and have the leap of faith to put it aside and reach out and touch someone else's life, so much comes back to you that you -- that soulful decision to reach out and help one other person becomes the best decision you could ever make in your whole life.

MANN: It can be life changing and it can start in small ways, which I suppose is the idea behind Random Acts of Kindness Week, which doesn't sound like much more than seven days of being civil, but tell us about it.

WALDMAN: Actually, it was a fabulous week in Dallas. We first started it -- Dee Silverstein (ph) and I co-founded it in 1995 right after "Schindler's List." And when we co-founded it, we had Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King III, and Dennis Weaver and Debbie Dimohammed (ph) come and help us in Dallas.

And let me tell you, our city rocked with kindness. It wasn't just a week of kind acts, which is what it looked like maybe, but it was a week affirming the power of having courage and being kind to each other, what that really can do. And police handed out kindness citations, the Dallas schools had a kindness rally for 10,000 school kids, police were just everywhere helping out, it was an amazing week.

ALLEN: Jackie, we are such a career-oriented success-driven society, talked about how you were before you were diagnosed. What do you say to the person out there says, you know, I would love to do something to help people, perhaps I would get a lot from that, but there is just not the time?

MANN: Don't have the time.

WALDMAN: OK. Here is what I would say, I would say two different things. The first thing I would say would be, we all can make the time, because there -- we have made it so easy. Now with the Internet and with the new millennium, we have such a great way to help you guys out. All you have to do is this. You can go to Ziv.org or Volunteermatch.com and you can find immediate worldwide volunteer opportunities and right in your own area.

You can begin the minute this show is over, you can go to the Internet and sign up to do something. A couple weeks ago, I threw this out and 18,000 people signed up in two weeks on Volunteer Match. I would say that if you take action to follow your heart's direction, and you do one kind small act don't -- it doesn't have to be grand -- one small thing.

You know, our hearts change according to not how much we do, but when we start to do, and if you can decide -- three questions, if you can answer these three questions, you will have a great volunteer experience, plus you will touch that one person. Ask yourself: Do you work best with people your own age, people younger, or people older? The second question is: Do you have a talent or a hobby that you can share? Something you love to do that you can share. It can be as simple as listening to someone, visiting with somebody, maybe you cook a great recipe.

The other thing that you need to ask yourself is: Is there an issue, today, that speaks to you? Education? Women's issues? Health issues?

If you can answer those three questions, then when you go to either call your volunteer center in your own local area, or United Way, or you log on to Ziv.org or Volunteer Match, or Surfnet.org is also a really good Web site, any of those that you log on to you will have an immediate opportunity. And, really, one kind act does make a difference. The stories in my book, I -- struggles become opportunities. These people know how to turn struggles into opportunities. There is a ripple effect that I have watched. It's amazing.

Also, just know that if you can take action to follow your heart's direction, you will have time with your job, you will have time with your to-do list, because, you have made a soulful decision and when you make...

MANN: People make resolutions all the time, every January 1, and some of them are small, and some of them are meaningful, and this is really what a new year, a new millennium, a new start is about.

Jackie Waldman, author of "Courage to Live," thanks so much for talking with us.

ALLEN: Thank you, Jackie.

WALDMAN: Jonathan, Natalie, thank you all.

ALLEN: Happy New Year.

WALDMAN: Happy New Year.

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