Discovering the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes

Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes

Women have gone largely unnoticed for their contributions throughout history. We all know of famous ones such as Marie Curie, Susan B. Anthony, and Eleanor Roosevelt. However, there are a lot more that are lesser known or non-existent in history books. The Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes is trying to remedy that with one student project at a time.

Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes

With a unique project-based learning approach, Lowell Milken Center works with educators and students to help them discover, develop, and communicate the stories of Unsung Heroes that have achieved great things or committed acts of bravery or self-sacrifice. Yet, they are not celebrated or recognized. What these young students can find, assemble, and articulate is amazing. Very impressive! Walk through the Hall of Unsung Heroes at Lowell Milken Center in Fort Scott, Kansas, to experience the inspirational stories the world needs to hear about.

What is an Unsung Hero?

Have you ever wondered what an Unsung Hero is? Is it someone who does a good deed or saves a life? Maybe, but a lot more goes into being an Unsung Hero. An Unsung Hero is an individual who is largely unrecognized by society for taking extraordinary actions that improved the lives of others and that made a profound and positive impact on history. Do you know one?

What is the Lowell Milken Center?

It all started in 1999 when a group of students at Uniontown High School in rural Kansas discovered then-unknown Holocaust heroine Irena Sendler. This Polish Catholic social worker rescued over 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. The students wrote a play about Sendler called “Life in a Jar” that has since been performed over 350 times worldwide. They have worked tirelessly to spread Sendler’s legacy, reaching millions of people and leading to her 2007 nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. You can read more about the role model Irene Sendler has become below.

Inspired by Sendler’s courage and the young students who championed her, international businessman and philanthropist Lowell Milken partnered with award-winning educator Norm Conard to establish LMC in 2007. One of the original students from the “Life in Jar” project, Megan Felt, now serves as LMC’s Program Director. Today the Lowell Milken Center is an international education leader that works with K-12 students and adults alike to create positive change by promoting respect and understanding. To date, the Lowell Milken Center has reached over 30,000 schools and 3,050,000 students.

Lowell Milken Center For Unsung Heroes sign

“Real heroes tower and guide. They are the North Star that today’s youth can look up to. But their stories need to be discovered and heard. And when we do, we have the opportunity to motivate new generations to aspire to values that are essential during the challenging times we face individually, as a nation, and as a world community. That is the purpose of the Center for Unsung Heroes.” – Lowell Milken founder

Lowell Milken Center’s Hall of Heroes Museum is a fabulous place to visit, with exhibits that will knock your socks off. Located in historic Fort Scott, Kansas, LMC showcases the top Unsung Hero Projects through interactive multimedia exhibits that allow visitors to engage with some of history’s most inspiring stories and lessons. When people discover the stories of ordinary men, women, and children whose actions have bettered the world, they learn how one person can make a difference. They also have events you can go to, like Star Night in the park and openings of project displays where they bring in the unsung heroes or their families if they pass away.

Unsung Hero Projects

Hall of Unsung Heroes in Lowell Milken Center

The mission of Lowell Milken Center is to empower students to discover and share stories of individuals who have made a significant positive impact on the world but whose contributions have been overlooked or forgotten. They do this through the Unsung Hero curriculum, which offers a variety of resources and support for educators, including lesson plans, professional development workshops, and classroom visits from Milken Educators, a group of distinguished teachers who have been recognized for their excellence in education. Student project leaders creatively communicate an Unsung Hero’s story – through performances, documentary films, websites, exhibits, and art projects – to inspire others to take actions that honor the hero’s legacy.

LMC operates several programs that engage students in research, writing, and multimedia projects highlighting unsung heroes’ accomplishments. The flagship program is the Discovery Award, which challenges students to research and produce a documentary or performance about an unsung hero. The winning projects are showcased at the center’s annual Discovery Awards ceremony, where students can meet and interview their heroes. The center has recognized and celebrated many unsung heroes, including Holocaust survivor and activist Elie Wiesel, civil rights leader Claudette Colvin, and environmentalist Wangari Maathai.

The Unsung Heroes featured throughout the museum have been chosen from hundreds of projects and represent diverse subjects and fields of study. Each Unsung Hero was an ordinary person who faced a difficult choice that tested their moral character and chose to take actions that improved the lives of others. These actions serve as a lasting testament to the power and responsibility each of us has to make a positive difference in the world around us.

Little Rock Central High School Project Display

The museum has a tremendous impactful and emotional history in the project boards on display. Some of the projects I will be telling you about are about women who have significantly impacted the world in one way or another. However, many other projects and displays are a must-see when visiting the Lowell Milken Center. One of the standout displays is the Little Rock Central High School Project Display. Most people would consider the Little Rock Nine, the heroes. But if you ask them, they would say the heroes for them were Ken Reinhardt and Ann Williams, the only two students who befriended the Little Rock Nine. This is a stirring presentation of how these two young people went against the norms to be the best humans possible in a difficult environment and time.

Humans aren’t the only ones that can be Unsung Heroes. Have you ever heard of Sergeant Stubby? Sergeant Stubby is a dog that braved 17 WWI battles, saving many Allied soldiers’ lives with his actions. Rewarded for his courage, Sergeant Stubby is the most decorated animal in American military history.

These and all the other projects show us the power of one person. This couldn’t be more evident than in the Adam Shoemaker Project. Have you heard of Adam Shoemaker before? Probably not. Adam Shoemaker was a teacher, preacher, and ardent abolitionist. In 1816 he was a preacher at the Little Pigeon Baptist Church near Tell City. On the pulpit, Reverend Shoemaker would give fiery speeches railing against the injustice of slavery. Who happened to listen intently to these church sermons was no other than Abraham Lincoln after Lincoln’s family moved to Indiana in 1816.

Young Abe would listen and then go home and stand on a stump reciting Reverend Shoemaker’s sermon word-for-word to the children in the neighborhood that couldn’t attend church. In 1860, eleven years after Reverend Adam Shoemaker died, Abe Lincoln was elected President and abolished slavery in 1865. History books never credited Shoemaker directly. However, it is clear that the interactions Lincoln had with Reverend Shoemaker influenced him and directly impacted his views on slavery showing that one person can make a difference and change the world. You never know what impact you have and the legacy you leave behind.

“You can’t teach empathy; it comes through experience. The power of these Unsung Heroes projects is beyond anything else…”

Life in a Jar: The Irena Sandler Project

Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project

Walking into the Warsaw Ghetto display is like stepping into one of the worst times of humankind and finding a ray of hope. Unsung Hero Irena Sendler was a Catholic social worker who risked her life over and over to rescue 2,500 Jewish children during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw in World War II. Each panel in the display details how the Life in a Jar Project started, the courageous details of Irena Sendler’s life, how she created her network, and her thoughts reflecting on the Life in a Jar project and her legacy.

Irena was an amazing woman raised by an amazing father. Her dad told her before he died, “If you see someone drowning, you must jump in to save them, whether you can swim or not.” She would continue living according to his example of helping others. At the age of 29, she was working for the Social Welfare Department. When the Nazis invaded Warsaw in 1939, horrified by their treatment of Polish Jews, she recruited 24 women and one man to her network. She immediately began offering food and shelter to Jewish people.

When the Warsaw Ghetto was constructed in 1940, the Nazis packed over 450,000 Jewish people into 1.3 square miles surrounded by 10-foot-high walls topped with barbed wire and guarded by Nazi soldiers with orders to shoot escapees on sight. Irena worked tirelessly to rescue children from the Ghetto, smuggling them out through courthouse or sewer tunnels, sedating the child and carrying them out in a sack, or hiding them in an ambulance as she disguised as a nurse. In Poland, helping a Jewish person carried a death sentence. But despite the risks, Irena and her network defied the Nazis. Once they removed the children, they were given false identities and placed in non-Jewish families or hid in convents and orphanages in Warsaw with the understanding that they were to be returned to Jewish relatives after the war.

“Every child saved with my help and the help of all the wonderful secret messengers is the justification of my existence on this earth, not a title to glory.” – Irena Sendler

Life in a Jar Apple Tree Tribute

Irena continued to rescue children until the summer of 1942. Irena made lists of the children’s real names and new identities on thin tissue paper and hid them in jars, which she buried under an apple tree across the street from the German barracks. Can you imagine the heartbreaking agony those parents endured to give up their child to a stranger in hopes of saving them from death camps during the Holocaust?

After this, Irena joined the Polish underground resistance group, Zegota, to continue helping Jewish families. On October 20, 1943, the Gestapo found Irena and took her to jail, where she was brutally tortured for Zetoga leaders’ names, which she refused to give up. She received a death sentence and stayed in prison for weeks with fractured legs and feet from the beatings. The night before she was to be executed by a firing squad, she escaped with the help of a German guard bribed from Zegota. The next day posters went up throughout the city saying Irena had been shot. Can you imagine reading a poster saying that you had died?

Milk Jars from Irena Sendler

When the war ended, Irena came out of hiding and dug up the jars to find the children and locate living relatives. Unfortunately, most of those family members perished in the death camps. Irena always wondered if she had done enough.

After the three high school students had written a play about Irena called “Life in Jar,” which has been performed hundreds of times around the world, they decided to find her final resting place. Surprisingly to them, she was still living in Poland. Irena’s story was buried due to the 50 decades of living under Communism. The students raised the money to travel to Poland to meet Irena in May 2001, and this broke the story to the world.

“Before the day you wrote the play ‘Life in a Jar,’ nobody in my own country and the whole world cared about my person and my work during the war.” – Irena Sendler

Since the “Life in a Jar” project began, there have been more than 2,500 stories in the media about Irena and the students, and now over 80,000 websites mention Irena. In 2007, thanks to the students who shared her story with the world, Irena was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. By 2016, 40 schools in Poland were named after Irena, nine worldwide, and even three in Germany. Irena lived until the age of 98, but before that, people from Lowell Milken Center met with Irene to interview her, talk with her, and listen to her stories.

Irena Sendler's Legacy Quote

Irena Sendler and her network saved thousands of children who would go on to lead full lives, get married, have children, and contribute to society. This is the ripple effect: each life saved impacted many others. You can read several moving stories of children that were saved by Irena, including Elzbieta, who was smuggled out at five months old in a carpenter’s toolbox and years later became Irena’s main caretaker during her last remaining years. Every story deserves to be heard and told!

The Jackie Ormes Project

The Jackie Ormes Project

Jackie Ormes is the first female African American cartoonist. She worked as a cartoonist for the Pittsburgh Courier and Chicago Defender. Jackie’s cartoons, Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger and Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem, portrayed the real-life struggles of racial segregation and discrimination for Black people. Her characters exhibited empathy and humor, challenged segregation, and advocated for equal treatment of African Americans.

Jackie also addressed misconceived portrayals of Black people as having large heads, big lips, huge eyes, and extremely black skin. Her cartoons depicted black characters realistically. She was also a big proponent of women’s rights, showcased in her comic Torchy in Heartbeats, where she defined women as strong and willing to stand up against sexual harassment and unwanted male advances. Jackie Ormes addressed social injustices through her cartoons and inspired the beginnings of a movement for racial and gender equality.

Kansas Unsung Heroes for Equality

Kansas Unsung Heroes for Equality

After the Civil War and the ratification of the 15th Amendment, women were still unable to vote. For African American women, suffrage was more difficult because they fought for gender and race. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are the most known woman suffragists, but a few unsung heroes must also be known. Mary J. (Mamie) Dillard’s and Caroline (Carrie) Langston Hughes’ courage and perseverance lifted women of every color on the long climb to the 19th Amendment.

Mamie Dillard was the only Black student in her Lawrence High School graduating class, which propelled her passion for equal rights. She participated in several powerful women’s clubs like the WCTU and Delta Sigma Theta Black sorority, fearlessly recruiting supporters, participating in marches, and speaking at national conferences. She dedicated her life to standing up for equal rights, which paid off when Kansas ratified the 19th Amendment in 1912, enabling her to vote in the 1920 election.

Similarly, Carrie Langston Hughes was a powerful advocate for women’s rights. Her avenue for fighting social justice was through American Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and Black Women’s clubs, using her skills as a talented writer and speaker. She wrote for multiple newspapers as a progressive firebrand fighting the “male perception” that women were content with their lot. Carrie believed that Black women could be a political force when allowed to vote, and she was able to do that in 1920.

The Mother Mary Bickerdyke Project

The Mother Mary Bickerdyke Project

Mary Bickerdyke was a Civil War nurse who revolutionized wartime medical care. She followed the Union Army of General Ulysses S. Grant down the Mississippi River, setting up hospitals as needed, and even joined William Tecumseh Sherman’s Union Army for its marches to Chattanooga and Atlanta. During the war, Mary created 300 field hospitals with improved care.

She was committed to improving hospital materials and instruments and providing better care and nutrition for soldiers. This impressed the military’s senior ranks so much that when staff complained about the outspoken insubordinate female nurse who consistently disregarded the army’s red tape and military procedures, General Sherman would say, “She outranks me.” Mary’s tireless zeal in providing a major change in the care of the battlefield soldier earned her the nickname “Cyclone in Calico.”

The Therese Frare Project

The Therese Frare Project

In 1990, when public hysteria over the HIV/AIDS epidemic was at its height, a young Ohio University photojournalist student named Therese Frare decided to document the disease for her master’s project. She encountered roadblocks in finding patients willing to be photographed, as they were often treated inhumanely because of public fear and lack of knowledge about the disease. Therese Frare started volunteering at an AIDS hospice called the Pater Noster House.

She befriended Peta, an HIV-positive caregiver looking after a gay activist David Kirby. He was willing to be photographed as long as she promised never to profit from the photos. On the day that David died at 32, his mother asked Therese to take photos of his loved ones saying their final goodbyes. She stood in the corner of the room, observing the family’s intense private goodbyes and watching David take his last breath and whisper, “I’m ready.”

The iconic last image was published in November 1990 in Life magazine, allowing America to witness the love and compassion behind a terrifying disease. Two years later, with the blessing of David’s family, United Colors of Benetton used a color version of the photo in an ad campaign to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS, which sparked a massive controversy. The “photo that changed the face of AIDS” caused people worldwide to confront the human cost of the disease and examine their prejudices toward the gay community.

Therese’s photograph has been seen by over one billion people twice in Life magazine (1990 and 2010), the widely-circulated Benetton ad, and hundreds of newspaper, magazine, and TV stories worldwide. Frare’s courageous and compassionate actions helped humanize a marginalized group that suffered violent discrimination and isolation. And keeping her promise to David, Therese did not profit from the photo and donated all proceeds to AIDS research.

Story Boards in the Lowell Milken Center Park

Lowell Milken Center Garden Park

One of the newer additions to Lowell Milken Center is its beautiful garden park. The round pathway takes you past several storyboards with even more Unsung Heroes. You’ll learn about Henrietta Swan Leavitt‘s amazing work that impacted the ability to determine distance in space, and Mary Anning, a pioneer in searching and researching fossils from the Jurassic Period during the 1800s. Jurassic Mary, as she was called, found a dinosaur skull at the age of 11, and during her lifetime, she found an Ichthyosaurus, the first Pterosaur, and a Plesiosaur. You will also learn about Sylvia Mendez, a civil rights activist who took up the mantle of her family fighting and winning against segregation in schools in California, and Juanita Moody, an intelligence specialist who helped detect Cuban-Soviet communications and the weapons’ build-up in Cuba during the Missile Crisis. These amazing ladies deserve the Unsung Hero award.


I walked away from the Lowell Milken Center feeling overwhelmed seeing and learning about these amazing people. I had never heard about most of them, but I am profoundly grateful that I do now. The Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes is a testament to the power of education to inspire and empower students to make a difference in the world. By recognizing and celebrating the unsung heroes of history, the center shows every student, educator, and visitor the absolute power one person has to make a difference.

Every day, we face choices, big and little, that impact those around us. When confronted with injustice, we all have a choice: stand by or stand up. What would you have done in these people’s shoes? How can YOU follow in their footsteps to create positive change?

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Further Reading

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