Arne Vainio: Honoring unsung heroes in our throwaway society

Arne Vainio. Photo from Walking Into The Unknown / Vision Maker Media

Middle ground
By Arne Vainio, M.D.

I was recently awarded the Virginia McKnight Foundation Binger Family Unsung Hero award. This was a pretty big deal and there was a luncheon for the award in Minneapolis in September at the McKnight Foundation offices. The award was first started last year and they only give out four per year. There were 127 nominees for the award this year.

The three other nominees were incredible people doing good work in their communities and it was honor enough just to be named among them. This is loosely taken from the information at the award ceremony:

Koresh Lakhan is a retired elementary school teacher who works to make his community a better place to live, including participating in the University for Seniors Program at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, transporting elderly nuns to medical appointments and speaking to classes on topics relating to Hinduism. He coordinates exchanges for students and adults and coordinates and cooks dinners for a variety of causes. He brings cross cultural activities and traditions with him in everything he does.

Qamar Saaqid Saoud is a transgender man and a tireless advocate for youth in the Twin Cities, especially those who are homeless, as he once was. He is currently a certified mediator and a part-time student working to become a licensed therapist. Qamar is committed to helping at risk youth find safe harbor through the GLBT Host Home Program, Avenues for Homeless Youth, Reclaim and several other organizations. “Qamar spends as much or more time volunteering for his community as he does in paid employment,” said his nominator, sharing his own experiences to shed light on the lives of LGBTQ youth, homeless communities, people living with HIV and AIDS, and at-risk youth of color.

For more than 10 years, Deborah Jiang-Stein of Minneapolis has worked to address the rapid rate of repeated incarceration for women throughout Minnesota. Born in prison herself, Deborah’s mission is to support, empower, motivate and build capacity for women in prison in order to help prepare them for successful lives on the outside. Her work has included inspirational and skill building speaking presentations and the promotion of literacy programs at the Hennepin County Workhouse, the Shakopee Women’s Prison and drug and alcohol treatment centers throughout the Twin Cities metro area.

Born in prison? Where does someone go from there? Who could possibly blame her if she ended up following that path? What kind of obstacles and doubts hinder any kind of progress toward a better life? Instead, she has gone on to help other women, forgotten and cast aside by the rest of society regain their dignity and their footing in an unsympathetic world.

Listening to Koresh talk as he accepted his award brought peace to everyone in the room. He helps everyone in the community and he is eloquent and respectful and his community loves him. His Hindu doctrine of peace and equality is evident in every word he says.

Qamar helps those who have been ostracized from everyone else and have no avenues to turn to. It is in our nature to either fear or attack that which we don’t understand and that makes downtrodden communities more difficult to care for. Mother Teresa has been made a saint and her work was with the poorest of the poor, the least understood and the most marginalized of all in the slums of Calcutta. She never stopped truly caring for them and she was able to have the world shine a spotlight on those who would have remained invisible if not for her.

Her strong and gentle spirit was in all three of them.

I didn’t know what to expect at the award ceremony and the four of us bonded much harder than I had hoped for. Qamar put his hand over my heart and said, “I’m putting all of my chi into you.”

We were brought together for the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits annual conference and were given separate awards last week. Deborah couldn’t be there. I came early and Koresh was waiting for me. He smiled and bowed deeply when he saw me and then we hugged as only true and trusted friends can.

I thought about our current political climate. There is no middle ground. Somewhere are the answers we need to move forward as a people and ultimately, as a planet. The earth cannot continue to provide at the rate we use and there isn’t enough of everything to go around if a handful of people take much, much more than they can use.

We used to live with the earth and we followed the change of the seasons and we raised our children as communities. We took only what we needed and we had ceremonies to thank our mother for providing for us. We honored the spirits of those things that gave themselves to help us live. We knew we were the only beings not needed for the earth to go on living.

There are many who still follow those old ways. Times are different and it’s difficult to do that completely. The world is a different place and we need to be able to buy food and electricity and insurance and clothes for our kids.

We cannot isolate ourselves and exclude the rest of the world. We need them and they need us. There have always been those who try to divide us and pit us against one another and we need to be aware and keep our guard up that this doesn’t happen.

I need Koresh and I need Deborah and I need Qamar in my life. We do not do the same things and we work with different populations. Together the four of us are stronger than we would be as individuals. Everyone deserves respect and some paths are more difficult to walk than others. Giving selflessly when many would question why they see what they do as important or why they choose to work with those society has chosen to marginalize is the path the creator has given them. To follow that path, no matter how difficult and no matter how uphill the struggle is the sign of a life well lived.

There are many unsung heroes among us and I see them every day. Grandparents raising grandchildren, children taking care of elderly parents, those taking care of others with special needs. We live in a throwaway society. We throw away paper plates and plastic bags and old toasters.

And we throw away people.

The longer I’m in the doctor business, the more I realize true healing is love and forgiveness and redemption and hope. Don’t let us be divided. We need all of us working together and we need to see the good in those different than us. We stand to lose everything if we let hate and fear dictate what we do and we need to vote and we need to choose our leaders carefully.

When I saw Qamar at the award presentation last week, he hugged me hard and whispered into my ear, “I feel like we’re family somehow.”

Don’t ever stop thinking that, Qamar.

Arne Vainio, M.D. is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He can be reached at

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