From Selfish to Service

Cisco Co-Founder Sandy Lerner Tells Parents to Displace Kids' Cell Phones

Article by Melinda Gipson

Photography by Melinda Gipson and The Loudoun Laurels Foundation

Originally published in Leesburg Lifestyle

Stewardship is defined as the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one's care. As The Loudoun Laurels Foundation ( interprets this trust, it involves honoring people who are role models for others and whose lives contribute to the quality of life in Loudoun County. Its focus on the future means that it seeks out and supports Loudoun County public high school seniors whose “struggles, determination and potential indicate clearly that they will become exceptional community citizens and future leaders.” By tradition, these students, who receive $40,000 each to pay their tuition in a Virginia state school, are the first in their families to receive a college education, making them at once grateful and committed to be good stewards of those resources.

This year’s student recipients were Jasmeet Kaur of Tuscarora High School who will study accounting and is interested in forensic accounting and Carlos Morales of Potomac Falls High School who will study biomedical engineering. Both will study at George Mason University.

Sandy Lerner, this year’s laureate and speaker at the October gala, admitted to us that she hadn’t known much about the group before she was tapped to speak, but supports the group’s mission. Her Ayrshire Farm in Upperville was the first in Virginia to receive Certified Humane, Organic and Predatory Friendly designations, certifications that in some cases she told us resulted in death threats when she first moved to the county. “People in Loudoun take their hunting very seriously,” she said.

Since then, she has had a role both fostering the use of sustainable organic farming in Virginia, but personally protected more than 2,000 acres of farmland making sure our region will retain its agricultural, historical and rural character for generations to come. But, when asked to speak, this pioneering mathematician who co-founded Cisco and whose personal Internet address dates to the 1970’s wanted to talk about the importance of volunteering.

“Do you know that between aged 8- and 12-year-old’s spend seven hours and 22 minutes a day on their phones? This is exclusive of time spent doing schoolwork. This is just the entertainment part. There are about 60,000 kids in that age group in Loudoun. That adds up to just under half a million hours a year, or the equivalent of 225 full time jobs,” she said.

Instead of referring to “selfies” she calls them “selfish.” “These kids assume that the world is wholly engrossed with what they personally are doing. I don't think that's a good worldview for successful adulthood. They will be very surprised to find out that nobody really cares what they are doing or what they like. People really only care about what you can do for other people. I also think it's antithetical to leadership.”

“What is leadership?” she asked. “It's negotiation, cooperation and responsibility. You can't really see the needs of other people from behind the phone.”  Considering that there are roughly 400,000 people in Loudoun County, “if three quarters of those people gave one hour a month of their time, that's 300,000 hours each month, or 3.6 million person-hours per year. That's equivalent to 1,800 full-time jobs. And these aren't replacing people that have jobs. These are things in the county and our community that need doing.”

Acknowledging that that’s not news to her audience, she noted that volunteerism can either take the form that receive fulfillment just by helping other people, and those who do it for self-improvement. “It's really no surprise that the better health and quality of life benefits accrue to those people who help because it's just the right thing to do.”

Her own volunteering started with the 4-H Club, without which she says she would never have made it through college. “I would not have had the confidence to go on and buck all the systems that a woman was bucking in the early days of venture capital and computer electronics. That’s the reason why I think that it is so important that we get our children into service clubs.... It gives kids the opportunity to find their strengths and grow confidence. It turns out I'm a pretty darn good beef showman. At one point I was the best beef Sherman of California when California was the seventh largest agricultural entity in the world.” Kids learn tenacity and to accept failure. “If parents are constantly snow plowing everything out of the way of their children, they will never be able to stand up and say, ‘I did that.’”

Service deepens your roots to your community, and allows you to learn from other people. “When I was a kid, there were the candy stripers and the Key Club, Boy and Girl Scouts, 4-H and FFA. My parents belonged to Lions, Elks, Moose, Kiwanis, the Rotary, the 2030 Club. My cousins belong to the Junior League.... My aunt and uncle were delivering Meals on Wheels when my uncle was too old and infirm to get out of the car.... I have eaten more rubbery spaghetti and mystery meat, pancakes and sausage than anybody should ever have to do. And you know what? It's why I'm here.”

Setting an example for young people is the best way to engage them, she added. “I always tell people, you know, it's not about changing the atomic weight of hydrogen. You can grow food for the food bank.... You can knit sweaters for the homeless. You can make cat nip toys for shelter animals who go crazy in cages. You can make donation calls for charity. Every time I get really down about something I start getting things for animals and pretty soon I forget I wasn't happy. You can solicit silent auction items. You can pick up rubbish on the roadside.”

You can always help the less fortunate, she added. “Do you have a skill? I have a girlfriend who's a concert violinist and she says that every time she starts to feel sorry for herself she goes to the hospital and plays for those people because they have real problems.” She then related the story of a cat she had who was limp as a ragdoll. “You could kind of hold him upside down and he didn't care what anybody did to him. So, he was the first cat in Fauquier County to be a therapy animal. We would go to all the dementia wards and he was so beautiful and so soft and just had his big blue eyes and people loved him. I didn't have a special skill but he did.”

After listing several other ways her friends help their community, she concluded, “What kind of children do we want to raise? People who are a positive value to society, who are too busy with lending a hand a voice or an hour to be attached to something as superficial as a phone. I personally have an adversarial relationship with my phone. I lose it because I hate arguing with it. People who are committed to helping within their community, their country or their planet are aware that their own individual actions may be relatively insignificant, but they do them anyway.”

“People who recognize the extent to which we in this room, in this country and in this county are blessed, we have the financial means and the personal freedom to enable us to see beyond ourselves if we want to. We have a choice. We need to help our young people choose and cherish the opportunity to volunteer and to give. Giving transcends gender, politics, religion, color, and species. Giving teaches kindness and responsibility. People who are busy giving don't have time for boredom – no time for the negative. No time for hate. We can spend our energy being a part of the solution or being a part of the problem. In the end there's only one planet and we all share it.”

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