GORHAM – Stories of catastrophic events such as a deadly hurricane or horrific school shooting are appearing with alarming frequency.

Embedded in these stories are accounts of compassionate help for the victims. The purpose of the Moral Courage Project/Maine was to look at the effects of hearing these stories of compassionate action.

Does hearing them help build an altruistic identity? Do these stories of compassionate action encourage our questioning those who remain uninvolved in the face of danger or interpersonal violence?

To investigate these questions, we developed a partnership among USM’s counselor education program, Auburn schools and the Auburn Public Library.

Both Auburn’s library and schools have developed initiatives in the past decade to proactively address increased tensions resulting from both difficult economic times and substantial demographic change.

Auburn is now home to cultural groups previously unknown to one another, resulting in the need to develop institutions and processes to promote inclusion and understanding. The collaboration of the Moral Courage Project/Maine is one of many efforts toward this end, involving Auburn teachers and administrators, library staff, city grant writers and USM alumni and professors.


The Moral Courage Project/Maine brought speakers to the Auburn community.

Leo Goldberger was a writer and professor emeritus of psychology from New York University whose family was hidden and rescued by ordinary Danish citizens during the Nazi occupation. Michele and Ulrick Jean-Pierre, whose house was rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina by Mennonite groups, now run the Musician Village Performance Center in New Orleans.

Teachers and librarians created learning experiences for students in preparation for these speakers, as well as assignments that encouraged reflection on their stories.

Students watched films on the Danish and Swedish responses to the Nazi occupation and studied the “Freedom Writer’s Diary” written by at-risk California high school students.

Art students prepared to create documentary films based on student responses to the speakers’ stories. Teachers at the Franklin School and Edward Little High School guided their students through the process of writing reflective essays about the rescue stories.

One student wrote, “They knew that they were rounding up Jews but they still went back to try to help … They went back to their dangerous hometown to try to help and get more people safe … I learned from this story that not everything is about you. I understand that this was an extreme situation, and that makes it so much more powerful.”


An honors art class created projects focused on moral courage in preparation for Michele and Ulrick Jean-Pierre’s visit. Michele is an educator heading a world-class performance and arts center in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. Ulrick is an internationally acclaimed artist who focuses much of his work on courage in the face of Haitian devastation and oppression.

These student art projects, as well as students’ experiences with the Moral Courage Project/Maine, were presented last year at the New England Consortium on Life Stories conference held at USM.

High school teachers and students presented and discussed their work alongside university students, scholars, seniors from the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and others from the community interested in life stories about active care.

One presenter was musician and author Eliott Cherry, who presented his dramatic performance, “A Finished Heart.”

Based on Cherry’s personal story of losing his husband of 16 years to pancreatic cancer, the play incorporates Cherry’s poetry, prose and music combined with conversations he shared with his spouse.

After the play, members of the Moral Courage Project/Maine encouraged him to bring his play to the Auburn community. It was presented March 7, hosted by Edward Little School, Beacon Hospice and the Auburn Public Library.


Beacon Hospice views the play’s message as a way to inspire staff, volunteers and clients, as well as to underscore the need to be sensitive to the diversity inherent in caregiving, dying and grieving. The Auburn Library is highlighting its resources related to teen health, end-of-life care, death/dying and grief.

A final phase of the Moral Courage Project/Maine was to interview students and community members after the play, to understand how this story of active care affected them.

Our final assessment will ask whether these collaborative events highlighting compassionate action will have an impact on future ethical choice-making for those who took part.

This project is one example of the many effective collaborations among USM faculty, students, staff and community partners. 

Adele Baruch is an associate professor and program coordinator of the University of Southern Maine’s counselor education program.


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