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Nonprofit Shows How Promises Can Inspire Social Change

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By Amy Huynh

UC Irvine Student Center & Event Services hosted Alex Sheen, founder of “because I said I would,” for a special keynote last Friday, Jan. 19 where he shared his story and the purpose behind the social movement and nonprofit dedicated to the betterment of humanity through promises made and kept. Sheen is a four-time TEDx Talk speaker and his commitment to the movement has been featured on CNN, ABC World News, the TODAY Show, Good Morning America and more.

UCI Student Center Director Stacey Murren introduced Sheen and talked about the impact “because I said I would” had on her own struggle with Lyme disease. She emphasized how the movement was powerful “in allowing us to make those changes in our lives the way that we want to.”

The start of “because I said I would” stems from the loss of Sheen’s father. Sheen introduced the history of the movement by claiming that his father was an average man. However, what made his father stand out was that he “was a man of his word. He was far from a perfect person, but he kept his promises.”

His father, Al Sheen, came to the United States as an immigrant and was able to have a career as a pharmacist for 25 years. Diagnosed with stage 4 small cell lung cancer, Sheen’s father underwent radiation and chemotherapy, but the cancer gradually spread into his lungs, liver, pancreas, and eventually to his brain.

“On the bright morning of September 4th, 2012, my father died and I was asked to read my father’s eulogy.”

Sheen wanted a way to honor his father’s life and all the commitments he made and kept; he did so by titling his speech “because I said I would” and handed out “promise cards” for the first time at his father’s funeral. Promises or pledges were written on cards with the intention that the sender earned the card back once they had fulfilled the promise. This is meant to be a symbol of honor and respect as well as a reminder of the importance of commitment.

“I learned one day that there is no tomorrow,” said Sheen.

After he published his offer of mailing ten free promise cards to anyone anywhere in the world, Sheen’s online post became viral.

“One button, and your entire existence changes forever,” he said, describing the chain of events that has allowed his movement to gain a global reach.

He displayed a picture of five envelopes that he mailed in the first days of his promise. Eventually, the numbers quickly rose. Sheen has now distributed 8.42 million promise cards to 153 countries.

Sheen showed examples of promises people have made and the stories they shared, including Garth Callaghan’s promise. Callaghan was diagnosed with stage 4 kidney cancer and was told that he had an eight percent chance of living another five years. As a father of eighth-grader Emma, Callaghan promised that he would write 826 napkin notes for his daughter to find in her lunch every day for the rest of her high school career.  

Sheen used this story to emphasize the necessity of a “do what you can with what you have” mentality because he believes in people doing good with the available resources that they have. He had personally spent tens of thousands of dollars from the money he made as a software company’s corporate strategy lead in order to pay for the stamps to mail out promise cards.

Sheen explained that he was emotionally pushed to the edge of quitting his job when he received an anonymous letter in February 2013 that gave him the courage to leave his comfort. Before quitting his job, he met with his boss to show her the letter.

Handwritten in blue ink, the letter explained how “because I said I would” gave the writer the hope to keep living. Sheen explains that his boss “stops. She looks up and says ‘Alex, this letter is from my daughter.’”

Ever since receiving this letter about a 14-year-old girl’s struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts, Sheen has committed all of his effort into the “because I said I would” movement.

With success comes much adversity.

“The unfortunate reality is that the betterment of humanity requires sacrifice,” he said.

Sheen’s personal sacrifice includes traveling 300 days a year in order to donate 100 percent of his speaking fees to “because I said I would” and other charities.

Due to Sheen’s great efforts, “because I said I would” is able to offer character education that has enabled 860 schools and 155,000 students to have access to free educational videos and live programming. This education is key and necessary in order to “teach our children to be decent humans to each other.”

Sheen said the movement has been changing lives through promise cards, chapters of volunteers, character education in schools, and awareness campaigns with global reach.

“You and I are still here. We are born with the ability to keep a promise,” said Sheen. “You can pretend to care, but you can’t pretend to show up.”