Profiles of Changemakers: Shawn Anderson, founder, Extra Mile America Foundation


By Nancy Henderson
Contributing Editor

When Shawn Anderson arrived at the ramshackle school in the Philippines, ready to address the students as part of his first “Extra Mile” speaking tour outside the U.S., he found a crowd of children waiting outdoors, hoisting tattered tarps over their heads. “The rain was coming down on these kids that wanted to hear this speaker from America who was going to share something that would make their lives better,” recalls Anderson, 53, a six-time author and founder of the Extra Mile America Foundation. “They had a special stage set up for me that was protected from the water, and I said to myself, ‘There is no freaking way in the world that I’m standing on that stage.’”

Removing his suit jacket, Anderson rolled up his sleeves and, for the next 45 minutes, stood with the students in the pouring rain, sharing his message of hope. Each time one of them stepped forward with a question, he reached in his pocket and handed her a peso. “I wanted to show them that when you move past fear in life, when you stand up and ask a question despite what people might think, you should be rewarded,” he says. “I wanted to plant that seed that when we take risks, reward comes.”

Midway through the presentation, a little girl named Rose raised her hand. “How do I get out of poverty?” she wanted to know. Fighting back tears, Anderson replied, “This is how you get out of poverty: By having the courage to stand up and speak when others might judge you.”

Afterward, Rose eagerly gave Anderson a tour of her school. He tried not to cringe when she showed him the room where 400 kids shared three or four outdated computers, and the library where they studied 20-year-old textbooks. The buildings were falling apart.

Anderson left with a renewed sense of purpose. At every one of his Filipino speaking engagements after that, he insisted he be “paid” with a donation to the school. And during his last event with high-ranking presidential candidates, he told them what he had witnessed and challenged them to get involved: “If any of you truly want to make a difference in the history of your country, start focusing on your rural schools.”

Anderson has made it his life’s mission to empower, inspire and encourage others to go the “Extra Mile.” Driven and independent since childhood—at age 10, the Reno, Nev., native started his first business, flooding his back yard during the day, plucking night crawlers when they rose to the surface, and selling the worms to fishermen—he learned how to make the best of a bad situation. Unable to get the attention he needed from his alcoholic parents, he gained a spirit of optimism by excelling in school. “From there, the independence became rooted in me: If my world is going to change, it’s me that’s going to change my world.. When we develop that great, great trust and confidence and belief in ourselves, and we know that we are not going to let ourselves down, then we have a chance to truly have a dream that has the power of becoming real rather than just an imaginary ‘Oh, I wish.’ So the ‘going the Extra Mile’ message wasn’t just something that caught me later. It was something that I was born into.”

After graduating with a political science degree from the University of California at Berkeley, Anderson campaigned for State Assembly in Nevada (he won the primary but lost in a close general election), built a 7-figure consulting business, and in the 1990s became one of the first in the U.S. to promote “entrepreneurial government,” connecting the public and private sectors to improve communities. He also opened an inner-city business college to bring hope to impoverished young people, and in 2007 started turning down other opportunities so he could focus on helping people “maximize their potential.” But it wasn’t enough.

So in 2009, after noticing how some Americans were able to rise above their setbacks in spite of the economic recession, he set out on a 4,000-mile, coast-to-coast solo “Extra Mile” bike tour to inspire others and show his own willingness to keep going, no matter what. “I was 47 and I’d never even really been on a bike very much,” he says. “So I thought that was a cool Forrest Gump-type symbolism to pedal a bike across the country. It was really a strength-building thing for me too.”

The trip was even more grueling than he’d imagined. Grasshoppers attacked his legs like a Biblical plague. Desert heat wilted his energy. He got lost, caught the flu, crashed and almost got hit by a car. Still, he kept pedaling. “Seasons change. Different things come at us,” Anderson says. “At any time, we have the option of getting off the bike and stopping, or we can choose to keep going to our final destination. The only one that essentially really stops us is us. It was the perfect chance for me to prove everything that I believed.”

Along the way, Anderson interviewed 200 people in 21 cities who had overcome tragedy or accomplished something extraordinary against the odds. Raynia Kinniston, a 95-year-old Sacramento resident, had been volunteering at the same hospital for 49 years. In Denver, Colo., Brad and Libby Burky had opened the S.A.M.E. Café, where patrons were asked to pay only what they could afford for a meal, sometimes by sweeping the floor or washing dishes. And an Iowa woman named Sheila Holzworth had scaled Mt. Rainier despite being totally blind, with two glass eyes.

Building on the momentum of his bike tour, Anderson formed the non-profit Extra Mile America Foundation, which he funds out of his own pocket; wrote Extra Mile America: Stories of Inspiration, Possibility and Purpose; and became a sought-after life coach and motivational speaker. In November 2015, more than 575 cities celebrated local heroes during the seventh annual Extra Mile Day, declared by mayors across the country.

Anderson believes in “walking the talk,” not just telling others how to do it. In recent years, he has biked across the U.S. a second time, hiked across Spain and Portugal, and run a 100-mile race. Last summer, he spoke to 10,000 people in the Philippines and plans to do the same thing in Singapore and Dubai. In March, he will travel to Japan to take part in the 750-mile Shokoku Island Pilgrimage through 88 Buddhist temples. “I don’t just say, ‘Go live the life you love.’ It really means something to me,” he says. “I really, really believe that the one thing that can change a human being’s life more than anything is to go the extra mile. Go the extra mile at school, in relationships, for your sports team, for your music lessons, when sending out job applications. Just do a little bit more. Spend a little bit more time. That’s what going the Extra Mile is.”

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Nancy Henderson is an award-winning author and national freelancer who often writes about people who are making a difference through their work. She is the author of Sewing Hope, a biography of Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe (Dust Jacket Press) and Able! How One Company’s Extraordinary Workforce Changed the Way We Look at Disability Today (BenBella Books) and has written for Parade, Smithsonian and many other publications.