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Readers share stories of their inspiring mentors

TODAYShow.com readers share stories and lessons from big stars like Dolly Parton to family friends who encouraged them to pursue their dreams.I was born in rural N.C. in the early 1950s with a speech impediment. My grandfather was deaf in one ear, but the two of us communicated perfectly. From the mindset of the period, it was obvious that I was an incapable human, but this man always told my pare
/ Source: TODAY

TODAYShow.com readers share stories and lessons from big stars like Dolly Parton to family friends who encouraged them to pursue their dreams.

I was born in rural N.C. in the early 1950s with a speech impediment. My grandfather was deaf in one ear, but the two of us communicated perfectly. From the mindset of the period, it was obvious that I was an incapable human, but this man always told my parents, "She can do it, I know she can." Those ears ring in my ears today as I spend five years looking for a diagnosis. No doctors have found one, yet, but my grandfather still sings in my ears, "She can do it, I know she can." He lived from 1988 to 1981. May we all have the impact he had! I spent 34 years teaching English. The impediment is gone; he was right — I could do it and I did do it. Now, may all the doctors have the same attitude as they search for a diagnosis and hopefully a cure!

—Annette Shaw, Roanoke, VA

At the age of 47, I was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. I am a wife and mother of two girls, and a physician practicing internal medicine. After I got over the shock, I read Michael J. Fox's book and instantly felt better because I knew I was not alone. I got on his website and met a woman who was training for the Chicago Marathon and running for Team Fox. The ironic part is she lived only 10 minutes from my home! We became fast friends and I helped her raise money for her run and she wore my name on her shirt which meant a lot. I see Michael out there, raising money for Parkinson's research, playing hockey and golf, and enjoying his family and it inspires me. Everything I read about Parkinson's disease says that exercise helps, so I now run 3-4 miles four days a week and ran my first 5K with my daughter this summer! I have managed to lose 25 pounds in the process that has been an added bonus... I am so grateful for people like Mr. Fox who raise awareness for Parkinson's disease and support research to ultimately find a cure.

—Debra Beard, Battle Creek, MI

Dolly Parton — it sounds crazy huh? But her determination to be heard for her singing and songwriting, and not let anyone deter her...

—Anonymous , Kingston, OH

When I think of a person making a difference, it is no doubt my high school science teacher Mrs. Story. One day before the start of class, I started to weep uncontrollably. High school was not the easiest period in my life, and I was slightly overweight with low self-esteem. On this particular day, things had gotten the best of me. Mrs. Story took me into the restroom, dried my face with a tissue, and hugged me until all the tears stopped flowing. I've never forgotten that — she was one person who made me start to believe in myself!

—Natalie Manuel, Lubbock, TX

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Kathie Lee honors her inspiration

Oct. 6: TODAY's Kathie Lee Gifford explains how Broadway veteran and theater owner Jimmy Nederlander has inspired her.

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James Earl Carter Jr.! I am a 47 year old black male who grew up in the segregated south. I am so inspired by this man who not only talks the talk but walks the walk... People who go against the grain to uphold their principles, no matter what the repercussions, truly inspire me. In my eyes, ones who chooses to step into the fray from the safe sidelines to lend a hand are far more heroic than the ones who are reacting to situations they find themselves in. Helping the homeless with Habitat for Humanity, helping fledgling democracies monitoring elections and being fair in his assessments no matter which side he is "supposed" to be aligned makes him a hero in my book. There is no one more deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize or the title Hero than James Earl Carter!

—Anonymous , Atlanta, GA

Michelle Obama inspires me — she is the perfect first lady.Michelle seems approachable as well as being kind, beautiful, a trendsetter in both dress and actions, a woman who is keeping her poise amidst all the raucous TV and radio screamers, and goes about the business of being first lady with confidence and good common sense. I salute her.

—Mary Pritchard, Midlothian, TX

My dad was born in Samoa in 1942 in a thatched roof hut with no running water and no electricity. His father died when my dad was four or five years old. My dad's eldest brother, who became the man of the house by default, was overcome by the stressful situation and beat my dad regularly...My dad came to America in the 60's and started working and learning to speak clearly in English. I remember when I was young, he would never answer the phone because he was not confident in his speech. I remember too him working at some tough jobs, like at a dog food factory, just to make sure we were fed. He worked hard for and kept at the schooling for years and years. Today, he's an art professor at BYU-Hawaii and he serves in our local church congregation. Students from all over the world, his peers in art, members of the church and dad's colleagues from school tell my family how great a man he is... I'm so thankful to have an example like him to look up to help me mold my life. I hope to be the same kind of father to my son.

Joe Alisa, Orem, UT

As a white, four-year-old old boy in the South, I was inspired and mentored by an amazing eighty-something year old African-American lady who looked after me. She inspired me with her positive outlook on life, slightly waving to everyone who passed her as she made the short walk each day to our house. I would notice and comment on how people often did not wave back to her, worried that it was hurting her feelings. But Mrs. Gertrude reassured me that those were the people who needed someone to be nice to them the most, even if it was just to recognize their presence; and that they were that way because of some life experience. All I knew was that they needed what I got daily; which was just a few precious moments with Mrs. Gertrude.

—Richard Johnson, Campobello, SC

Mr. Burkart, my elementary school principal at Ardmore Elementary School in St. Clair Shores, MI, was was such an inspiration to me. At the time, my family was under a lot of stress. My father was bipolar and an alcoholic, my brother was suffering from schizophrenia and the rest of my family was trying to cope. I think Mr. Burkart recognized this even though we never talked about it. I remember coming to an ice cream social without any money and he bought me an ice cream. At the time I was a good swimmer and my name was often in the paper. Nobody at home would fuss about it, but Mr. Burkart always came into my class and read each article out loud. He always seemed to be there to encourage me. He made me feel important at a time when nobody else could. His actions still have an impact on me today and I am 44-years-old. I'm not sure where he is physically, but I know he is always in my heart.

—Kelly Kinsey, Monroe, MI