An excerpt from The Gift of Influence, Tommy’s newest release, now available wherever you buy books!

I’ve been blessed to meet thousands of virtuous people in my life, people who devote themselves to the service of others. You will go on to meet many of them in this book. But I have met only one person deserving of sainthood. That’s my aunt Loralee, better known to the world as Sister Loreen Spaulding.

I’ve spent my entire adult life learning how to put other people first, and I’ve made a career out of helping folks do the same. But my aunt Loralee remains the only person I’ve ever known who lived purely and unconditionally in service to others. There are people alive today who quite literally owe their lives to her, and I truly believe that if the rest of us could possess even a fraction of her heart, the world would be an infinitely better place. She is the embodiment of the final and, in many ways, the most important quality of influence: devotion.

Mahatma Gandhi once said that “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” My aunt knew exactly who she was and what her purpose was from the day she was born. Each day, I try to honor Sister Loreen’s legacy by trying to be just a little kinder and a little more patient with the people in my life, especially when it’s hard. As you read her story, I ask you to do the same. And I challenge you to think about what cause you would devote yourself to if you had the time. What people in your life would you spend more time with? Which of them would you try to be better to? Most important, what is holding you back?

When I was eight years old, my aunt Loralee spent the night at my house in Suffern, New York, before flying the next morning to Liberia to begin an eight-year mission with the Catholic Church. When she pulled up in the cab, my mom told me to bring in her suitcase. I’d never seen one so big; the darn thing weighed more than me.

When I finally dragged it into the house, I said: “Aunt Loralee, you have so many clothes.”

My aunt smiled and gestured to what she was wearing. “These are the only clothes I own, Tommy.” Then she opened the massive suitcase, giving way to an avalanche of pencils and pens and kids’ clothing and candy and medical supplies. All she owned was that suitcase and, quite literally, the clothes on her back. Then I noticed that my aunt had cut her hair. It had once been long, flowing, and beautiful.

“I donated it to a charity that helps cancer patients,” she said cheerfully. “I won’t need it where I’m going.”

When my father was five years old, he got an electric train for Christmas; Loralee got an altar built by her grandfather. She pretended to be a priest and deliver Mass to the family, and ever since, she had been determined to become a Catholic nun. Very few people knew that, however. In school, Loralee was the all-American girl. She was a cheerleader, had lots of boyfriends, and finished as valedictorian of her class. Everyone expected her to become a scientist or a United States senator one day.

Loralee, however, had long since decided that she would join the convent. Her dream wasn’t just to live a life in the service of God but to truly make a difference in the world.

In August 1957, she kissed her boyfriend for the final time and joined the convent. She was eighteen years old. She enrolled at Notre Dame College in Euclid, Ohio, where she graduated summa cum laude with a degree in philosophy. Next up was Boston College, where she earned a master’s degree in mathematics. It was about ten years later that she showed up at my house in Suffern, ready for her mission work in West Africa.

The late 1970s were a tumultuous time in Liberia. For generations, the country had been ruled by the True Whig Party, which had monopolized power and effectively banned all opposition. The country’s president, William Tolbert, had promised reforms when he was elected in 1971, but his administration quickly became defined by nepotism and political corruption. My aunt Loralee, now known as Sister Loreen Spaulding, arrived in Liberia just as the country’s oppressed native population began rioting in major cities. By 1977, more than a hundred Liberian citizens had been abducted, killed, and brutally dis-membered in a harrowing series of murders known as the Maryland Ritual Murders (after Maryland County, Liberia).

Sister Loreen, however, was unfazed. She didn’t care about Liberian politics or government corruption; she was there solely to help children. She arrived in the town of Zwedru in Liberia’s southeastern region and helped build a school for young girls, many of whom were the first in their village to learn to read and write.

In early 1980, Sister Loreen traveled to Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, to pick up supplies. As she was leaving a market, she heard gunshots. Pop, pop, pop. She ran down the street and watched as a firing squad unloaded on a dozen limp bodies lashed to trees near the beach. She would later find out that the victims were President Tolbert and his cabinet. They had been assassinated by Samuel Doe, a master sergeant in the Liberian Army who had staged a coup against the government and taken control of the country. Sister Loreen watched in horror as other members of Tolbert’s government were summarily executed on the beach.

When she returned to her school, she tried not to think about the chaos enveloping the country. Her job was to care for her children and take no part in the armed conflict. But war found the innocent, as it always does. One day, several pickup trucks skidded to a stop in front of Sister Loreen’s school, and a dozen teenagers armed with machine guns jumped out. My aunt knew they were part of Samuel Doe’s militia, a group known to be executing tribe members loyal to the deposed administration— even children whose only crime was being born in the wrong village.

The soldiers shoved Sister Loreen aside and shouted instructions she barely understood. They had taken dozens of her students and lined them up against a wall. Realizing what was about to happen, my aunt pushed past the soldiers and stood in front of her children. She stared down the rifles that were pointed at her and shouted, “If you are going to kill these girls, you will have to kill me first.” The teenage soldiers stared at her incredulously and then argued in their native language. Miraculously, they lowered their weapons, climbed back into their trucks, and left. Whether they were impressed by her boldness or afraid of shooting a Catholic nun, my aunt never knew.

The peace would not last. Doe’s government was even more corrupt and totalitarian than his predecessor’s. He shut down newspapers and rigged elections, and continued his brutal cleansing of rival ethnic groups. Allies turned on him, and the country once again careened into a full-fledged civil war. As rebel factions took control of the provinces, Sister Loreen’s school was shut down and turned into a refugee camp. The United Nations tasked my aunt with evacuating missionaries and Peace Corps members who were stranded in Zwedru. My aunt was terrified, but she remained steadfast in her mission. After arranging transport for the others, she was the sole remaining member of her mission. Just as soldiers closed in, she fled into the rain forest, found a canoe, paddled down the Cavalla River, and escaped to Ivory Coast, where she was rescued and sent back to the United States.

Sister Loreen had spent thirteen years in Liberia and survived two revolutions, but she would not have time to rest. Shortly after Loreen returned, her mother, Auleen— my grandmother— suffered a massive stroke that left her severely incapacitated. Auleen had been a sweet, doting, and tender person, but the stroke rewired her personality into someone no one recognized. She would need round-the-clock care, so Sister Loreen spoke to the head of her order and asked permission to take a leave of absence to care for her mother. For the next thirteen years, that’s what she did.

In many ways, caring for Auleen was as grueling as her missionary work in Liberia. My grandmother’s stroke had left her extremely anxious, snappy, and mean. As any caregiver can attest, this sort of work takes an impossible amount of patience and fortitude. It’s exhausting and thankless, and for more than a decade, Sister Loreen sacrificed her well-being to keep my grandmother comfortable. When my grandmother finally died, the convent assigned Sister Loreen to be a caregiver for nuns in hospice care— a task she also performed devotedly and without complaint.

My aunt was in declining health when she turned seventy-seven, but she convinced her order to send her back to Liberia. The bloody Liberian civil war had finally ended, but it had left a quarter million dead. Untold numbers of children were left orphaned and forced to fend for themselves on the streets. My aunt still had unfinished business in the country she loved so much, so she built an orphanage in Monrovia to help stitch Liberia back together. But fate had dealt Sister Loreen a cruel hand. Situated on the coast, Monrovia is mosquito-infested, and one morning Sister Loreen woke up with a terrible fever. She had malaria, and at her age the illness was devastating. She suffered heart failure and nearly died.

My aunt managed to recover and return to the United States, but the malaria had taken its toll. The heart failure triggered a swift mental decline, and she succumbed to dementia as the years passed. A few years after returning from Liberia, in the week of her eightieth birthday, her closest friends and family gathered at the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Wilton, Connecticut, to celebrate her sixtieth year as a Catholic nun. My aunt was frail and distant as I held her hand during Mass. That evening, at the celebratory dinner, I looked down at her as I began a toast. Beneath the wrinkles, I saw the same kind, spirited person who had pulled up in a taxi in front of my house all those years ago and taught me what real leadership looked like.

I told them about “The Gift of the Magi,” a 1905 short story by O. Henry about a young newlywed couple. They were poor and had very few possessions, but none of that mattered because their love was so great. They were celebrating their first Christmas together and they each secretly wanted to buy the other a special gift. The husband wanted to buy his bride a set of ornamental combs so she could adorn her long, beautiful hair. The wife wanted to buy her husband a chain for a pocket watch his deceased father had given him long ago. Because of their sacrificial love, the husband sold his father’s watch to buy his beloved the combs, and the wife cut and sold all her hair so she could buy her devoted husband the chain.

“When they opened their gifts, they realized just how devoted they were to each other, and they learned just how in-valuable their love truly was,” I said. “Aunt Loralee, I’ll never forget the gift you gave me when you showed up at my house in Suffern with your hair cut off and your suitcase filled with school supplies.” I smiled at my aunt as I raised my glass. “That day, you taught a selfish eight-year-old boy the true meaning of devotion and servant leadership. I’ve never stopped learning from your example.”

Sometimes I think about all the young girls in Africa who are alive today because of my brave Aunt Loralee. I think about how she loved and served my grandmother for thirteen long years when no one else would. I think about how much better the world would be if there were just a few more Sister Loreen Spauldings out there.