In the age of accountability, this Clevelander has just the message we need

Alex Sheen is many things, but "boring" is not one of them. In the last six years, the Lakewood resident has walked across the state of Ohio in 10 days in honor of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight; learned to bake apple pie; personally delivered Disneyland tickets to 100 children with cancer; and driven overnight to bring disaster relief supplies to Hurricane Sandy victims.

Why?

Simply because he said he would.

Alex Sheen, the brainchild behind because I said I would,The thirtysomething Clevelander is the brainchild behind because I said I would, a Rocky River-based nonprofit and social movement aimed at “the betterment of humanity through promises made and kept.” Since Sheen founded BISIW six years ago, the organization has distributed more than 10.3 million “promise cards” to 153 countries, and Sheen has given talks to more than 300,000 people.

He was inspired to start the movement after his father’s death of small-cell lung cancer in September 2012—specifically, the eulogy Sheen delivered at the funeral titled “Because I Said I Would.”

“A lot of people treat their promises like jokes, but my dad didn’t, and my hope is to remind people that promises matter,” shares Sheen. “The fact that people don’t honor their word at large is a systemic issue in our society.”

Along with distributing the now highly-popular promise cards, Sheen has built traction for the movement by appearing on national media (like the "TODAY Show" and "Good Morning America"), giving TEDX talks, and making viral posts on Reddit. (Sheen’s most popular Reddit post to date happened when he documented his delivery of promise cards to the top 33 U.S. Senate candidates in 2012—along with Barack Obama and Mitt Romney—with just two form responses.)

Sheen has also garnered attention by making—and—keeping his own high-profile promises. During 2013, Sheen made 52 promises and picked a different one out of the hat every week, making a video to document the completion of each one. In 2014, Sheen decided to volunteer at 52 different nonprofits in the space of 52 weeks (including Lakewood-based LEAF Community).

“The idea was to make and keep these promises to get people to pay attention—not only to the issues behind the promises, but also just the idea of keeping promises at large,” says Sheen, who graduated from Ohio University in 2008.

To deepen the impact even further, BISIW has sparked chapters in schools and prisons around the country. Since starting the school chapter program last year, there are seven chapters (with three in Ohio and four in Texas); Sheen says there is also a “variation of a chapter” in Panama with more than 400 students involved. BISIW is also offering character education programming at Pendleton State Prison in Indiana and Medina Juvenile Detention Center.

“We’re teaching things like honesty, self-control, accountability,” shares Sheen. “Schools can teach reading, writing, and math, but if we don’t teach our children how to be decent human beings, what is the point of society at all?”

Alex Sheen shaking hands at a high school chapter meetupEarlier this month, BISIW released its first book—an eponymous collection of “promise stories” with 100 percent of proceeds benefiting BISIW. One of the featured storytellers is Mentor native Katie Spotz, the youngest person to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

Sheen also recently launched a podcast, which debuted its first three episodes on January 1, 2019. The podcast relates awe-inspiring stories of promises made all over the world—from a paraplegic determined to walk again for his son to a homeless person who walks 400 miles to Washington, D.C. for a conference.

“It really gives you perspective on what it takes to keep a promise,” says Sheen.

So does Sheen feel his message dovetails with society’s current hyper-focus on accountability—from social media justice to the #MeToo movement?

To an extent.

“Obviously, accountability is one of our core values, but there is often this thought that accountability is for other people,” says Sheen. “People don’t always point the finger back at themselves, and when they do, that thirst for accountability can be very dry.”

Sheen hopes he’s moving the needle on that front with BISIW’s efforts and initiatives. “We all understand what it’s like to be on the other side of a broken promise, and we’ve all broken promises ourselves,” says Sheen. "We're trying to highlight the character values it takes to be a person of your word."

Read more articles by Jen Jones Donatelli.

As a Cleveland native and enthusiast, Jen Jones Donatelli is thrilled to take on the managing editor role at FreshWater. As a full-time freelance writer and editor for more than a decade, Jen has contributed to publications including Redbook, Budget Travel, GOOD, Playboy, Thrillist, Cleveland Magazine, Los Angeles Confidential, San Francisco, Ohio Today, and many more. She is also a contributing editor for Destination Cleveland and a proud graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.
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