05/08/2013 07:52 EDT | Updated 07/08/2013 05:12 EDT

These Five Heroes Worship the Same Person

hand written mother's day card...

In the movies, heroes save the world with high-tech gadgets, superhuman strength or daring gunplay. But when Superman goes home and hangs up his cape, sitting there alone in the Fortress of Solitude, who does he idolize? Who is his hero?

We meet a lot of heroes every year. Not caped ones, generally, but down-to-earth heroes like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Dr. James Orbinski, who save lives and change the world with education, medicine and compassion.

Still we wonder who these heroes look up to -- Martin Luther King, or Ghandi? Sometimes. But more often the answer is much closer to home: mom.

Grammy-winning Canadian singer Nelly Furtado is a mom herself with a nine-year-old daughter. And in a way she has become a mother to many others -- her generosity has empowered hundreds of girls in Kenya to go to school. She told us she grew up with strong female role models -- above all her mom.

"I'm proud to say I grew up in a feminist household. And I think the way you are brought up by the female role models in your life really makes a difference on how you make an impact in the world as an adult," she said.

She remembers her mother at church council meetings, fearlessly facing down a room full of men to make her opinions known. With her poise and intelligence, she earned their respect. Today Furtado strives to be as much of an inspiration to her own daughter as her mother was to her.

Aboriginal activist and medal-winning Olympian Waneek Horn-Miller also grew up under the influence of a strong mother. From the 1960s on, Kahn-Tineta Horn was an outspoken advocate for Aboriginal and civil rights who refused to accept the expected role of a quiet and obedient wife.

Horn-Miller told us her mother taught her and her three sisters that being part of a community includes an obligation to give back. She encouraged them to always stand up for what they believe in, and provided unflinching support to follow their dreams.

"She really paved the way for someone like me to do what I've done."

At first glance, Liz Murray's mother seems an unlikely source of inspiration. Murray was born into an impoverished household in the Bronx and both her parents were drug addicts. Murray's mother died of AIDS when Murray was 15 and her dad went to live in a homeless shelter, leaving Murray also homeless. She pledged to turn her life around, taking night school and studying on park benches. She completed high school, earned a scholarship to Harvard, and has become an internationally-recognized motivational speaker.

Murray considers her mom a hero. Despite addiction, blindness and mental illness, Murray said her mother loved her "deeply and dearly" and always struggled to try and keep things together enough to care for her family.

"I think for her it was about being bigger than her circumstances," she explained.

Peacemaker Archbishop Desmond Tutu laughed as he told us his mother lives on in the middle of his face-- he got his nose from her. More seriously, this man who has achieved a global reputation for caring and compassion still places his mom on a pedestal. "I wish I would be like her in her compassion and caring for others."

Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, still values the lessons he learned from his grandmother, especially on the importance of education.

Near the end of her life, she said to Atleo, "No fighter fights with their fists anymore, a fighter fights with education, grandson."

Atleo said she taught him to respect and care for everyone around him--even those he disagrees with or who speak negatively of him.

Dr. James Orbinski draws his inspiration from someone else's mom, half a world away. Orbinski is the only Canadian since Lester Pearson to hold the Nobel Peace Prize in his hands. As international president of Médecins Sans Frontières he accepted the prize on behalf of the organization in 1999 for its life-saving work around the globe. He himself has saved lives on the front lines of the civil war in Somalia in 1992-93, and during the Rwanda genocide.

Dr. Orbinski's hero is a mother he met in Malawi last year. When her child fell sick she carried him 15 kilometres to a clinic for treatment, then carried him 15 kilometres back again to their village.

"To me, that is heroic," Orbinski said.

This Sunday is Mother's Day. It's a good time to reflect that heroism comes in many forms, and the greatest hero many of us will ever know is the one in our own home who loves us unconditionally, supports us in all that we do, and teaches us the most important lessons we need to succeed in life.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit