Difference Makers: What is the starfish theory?

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the young boy on a beach where hundreds of starfish had been washed ashore by a high tide.


Photo by Pedro Lastra on Unsplash

An old man observed the boy throwing starfish back into the ocean. “What are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m saving these starfish,” answered the lad without stopping.

Surprised, the old man said, “But, there are too many! And there’s only one of you. What difference can you make?”

The boy picked up another starfish and tossed it into the ocean. “I made a difference for that one,” he replied.

Mac and Allison McCormick personify this story. Between the two of them, they’ve made a difference in the lives of those within the homeless community, expectant moms, track athletes, families touched by cancer, and couples dealing with endometriosis. One person at a time.


Photo courtesy of Mac & Allison

Not the retiring type

After serving in the military and earning a degree, Mac took a position in the University of California system, working at the Davis and Irvine campuses. He retired after 26 years and coached track & field at UC Irvine until the couple moved to central Oregon. 

But Mac isn’t the retiring type. And so he signed on as sprint coach at a local high school.

Mac also volunteers with the Community Shower Truck Ministries, a local organization that addresses the needs of the homeless community by providing hot showers three days a week.

An empathy for hurting women

Allison’s personal story has given her an empathy for hurting women. Out of her deep loss and pain—miscarriage, endometriosis, infertility, multiple surgeries, a failed adoption—she and Mac established an endometriosis support group in Southern California. 

Upon relocating to central Oregon, Allison served as Director of the St. Charles Cancer Center, Chief Operating Officer at Mosaic Medical, and then took on the position of manager at Pregnancy Resource Center.

Allison served on the board of Shepherd’s House, a men’s residence program, and helped launch their women’s program. She also worked on setting up a cold weather emergency shelter for women and children. At one point, Mac and Allison even donated a house to a local church to be used as a shelter.

Teaching life lessons

Mac recognizes the value of sports in a young person’s life. “I drifted away from the bad group in high school when I got into athletics,” he said. “Otherwise I’d probably be in jail.”

While working with high school track athletes, Mac saw the need to begin training younger than the high school level. 

And so he and Lisa Zimmerman—a coach and former collegiate athlete—formed Central Oregon Track Club, serving kids ages 6 and up.

Mac believes that track & field mimics real life. “It teaches these kids to keep going and not quit. Through their failures and successes, they learn to deal with adversity. It’s character building.”

Scholarship funds are available for student athletes who can’t afford the track club fees. “We’ll take any kid,” said Mac. “We will not turn them away.”

The driving focus

Allison’s focus is women with a sense of unworthiness, women who are looking to fill their pain and void with things that don’t staunch the pain or satisfy the void. “This seems to be a universal female problem that knows no socio-economic or ethnic parameters,” she said. 

As she was meeting women from inside and outside the church, it was impressed upon Allison that what would fill the void was relationship with Jesus Christ. “We have head knowledge, but we don’t have personal transformative knowledge.”

And that’s the driving force behind the Bible study she teaches, the blog she writes, and a fall women’s retreat that’s in the planning stages.

You have skills

“What would you say to the person who wants to serve somewhere, but doesn’t feel as if they have any important skill sets? Or even people skills?” I asked the McCormicks.

“Oh, you have skills,” Mac responded without missing a beat. 

Don’t think you don’t have skills. What do you have a heart for? What moves you? What do you get excited about? That’s your skill set.

Allison added, “If there’s a fear of working with a particular population or you don’t feel you have people skills, there are still ways to volunteer.” Most organizations or service groups need behind-the-scenes support. 

Allison commented on that pesky prodding that we oftentimes push aside:

It’s so easy to ignore that little nudge toward getting involved. And if you continue to ignore it, you will always ignore it.

What if?

How often do we hear an inspirational story—perhaps someone who beat cancer and then founded a non-profit that’s doing some epic things—and we think we could never accomplish anything like that. 

And so we do nothing. I’m guilty of this.

But what if we could do something less epic?

Through the years, the McCormicks have consistently focused outward by mentoring and teaching and housing and coaching and instructing in life skills. 

And what Mac and Allison are doing—one act of service at a time—is adding up exponentially.


Photo courtesy of Mac & Allison

What if we took inventory of our passions and interests and skill sets, and then set out to make a difference—one homeless person at a time, one single mom and her kids at a time, one hospice patient at a time, one track athlete at a time? 

Volunteer resources

If you live in central Oregon, check out the Volunteer Central Oregon website.

For the largest nationwide network in the non-profit world, click here: VolunteerMatch.


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  1. Peter

    If only more folk were to know or realise just what ‘giving in service’ voluntarily can do to make a difference, they would experience such joy, but they have to ‘step out of their comfort zone and get their hands dirty’. The unknown joy would surely reveal it’self and reward them in so many unknown ways. OK, a deal of my life has had to do with bikes from my 3rd year of age. Realising, some 20 years ago that too many bikes were being throw out for the scrap man, I started re-building unwanted bikes, making them roadworthy. Folk would get to know and many ended up with a bike for leisure, to go to work or school etc. Then 2 charities contacted me, they were already taking items, much needed to Romania, Poland & Africa. As the years have passed, I’ve managed to re-furnish over 750 bikes which have gone to those in need. My reward is the ‘getting my hands dirty therapy’ but, more than that the wonderful stories from those thankful recipients.. Doctors, Nurses, Teachers, even the Mayor of a town in Poland & African wildlife wardens, not to mention so many children, many known to be HIV/AIDS infected. Just thinking about those years and the stories, I could not be happier. I thank father God for motivating me to use those God given skills, I have been so blessed. Great read again Marlys… Mac & Allison have been surely rewarded, our love to them, you & your readers. God Bless, Bx, P & family

    • “Getting my hands dirty” therapy and rebuilding 750 unwanted bikes to bless people on a couple different continents – what a great story, Peter!

  2. Grace Lawson

    What a great read for sure !! And I love doing one act of service at a time…..like shopping for groceries for someone who can’t shop for themselves briefly and for getting their mail for them as needed !!!

    • It might seem small to you, Grace, but for the shut-in getting her groceries purchased and her mail brought in – that’s significant. Thank you for sharing your “making a difference” story!

  3. Nasus

    What beautiful people Mac and Allison are. . .both inside and out! Even though I may not fit into their “volunteering categories” mentioned, they have blessed me in so many ways. Just seeing their pictures warmed my heart, made me smile and thank God for the two of them. They are blessings by just being themselves, servants of our Lord Jesus Christ! Thank you, Marlys for putting the spotlight on such a precious, priceless couple! Love to you three!

  4. Marshall J Matthews

    Lovely, Marlys!

  5. Richard R Kelly

    Marlys – Back in ~ 2011, when I chaired the ACS Cancer Resources Center at St. Charles Cancer Center, Allison was the guest speaker at one of our monthly meetings. She gave every volunteer a copy of the starfish story. I had mine framed & it’s still on display in Integrative Therapies. It’s something I cherish, both because the story is inspirational & vitally important for Cancer Center volunteers to keep in mind, and because it reminds me of Allison. She was one of the most inspirational bosses I ever had!

    • Richard, I didn’t realize Allison was a fan of the starfish story. I love that you had it framed and it’s still hanging in the cancer center. Thank you for sharing!

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