What's your purpose in life? It's a question that gnaws at most of us periodically, begging for an answer.

Elizabeth Van Meter, an actress living in New York, found herself asking this question after her younger sister's suicide in 2008. Her search for purpose and its discovery in the unlikeliest of people in an unlikely place has spawned an inspiring new documentary and a nonprofit that's helping other "unlikely heroes" fulfill their purpose.

"I always wanted to be an artist and also help people at the same time, but I never knew how to meld the two," Van Meter says. "The loss of my sister really pushed me to begin asking, 'If life is an expression of self, what am I saying with my life?'"

An unexpected answer

Elizabeth and Vicki Van MeterElizabeth Van Meter, left, and her celebrated younger sister, Vicki, sharing family time together. (Photo: Jim Van Meter)

Elizabeth’s sister, Vicki Van Meter, was an aviation superstar and an unlikely hero herself. In 1993, at age 11, she became the youngest female pilot to fly across the United States. Nine months later, the small-town seventh-grader broke another "youngest pilot" record by flying from Augusta, Maine, to Glasgow, Scotland.

She wanted to become an astronaut, but after battling depression, she took her own life at age 26. Everyone who knew her was shattered. Elizabeth, in particular, struggled to make sense of the loss and how she might have helped her younger sister who had inspired so many. "I found myself drowning in grief and deep-seated feelings of guilt," she says.

Van Meter fought to find a purpose — something, anything — that would make her feel whole again. During that time, she visited a photojournalist friend named Stephen Katz who showed her his photos from a recent trip to Vietnam. She found herself transfixed by one black and white picture of a 25-year-old Vietnamese wheelchair-using woman named Thao who had been born with crippling and life-threatening birth defects caused by the defoliant Agent Orange (which U.S. planes sprayed during the Vietnam War). Despite her deformed body, Thao had created a makeshift library for children in her village, housed in a small building her father used to store toxic fertilizer and pig feed.

"I'm still trying to wrap my head around that moment I saw her picture," Van Meter says. "I felt she was looking straight through me. I'd asked for a message, a sign, and that was the moment. It was almost a challenge — a call to action asking me to step up in my life."

Katz told Van Meter he'd asked Thao what she wanted most if she could have anything in the world. Her response: $300 to buy more books for her library and help more children broaden their minds through reading.

"There was something so simple and unbelievable about that request that just hooked me," Van Meter says.

Thao's library

Thao in front of makeshift libraryThe photo of Thao in front of her makeshift library that started everything. (Photo: Stephen M. Katz)

Inspired, Van Meter founded The Purpose Project to help fulfill the dreams of "dynamic individuals … who, against all odds, are making positive changes in their corner of the world." People like Thao.

As their first project, Van Meter and Katz lugged a suitcase full of books to Vietnam to help expand Thao's library. But Van Meter didn't foresee the immediate connection she and Thao would feel. She knew she had to do more, and promised to help Thao build a bigger, better library.

Back home, she begged everyone she knew for donations. She also decided to share Thao's inspiring story by making a documentary.

"This is someone who couldn't move until she was nine," Van Meter says. "She taught herself to read and write. She's so much bigger than her body, and so inspiring. I wanted to leave people with a sense of hope and the idea of possibility in all things. I think Thao shows us that."

The film began as a story about helping Thao realize her dream of a new library. (By the way, the library has since been completed with modern bookshelves, furniture, art supplies, computers and tons of books.) But while shooting the film, Van Meter also noticed a growing sense of peace about her sister's death. The documentary, "Thao's Library," grew into a tale of her own healing, a celebration of Vicki's life and improbable accomplishments and a tribute to the sisterhood that crystallized between her and Thao.

"The love and friendship Thao and I developed is very real and changed my life," Van Meter says. "We both needed each other."

The film has won awards since its release in late 2015 and is available for streaming via several cable providers and on iTunes, Amazon and Vudu. The DVD is also available in Walmart stores.

Along with the film, Van Meter has also performed several solo multimedia theater shows based on her experiences helping Thao and has begun scouting out someone like Thao to become The Purpose Project's next beneficiary.

"We want to find people who are being of service to their community who might have a simple request for help — the unlikely hero," Van Meter says. "We will help fulfill that request and then share the story, not necessarily by doing a movie each time, but in a way that inspires others and hopefully spreads a ripple effect of kindness and compassion."

Finding a purpose through unlikely heroes
After her sister’s death, Elizabeth Van Meter saw a haunting photo that changed her life. Now she’s helping others change theirs.