Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Final Destination: Lincoln, Nebraska

Have you ever wondered if your actions can really make the difference in someone else’s life?

Recently, I experienced a remarkable moment that made me realize that we seldom stop to think about how other people's lives are really entwined with our own. The heart is huge, vast, and limitless…and sometimes helping others is exactly what the soul needs in order to flourish. Sometimes giving back is what we need in order to move forward.

As the French Philosopher Albert Schweitzer once stated, “You must give some time to your fellow men. Even if it's a little thing, do something for others--something for which you get no pay…only the privilege of doing it.”

This past August I was offered an opportunity that allowed me to answer my own question. Yes…you really can make a difference. Even in the smallest ways.

I’d just spent the greater part of a month working on year two of the most difficult grant I’d ever encountered. Numbers jumbled in my mind at night, and my dreams were filled with endless narratives and spreadsheets galore. By the end of July, my brain was fried and all I could think about was spending a few days reading a good book on the beach during the final days of summer. When my phone rang, and I heard my boss’ voice on the other line, all I could think was, “Please…not one more thing to do!”

Well…I’d been given one more thing to do: Attend a five day Project UNIFY Bridge Meeting with the goal of joining Special Olympics program leaders, staff, and youth from around the United States in order to learn how to work together to implement change in school environments and communities across the country.

Hmmm…five days, huh? My next question was, “Where?”

I envisioned a destination that was wonderful, tropical, and grand. Hawaii? Miami? Hell, I’d certainly settle for San Diego!

Final Destination: Lincoln, Nebraska. Dead silence followed on my end.

Really, Nebraska…in the dead of summer?? Wasn’t Nebraska a fricken’ Dust Bowl state?

An impenetrable cloud of doom settled over me, and yet, I found myself saying what we say to all head honchos for fear of ‘not being a team player’, “Sure, sounds like fun.”

Well…off I went, in the dead heat of August, to a foreign land I knew nothing about other than it is flatter than your junior high girlfriend (while Nebraska is flat, it is largely composed of rolling hills, so it could more accurately be described as lumpy, like your great aunt Matilda), it consists of nothing more than corn and cows (wrong again, they do have soybeans), and rumors that the inhabitants of this land “bled red” (don’t we all? Um, no…nothing like this!).

Upon touchdown in Omaha, I decided, I’d either spend the next five days bitterly longing for surf, sand, and the stack of novels awaiting me at home, or I’d buck up (good ‘ol Nebraskan phrasing, right?) and immerse myself in the experience.

Buck up, I did!

My reward for that positive attitude adjustment was immeasurable. For the next five days, I spent my time meeting new friends, colleagues, and inspirational youth. I absorbed their enthusiasm and dynamism and found myself sharing ideas and tactics, even leading group discussions.

Most importantly, I found myself connecting with the two young ladies that were part of my Connecticut group. I’d never met two high school girls that were more endearing, intelligent, honest, compassionate, and real in my life. I had this experience to thank for that bond.

On Friday night, I experienced my pivotal moment of the conference.

The entire group of Bridge Meeting attendees took part in a “Fans in the Stands” roadtrip. That evening a Special Olympics softball tournament was being held in Lincoln, and all 140+ of us were being bussed there to cheer on the participating teams. That afternoon, we broke into groups and made signs for our designated team (Go, Millard Mustangs!). We used colored markers, glitter, stickers, and other craft supplies to design all sorts of cheering paraphernalia.

However, our makeshift signs were nothing compared to our voices. Sixteen of us (youth, staff, and CEOs) cheered on the Millard Mustangs until we were hoarse. We made up songs and chants that left us in stitches, and made the locals wonder where we’d come from. None of us had ever heard of the Mustangs before, but it didn’t matter. We were united in purpose. United in cause. It didn’t matter if the Mustangs won or lost, what mattered is that we were there cheering them on.

Before long, we knew each player’s name. We pounded on the bleachers when runs were scored, and stood to root for the pitcher who’d gotten himself in a jam. Soon the parents, siblings, and other townsfolk started asking who we were. When given the explanation, eyes lit up and smiles spread across their faces. Our group had reinforced their own brigade, and they were happy for the company.

Our group asked for a picture with the Millard Mustangs, and the team eagerly obliged. Flash bulbs filled the stadium, and none of us let go of our smiles.

At the end of the game, all sixteen of us made a tunnel of our arms so each player could run through, breaking through the banner we’d made on the other side.

Soon, the busses roared their engines, and we prepared to bid our farewells to the Millard Mustangs. We’d made some great memories. We’d made some great friends.

I started to make my way to the bus, and remembered I’d left my jacket on the bleachers. As I walked back to the field, I overheard the Mustangs’ pitcher talking to his parents.

“Mom…Dad. We actually had fans tonight.”

I walked back to the busses with my sunglasses on…even as dusk fell. I needed to hide the tears in my eyes, though nothing could hide the huge lump in my throat.

Everyone on the bus was still laughing and elated from the evening. I took a look around and realized, that I am only one, but still, I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.

Even if that something was being a fan for one summer evening.