Every time I start to write this post, I hesitate. I balk. I walk away, afraid that someone will take it the wrong way. That someone will think I’m being too proud and full of myself. That someone else will think I’m shaming them. That people will think that I think I’m better than everyone else. But I can’t control what other people will think and say and do. After four decades on this planet, you’d think I’d have internalized that lesson already. You’d be wrong.
But I keep going back to this tweet from author Iyanla Vanzant. “It’s important that we share our experiences with other people. Your story will heal you and your story will heal somebody else.”
I kept that in the front of my mind while writing my memoir “I Thought You’d Be Faster: The Quest to Become an Athlete.” More on that book in another post.
Right now, I want to talk about the last 12 months. I want to talk about my head-first dive into service.
It started the day after the 2016 election. I cried. I cried a lot. And I’m not supposed to say this, because I’m a reporter and I’m supposed to put on a numb face for the public, but I was devastated. It wasn’t about political party but rather about the tone of the election, the celebration of isolation and hatred for the sake of other people having lives which looked different than yours. The rhetoric made me sick. Still, I couldn’t sit around and cry for four years. I was moved to action.
But could I do?
I started with where I was.
I searched the internet and sent out emails to organizations that worked with people we’d classically define as “marginalized.” My boyfriend was eager to help as well, I looked for weekend opportunities, which are not easy to come by. Eventually I connected with Community Missions in Niagara Falls which, along with helping homeless individuals and families, provides a variety of programs from crises services to mental health services. Christmas Eve was the first time Scott and I volunteered in the community kitchen which provides a hot lunch to the community six days a week. We decided to go once a month.
We missed a few months, but have routinely gone back. I’ve developed my own personal goal when serving in the cafeteria style line — I try to look each person in the eye and say hello. (Sometimes to the annoyance of the more experienced volunteer who is just putting plates filled with food up on the counter for folks to take.) This eye contact, this hello, is important to me. Because don’t we all just want to be seen? Don’t we all just want to be acknowledged for who we are — not for what we wear, how we look, what we’ve done, what we’ve failed to do, what life circumstances have fallen our way. We want to be seen as everyone else — a human being just trying to make their way through the day.
Then in the spring came the opportunity to be come a volunteer with Niagara Hospice. I had to manipulate my work schedule in order to make the two evening training sessions. I then got on the stick, got my paper work in, and started visiting people both in the Hospice House and on assigned visits to nursing facilities and individual homes. I was there to sit with the patient, to listen and provide support. Often I ended up spending time with the family caregiver. My goal became to just be there, be that physical presence so that the patient or the family member was not alone. Each time, I left with a tinge of sadness but a full heart. I left with an appreciation for the different ways we all approach life. I left with new knowledge that our life is about how we love. My heart opened a little more. I learned a little bit more about myself, about how I wanted to spend my time. And I only hoped the patients and caregivers were getting as much out of my visits as I was.
My service hasn’t been confined to formal opportunities.
I also made a decision to practice kindness.
I decided to keep dollar bills in my jacket pocket. If I passed someone asking for money, I’d give the a dollar or two. I did not care how they spent it or if they really needed it. It is not a gift if it is not given freely. Who am I to say what it is you need?
I tried to look people in the eye more often and say hello. I’ve tried to be pleasant and smile at the clerks in the grocery store or the guy who takes my order at Starbucks. I’ve picked up trash while out running. Occasionally, I’ve stopped by the hotdog cart outside First Niagara Center on Sabres games nights and given the worker $5 so that the next person who wanted to buy a sausage or hot dot, well it was on me.
“Why do you want to do that?” a woman once asked me.
“Just a random act of kindness,” I said.
Now, I’m not perfect. I have bad days and grumble and occasionally rail away at the world.
But after a year of actively looking for opportunities to be of service, I can tell you it’s so much easier to change my perspective. Yes, I’m still allowed to grumble and wallow and occasionally rail at the world. Because everyone suffers. The important thing is not live in that space. And the more I serve others, the easier it is to get out of my own head and realize I’m not the most important person in the world.
This has made a difference in my life. I can’t tell you of an a-ha moment. There was no lightbulb or epiphany or great life-changing experience. Instead, it’s been a culmination of every day acts of kindness, of monthly opportunities for service, that has gradually changed my perspective and made my heart sing, sometimes in sorrow but often in joy.
Have I made a difference?
Honestly, I don’t know. But I’ve tried with honesty, sincerity and authenticity. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my four decades, it’s that trying really does count for almost everything.
That’s my story. It’s beginning to heal me. I hope by sharing it, it helps you.