I met with a teenage girl the other day. She was a Senior in high school, and wanted to discuss some options she could pursue after graduation. I hadn't seen her in awhile, so we started our conversation casually, catching up on her job and school and how things were going. I asked her (of course) if she was excited to finally be done with high school. She said she was - that she couldn't wait to get out of there. Then, I asked her about her graduation party.
She looked at me for a blink, then said, "Oh, I'm not having one." I replied, "Oh! Okay. How come?" She answered, very matter-of-fact, "Because what would be the point? Nobody would come." I confess, I had to catch my breath and choke back some tears.
It is so easy to not realize how difficult life is for some people. I have a lot of friends whose children are graduating this year, and have been invited to a lot of grad parties - and I love that and think it is wonderful! But the conversation with the young lady gave me a solemn reminder that everybody has a different life story, and some of them are difficult and sad.
I talked with a young man last spring, right before he graduated, and he told me that he wasn't happy to graduate. He said, "I have no clue what I am going to do next. I don't know. Why would I be happy about that?" That is the reality I see with many of our young people who have disabilities.
This is not a friendly world for those who are different. Quite often, doors are closed and options are limited for the disabled and marginalized people in our society. I know there are laws which help some, but I don't think giving everyone an equal chance in society is something that can necessarily be legislated.
We need a compassion check.
I don't know how many times I have been told that particular students are annoying or scary - judgments made by people who don't really know them or even try to understand why they do what they do. Maybe the kid who wears the hoodie half over his face all the time is just so tired of being picked on he is hiding now. Maybe the girl who loses her temper easily is frightened and lonely inside. Maybe things at home suck. Or maybe it is exhausting to always be reminded how different you are, to be the butt of the jokes and teasing and bullying.
How do we insert compassion into this world? How do we become people who truly, tenderly care about each other? How do we love the unlovable? We pretend to be a society that applauds individuality, but ask people who have autism how often they are applauded for their unique views of the world and presentations of themselves - pretty much they are not. Instead, it has become very important we teach them to do their best to look like the rest of the world.
I hope 180 and the Torch can lead the way in fostering a change in our community at the very least. I hope we can raise the level of compassion exhibited to the people around us, no matter who they are or how strange they might seem. I hope we are doing that now, and that it will only multiply as we begin to train people in our effort to help foster an inclusive work world.
I hope, together, we can all see people as people and can learn to appreciate them for who they are, wherever they are at in life. I truly believe kindness returns kindness, and the rewards we will reap for loving each other - as we are commanded to in the Bible - will astound us. I would hope that would filter right down to our teens and children, and that I would never have to hear a student remark again that nobody would come to celebrate her graduation.
If I could do anything I want with unlimited time and plenty of resources, I would open up a Kindergarten classroom. And for that classroom I would select twenty students. They would be students with and without hearing, and sight, and the ability to walk. They would have high and low IQs, and those with social disorders such as autism and those without would also be in my Kindergarten class. Some would have ADD or ADHD, and some would not.
In that Kindergarten class, the only identity anyone would ever have would be his or her first and last names. We would all view learning and participating as a corporate experience in which everybody works together to learn what needs to be learned, and I would help each child figure out whatever style of learning was going to work best for him or her. Everybody would be expected to achieve the level he or she could achieve given the gifts and talents he or she possessed. The individual style of each individual child would be celebrated and accepted.
And when we went to the playground we would be engaged in activities in which the entire class had to work together to make sure everyone was involved. We would be happy as we all achieved a variety of goals together - and every day we would do something different that would accentuate the strengths and abilities and interests of our lovely variety of students. Yes, to an extent our play time would be structured, because children need to learn to work together, and because human beings in our society attempt to exclude people from a very young age.
And when that Kindergarten year ended, I would excitedly begin to plan the First Grade year. And then the Second Grade year...and all the way through graduation. And all through those years those students would grow together as scholars and human beings. There would be no "girl in the wheelchair" or "boy who is deaf". There would only be "Mikayla" and "Brian", "Cyndy" and "Tom".
It would just be a matter of routine life to know that Tom communicated through an Interpreter, and was a most amazing science student. Cyndy's wheelchair would mean nothing more than the way she navigated the world - just Brian used his legs and feet. Everybody, together, every day, would celebrate learning and progress. Maybe some wouldn't advance as high as others, but that wouldn't matter, because my classroom would be all about each individual trying as hard as he or she could, and achieving the most he or she could achieve. And, as a group, they would support and encourage each other's victories and successes - no matter how big or small they might seem to the real world.
And as Mikayla and Brian and Cyndy and Tom reached high school level, we would begin exploring the outside world together. We would learn about work and opportunities. The students would be so well-connected to each other that they would know more about what their classmates could DO than what they couldn't - because what people can DO would be our focus throughout all those school years. They would have a support system amongst each other that would help them define their dreams and figure out where their next steps could take them.
And they would leave that school with an attitude of acceptance, and the ability and desire to really look at people and to be willing to know human beings as human beings.
Yes. That's something I would do.
As I continue this adventure known as running non-profits which are the culmination of many years of dreaming, tons of tears, incredible hard work, and quite often feeling like it would be easier to quit, I am more and more aware of how small things can really be big things. We live in a critical society - rife with negativity and disillusion. And sometimes, it feels like those who would want to discourage us have a louder and more persistent voice than those who believe in the vision and are part of our successes.
But, again and again things happen that seem small at the time, but are really quite big. They come in many different forms of encouragement and good cheer. An unexpected email, text, or message on Facebook sharing how the Torch has touched a life can bring sunshine and refreshing hope which enables us to continue moving forward.
Sometimes, it's the smile of recognition on the faces of strangers in a crowd, or overhearing people say, "Those are the Torch ladies", or a phone call from a friend just to ask how I'm doing - that turn my doubts and fears and fatigue into hope and strength and energy. They seem like such small gestures; it doesn't take long to send someone a text or a message, but, in the end, they are the big things. They are the things that matter the most because their affect is profound.
The positive influence we have over the lives of those around us can truly lift them. It's unfortunate we are often quicker to pass judgment, give advice, and insult others than we are to give the benefit of the doubt, listen, and show them love. The small positive gestures we make can change the world for the people around us.
If we can learn to really treat others the way we want them to treat us, we might actually be the reason someone else keeps going, doesn't give up, and achieves his or her dreams.
It's all about compassion and love - they make the small things the big things.
I remember when I was homeless.
I remember how I felt hollow and afraid all the time.
I remember sitting at the lake, tears streaming, as I tried to imagine a future I couldn't see.
I remember feeling embarrassed and humiliated when I had to ask for help, and the people who were supposed to be there to help me were scornful and sarcastic.
I remember people in my life who offered support, but did it by telling everyone about my situation and gathering things for me. Things I had nowhere to put, and felt ungrateful for their help - and that made me feel like a jerk.
I remember how frustrating it was to be told that McDonald's and Kroger and everywhere else was hiring. As if I wasn't desperately seeking employment that would support myself and my daughter.
I remember going to interviews and falling into uncontrollable sobs in my car as I drove away, because I knew, I sensed, I had not done my best. I was so exhausted from being homeless.
I remember feeling worthless and ashamed as I showed my pay stub as proof I really needed help.
I remember driving by other people's houses at night and seeing their lights through the windows. I remember wondering if I would ever again have a home.
I remember reading posts on Facebook slamming people who used food stamps, and I remember deleting from my "Friends" list everyone who would fan those judgmental flames.
I remember looking at my last $20, and trying to calculate how much gas I needed to get to my tutoring job, and how much money would be left to buy some groceries.
I remember feeling my self esteem slowly slip away.
I remember how it felt to longer believe I was a valuable member of society. Instead, I was a burden and a drag.
I remember being told there was a rumor going around that my daughter and I were faking homelessness - and how on top of trying to keep our heads up and being strong for her, I had to defend against those accusations.
I remember. I embrace those memories, because they gave me insight into the human condition and deepened my compassion and ability to understand. Sometimes, I cry when I remember, but then I also remember there was light at the end of the tunnel. There was and is hope.
I always remember.
I cannot imagine what it must be like to grow up in a society such as we have today. When I was growing up I had no idea what most people thought about most topics in life. I didn't know who liked whom or who did what to whom - beyond my little circle of friends. I can't imagine what it must be like to be so vicariously involved in the lives of not only our closest friends - but also in the lives of their friends and families and acquaintances. Social media can be used for a lot of good things - it certainly has helped us get the word out about the Torch and 180 - but it can also be the tracks upon which the high speed gossip train goes careening down. Look out whatever, or whomever stands in the way - because you might be destroyed.
I recently read a news story about individuals in need who stand on the side of the road holding signs asking for money. The comments that accompanied the story were strongly opinionated and vocally opposed to those who do that. The idea that people who are asking for money at the side of the road are actually incredibly rich and are con artists was purported again and again. Lots of judgment was cast on those individuals. I couldn't help thinking that we are very comfortable jumping on the social media bandwagon and judging and criticizing other people's lives - even when we don't know them or actually know one thing about them. That makes me sad, because inevitably, there is more to the story than we know.
Recently, a friend of mine had an incident where a practical joke her son played spiraled into a police incident and a very terrified son. She was devastated and upset with his lack of wisdom and lack of foresight in choosing the joke he played, but he is a very young teenage boy - and no parent can predict every possible mistake his/her kids might make and teach them not to make them. It isn't possible.
When his incident began to get posted on social media and the comments began, they were often hyper-critical of his parents and his behavior. My friend is already dealing with helping a young boy face up to a serious mistake - and she commented that when she reads peoples' hateful comments about her family, "it is absolutely killing me".
Those are powerful words. It is killing her inside when she is already dealing with a difficult and painful life situation. And the people making the comments don't know her, or her situation, or her son. or her family. But they do know how to judge and critique. Sure, she can ignore them, but that is far easier said than done. People can also stop making negative judgments about others - that is pretty easily done.
I think about the MANY stupid decisions I made and ridiculous things I tried as a young person, and am so thankful I didn't grow up in a time when people could spread gossip so quickly, frame it as they pleased, and allow others to join in as they verbally crucified whatever they didn't approve of.
I feel like, as a society of vulnerable human beings, maybe we need to look at what we are allowing social media to turn us into. What happened to compassion? What happened to understanding? What happened to the benefit of the doubt? How about second chances - and learning from mistakes? My goodness, we can't possibly know what other people are going through - and our words can destroy. And we have no idea how quickly we could be on the other side of that fence, so we might just want to withhold our comments and judgment.
We need to use social media to build up and encourage the people around us, not join in the chorus of criticism and negativity that abounds.
How can anyone be human in a society where it isn't okay to be different or to make mistakes?
As another season of food trucking commences, I can't help but think back on all the things we have done at the Torch in just these past few short years. I give the credit to God, Who has given us wisdom, stamina and hope that guides us every single day. We have awesome volunteers who always step in just when we need them the most! What a blessing it is to re-count these memories:
April, 2013 - We got a truck!
January, 2014 - We got a food license!
April, 2014 - Our first fundraising event at The Shop in Fowlerville was a rousing success! We still have an awesome relationship with them and look forward to more events in the future!
May, 2014 - We made our first food run!
August, 2014 - We had our first Back-to-School event!
November, 2014 - Howell Community Theater had a "Hunger Heroes" food drive for us! They stocked our pantry full!
November, 2014 - We began a winter free meal service at the Howell Bennett Recreation Center.
January, 2015 - We launched our 180 project!
April, 2015 - Howell High School's Interact Club held a 5K "Glow" run to benefit the Torch.
June, 2015 - We held a "Carnival for a Cause" event.
June, 2015 - We served our 5,000th free meal!
August, 2015 - Our second Back-to-School event!
September, 2015 - We served over 10,000 free meals.
And there are a million memories within each of those! What a great feeling it gives me to be part of such an organization.
We were told it would never work. We have often been told our events won't work. And yet, here we are - and here we come! Thank you for being part of this wonderful adventure with us!