Insure Your Success In Business By Learning From My Mistakes

Ten years ago this week, Alan and I opened our non-profit organization, Merrimack Hall Performing Arts Center, to the public. Spending 10 years as a full-time “philanthropist” has been exhilarating, exhausting and enlightening.  I’ve learned more in the past 10 years than I did in the 46 preceding years so it must be true that you can teach an old gal new tricks. Unfortunately, my newfound knowledge was gained only by making mistakes. Massive, heinous, costly and unnecessary mistakes are my forté.  Maybe I can save you some trouble by sharing My 6 Biggest Mistakes:

  1. Never launch a new venture – a business, a non-profit, a project, not even a party – without a solid business plan. Estimates and pro-formas scribbled on a yellow legal pad at your kitchen island at 1:00 a.m. when you are drunk on inspiration…and Jack and Coke’s…do not count as a solid business plan. We asked all sorts of people for their input and advice: attorneys, bankers, wealth managers, architects, contractors and accountants. Since all of them advised us to ditch our idea to overhaul a 100-year-old building into a non-profit theatre, we chose to ignore them. If everyone you trust tells you not to do something, perhaps you should listen. BUT…if we had listened to them, there wouldn’t be a Merrimack Hall and this post would be completely unnecessary.
    Building 2006

    Merrimack Hall Pre-Renovation, May 2006

     

  2. Never start a new endeavor without a clear mission. When we started planning our organization in 2006, we went with the “if you build it, they will come” mantra and our stated mission was simply to offer a new venue for the arts in Huntsville. What to do with that venue we had no idea. BUT…if we had settled on a mission to begin with, we wouldn’t have stumbled on the idea of offering arts education to people with special needs.

    Popovich pets

    For 7 years, we presented a full season of touring productions.

  3. Never start a new business without consulting with people who are already in the same line of work and always heed their advice. I asked lots of people for advice on how to conduct an arts education program for people with special needs. They all told me that I was unqualified and unprepared. I dismissed their concerns, telling myself it couldn’t possibly be that hard. Maybe I should have listened. It never occurred to me that we would meet children who are medically fragile, that we would work with children and adults who are non-verbal or who have seizure disorders or chronic heart conditions or who risk serious injury just attempting a pilé. It certainly never occurred to me that four children we knew and loved would pass away. BUT…if I had listened to the naysayers, that first little dance class would never have happened.
First Panoply performance

First Panoply Performance, 2009

4.  Create job descriptions based on the actual tasks required and hire people with a skill set that matches that job description. I did it backwards, creating jobs predicated on the skill set of the person I hired. Every business person I know – and my professors at Columbia Business School – warned me not to do this. I tried doing it the “right” way for 7 or 8 years, resulting in multiple failed attempts at hiring the perfect team. Almost three years ago, I finally assembled the “Dream Team.” If I had listened to the pros, I could have saved myself lots of strife. BUT…if I had written a job description for a qualified visual art instructor, I would never have found a woman who had a BA in studio art, had spent several years working as the training manager for a large non-profit and was a “genius” at the Apple Store. I combined her artistic and technical skills into a position that fills our IT, marketing, graphic design, volunteer recruitment and training, and visual art needs. It might have taken longer but doing it my way has resulted in a team with a diverse skill set and a deep and abiding love for the population we serve.

The Dream Team

The full-time Dream Team is assisted by part-time staff members Suzanne Bradley, Antony Sharpe, Patti Huebner, Angie Davis and Hayley Henderson, who volunteers her time as our Artistic Director.

5.  Do not rely on the investment of your own money to make your venture sustainable…bring in partners and investors to insure fiscal success. Obviously! You shouldn’t pour all of your resources into a money pit! BUT…because we’ve donated over $7 million of our own dollars during the past 10 years, we have a proprietary and passionate interest in the outcome of everything done at Merrimack Hall. Thousands of individuals, hundreds of businesses and dozens of granting organizations have joined in our mission due in no small part to our willingness to put our own money into the organization. You’ve got to spend money to make money and sometimes, you have to donate your own to inspire others to donate theirs.

Humanitarian Award

We were humbled to receive the Humanitarian Award in 2012.

6.  Do not lead with your heart…lead with your head. Alan and I were full of passion and full of ourselves, determined to leave a legacy on our community instead of being full of knowledge, experience and preparation. And I don’t care about this big mistake I made. Because when you choose to invest your time and money into any endeavor, you’ll never be successful without an endless supply of heart.

PUP West

We even have an affiliate program in Ashland, Oregon!

Now that I think about it, I wouldn’t change a thing. Because of our blissful ignorance and full-hearted desire to make life better for someone else, we surged ahead without considering the downside. Good ideas have a way of shutting down detractors and our enthusiasm helped recruit hundreds of students, volunteers and extended families to buy into our idea. Had we hesitated…or shown our fear of the unknown…at any point during these past 10 years, the community that our families and volunteers have built through the novel approach to inclusion that is at the heart of everything we do at Merrimack Hall would not exist.

Peyton and Vivian

The arts bringing together folks who otherwise wouldn’t have met…that’s inclusion to me!

The only remaining hurdle is to insure the fiscal solvency of Merrimack Hall. Because of my mistakes, we uncovered a growing and critical need, one that outpaces our ability to fund it alone. We’ve come too far to turn back now…the vibrant community of lives that intersect at Merrimack Hall is counting on us.

Group bow

First summer camp for teens, June 2010

So, I’m moving forward into Merrimack Hall’s second decade determined to increase donations and lower costs. I’m determined to expand the ever-growing circle of Merrimack Hall’s impact. I’m determined to learn from my mistakes. I won’t make these again…I’ll just make new ones. Stay tuned….

Hayley XMas pic

First holiday production, December 2011

If you’d like to join us in our effort to serve people with special needs, click the link below to donate or contact volunteer@merrimackhall.com to get involved! Any amount – of your money or of your time – will help to improve the quality of life for people with special needs and their families.

http://www.merrimackhall.com/donate/

Chloe angel pic

This little nugget is a teenager now…and a terrific tap dancer!

What I Know About Marriage On The Eve Of My 30th Anniversary

On March 22, 1986, at 2:00 p.m., Alan and I got married.

Our wedding day...so young and in love!

Our wedding day…so young and in love!

We had dated for five years already. We were young, naive and in love. Thirty years later, we are older and wiser but we’re not “in love” anymore. What I feel for him after 30 years has no resemblance to the feelings I had on the day I said, “I do.” At 25, he made my heart flutter…and I thought that’s what love was.

The boy I fell in love with at 21. Isn't he adorable?

The boy I fell in love with at 21. Isn’t he adorable?

At 55, he makes my heart swell…with gratitude and pride…gratitude that we are still together and pride that we have beat the odds (And he does still make my heart flutter…just in a deeper, more profound and more meaningful way!).

Statistics say we shouldn’t still be married. I’m damn proud of us…for course-correcting as we go and for keeping our eye on the prize. There aren’t a lot of folks our age who can say that they’ve only been married once because it’s hard work. There have been many times during our thirty-year marriage when one of us may have wanted to throw in the towel and we’ve both given each other many reasons to do just that. But we didn’t.

So, in a spirit of self-congratulations, I offer you my unsolicited advice on staying married. Wherever you may be on the relationship journey, here’s what I know to be true:

  1. Start by choosing well. We knew enough about each other’s basic value system that we could confidently state we shared same approach to life and wanted the same general outcome. Before Alan, I had never met anyone who looked at life and its purpose through the same filter as me. We shared the same basic philosophy about religion, politics, money and family, although we were too young to have tested any of the theories we held on these topics.
  2. Always respect each other. We may not always agree and we definitely utilize different tactics to get where we want to go but we have a deep and abiding respect for what the other brings to the table.
  3. Understand that if you dissolve a marriage, the issues within that marriage will follow you. The problem with getting divorced is that unless you do a tremendous amount of personal work, the issues that broke up your marriage will continue to haunt you…and they will be magnified by the divisions divorce creates. We figured we might as well stick it out with each other because had we chosen to walk away from our marriage, our personal shortcomings would still be there, staring back at us in the mirror. We both have a lot of personal growth still left to do but we’ve always agreed that it would be easier to do that growth side by side than it would be to do that work apart, with the complications of second marriages, stepchildren, and all that goes along with divorce.

    Our young family in 1992

    Our young family in 1992

  4. Find things to be passionate about together. From the Beatles and the arts to Alabama football, we have always looked for ways to share mutual enthusiasm. There are lots of things we enjoy separately and those things are important to us as individuals but there are some things that we invest our energy into equally. These shared interests give us something to focus on when our separate interests collide.
    He likes to fish. I like to shop.

    He likes to fish. I like to shop.

    And we are lucky that all of our shared passions clicked together when we created Merrimack Hall.

    With a few of our students in 2014

    With a few of our students in 2014

  5. Focus on the legacy that your marriage will leave. I imagine that all people who have long-term marriages have a commitment to leaving some sort of legacy – for their children or their religion or their profession or their community. Alan and I both know that separately, we can leave a mark and we both have. But together, we can make a more powerful statement. I bet every couple who’s been together long enough will say the same thing.

And the most powerful thing I know about being married is this:

7. “We” is more important than “me.” We have approached every challenge and every triumph from the mindset of “we.” There have been dozens of times when what was best for “we” might not have been what was best for either of us personally but we were committed to the notion that when we said, “I Do,” we were forging an alliance that was more important than either of us as individuals.

As I scrolled through photos to use for this post, I was struck by the fact that we all have pictures of ourselves and our lives at our best. I have hundreds of photos of Alan and me at moments of great personal achievement and of great happiness.

Meeting Sir Paul McCartney...definitely a high point

Meeting Sir Paul McCartney…definitely a high point

Receiving the Humanitarian Award in 2014

Receiving the Humanitarian Award in 2014

I wish I had photos that show the turmoil, heartbreak, anger, frustration, chaos and sadness that have marked our 30-year marriage because those would be the photos that really tell the story: when the bank balance is “zero;” when parents age and die; when children veer off course and we fear for their future happiness; when arguments escalate into low-blow name-calling; when business ventures fail; when we embarrass ourselves in public; when we make mistakes that the other predicted but we wouldn’t listen to their advice; when we vehemently disagree on matters of great importance; when we hurt each other…these are the photos I wish I had because they would be the ones that tell the story of staying married for 30 years.

I treasure the moments of heartache and hurt almost as much as I cherish the memories of happiness and joy because it was in those moments that seemed the most hopeless that we chose to remember that WE are more important than ME. And that’s why we’ve managed to stay married for 30 years.

So, Alan, love of my life and best friend forever, congratulations to us. If we’ve made it through everything life has thrown us so far, I’d say we’re golden for the next 30 years. And to borrow Chelsie’s phrase, Alan…you I love.

 

 

Cooking Competition Serves Up New Leaders

Rocket Chef logo copy

The Judges Table

We had a really cool event at Merrimack Hall last week. Rocket Chef: Clash of the Culinary Titans was a sell-out, a big deal for a first-time event. Rocket Chef attracted a diverse audience and brought a lot of newcomers to our venue…they were old and young, foodies and wanna-be chefs, fans of the competitors and friends of the event organizers. The competitors exhibited their amazing skills and talents in a live cook-off. Not only did the organizers raise enough money through corporate sponsorships to pay for the equipment needed to mount this event – stoves, refrigerators, chef’s tables, dishes and utensils of every variety, blenders, food processors and more – but they also netted nearly $18,000 in profits which will be split between our Johnny Stallings Arts Program and The Food Bank of North Alabama.

Like I said, Rocket Chef was…really cool.

Event organizers and Merrimack Hall's production team turned our stage into a kitchen!

Event organizers and Merrimack Hall’s production team turned our stage into a kitchen!

But as cool as the event turned out to be, the really cool thing about Rocket Chef was the five young professionals who conceived, organized and executed it.

Kyla Green, Clarissa McClain, Mike Conrad, Aaron Caradonna and Lauren Battle are all in their late 20’s or early 30’s. When they started this project back in June, the did not know each other. Participants in Leadership Huntsville/Madison County’s Connect program for young professionals, they were randomly placed in a small group and tasked with doing something to address the issue of hunger in our community. They started with no resources, no budget, no precedent for what they wanted to do. All they had was their idea and a single-minded determination to bring their idea to life.

They all have full time jobs. Some of them have babies at home. None of them had much volunteer experience…come to think of it, they’re too young to have much experience at anything! They are in the early stages of careers that are sure to be brilliant – in banking, insurance, hospital administration, broadcast journalism and corporate law.

They utilized every contact in their address books, they called on anyone who could advise them, they listened to everyone who offered guidance, they used every opportunity they came across to build a consensus for this event. They tenaciously invested themselves in their idea and refused to give up…even when they were thrown a curve ball at least once a day. The were motivated by a total commitment to a worthy cause, which is what carried them through the longest days I imagine they’ve ever worked.

The undertaking was monumental in every regard. Just from our end, the logistics were staggering. We’ve presented a lot of things on our stage over the past seven years but four chefs…cooking in three-rounds…live…in front of an audience? Not so much. Props to Martez Clemons, our Production Coordinator, and Melissa Reynolds, our Program and Operations Director, for the brilliant job they did in coordinating everything from ticket sales to stage set up, including but not limited to figuring out how to power up four stoves and all the appliances at the same time, how to light the stage, how to vent the steam coming from the stoves so that our sprinkler system wasn’t activated and more…and more..and more.

Shawn Duvall of the Pepper Pig and Andy Howery of The Bottle battle it out in the final round, with Shawn emerging as the first Rocket Chef Champion

Shawn Duvall of the Pepper Pig and Andy Howery of The Bottle battle it out in the final round, with Shawn emerging as the first Rocket Chef Champion

Merrimack Hall’s involvement was just one piece in a huge puzzle that included other non-profits, restaurants, grocery stores, electricians, appliance stores…the sheer number of individuals who bought into this idea and donated their expertise, goods and services blows my mind.

The five event organizers were on a steep learning curve with a short deadline. They had to trust each other, they had to communicate with each other, they had to coordinate every detail with us and The Food Bank, they had to imagine every contingency and prepare for it. And they did it!

The reason I’m so impressed by Kyla, Clarissa, Mike, Aaron and Lauren is because when I was their age, I was just beginning to dip my toes into the volunteer arena. Over the past 25 years, I’ve been on hundreds of committees, worked on dozens of events, been involved in the creation of new projects and my volunteer career culminated with the creation of my own organization that is serving a need that no one in our community has ever attempted to serve. But I didn’t come into my own, didn’t feel the passion it takes to put everything on the line for a cause you believe in until I was about 40 – a good 10-15 years later than the five wunderkids who pulled off Rocket Chef.

When the event ended, the five of them were very proud of themselves…and rightfully so. They celebrated as a team, just the way they did everything else involved with the event. They spent the week coming and going from Merrimack Hall…cleaning up, arranging for storage of appliances until next year’s event, making sure that all unused food was delivered to Manna House and The Food Bank of North Alabama. When they had wrapped it all up they looked…well, they looked exhausted. But they also looked like different people from the five folks who came to me with this wild idea in August.

They looked like seasoned pros…and more importantly, they seemed transformed by their work. I could see it in their eyes and remember that feeling…the first time you realize that you CAN make a difference, you CAN do something to make things better. They are now empowered…emboldened…confident in themselves and I know they will take on bigger challenges in the future. Once you’ve successfully done something that has a positive impact on someone else’s life, you want to experience that feeling again…and again.

Our community’s next generation of servant leaders has been christened and I can’t wait to see what these five people do next!

Kathryn Strickland of The Food Bank with event organizers Aaron Caradonna, Clarissa McClain, Mike Conrad, Kyla Green and Lauren Battle

Kathryn Strickland of The Food Bank with event organizers Aaron Caradonna, Clarissa McClain, Mike Conrad, Kyla Green and Lauren Battle

 

 

What Happened When A Radio Talk Show Host Used The “R” Word On Air

This post contains graphically offensive racial and ethnic slurs that are not a part of my vocabulary…I am using them to illustrate a point. I am deeply offended by the use of words that disparage or diminish any group of people.

Words…what power they have.

The words we choose to use can open a dialogue or shut one down; they can make a friend or an enemy; they can forge a bond or create a divide.

This morning, local radio station owner Michael St. John was hosting his daily morning talk show when he unintentionally ignited a firestorm by his repeated use of the “R” word. I didn’t hear it myself but one of the parents in my program did, and she called me. She was hurt and outraged. She said, “You are our voice…please speak for us” so I called the station to see if Mr. St. John would speak with me. We talked for nearly an hour and I think both of us came away feeling positive.

On-air, Michael relayed the story of two separate events that happened to him yesterday that involved two people with special needs, one who worked in a grocery store and the other at a fast food restaurant. In both instances, the person with special needs was unable to perform the job duties they had been assigned. In both instances, everyone involved had become frustrated – the people with special needs and the customers they were tasked with serving. Michael explained to me that he was trying to ask a general question…is there some sort of governmental mandate that is requiring businesses to hire people with special needs even if they aren’t qualified for the jobs?

I should mention here that Michael’s radio station is a conservative talk station, which helped me make sense of his “big government interference” theory. I should also mention that there is no governmental mandate to hire people with special needs and that I strongly encourage businesses to give jobs to people with special needs when they can. We have two employees with special needs who make valuable contributions to our organization each day.

In both of these instances, the person with special needs had difficulty making appropriate change for a purchase. Michael wondered why they were put in the position of operating the cash register if they weren’t skilled enough to do so, which is a valid question. Personally, I think the inability of some fast food workers to make change has more to do with our failing school system and our minimum wage than it does with having special needs but that’s a political ball of worms that I don’t care to open in my blog.

People didn’t hear Michael’s question or understand his point because all they heard was his choice of words…retardedretardretarded afflictions…and his repeated use of “them” and “those people.”

When I asked him about his use of these words, he was adamant in his intention that he used these words to describe the diagnosis of the person and did not mean to cast aspersions on them. And I was stunned to hear that Michael actually has a step-daughter with an intellectual disability. Turns out, Michael is not offended by the “R” word as a parent and did not seem to be aware that its use is no longer deemed appropriate.

I wondered how a person – especially one who has a family member with a disability – could be so oblivious to the fact that the “R” word is no longer acceptable but I reminded myself that he lives in a small community in North Alabama, which could explain a lot. Rednecks can be slow to catch onto trends.

Ouch…that stings because I, too am a redneck from North Alabama.

When I tried to explain to him that the “R” word is inflammatory and negative, he was a bit defensive in his stance that you can’t eliminate a word from the dictionary just because some people find it offensive.

Here is one thing Michael said to me (paraphrased):

People with retarded afflictions shouldn’t be put in jobs that don’t match their skill set.

So I asked him to substitute other offensive words in this sentence and see if he thought it would be acceptable to say them live on the radio, like this:

Faggots/niggers/chinks/kikes/dagos/wet backs/rag heads/crackers shouldn’t be put in jobs that don’t match their skill set.

I think a “lightbulb” went off for Michael.

The surprising thing was that the longer we talked, the more I liked Michael, even though I was primed to take his head off. He truly didn’t intend to offend people with special needs or their families. He truly intended to simply ask what he thinks is a valid question. He is truly grateful for the job his step-daughter has and knows that she takes pride in having a job she can do independently and well. He truly wants other people with special needs to have that same employment experience- he doesn’t want them to be placed in jobs that are inappropriate for them because he truly hated to see two people with special needs becoming frustrated when they were unable to be successful in their assigned tasks.

Michael said to me, “When a door slams in your face, a window will open and I think this happened today so that you and I would have this conversation.” He’s promised to issue an apology/clarification on air tomorrow and has invited me to be his guest on his show in September, an invitation I’m happy to accept.

I may not agree with his politics or enjoy conservative talk radio but he’s not a bad guy…he just made very poor word choices. I do the same thing every day when I drop “F” bombs around. There are certainly people who tune me out or become outraged with me because I say “fuck,” even if they agree with my message. So a lightbulb went off for me, too.

Although I’m sure I will continue to drop “F” bombs when I believe they are appropriate and while “fuck” may be offensive to some people, it is an adjective or a verb, not a noun used to disparage someone.

Which brings me back around to words and their power. We have advocacy groups telling us every day that certain words aren’t acceptable, from the NAACP to the LGBTQ. So I am adding my voice to the chorus of voices that are trying to tell our society that we are all more alike than we are different…and not just in matters of race, ethnicity or sexual preference.

It’s not okay to call anyone names, people.

People with special needs are people…they are not just a diagnosis or a stereotype. They are people with feelings and they deserve to be respected, by us and by our words.

The Secret about Parents of Kids with Special Needs

 

Alisa and Anna Chilton

Alisa and Anna

I follow a lot of blogs. One of my favorites is Special Needs Mom, by a gifted writer named Suzanne Perryman. She posted an entry on April 14, 2013, that pops back up in newsfeeds occassionally and during the past week, I’ve noticed that several of the moms of students in my program have reposted it. Click here to read the post.

As I re-read this post, I realized that I know a secret about parents of kids with special needs, a secret they won’t tell you because they probably don’t even realize it …

The secret is that parents whose kids have special needs are brave.

What else do you call a person who has faced their worst fear and emerged changed for the better? In the past seven years, I’ve met hundreds of parents and I’ve only encountered one who was bitter, a young mom who’s daughter has cerebral palsy and who told me that her daughter was too disabled … more disabled than any other child and couldn’t possibly be part of my program. The rest of the parents I’ve met are … well, they are just brave. And brave people rarely tout their bravery.

They didn’t start out that way.

They started out on the road to parenthood just like I did … with a vision that did not include hospitals, therapists, resource classrooms. They were a couple with a shared dream of creating that perfect family that we all want. Maybe they imagined their child would be a great athlete or a great artist or a great engineer. While they were expecting, they imagined all those life events their child would experience … playdates, school plays, college, a wedding. For some of them, that imagining came to a halt during pregnancy, for others the end of the dreams didn’t come until later.

But at some point, life said to the parents I know:

“Sorry, you don’t get that dream. You better get busy trying to imagine a different one.”

And so that’s what they did.

 

Connor and Brian Furber

Connor and Brian

 

They’ve taken the disappointment, the fear, the anger that they must have felt and have turned the other cheek. They refuse to let anything negative shape the rest of their lives or cast a shadow on the lives their children will have. They were dealt a blow that must have laid them flat on their backs, but they’ve gotten back up again, put a smile back on their faces and they’ve re-imagined the future without rancor and without regret.

There must be times when the heartbreak returns. Maybe a girlfriend tells them about her daughter, who made the cheerleading squad or maybe their buddy tells them about teaching his son to drive – and there it is … that pain, that regret, that feeling of, “Yeah, that’s what I thought I’d be doing.”

I think bravery is doing something, even when you don’t want to or are afraid and never allowing yourself to become resentful about it. Which is exactly what the parents I know do.

I’ve experienced a miniscule taste of what it might be like. Austin began to lose touch with his classmates around 9th grade and for the rest of his high school years, we were caught up in the drama of drug addiction. A few weeks ago, I ran into the mom of one of his kindergarten classmates and was startled when she told me that her daughter had graduated from college back in May.

“Wait a minute,” I thought to myself. “If Austin hadn’t spent six years using drugs, he’d be graduating from college now?” For a brief time, I let myself think about all that we missed … prom, high school graduation, fraternities and campus visits.

And as I thought about those lost dreams I’d had for Austin, I wondered if I would have turned out like that one parent I met who was bitter that her child had cerebral palsy or if I would have been brave enough to embrace an unexpected and uninvited path.

Once I said to a parent, “I don’t know how you do it,” not realizing that this would be offensive to her. Parenting her child was not some onerous task, some hardship she had to endure … parenting her child was a gift in life.

Was she like that to start with, before she knew her child would have a disability?

Or did having a child with a disability turn her into a resilient and brave woman who could accept that she was going to have to travel a road she never asked to travel?

 

Ben, Carly and Gina Bender

Ben, Carly and Gina

 

Some of the bravest parents I’ve met are ones whose adult children have disabilities … those parents who insisted on bringing their children home from the hospital back in the days when doctors told them not to.

One father told me that when his son was born, in 1960, the doctor said,

“Put him in an institution. You’ll visit him once a week at first, then every six weeks and before you know it, you’ll never even remember you had him.”

Those parents brought their children home when there were no resources, no therapists or early interventions, when their children were not even allowed to go to school. I know so many parents who have retired and still have their children living at home and imagine that they worry every single day about what will happen if their children outlive them. But that doesn’t stop them from fully embracing the path life placed them on, despite what they might have imagined one day so long ago.

All I know to say is … that’s what bravery looks like.

The next time you see a parent of child who has special needs, remember this secret they will never tell you … when you see them in the grocery store or at your school or at your church …

You are in the presence of a person who is truly brave.

And the next time you are disappointed in something or life hands you an unexpected twist, and take inspiration from their bravery.

Having Choices

The Connection field trip to Garden Cove Produce

The Connection field trip to Garden Cove Produce

 

For some reason, people tell me their problems. I avoid eye contact with people beside me on airplanes or in line at the dry cleaners because next thing I know, they are telling me about their awful spouses or their problems with work. I have found myself caught in conversations with complete strangers about the most personal of topics, like the time I was minding my own business at an Alabama football game and a woman proceeded to tell me all about her menstrual cycle, in gory detail. Completely unsolicited …

My friends used to unburden themselves to me like I was Dr. Phil or something. When I was younger, I was an enthusiastic audience for my friends’ complaints and worries, happy to dispense my sage wisdom while telling myself that I must have my shit together or else they wouldn’t be asking for my advice or trusting me with their deepest secrets. Not so much anymore. These days I’m too busy – and so are most of my friends – to engage in the sort of self-involved pity parties and pop psychology that I used to find so interesting.

Every now and then, I’ll end up in a conversation with a friend who wants to tell me about the wretched condition of their life …

“I’m so unhappy in my marriage”
“My business is failing”
“My husband doesn’t understand me”
“I shouldn’t have gotten married to him/her/at all”
“I don’t like the girl my son is dating”

And on and on and on.

I’m never sure if they want me to sympathize with them, offer them solutions or just let them whine. A few years ago, I would have been inclined to listen with empathy and then offer advice that I’d heard on Oprah but these days, I find myself wanting to tell them to shut the hell up and put on their big girl (or big boy) panties.

It seems to me that most of the time when people are dissatisfied with something in their lives, the real problem isn’t what they’re dissatisfied with … the real problem is that they are unwilling to take action or make a tough choice. So you’re not satisfied in your marriage? Then fix it. You don’t like where your career is headed? Then change it. Wish you hadn’t gotten married to him/her/at all? Too late, you did, so find a way to make it work.

Of course, it can be daunting to take the first step towards making changes that need to be made but you have to start somewhere, with some sort of action. I would rather do the wrong thing than do nothing and have a hard time understanding people who would rather wallow in misery than take action or make a choice. And the longer I work with people who have special needs, the more adamant in this opinion I become.

See, those of us who are “typical” have choices. People with special needs, in many cases don’t have choices. People with special needs learn to be happy with what they have because often, they have no other option. Like a woman in our day habilitation program for adults … I’ll call her Margaret (because there’s no one in my program for adults whose name is Margaret).

Margaret is older than me and has an intellectual disability. She has no family to speak of and lives in a group home. Margaret has anxiety over trying new things…new activities, new foods, new people, changes in routine cause her tremendous angst. Margaret doesn’t get to make many choices in her life…she has to roll with the punches life throws her even when she’d rather not. When we added yoga to our daily activities, we had to coax her to give it a try. I watched her fight off the anxiety and force herself to try something that was frightening to her. Margaret powers through things, even when they’re scary or not particularly appealing to her and she doesn’t complain.

 

Connection yoga class

Connection yoga class

 

A couple of weeks ago, we took the adults in The Connection on a field trip to our local farmer’s market. I was afraid Margaret might have a hard time on the trip, worrying about how we would get there or what time we would come back. When we walked into the market, I was standing beside her and when she cried, “Oh!” I thought she was upset. But when I turned to ask her what was wrong, I saw tears in her eyes and a wide smile of genuine pleasure on her face.

“Debra,” she said, “thank you for bringing us here. I haven’t been inside a grocery store in 15 years.”

Wow. Such a simple thing that I take for granted – no, that I complain about – brought Margaret such joy. As I watched her walk through the market, touching all the produce, I thought about all those times that I’ve complained about my problems, or listened to others complain about theirs, and I was ashamed.

 

Cool photo by Katie Stapely

Cool photo by Katie Stapely

 

I gave each adult $5.00 to buy something and was even more ashamed when Margaret asked me if I had enough money to buy sweet potatoes for everyone in her home … ashamed because Margaret was thinking about other people when I so often only think of myself. She started to get anxious about how she would be able to carry all the potatoes home with her, whether they would fit in the van, worried she might forget them but as I calmed her down and told her that we would make sure the potatoes went home with her, she grabbed my arm and said,

“Thank you for making me come today. I didn’t really want to but I’m so glad I did.”

I’ve had so many moments like this in the past six years … moments when I glimpse through the words or actions of people with special needs exactly how the rest of us ought to live.

 

Paul learning about nutrition

Paul learning about nutrition

 

I don’t get this right all the time but I’m trying so hard to remember it … that if there’s something in my life that isn’t working, I should fix it. If there’s something I’m doing wrong, I need to correct it. If there’s someone I’m hurting, I need to stop it. If there’s something I could be doing to make the world better for someone else, I should get busy.

Because I can … because I have choices … because I can complain about things I wish were different or I can choose to do something – anything – to make things different.

 

Starring…my favorite kids with special needs

Video shoot, June 2012

Video shoot, June 2012

This video will make your Monday!

Two summers ago, we were approached by some folks in Hollywood who were interested in making a feature film based on JSAP. The idea is still floating around out there, somewhere in that strange land called LA. Who knows…it could still happen someday. Even if it never materializes, those filmmakers left us with something priceless – a beautiful video intended to give a glimpse into the personalities of some of our students and to show how endearing, funny and fabulous they are. So, let’s go back two years, when Darby was still here, when Connor was a little boy, when Melissa had long hair and when it was Katie’s 18th birthday….