Find Your Heros

Many times in life we turn to others for inspiration. Names like Zig Ziglar and Tony Robbins, or religious leaders like Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, John Paul II, Mother Teresa and Gandhi to name only a few. In a world saturated with social media, there are an infinite number of platforms offering advice. Throughout my life I have developed relationships with people that have survived major, almost incomprehensible hardships, that have inspired me more than any story, speaker or podcast. I would like to share a few of some unbelievable examples of perseverance and resiliency.

Almost every Thursday morning I would attend a multidenominational bible study. One of the men in the group, I’ll call him Peter, was one of the kindest people I have ever met. He was also patient, humble and incredibly compassionate. The type of person that never complained about anything. About a year after meeting Peter, I learned that several years earlier, his son was paralyzed from the neck down, a quadriplegic. He explained this horrible experience as follows.

Peter was a few months away from retirement, had just bought a sailboat and he and his wife were planning on spending six months of each year on the boat. His son’s passion was motocross. His entire family was at a race watching their son compete. He was ahead in the race with just a few laps before the finish. He went over one of those huge dirt hills and messed up the landing and fell. He was pinned under his motorcycle. He would have been able to get up and walk away, but the unthinkable happened.

As he was moving his motorcycle to get up, the other riders jumping over this large hill did not see him. One by one they landed on him. More than ten dirt bikes from about 30 feet in the air failed to see him. By the time the race officials were able to stop the race and rescue this boy from under his motorcycle, he was motionless and barely breathing.

As the boys’ father watched from the stands, the only thing he could hope for was that his son was still alive. He did survive, albeit after a fairly lengthy stay in the hospital. He was, however, paralyzed from the neck down. Peter’s life changed instantly. He was unable to retire and needed to continue working due to the monumental healthcare costs. To make matters worse, his son needed around the clock care. Peter worked during the day and cared for his son at night, while his wife worked at night and cared for her son during the day. Sleep deprivation and daily exhaustion for both of his parents became the norm.

As difficult as it was, Peter was so happy his son was alive that the cost of time, money and sleep didn’t matter to him. He was the same pleasant, caring, kind, compassionate person he was before the accident. To this day, he does not complain. If you met him, you would never know that he and his wife have been caring for their son around the clock for more than 10 years. Peter is one of my personal heroes and a constant source of inspiration.

Ann and I go to the same church and our daughters used to play soccer together. She has five children and I would see them in church every Sunday. They were always nicely dressed and well behaved. When her oldest was 17 and her youngest was 2, she learned her husband was having an affair. He traveled internationally, admitted to the affair and never came home. She never received any alimony or child support. Some people have an incredible ability to block out all adversity and focus on the problem at hand.

Ann went to work, managed to find a job with flexible hours so she was still able to care for her kids. Amazingly, while raising 5 kids and working, she managed to go back to school part time and eventually became a nurse. I’m sure she isn’t the only single parent (man or woman) to accomplish this. However, her priorities demanded cooking, cleaning, kids homework, sports, her job and her own school work. I’m sure the pressure of conflicting priorities and financial burdens were daily.

Today, Ann is still a mother of five and also a grandmother of one. Her oldest graduated from college with honors, with two in college, one in high school, and her youngest in junior high. She is a pediatric nurse at Charlotte’s largest children’s hospital and still studying for an additional degree. Ann didn’t just survive, she thrived. She is also one of my personal heroes and, in my opinion, a living saint.

I met Tara in the summer of 1983. My family had a beach house at the Jersey shore and that same summer made friends with of group of young adults my age whose family and friends also had homes at the same beach. We would hang out together during the day at the beach, and in the evenings meet up at the local bars and clubs.

Tara was always nice, friendly and fun to be with. She and her friend Laura were always good company and we formed a nice friendship. A couple of years after we met, I learned from a mutual friend that when Tara was a rising senior in high school her parents and her two younger siblings drove cross country for the summer. She petitioned her parents to allow her to stay home. She had a job, wanted to work and spend some time with her friends during the summer.

We all remember our teenage years and I’m sure we all would have asked for the same. More importantly, Tara was very responsible and mature, so her parents honored her request. About a month into the trip, Tara got a call from the police in another state informing her that her entire family died in a horrible car accident. I don’t know how a 17-year-old copes with such a tragic event. I don’t know if anyone, regardless of their age or life experiences, could understand the trauma she must have experienced. I didn’t know her at the time and I’m sure she never completely recovered. How could anyone recover from something so traumatic.

Amazingly, she was always pleasant, never talked about it and certainly never used it as a crutch. Our friendship lasted about 10 years until my parents sold the beach house. I also got married and moved from New York to Charlotte, North Carolina and lost contact. This was long before social media made it impossible to lose track of people, which is how we got reunited.

In 2016, Tara found me on Facebook. I reconnected with her and her friend Laura. I was planning on meeting up with them on my next trip to New York to visit my extended family. A few days prior to my trip I received a call from Tara’s friend Laura. She thought I should be away of something prior to the three of us getting together. She informed me that Tara had three daughters.

About 8 years ago, her oldest daughter, who was 5 at the time, went in for a very common tonsillectomy, like so many kids do at that age. In one of the most unbelievable things I have ever heard, Tara’s daughter died in the hospital from a rare staph infection. This is the same woman, who fifteen years earlier lost her entire family to a car accident.

I can honestly say that I almost had a heart attack myself. I froze for about 10 seconds. I was totally speechless and numb. She wanted me to be aware of this horrific event prior to meeting with her and Tara. I still cannot grasp how such these two horrific events could happen to one person, how she coped with either, or how she survived.

Amazingly, she did. She has a very supportive husband and two daughters that need her, so her focus is on her family. I’m sure she has plenty of bad days and may have a hard time when she is alone and the house is quiet, but she is still the same nice, kind, friendly person she was when I met her in 1983. Obviously, she is one of my personal heroes also.

In 2013, when my job was secure and my family life a little was more stable, I started volunteering at a group home about 30 minutes from my house. Group homes are very common in the south. When children are removed from their homes for abuse or neglect, they are placed in group homes until a foster family can be found. The goal is for the kids to be in a group home for no more than a month or two. Too frequently their time in the home can last months, and occasionally, some can get stuck in a group home for years.

My job was to prepare activities for the kids and show up every Saturday afternoon for 2-4 hours. T-ball, basketball, soccer, tag, obstacle courses, anything I could think of to keep them busy. They appreciated the simplest forms of charity because they came from homes that had nothing. I would also bring Gatorade, candy, ice cream, cupcakes, etc. I remember getting a hug from a young boy because I remembered he liked Snickers bars.

When you learn that kids are removed from their homes and families for neglect or abuse, that term “neglect and abuse” is an understatement. The worst home environment you can imagine was typical for many of these kids. Children that suffered from neglect usually came from homes that had no running water and no consistent food supply. I have spoken to kids that told me they would go for an entire day, maybe two days without eating. Most of the kids that came from abusive homes experienced all types of abuse. Some of the abuses I learned about are nauseating. I remember being at the group home one day and a social worker showed up with three kids.

The oldest could not have been more than five. She was filthy. She looked as if she played in the dirt every day and hadn’t had a bath in a week. God bless the group home. When I saw the girl three days later, she was clean, had a haircut and was wearing a new dress. She even had a bow in her hair. She looked adorable. These group homes do an amazing job. The children are well cared for. They are provided with clothes, necessary healthcare, three meals a day, and other essentials including laptops and cell phones, depending on their age. More importantly, they receive the discipline, structure and life skills they need to prepare themselves for adulthood. Although group homes are a very good alternative, you can’t dismiss the fact that most of the kids will be dealing with childhood trauma for their entire lives.

The most troubling aspect for me, was getting to know some of the kids whose stay at the group homes lasted months and even years. All of the kids are taught about the foster and adoption process. Kids that aren’t taken to a foster home or adopted wake up every day thinking that no one loves them or cares for them.  I remember several kids and siblings that were in the group home for years. I cried for so many of them, wishing I could take them home. If I had the means to do it, I would have. This experience had such a tremendous effect on my struggles and outlook. How could I ever, ever think that I had issues and hardships after spending time with these kids. The answer is, I couldn’t. Volunteering at that group home for about five years was one of the most rewarding opportunities of my life.

These children, as well as my friends, Peter, Ann and Tara had to deal with hardships that made my issues look like minor setbacks, and rightfully so. These people and the kids from the group homes are real heroes. Whenever something bad happens, if I have a day, week, month or even a bad year, I remind myself of my personal heroes I wrote about in this blog. When I remind myself how they persevered and demonstrated resiliency, my life suddenly seems so much easier, and my hardships disappear. Find your own heroes, rely on them for inspiration, and you will be able to overcome almost anything.