BeachWise

“Hola…bracelet or ring for your pretty lady?” the man asked struggling a bit with his English pronunciation.

Standing on a beach in Cabo, Mexico in early July 2014, a vendor dressed in white and wearing a brown straw hat to shield his face from the hot sun approached us as we walked towards the ocean. We had just finished having our favorite Mexican afternoon snack of chips and guacamole along side two skinny margaritas.

Moments later the vendor asked the very same question to a young couple holding hands walking ahead of us – also referring to the woman as a “pretty lady.”

“No gracias,” they politely replied and kept strolling.

He continued to ask other tourists walking in his direction the same question – word for word in broken English – all responding, “No gracias.”

A sucker for checking out authentic goods from local vendors from anywhere we are, I walked over to take a peek at what was inside his large black briefcase while my husband, Chris, followed close behind me.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Pedro.”

“Pedro, how much does this one cost?” I questioned pointing to one of the larger silver bracelets.

“Ah for you pretty lady,” though all the while directing his eye contact towards my husband, “I give it to you for 600 pesos.”

Doing the conversion rate in my head quickly, I turned to my husband and said “40 bucks seems reasonable for this bracelet, what do you think?”

Chris knowing all too well that in Mexico you never accept the first offer by a local vendor, quickly countered with $25. Pedro responded with $35.   We happily agreed to buy the bracelet knowing it was probably still overpriced.

Chris went back to our room at the resort to get money to pay Pedro while I stayed with him on the beach.

“Are you from Cabo?” I asked.

“No, I travel here for work. I live with my family just outside Mexico City.”

Surprised by him traveling so far away for such a long period of time away from his family (roughly, a 24 hour drive from Cabo to Mexico City), I asked him if I could learn more about him being a salesman on the beaches of Cabo. I told him I would return the following morning to sit down with him before he got started working; I didn’t want to take him away from the few tourists that were on the beach that day knowing it was the peak afternoon time when couples tended to walk along the beach.   He seemed excited and surprised that I asked him for more of his time.

Just then, Chris returned and paid him for the bracelet.

The following morning I met with Pedro under a straw hut before he got to work. He explained that he’s been coming to Cabo for 26 years to work. He was my age (43 years old) and married to his wife for 20 years. He spends 3-4 months selling on the Cabo beaches, then heads back home to Mexico City for 15-20 days to see his family. He and his wife have 4 children ages 19, 18, 16 and 11.

Surprised that he traveled so far from Mexico City for such long stretches of time away from his family, I asked him why he came to Cabo specifically.

Pedro explained in broken English, “Business very good here. Many, many tourists…once, I made almost $400 US dollars in single day! But then nothing again for 2 weeks.”

“Sometimes I don’t make any money for an entire week, but my average is $100-$150 US dollars a week here.”

“I encourage my kids to go to college and to continue their education. I tell them I don’t want it to be as hard for them to take care of their families someday.”

Pedro explained that his 18-year old daughter works in an Internet café locally and makes $40 a week to also help with supporting the family.

“I may not have much money, but I am a happy man. I stay focused on taking care of my family. God, good health and my family is all I need,” he said.

After meeting Pedro that morning, Chris and I left the beach and went up to the pool area at the resort and shared his story with a few other hotel guests sitting near us. Many of them went down to the beach to buy his wares after hearing his story. Admittedly, we were happy to help drive a little bit of extra business that week for him.

Only two months after meeting Pedro, on the evening of Sunday, September 14th, 2014 Hurricane Odile slammed into Baja Pennisula in Mexico along the entire corridor between San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas. The hurricane was the 2nd most powerful hurricane to reach Cabo since 1967. Sadly, there has been minimal news coverage of the devastation and the impact to the Mexican people, their homes, their businesses and their families’ survival. Much of the news coverage centered on how difficult it was for the American, Canadian and European tourists to get out of Mexico due the many roads, most resorts and the airport all being destroyed in the path of the storm.

Many of the locals in this devastated area support themselves and their families on tourism dollars. In fact, Mexico is ranked 3rd in the world for employment through tourism, China and Indonesia being 1st and 2nd, respectively. Mexicans’ make a living and support their families from jobs connected to tourism. The average server or waiter in Mexico makes about $300-$400 a month (this is salary/without tourist tips), and the average hotel worker depending on role, makes somewhere between $50 and $100 a week. Most salaries are based on a six day work week. This is why tourism dollars and generous tips are so important. Research indicates that a family of 4 requires about $1000USD per month to survive – this is without a vehicle or owning a house.

The Mexican locals of Cabo and those who travel there for work like Pedro are trying to rebuild the community and in many cases, their lives. For them, it’s not just a paradise for tourists to come and visit, it’s where they work to support themselves and their families.

Pedro

Pedro

“Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you nothing about,” is a favorite quote of mine and a reminder to keep perspective that those around you may be facing hardships and have incredible circumstances in overcoming those hardships. In the scene below, Will Smith’s character is fighting to land a job to earn an income to take care of himself and his son. With a single lucky phone call, he sells hard and gets the break he needs.

In the case of Pedro and the entire community of Cabo, my hope is that we find a way to help them overcome the hardships and get the lucky break so many desperately need right now. To give a helping hand or provide resources, and to stop writing about the tourists’ struggles who narrowly escaped the devastation left by Hurricane Odile. Rather let’s write about the impact of the storm to the Mexican locals.

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Something Good

“I guess I felt that I had to turn something good out of something bad,” Patti answered.

Patti was my mom’s best friend.  Throughout my teenage years, I remember her and her husband spending time with my parents.  I always thought of her as my mom’s best friend who looked like my mom (but brunette), and who acted like my mom (both outgoing, kind, hard working moms).  Though, unlike my mother who was raising 3 teenage daughters, Patti was raising two teenage sons.

During my junior year at college, my mom phoned me. She called to tell me that Bobby, Patti’s eldest son, was flying back home to Pittsburgh from Kansas where he had recently moved for a job after graduating from WVU as a petroleum engineer.  His doctor recently diagnosed him with aplastic anemia.  Aplastic anemia strikes 4 in one million people, is not contagious nor inherited.  It’s a rare blood disorder that stops the bone marrow from working.  Bobby only discovered it because he had cut himself shaving and couldn’t stop the bleeding and was black and blue all over.  The doctor explained he was very sick, to get home immediately and start intensive treatment.  He was placed on a national bone marrow transplant list.  The family had hoped that Bobby’s younger brother, Mark, might be a bone marrow match (1 in 4 chance with family members).  Unfortunately, they tested him and learned he was not a match.

After 4 weeks in the hospital Bobby contracted an infection.  Tragically, he died only 7 weeks from the day he was diagnosed in Kansas.  He passed at the young age of 23.

Long before Bobby was ever sick, Patti had always donated blood and platelets.  After she lost Bobby due to their inability to find a donor match fast enough, she recommitted herself to becoming a donor.

Patti had been on a bone marrow donor list for a while, but was never identified as a match.  A few years after Bobby’s death, Patti read about the first altruistic kidney donation procedure in a local newspaper done at UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center).  She knew she wanted to do it.  In 2003, she bravely became only the second person in the history of UPMC to donate a kidney to a stranger. Saving the recipient’s life with whom she later met and continues a strong bond and friendship.

Patti explained to me that after surgery, some referred to her as a “hero.”  She said she hates that reference and has never been comfortable with it because she isn’t a hero.  She was doing something she felt she was supposed to be doing – a calling of some kind.  She knew Bobby would watch over her and keep her safe during the procedure.  According to the US Department of Health’s Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, as September 19, 2014, there are 101,415 candidates on a waiting list for a kidney.   As of January 2014 only 7,020 recovered donors – 4,213 from deceased donors and 2,807 from living donors.   The living donors tend to be known family members.  At the time Patti became a living donor to a stranger, there were only 75 other altruistic donors on record.

UPMC approached her 6 weeks after the donation to share her story at National Donor’s Day attended by organ recipients and medical personnel at the hospital.  The recipients all lit candles in memory of their deceased donors.  Since she was the only living donor in the area, they asked her to speak.  Not being a public speaker, she practiced her speech repeatedly with her son, Mark, and a few of Bobby’s close friends.

Tearfully and with a smile she said, “I guess I was picked to speak because no other donors were alive to speak.  All other kidney donors were deceased when they donated their kidneys.  My husband was in complete support of me giving my kidney away… though he didn’t realize I wanted to do it while I was still living.”  They all laughed hard when she shared her husband’s reaction to it.

Early this summer, I had lunch with Patti, and though I’m a bit behind in writing it, it’s a story that has always stayed with me.

Patti proudly spoke of Bobby and what her town has done for him since his passing. An all-star baseball tournament held every year in Bobby’s name – for 22 years the town has held the Bobby DiClemente All Star Tounament.  She shared old pictures of him with me – as well as something Bobby had written during his stay in the hospital.  It was a note that he would hand to his friends and family when visiting him in the hospital.  It explained what was happening each day in terms of his symptoms and prognosis – and, how he’d be treated and out of the hospital in no time.

“I lost it when I unfolded it – remembering it was only days after he passed when I packed it away in the box with a few of his things.  I haven’t seen it since then.  I almost forgot about that note – all of this time has passed.  But reading that note I remember how strong he was for all of us.  He didn’t want to believe or let anyone else believe that he was dying.”

Patti, thank you for allowing me to share your story. As a mom myself, I can’t imagine the pain of losing a child. How recovery from such a loss is something that only other parents who have lost a child might begin to understand.

Patti, face it. You are a hero – and a teacher. Your story teaches me to live each day with my loved ones to the fullest because you never know what tomorrow may bring.  It also reminds me how serving others during a difficult personal time can aid in the healing process.  Your ultimate selfless act reminds me when it feels like there is no hope, there is.  Your conviction to “turn the bad into something good” wasn’t just good – it was extraordinary.photo (5)

Forrest Gump’s mother taught him – “death is just a part of life – something we are all destined to do.” She also taught him- “you make your own destiny and have to do your best with what God gives you.” Patti, you’ve set the highest standard in doing the best with what God gave you. You were destined to be a loving mother to both Bobby and Mark – and destined to help save the life of a complete stranger.

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Streetwise

“Thank you for your smile,” the stranger said to me as he stood with a stack of local Chicago publications under his arm.

Like many others on a warm summer Tuesday morning on their way to work, some of us made eye contact with him and politely returned a slight smile, then immediately looked down indicating disinterest in what the man was trying to sell.   Admittedly, I did it. He was a stranger, an old man soliciting newspapers, on a downtown Chicago street corner in an area known as “Old Town.”

I grabbed my Iced Tea in Starbucks then went outside to find a good table to write. All of the tables were taken, except for one that appeared to already have a Starbucks coffee cup on it. The old man walked over towards me, “You can take this table, it’s not taken – promise, I’ve been standing here for sometime now, ya’ know?”

As I got ready to focus on writing a distraction occurred– common in any writer’s workplace (so I’ve learned).  

A young woman in workout gear walked up to the man, “Hey Sam. This is Zepher, watch him for me, ok?” She handed the leash to him with an chocolate lab puppy on the end of it. “I’ll be back,” she turned away and went inside.

When I should have been focused on writing, I couldn’t help but observe the salesman’s interactions with people passing by – some who knew him well enough to leave their dog with them as they went inside to grab their latte, and others who would ignore him and look down as he tried to engage them with kind words.

Since he was kind enough to offer up the table, I decided to buy his publication – it was only $2. Enthusiastically he said, “It’ll tell you all about the Taste of Chicago coming up this month.”

“Fantastic, I’ve never been.”

“Really? You aren’t from Chicago, huh? Ah, man…it’s a great event around these parts. You should check it out,” he said.

“Nope, born and raised Pittsburgh. Are you from the area?”

“Yep, all my life – Chicago,” Sam replied. I knew his name now only because of the strangers who said good morning to him walking by.

“Whereabouts in Chicago?” I asked.

“South Side.”

Being new to the Chicago area and familiar with only a few of the suburbs, I discretely texted my husband, Chris, and asked where that was.   Chris texted back, “Pretty rough area – why?” I didn’t respond to the text – Sam had just grabbed the seat next to me under the table umbrella out of the sun.   I asked him if he grew up in South Side, and that’s where his story began.

Sam said, “Been in South Side all my life. Ya gotta be on your toes at all times.”

With curiosity written all over my face, I asked why.

“Can’t wear a hoodie in the winter on the streets there…ya’know?”

“Why?”

He laughed, “you gotta be able to see what’s going on around you at all times…the hood would block your side views.”

“And ya definitely can’t wear flip flops in the summer.”

“Why?,” I asked again feeling quite a bit out of touch.

“Ya gotta be able to run at all times – run fast. Flip flops, they’ll slow you down.”

As I listened to Sam describe his neighborhood, I asked if he had children – imagining how hard it would be to raise kids in such a neighborhood.

“Yes, and fortunately they are all grown adults now…26, 24 and 23. My daughter is in her last year of medical school, my son is in the Navy, and my youngest son is in college. I’m so proud of all of them. But my daughter, man she is something special.   She battled bone cancer and had to take a time off from school – but she is finishing now. I’m so proud of her – proud of all of my kids. She’s gonna be a doctor y’know. A doctor. Can you believe it?”

I asked, “How did you get them through the teenage years?”

“I told my kids, not to do what I did – waste education – and to stay outta gangs and drugs. I had to talk to the ‘the board’ many times to make sure they stayed away from my kids.”

“The ‘board’?”

“It’s the leadership of the gangs – the guys who you don’t want to cross paths with. Grew up in it…I was 11 when I was working and selling drugs for them. Not proud of it, but it was a way of life. It was in my family.   It was my family.”

“What changed for you?”

“God. Simply put, I found my faith.  And I didn’t want my children to have a father like that or get messed up in it. I had an experience with realizing enough was enough. 11 years ago I joined AA. I’ve been sober ever since from drugs and alcohol. I didn’t want to live that life anymore. I didn’t want my children doing what I did – I didn’t want to be that guy any more. My best friend was murdered – and so many others in my life screwed up or murdered. I was out. I just made the decision. And that was it.”

He went on for a bit about his life of 57 years. Sam said he lived a hard life when he was much younger. He said he had done time in prison twice on possession of drugs – though, when he shared that piece of his life with me, he communicated it as if he were a lucky man – that it was “only” twice and both short terms. That it could have been way worse for him.

Sam explained that he is now a part of an active community group called SWAT – which stands for “Saving with A Testimony”. He and a few additional past gang members talk to the young kids of the South Side about getting out of gang life – getting away from drugs and guns.

“We reach out to the kids standing around on the streets or in church. I also sometimes speak to kids at grammar schools.”

“How often do you get called upon to speak in schools?,” I asked.

“Man, how often are kids getting shot?,” he responded.

“Kids get shot here all of the time. I am in schools about 1-2 times a month – but there are other guys like me – from gang livin on the streets – they also get called on to speak at the schools. Lotta kids getting shot.”

Sam had to head back to his neighborhood when we were wrapping up our conversation.   I thanked him for sharing his story and asked if it was ok if I wrote about him. He wasn’t sure why, but graciously agreed.

Sam, if you are reading this, I wanted to write your story because you reminded me how one person can inspire hope and change even in the darkest of places. It’s evident you took your hardships and choices, and turned into change – change for yourself and for your children. Change for the kids living today on the streets of South Side.

We watch gang-related movies and hear about shootings in inner cities from the media, but it isn’t often that you get to hear the real stories of someone who made it out, who raised successful children through it – and who is going back to the streets to help the kids figure a way out of the violent life.

Sadly, only 5 days after meeting Sam on that sunny morning, one of CNN’s headline news stories reported the aftermath of a very bloody 4th of July weekend in the streets of Chicago – with 82 shootings and 16 deaths – most in the South Side of Chicago. Much of the media blaming gun control issues and growing gang and drug related violence.

Unfortunately, it’s probably safe to assume that Sam will be busier than normal speaking at South Side’s grammar schools this month. photo

Sam, your courage to change, spread hope, share your testimony with the kids in your neighborhood and provide them with a realm of possibilities may be just what your city needs right now. If your community hasn’t done so already, they will someday – “thank you for your smile.”

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This Too Shall Pass

He stood from his chair from behind his office desk and reached out to shake my hand.

“Nice to meet you, I’m Richard.”

“Hope your earlier meetings went well.   You’ve met with Jen and Matt already, right?  I’ve had a chance to check out your resume and it looks great.  We have an opportunity here for someone to take over our entire services group – basically the majority of our staff, our people – reorganize it and plan it for growth.  Fast growth,” he declared.

As a passionate CEO would, he described with pride why his company was a highly respected pioneer in their field and why anyone seeking great opportunity for growth would find it with him and his team.

Just as his enthusiasm was escalating with every response to a question, my cell phone lit up sitting on top of my notepad.  I could see Caller ID.  Apologetically, I interrupted him speaking.

“I’m very sorry, but I really need to take this call.”

He looked a little bit taken back.

Kindly he responded, “I hope everything is ok.  No problem, I’ll step outside my office – wave me in when you are all through.”

It was the first time I had met Richard Hagerty, who was the founder of his company I was hopeful to join.  Never in a million years would I have ever imagined myself interrupting an interview in process for an outside call, let alone it being an interview with the CEO.  Who the hell does that?

I responded to the call and a few minutes later waived him back in through the glass windows in his office.

“Shall we continue?,” he said.

“I’m incredibly sorry.  But I have to go.  I know I haven’t had a chance to answer all of your questions, but we just hired a new nanny to take care of my 4 year old daughter.  She’s a bit upset with me because I should have been home over an hour ago.   I didn’t expect the interviews today to run over.”

“No problem,” he responded with an empathetic smile.  “Jump in your car and call me on your cell phone on your drive home.  We can wrap up the questions while you are on the road.”

After profusely apologizing, I ran out of the office and jumped in my car.  I drove about 90 miles an hour on a highway and answered his questions with the same speed as I was driving.

Richard concluded, “Listen, we are going to move on this position very quickly.  We’ll be back in touch in the next few days.  Any other questions for me?”

“Yes, ” I said.  “The position doesn’t require significant travel.  Correct?  My current position has a moderate amount of travel, and I’m trying to eliminate or minimize it.  At least for now.  My daughter’s dad travels quite a bit now and I want to be home more for that reason.”  What I didn’t say to him, but was the real reason I had asked was, “I’m in the midst of going through a separation and divorce, and the thought of my 4 year old daughter being home with anyone other than her father or I during this period makes my stomach hurt.  It’s painful for all of us and don’t want this divorce to hurt her anymore than it probably already does.”

He said, “Yes Lori, the position is to be in the office the majority of the time.  You would be responsible for a staff that may travel, but the expectation would be for you to be in the office.”

We hung up.  I ran inside my new temporary apartment, hugged my daughter hello and apologized to the new nanny for being so late.  She was not thrilled with me.

The following day, I received a call from Richard’s offices requesting me to come in at lunchtime to have a final interview.  I thought it was a good sign, but assumed it was because I didn’t give him enough time with his questions given the previous day’s abrupt exit.

I entered his office, he said, “Have a seat.”

“After considering everything and all of the candidates Lori, we’d like to extend an offer to you.”

With my eyes wide opened, he continued.

“Do you know why I want to hire you?”

Trying to remember all of the questions he asked and my responses, I honestly wasn’t sure specifically the primary reason he was referencing.

He said, “This position is very important to me because it’s about our people.  That’s what matters most to me.  The people.  We need someone in that role that has their priorities in order.  YOU Lori, YOU have your priorities in order.”

Huh?

“Interrupting me yesterday, then taking the call and prioritizing getting home to your daughter.”

I could feel the lump in my throat building and began explaining to him the realities of what was really going on and the real reason losing a nanny in my daughter’s life wouldn’t have been good for anyone.

He patiently listened and expressed some personal things.  He had also been through divorce and understood the emotional challenges and hard choices parents have to make in order to help themselves and their children.  Richard then explained the offer and said an official letter of employment would be in the mail for my consideration.

When I reflect on the years spent working for him, I recognize how much he helped me to get through one of the hardest times in my life.   He gave me the chance to grow my career while being the best mother I could possibly to Mia during a confusing time for her.

Professionally, I had always wanted to get my MBA to stay competitive and grow my skills, though as a single mom at that point, couldn’t figure out how I would ever have the time.  Richard immediately supported my desire to accomplish it.  While working fulltime, he would yell at me if I were in the office during a week of finals – encouraging me to take the necessary time off to study.  Or the days when he knew Mia had an activity going on at school, and would tell me to take the afternoon off to make sure I didn’t miss it for her, no matter what it was.  Or the days when Mia was off from school, he would encourage me to bring Mia into the office for the day.   He even had official company business cards made for her that had her full name followed by her title “Mommy’s Helper” on them.  They sat on my desk.  Mia proudly shared those cards with anyone who came into my office.  She was convinced she was employed there too.

Richard has a tattoo inscribed on his hand that reads – “This Too Shall Pass.”  He explained to me once, whether it’s a good time in your life or bad time in your life, it will all pass….so hang in there if you are on a rough road in the journey, and savor the road when all is well.

Looking back, I know I could never have accomplished what I did during those years.  Getting my MBA, while working fulltime was hard enough.  But when you added the richardelement of the transition of divorce and a new single mom in it – I know without his support professionally and personally, I would have never been able to give Mia what she deserved.

Richard, thank you for allowing me to contribute to your company during the five years of my employment with you.  I’ve had the good fortune to have incredible mentors throughout my life – but it is fair to say, none taught me the importance of balance and priorities more than you did.

Some of my priorities weren’t in order prior to our interview.  But something inside clicked at the right time and the right moment.  Something in me had finally passed.graduate

The movie scene selected for Richard’s story is from Patch Adams.  William’s character (Patch) argues a few points in front of the medical review board to maintain his medical license.  In one line, he declares “every human being has an impact on another.”  All too often, regardless of what industry we work in or stress we are under, it can be easy to forget.

Richard, thank you for supporting all of us who worked for and with you.  And for helping me achieve goals during a time in my life I thought would never pass.  You had a significant impact on me – and certainly on Mia.

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Until You Live It, You Don’t Get It

Scott typically came to the office in his Black Sabbath/heavy metal rock-like t-shirts and jeans unless he had scheduled meetings with clients.   He had a reputation of being somewhat of a “player/bad boy” type – someone who had a few skeletons he kept a tight lip on yet very vocal if he saw a woman of interest across the room.  Many of us working along side him were already married with young kids at the time.  He on the other hand, recently divorced without children, drove a jaguar, and was the kind of guy everyone could count on to head to happy hour if you could get the hall pass from your spouse.  At work, he worked hard – after hours, he played hard.

Scott was definitely not the “settling down” type.  Perhaps it was because he had married and divorced in his twenties.  Either way, he was not focused on what many of us were in our late twenties and early thirties– establishing our young families and lives in the suburbs.

Enter Natalie.  Scott told his friends, “She’s beautiful, sweet and a lot fun.”

We all thought she sounded like a great fit.

That was until he said, “Oh, and she is a great mom.  She has four kids – ages of 2, 4, 5 and 9 from a prior marriage.”

No way would that family fit into his jaguar.  He insisted that he was falling hard for this girl, but behind his back (awful to admit), many of us joked about it being another fleeting romance.   Four young kids would definitely hamper his single spontaneous lifestyle.

Weeks rolled by and he began talking more about Natalie and her kids to friends in the office.  He spoke of them as a proud father would.  Most of us were still in disbelief.  He went from a jaguar to mini-van mentality practically overnight.

Scott met Natalie when she was only 31 years old.  After dating her for almost 2 years, he proposed and they were married.  Without any hesitation he took on raising her 4 young kids with her as if they were his own.  At the time, their biological father was not very active in their lives.  Scott proudly shared with his friends what each of their personalities were like – and how proud he was to be their stepfather.   But this isn’t where the story ended rather this is where Scott’s story began.

Shortly after their marriage, Natalie became pregnant.  They were thrilled to add to the family.  Five kids.  Many of us couldn’t believe it.  Scott had become a family man right before our very own eyes.

Sadly, during Natalie’s 6 month of pregnancy, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer.   Their daughter, Helena, was taken a month early so that she could start chemo and radiation immediately.  She courageously battled the disease for 4 and ½ years but unfortunately lost her battle when she was only 37 years old.  A mom to five young children, as would be expected, Natalie’s passing hit them all very hard.  Scott, while mourning her untimely death, did what any good father and husband would do when a child loses a parent and a spouse loses their partner, he stood by his promise to raise their kids.

I recently reached out to him to hear how his story continued.  I asked him what he remembered the most about their relationship and the impact it had on him.

He said, “Natalie taught me how to love and how to be selfless rather than selfish.  She taught me how to be with someone.  I was lucky, I had the chance to spend 6 wonderful years with Natalie and our 5 children before she had passed.”

I asked, “How are the children doing?” (It’s been about 5 1/2 years since she passed.)

“After Natalie’s death, the kid’s biological father began to be a bigger part of their lives fortunately.  Though all 5 kids remained in my home with me during that period.”

Scott continued, “Although raising 5 children as a single dad can be challenging at times, it has given me a unique perspective on life.  I am not a perfect dad by any means – they sure have taught me a lot.  They have given me new meaning.”

Since time had passed, I decided to ask Scott if he had anyone special in his life.

He smiled and laughed,  “Yes, yes I do.  Her name is Tina.  We’ve been dating over a year now.  She is an amazing woman.”

I asked him what was so funny.

Scott responded, “Her husband died about 2 years ago from cancer.  She is a widower with 4 young kids (3 boys and 1 girl).  Between the two of us, I guess you could say we have 9 kids.”

What I found so amazing wasn’t the number of kids in his life or that he was dating a woman with a similar experience (yet, that was shocking), it was how settled he had become.   How his priorities had changed him.  How his children changed him.  How much of his happiness was now tied up in having a family and a wonderful partner.

Scott continued, “Until you live it, you don’t get it.  I could have never imagined the life I have now before I met Natalie.  Or even since she’s passed.  But I know she came into my life for a purpose.  I think it was to provide a blanket of love and care around the children not knowing what God had in store for their mother, and to make me the man and dad I am today.   I know I can look myself in the mirror and be comfortable with my myself and my journey.”

Scott admitted he has made mistakes in his life – some pretty big.  He said he didn’t love who he was when I first knew him.  But he said he tries not to linger on that stuff, he strives to learn and make changes in himself or his circumstances – he moves forward for himself and his kids. 

I asked him what he admires most in people.  He said he had a manager once that represented “quiet confidence”…he explained “a strength in not having to declare you’re strong, but instead, you just are.”  Scott said he hoped he would embody it someday.  

When I think of Scott’s story, I wonder about what some believe…can people really change?  I wonder what inspires such courageous or transformational change in some.  Divine intervention?  Serendipity maybe?  Or just sheer will, determination and choice?  No matter why it happens, stories like this one remind me that everything happens for a reason and people come into your life for a reason– always.

Scott never looked the part of a hopeless romantic and certainly not a father of 5 children when I first met him.   Though, through a chance meeting with Natalie, his entire life changed.

Mark Klein, the screenwriter for Serendipity (one of my all time favorite love stories), poignantly wrote a beautiful scene at the end of his movie that said it best (view link below).   Whether the changes Scott made in his life or himself were purposeful or not, he was destined for change.   Sometimes tough events happen in our lives – and though tragic and sad – they eventually bring us to a place we were meant to be.  lovestory

Scott thank you for allowing me to share your story.  I hope your children can see the quiet confidence in you that I witnessed the day we met to catch up on your life’s journey.

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The Interview

“Why do you want this job?” Max asked Rachel.   She tried to hold her tears back but she couldn’t stop her eyes from welling up.  Max, who was sitting behind his desk conducting the interview, stood up and walked over towards the window.  From Rachel’s perspective, it was as if he picked up on how emotional she was about to become with his question.  Redirecting the conversation, Max asked a new question and pointed out towards a building in the city skyline, “so is that where you did your college internship?”

Over 12 years ago, Max was my executive manager and had final hiring approval for a position we were trying to fill within my team.  Rachel McDowell was a candidate for the position.  At the time, I had been managing a team that had morale issues due to a major reorganization in the company (unfortunately, I learned early on how typical this was inside a company – even if the reason was in support of positive growth).   The reorganization included me being a new manager responsible for leading a team in a functional area I had little knowledge in.  In addition to figuring out how to rebuild a team to be customer focused and profitable, I was trying to figure out how to bring the team to a much “happier place” and solve for the morale issue.

Rachel had recently graduated from college with a degree in Art History and a minor in Communications, and like most recent college graduates without significant work experience, she sought employment that would pay the bills.  It wasn’t so much about chasing a career goal or a dream as much as it was about finding a job.  She had done an internship with United Way during college, which led her to another internship after graduating with the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

Like many recent grads’ resumes,  Rachel’s resume had a lot of “filler” due to the lack of work experience.  But what I recalled most, was what I read on the bottom of her resume upon first glance – and the reason I wanted to share her story.    It read –  “My dream:  to become a stand up comedienne.”  Instead of discussing her work experience and skills, we talked a great deal about how much she enjoyed taking one comedy class at the urging of a friend who thought it would be something fun to do.

It was because of our discussion regarding her new interest in comedy that I wanted to hire her.  I thought, what better way to bring a bit of happiness to the team than to hire someone who had this dream and desire to make people laugh.  I was counting on her to lighten the mood and bring smiles to the team – as well as do the job at hand.   As we sat there, I picked up on her determination to get the job (as well as her sense of humor) and thought she’d be a perfect fit.  Max agreed and she was hired.  We only worked together a short time before she was promoted to another role and moved onwards within the company.

Because of Facebook, I discovered last year that she had continued working at that same company for the last decade in various consulting roles and had just resigned about 6 months ago in pursuit of becoming a stand-up comic.   I reached out to her to see is she’d be willing to catch up on her journey since the day of the interview.

Rachel explained that getting that particular job over 12 years ago was pivotal for her in many ways.  It brought people in her life at random times that continuously encouraged her to chase comedy.  It gave her confidence.  Most important, it was being employed with that company that recently gave her the financial ability to finally chase her dream fulltime.

“Picasso had a ‘blue phase’,” she said, “a bad period in life.”

“Two years after graduating from college – I hated my job, and I had very little money.  I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.  But then things began to change for me.  People started to come into my life – I didn’t understand why then, but I understand now.  For me, I was lucky to discover my passion for comedy because of these people and the experiences.”

“That comedy class didn’t exactly show me what I wanted to do.  Instead, it gave me something to talk about in my bleak world.  That’s how I felt about my life at the time.  Bleak – ‘blue phased’.  I didn’t love stand up right away, but other people were so excited about me doing it, that I kept doing it.  It gave me a new energy.  Admittedly, I tried to quit at times, but I’d get sucked back in by one of those people urging me to continue on.  Those angels (as I call those very special people now!) further ignited my passion and love of comedy.”

She laughed, “my brother lent me the $31 (the cost for that one comedy class) because at the time, I still wasn’t making enough money to do anything ‘extra’.  It was taking this one class that changed my life.  Funny to think about it now – that friend who invited me, wanted a partner along for the ride so she wouldn’t have to do it by herself, it wasn’t as if she saw comedic potential in me.  Who knew?!”rachel1

Over the years and during her off hours at work, Rachel has been working on her craft and performed her stand up routines on the East Coast beginning in Pittsburgh at the FunnyBone.  She has made her way to some of the greatest clubs in the country including Standup NY, Gotham Club, Punchline, the Ice House, Roosters as well as one the most well known comedy clubs launching many of the comedic greats in LA, The Comedy Store.  As a result of her efforts in the clubs, she has had the opportunity to meet comic legends such as Dave Chapelle, Robin Williams and Dana Carvey.

At the end of our discussion, I asked her what her non-blue phase looked like now – or what happiness looks like, she said, “to be able to support myself well doing what I love.  That’s what happiness looks like to me.”

She continued, “and, I never wanted or want to have a ‘rewind moment.’ So no matter what happens now from this point forward, I know I won’t ever have that feeling of wanting to go back in time feeling the need to do it over again.  I’m doing exactly what I want right now.  And that makes me happy.”

robin

Rachel, your candor for when and how you discovered comedy as well as how you’ve worked hard to chase your dream, reminds me to always be open to experiencing new things in life.  You never know when discovering a new passion might become a life’s pursuit.   When a new passion becomes all you can dream about accomplishing.    Also, thank you for reminding us that when interviewing for a job, being yourself is still the best asset to bring to the table.

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Failing to Succeed

I’ve got to get out of these clothes – fast.”  It was all I could think.  My younger sister, Jodi (age 29 at the time), stood shivering beside me as she pulled her sweatshirt down to her knees she was wearing.  She had nothing else on underneath her sweatshirt.

“Lori, come on, let’s do it now, “ She said with a sinister laugh.

I snapped back at her, “Can’t believe you convinced me that this would be a fun-once-in-a-lifetime sister bonding experience!”

She was always more adventurous than me.  Geezus, what the hell was I thinking.  Besides, our older sister wasn’t there with us.  The sister circle wasn’t really complete.  Maybe I could talk my way out of it.  But I knew it was too late.  Registration was in for all 2500 of us.

I paused for a moment and looked around at the others undressing.  It was almost 5:00AM on a very cool June morning in Cleveland, Ohio.  The sun had just started to come up.  We stood beside the city’s football stadium in a large grassy open area with people of all ages who traveled from all over to experience a “once in a life-time opportunity”.  It was then that I realized how different this experience was for those standing closest to me.

An older couple, looked to be in their mid-60s, stood nearby.  I leaned over and asked them where they were from.

The woman proudly responded, “My husband and I traveled from Arizona to do this together.  We have 3 adult children.  All of their lives, they accused us of being incredibly conservative parents – never daring or willing to try anything new.  We want to prove to them that we can be very daring.  So here we are.”

She looked at her husband with pride and smiled.  He nodded in agreement, “Yes, we are planning on taking the picture back to them to prove it!”   He laughed.

An attractive young woman in her early 30s stood on the other side of us all by herself.  I didn’t ask her where she was from or why she came.   She appeared to be focused – almost in meditation mode.  When she removed her top, I could see that her purpose here was about something I couldn’t begin to understand.  She had a double mastectomy.  She was without expression.  There was a complete calm over her.  She didn’t appear to notice that it was only 45 degrees.  Not a single shiver or movement.

The director took his mega-phone and climbed to the top of a very tall A -frame shaped ladder which overlooked the entire crowd.  He began to give instructions to all 2500 of us.  He explained the simple poses and kindly asked us all to disrobe.

I turned to Jodi and said, “Ok, on the count of three.  Ready?  One, two, three!”

We both removed our sweatshirts at the same time – our last item of clothing that protected us from the elements that cool morning.   And protected me from a fear.  I traveled that morning from Pittsburgh to meet my sister to pose for a Spencer Tunick photo.  My sister, who is an artist herself, discovered that Spencer Tunick was taking photos in June of 2004 for the Art Museum in Cleveland.  He was famous photographer known for his mass nude photo portraits and documentaries.

As we walked briskly, almost jogging, towards the spot we were directed to move to, I found myself trying to cover my private parts.  Initially, the movie scene from Schindler’s List came to mind, when the doctors forced the concentration camp prisoners to disrobe and run in a circle as the doctors inspected their health.  I was imagining how exposed and scared they must have felt.  Sure put my fear of being naked in public without a threat for my life in perspective.    We weren’t in fear of survival – rather it was just about being naked.  Why? The fear began to feel so trivial.

Something strange happened after my initial anxiety and thought.  We are all the same.  Though different shapes, sizes and colors – we all came equipped with the same vital body parts to survive.  The only thing that could cause us harm on that morning, was rooted somewhere in our irrational insecurities.  After speaking to some of the registrants, I learned that most came to experience something very personal or prove something to somebody.  In my case, respond to a nagging younger sister.   For me, it resulted in discovering a bit more self-acceptance and even more gratitude for having sisters in my life.  Jodi, thank you for showing me how the human body can be beautiful art rather than something we often are insecure about.  – End of Story Submission –

spencer

Yep – failing to succeed.  This was my first attempt at participating in a writing contest.  I failed.  It failed.  Writer’s Digest conducts writing competitions quite frequently, and over a year ago, this contest called for writers to submit a short story of no more than 1500 words.    It had to be based upon a single phrase placed at the beginning of the story provided within the contest requirements.  In this case, it was  – I’ve got to get of these clothes – fast.”

Simple, I thought.  I had a true story, a real life experience, based on this phrase they provided – how many could write about that?!  Guess I was wrong.  I learned I have much more to learn about writing and a lot more to experience in storytelling.  It was the first time I put anything I had written in the hands of someone else to read – and judge.

Learning the craft of storytelling, writing and screenwriting, I’m certain of one thing.  “Failing to succeed” will be part of the journey.  Or is it “succeeding to fail?”  In either case, I will pick myself up, wipe off the skinned knees and keep on going.

When Sylvester Stallone was a struggling actor trying to find work, he wrote the original screenplay for Rocky.  Rocky won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1976.  A struggling actor writes the story of an underdog fighter destined to win.  Win through training, hard work, believing and – taking a hit more than a few times.  Mr. Stallone – thanks for writing a story to inspire us all to run those steps in Philadelphia you made so famous.  Inspiring us to pick ourselves up and, someday, win.

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His Name was John

His name was John.  He was my first client.   I was responsible for his account and managing its success.  I often wonder what would have become of him had he chosen a different path.

He worked for a large manufacturing company for over 20 years as a director in a sourcing department.  He was an early adopter in new technologies during the Internet boom in the late 90s and was willing to take risks if he saw a benefit in it for his company.

Though something about John was special.  He was incredibly strong in his opinions and was never afraid to voice them regardless of offending anyone in the room – a real maverick.  Disheveled looking with his long dark gray hair, often windblown in appearance, he wore a business suit and his shirt frequently became un-tucked.  The executives I worked for called upon him to talk to our industry analysts because he was a champion of our company and early adopter of what we were selling.  They knew that John could not be scripted (there was no coaching John), but assumed the risk knowing how passionately he advocated for us and how much they appreciated his business.

What made him truly different from the average person was something that no one ever wanted to ask for fear of his reaction to the question.  He walked with a severe limp, his right arm always held close to his body, and his torso was slightly twisted.  He had a lazy eye and a very disproportionate lower body – his lower body smaller than his upper body.  Though, when he smiled, his face would light up.  It was easy to forget his awkward appearance and his typical tact – I think he forgot about it too.

John and I were at a meeting one afternoon in his office.  It wrapped up early so we went to grab an early dinner to continue discussing the project’s plan before my flight.  He selected a restaurant nearby and when walking towards the door, he paused and looked at our reflections in the window of both of us.

He stopped me and grabbed my arm to motion me to look as well, “What is it like?”

I responded with a pissed off tone looking at the reflection, “What is WHAT like?”

He said, “To look like you?”

I became annoyed – and somewhat insulted.  Initially, I thought he was referring to what became a growing frustration of mine during the early part of my career.  At the time, I was only 29 years old and many of our clients were “old industry” or came from the “good old boy” network given the functional area of big companies we worked with.  I was young, a female and sometimes not taken seriously until I began a work assignment and demonstrated that I had a brain and could add value.  John and I – visually – couldn’t have been more mismatched as pair, yet worked incredibly well together and respected each other’s intellect and drive tremendously.  This is why I became so incensed by his question – I thought we were way passed that crap.

He softly apologized, which was unheard of for John.  He realized I didn’t understand what he was asking.

“Lori, what is it like to look…look normal?”

My heart broke now understanding what he meant.  We didn’t continue the dialog.  I felt a bit uncomfortable not knowing how to respond.

We were seated in the restaurant.  I still hadn’t answered the question because I wasn’t sure how to answer it.  Quickly changing the subject, I asked him how his wife and 3 teenage kids were doing.  He then asked me about my family.

“What do your parents do for a living?, ” he asked.

“My dad is an engineer and my mom, an entrepreneur, though prior to the small business she runs now (an employment placement agency), she spent much of her time as a homemaker when my sisters and I were very young.”

John dug deeper, “What’s your father like?”

“Probably one of the most moral, conservative human beings you’d ever meet.  He doesn’t watch rated R movies and I think I’ve heard him swear twice (I laughed).  He had the tough gig of raising 3 teenage daughters with my mom.  As a child, he experienced a severe life threatening illness that, I’m guessing, had an impact on his psyche as a kid and an adult.  Though he is an introvert and doesn’t open a lot.”

He asked, “What did he have?”

“Polio – he was only about 10, in an iron lung and used wheel chair as needed, and missed out on an entire year of school.  Salk came onto the medical scene in Pittsburgh and invented the vaccine that following year and he was cured.  If you met my father now, he stands close to 6 feet tall, and looks as healthy as ever.”

John looked down at the table as if I said something wrong or hurtful.

“What’s up?  What did I say?”

He paused for what seemed to be a lifetime.

He commented quietly, “It didn’t work for me.”

“What didn’t work for you?

“The vaccine,” he said.

I finally learned what so many wondered but hadn’t asked.  He had polio as a kid as well – though in his case, it disfigured his body.

A few months after that meeting with John, I became pregnant with Mia.  Though I enjoyed working on his account with him (I learned so much from John), I approached my management team about selecting a new position in the company with less travel obligations.   Fortunately, they supported my request.  As I transitioned off of the account, I focused on becoming a new mom and what that exciting change would bring.  Though, as a result, I lost touch with John during that short period of my life.

As I went along my day to day as a young working mother, Mia now only about a year old, I ran into a former colleague of John’s in my office.  (This would have been about a year and half after working with him).  Nancy was a Vice President at the same company with John, and she had recently taken a different position outside of the company.

“Wow, it is great to see you Lori.  How is new motherhood treating you?”

With a huge grin, “The best thing that has ever happened to me.”

Nancy was a brilliant businesswoman and mother.  She had 4 children of her own.  As we shared what our lives had been like over the past year and half, she interrupted me with a look of strong concern and asked, “Hey, have you spoken to John lately?”

“No, why? How is he?  I miss his charm,” I said sarcastically and giggled knowing she and I appreciated John in so many wonderful ways.

“John isn’t doing so well,” she said.  “He left the company to join an early start-up technology company that went under when the bubble burst a few months back – and his wife had recently left him.”

She pleaded, “Please call him.  He always enjoyed his working relationship with you and considered you a dear friend.  He could use a friend right now.”  I told her I’d contact him.

I woke the following day feeling exhausted as usual juggling the demands of being a working mom.  I put Mia in her crib, said goodbye to her father, and took off for work.  While driving, I tried reaching John on the way.  It rang.  He answered.

“Hello.  This is John.”

“Hey stranger!  How are you doing??  Guess who this is?”

He laughed, and said, “Lori, God, it has been a long time.  How is your baby girl?  She’s a girl, right?”

I said, “yes – she is doing very well.”

He said, “Wow, it really is good to hear your voice.”

“I ran into Nancy yesterday – she said, you’ve hit a few bumps in the road.  What’s going on?”

John didn’t avoid the question.  “You know me, ruffling feathers everywhere I can.”

He asked if I could refer him to a few people in the industry for opportunities.  He explained that his wife left him and his kids were struggling with the split.

“John, I promise you’ll get through this – we all hit bad spots.  You’ll be ok.  I’ll reach out to a few of my contacts for you.”

He seemed to want to get off of the topic, and turned it back to my daughter.

“How is it?  How is it working and taking care of her?  Are you working fulltime?  Do you get much time off?”

I laughed hard and reminded him how demanding our clients were.  Particularly ones like him.

John then urged me in a serious tone, “Lori – please promise me that Mia will know who her mother is and what she stands for.  They grow up so quickly and you don’t want to miss out on any of it.  TRUST ME – NOTHING will replace the time you spend with her.”

Thinking to myself, for John, how out of place his sentiment was towards me, I quipped, “John, who is this, is this John X?”  I laughed and taunted him a bit.  “When did you get so soft on me?”

He knew I was kidding.  After having worked closely together, he knew I always loved him for how brutally honest he could be with me.  Maybe because I knew deep down inside, there was an insecure good guy who just wanted to be accepted.

Finally responding to him, “John.  I promise.  Mia WILL KNOW who her mother is.  She will understand what is important to me – even if I choose to work fulltime, ok?”

It seemed to settle him.  “I’m about to pull into the garage here. Let me buzz you tomorrow morning after I reach a few folks for opportunities.  I have a few ideas.”

“Ok.  Please do, and take care, was so great catching up.”

I hung up and went on about my workday.

The next morning I drove to work and tried ringing him.  There was no answer.  I thought I might have dialed the wrong number and tried repeatedly.  No answer.  I pulled into the garage and went to my office.  A colleague walked in my office unaware of my recent communications with John.

“Hey, did you hear about John X?”

I said, “yeah, sad story – but he’ll bounce back – you know John, he’s a survivor.”

“No – about what just happened?”

I froze.  I was confused.

I asked, “What?”

“John committed suicide yesterday.  He pulled into his garage, turned on the ignition and closed the garage door.   No one knows much more than that.”

I felt the lump in my throat and fought the tears back.  I kindly asked him to leave me alone.  I wanted to reach Nancy, his former colleague and close friend.

Nancy’s assistant answered her line and responded, “Sorry, she’s in a meeting.”

“Ok, this is Lori, if you could…”

She stopped me, “Oh, hold on a moment – she asked to interrupt her if you called.”

My heart sank.

Nancy picked up her line,  “Lori, thanks so much for calling.  Please tell me – you DID reach him yesterday?  Please tell me you did.”

It’s been over a decade since that phone call, and yet on some days, it feels like yesterday.  I was deeply saddened by it.  How could his desperation win?  How could his hopelessness and situation beat him into giving up?  Why couldn’t I hear how hopeless he was?  Why couldn’t he be more vulnerable and open up about how desperate he was – with anyone?

Though I know I couldn’t have saved him, I wished he had the strength to figure out a way to ask for help to get through it.  To share with someone, a family member, or a friend, even a stranger, what was really going on inside of him.  If only he reached out.

If I had the chance to meet John’s children, I would tell them how much their father taught me – professionally and personally.  How much laughter he brought to his friends with his quick wit and raw sense of humor.  I would tell them his influence never left me – and his words on that last day we spoke, are words I have never forgotten.  Mia does and will know who her mother is and I what I stand for.  As will Kate and William, my stepchildren, know what’s most important to me.

The video clip below is a powerful scene from a movie based on a true story of a strong man asking for help.  The character is in one of his darkest days exposing his situation, being vulnerable, and asking for help. In my opinion, one of Russell Crowe’s best performances.
hearts2
In sharing John’s story, my hope is to increase awareness for those that may need help, but have difficulty asking for it.  To bring more awareness to those that may be able to help those in need, and to encourage “this too shall pass” and most important, that they aren’t alone.

Whether it’s through faith, professional counsel, family and friends’ support, or our own sheer will to survive – my hope is that we can all be more vulnerable with each other when we need help during our journeys.

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Tip of My Tongue

“Hey Lor – usual?”  April yelled over the counter past a few customers standing in front of me.  Half of the customers I recognized.  We were faithful regulars at 8:22 AM.  Interesting how the patterns of the moments in your life matter during your day, during your journey.  I’m not in this particular Starbucks every morning though I do visit this one primarily because there are a few baristas, April being one of them, that know me, know Mia, know my husband and Will and Kate, know my story, and make it feel more like home while I’m writing.

On this morning, I sat down to begin work.  Lee, one of the other baristas, walked over to me and said, “You need to meet this guy.  You guys are doing the same thing.”

She pointed over to a young man in his late twenties.  He was wearing workout gear, had a laptop open with his headphones on.   Not the kind of small headphones that plug into your ears people wear to listen to things on their laptops like movies, videos or news clips.  Rather the bigger ones that look like ones you’d wear in a production studio.   Lee motioned over to him.  He walked over and she introduced us.

“So, I hear we have something in common, though she hasn’t told me what.  I’m an aspiring writer.  Specifically, I want to be a screenwriter.  Not really a huge writing or entertainment mecca here in Pitt, but quit my career to chase my writing dream along with hopes of seeing my daughter more and giving a new relationship a better chance (at the time, I had only begun dating my husband).  What’s your story?”

He introduced himself as “Wojo.”

“I did the same sorta thing.  Quit my corporate job in NYC – lived there for over 6 years after graduating college, moved back to Pittsburgh last fall.  Moved in with my parents.  I know, not the most ideal living situation for a guy who had independence for a while, but it sure helps to have their support.   I want to dedicate myself fulltime to what I really want to do.  Music.”

As I learned more about him, I understood why his choice to pursue music fulltime might be shocking to some.  Shocking to most – even might seem somewhat of an irresponsible choice given his earlier accomplishments, his earlier choices.

Wojo grew up in a northern rural-suburb of Pittsburgh, the middle child of 3 siblings.   At the age of 12, the music bug bit him and he began playing guitar.  His early influences were groups including Nirvana, The Offspring and Stone Temple Pilots. Though academics and athletics came natural to him during his teenage years, his passion for music always remained.

He was accepted into Dartmouth, Georgia Tech, and a handful of other prestigious universities, and chose the University of Pennsylvania.   He was on the Track and Field Team and a top pole vaulter.  By the time Wojo graduated, he was the Ivy League champion in the Pole Vault 3 out of his 4 years, as well as ranked 23rd in the nation, and just missed the qualifying round to compete in the Olympic Trials.

Through all of his athletic and academic success at UPenn, he continued to bring his music with him and performed on stage during his freshman year on campus.  Performing in front of 200 students packed inside a fraternity house, he found himself drawn to the thrill of being in front of a live audience.

He explained, “In those moments, it’s easy to feed off of the energy of the room, especially when there’s a great vibe, and you just get utterly sucked into the moment. It’s the purest form of escapism. I live for the ‘all eyes on me’ moments, they’re an amazing high.”

Though he continued to play coffee shop gigs, campus shows, and frequent dorm-room performances and even produced an acoustic demo during his college years, he still didn’t have the confidence in himself yet to make the choice to pursue becoming a musician.

Wojo continued, “When people in your life are repeatedly advising you to settle for something they’ve deemed important, it’s hard for you to hear your own voice above all of the noise.  Instead, the doubts in your head echo more loudly, joined by a choir of voices of your family, peers and acquaintances who share the same doubt-filled sentiments.  So you stay the course.”

Following the expected path, he graduated with a degree in economics and was hired on a first interview with a major investment bank in NYC.  He later accepted a job with one of the top consulting firms and worked in consulting for over 6 years.

At a time when Wojo had tremendous opportunity to increase his earning power in his field, he quit and switched gears to do something that wouldn’t guarantee any job security or financial success.  He left his stable income and began relying on his 401K to survive, all the while knowing the music industry is one of the hardest industries to break into – but why then, why now?

Wojo explained his heart was always in music.  That the day-in and day-out of corporate America drained him of who he really was as a person and what he really wanted out of life.  What brought him energy.  He was ready to take the risk.  Ready to make the change.

“Don’t know where my future is going, but seemed senseless not to try, “ he said.

He put in his 2 weeks notice at the consulting firm and moved back to Pittsburgh almost 2 years ago.  Since then, Wojo has written and produced 2 EPs – one he launched a year ago, and the other is almost completed, with more material slated to be released shortly.

As much as Wojo’s choice resonated with me (it was so great to meet someone else that was working towards something that required big life changes without guarantees or with high odds of success), it was also difficult to understand his influences and why he made the choice beyond the “high” he felt on stage.  I asked him if he had a favorite coach, mentor or author that further inspired him.

He answered, “One of my favorite authors is JK Rowling.  I love the Harry Potter books.  Silly as it sounds, I’ve often tried to model my life based on Dumbledore’s character.  He has incredible knowledge without actually saying he has the answer.  He’s made mistakes, admits his mistakes and draws strength and wisdom from it.  Dumbledore’s character strives to rise above and do the thing that is in his heart.   Dumbledore counsels Harry – love is more powerful than hate.”

As he shared with me the impact of the Harry Potter series and Dumbledore’s character, it was clear that his heart and love of music led him to his new path.

Wojo, no matter what comes of your choice to chase your dream, you’ve already won.  You’ve made the courageous decision that some might not make out of fear of failure or others judgment of your talent.  Thank you for reminding me of how important it is to follow your heart regardless of what others may think of your choices.  Dumbledore messages it best to Harry in the scene below:

The song below – Tip of My Tongue –  is the first song Wojo shared when I met him that day in Starbucks.  Impressed by the song, I shared it with Chris as soon as I returned home.  It is definitely our favorite Wojo original (both written and performed by him) and the reason we continue to cheer him on.

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10 Minutes

It only took 10 minutes.  Standing in the security line at 5am at Pittsburgh International Airport, I glanced behind me and noticed a woman who was traveling alone.  It was a few days after Christmas and most travelers looked like they just rolled out of bed – myself included.   Typically, my grooming process when traveling that early includes brushing my teeth, throwing my un-brushed hair in a pony-tail, and making sure the make-up that remained from the day before wasn’t smeared under my eyes.  Though, the woman behind me was unlike the rest of us.  Wearing a pressed white blouse with dress slacks, beautifully accessorized, her hair and make up crisply done.  She was a petite woman who appeared to be in her 60s.   As I put my laptop in the separate bin on the belt, I turned to her, “Happy holidays – heading anywhere special?”

She kindly responded, “The west coast-California.  It’s home for me.”

She explained that she was in Pittsburgh over the last few days visiting her son and his family.   I told her that I had a daughter, but she was with her father that week.   We shared custody and it was his week to have her with him.

She asked, “Where does she go to school?”

“She is very young still – only 10, but oddly already talks of colleges she’d like to go to someday.”

At the time, my daughter was reading about the US presidents.  As a result, she talked about pursuing schools like Harvard, Stanford, Yale, or Princeton.  I laughed when she would remind me that Lincoln’s son went to Harvard.

The woman responded, “My daughter went to Stanford.”

“Wow.  When did she graduate and what is she doing now?” She responded, “She graduated a Fulbright Scholar and then left to do anti-apartheid work in South Africa.”

“What does she do now?”

Without hesitation she said, “She was murdered.”

What? I stood there for a moment in shock, and wondered whether it would be appropriate to ask anything further – or even if we had the time.  We had both passed through the security scanner and now were heading for the underground transit to our separate gates.

“I’m so sorry for your loss.  Do you mind me asking when and what happened?  I paused, and put my hand out to shake her hand.  “My name is Lori, my daughter’s is Mia.”

She shook my hand, smiled and responded, “Very nice to meet you, my name is Linda.   She was murdered a long time ago in 1993, just before the first multi-party elections post apartheid.  She was doing work in regards to the inequality and oppression in South Africa.    That was her life’s passion.  Unfortunately, she got caught in a mob and died in the attack.”

Her daughter’s story sounded familiar so I asked her name.

“Amy,” she replied, “Amy Biehl.”

Linda explained that Amy’s story had aired on various news shows and had been written in newspapers.  She indicated that she still travels quite a bit to Cape Town because she and her late husband, Peter, had set up a foundation there in Amy’s name.

In the few minutes standing beside her, I couldn’t help but imagine how it might have felt to have lost a child in such a brutal way – a daughter.  My heart sank thinking about it.  As I asked her a few more questions, not a single negative or bitter word was in response to any of it.  Her demeanor was one of great pride and humility.  There was a grace about her standing there amongst all of the weary-eyed travelers telling me about her daughter’s legacy.

As we approached our gates, I asked her if she had a business card for the foundation and when she was back in Pittsburgh to visit her family, if she’d be willing to meet at a Starbucks for coffee.  I told her I would love to hear more about Amy’s Foundation and her work.  She handed me her business card, gave me a quick hug and said sure.  Linda made me feel like we had a common bond, a natural familiarity – maybe because we shared the experience of raising a passionate daughter, or maybe it was just what felt right when leaving a mother who had suffered such a great loss.

Sitting alone at my gate before boarding, I searched the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust.  Articles and TV segments listed immediately in the search results.  As I read through them, I couldn’t believe what Linda had omitted from her story.

What Linda didn’t share were the events that followed Amy’s death.  On August 25, 1993, Amy drove a friend home to the township of Guguleta, outside Cape Town.  A mob pulled from her car and stabbed and stoned her to death.  Four young men were convicted for killing her.  5 years later, Linda and her late husband supported the release of Amy’s killers.   The young men convicted had applied for amnesty through South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Amy’s parents did not oppose it.  Rather, they attended the hearing and spoke on their behalf.  Two of the four men who were released now work for the Amy Biehl Foundation often accompanying Linda at speaking engagements all over the world.  Both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu have recognized Linda and her late husband for the impact they, Amy and the foundation have had on the country and their people.

After reading the entire story from the various articles, I sent her an email hopeful she’d meet with me again.  I was so grateful when she responded and agreed.  Eight months later, we met at a local Starbucks outside of Pittsburgh.  Mia came along – as young as she was, she had the same curiosity as I did.   How does one forgive such an act against your own child?  How?

Linda responded, “It was not Amy that they murdered.  She stood for something they did not understand.  It was much bigger than Amy.”

Linda shared that she and Peter (her late husband) drew their strength from Amy.  She explained that Amy’s involvement and belief in South Africa’s journey to democracy and reconciliation was through education and open communication.  She described the current conditions in South Africa since Amy’s death and how the foundation is working to help.  Thousands of children have been educated through its programs over the last 20 years.  The foundation offers after school programs to develop and empower youth living in challenged and vulnerable communities.

Linda’s story of how she worked tirelessly over the last 2 decades to keep Amy’s legacy alive has never left my heart or mind.  I’m so grateful to have heard her story and to have met her.   Though, admittedly, even after being so touched by her story – I still wonder, if as a mother, I would have had the same strength to forgive.  I hope I would, but still wonder.

imagelinda

Linda, thank you for allowing me to interrupt your quiet moments for the 10 minutes we had standing in the security line.  I often recall your story when I’m having a hard time finding the strength to forgive during my own challenging or painful moments.  Having the courage never to blame but to choose forgiveness over hate and anger.

Below is a brief movie scene relevant to what Amy’s death and her parent’s response to it meant to an entire country.  It is an example of how most humans might respond to hatred and ignorance – and fortunately, how some humans (like Linda and Amy) set a higher and more compassionate standard for us all.

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