Day 8 – Speaking at the Conference

Saturday morning we woke to sunshine and clear blue skies. We had a filling breakfast at Bruce’s Cafe, a lively spot just next door to our cabin. I don’t know who Bruce is, but you can get some delicious french toast at the cafe.

I was the third and final keynote speaker at the conference on Saturday. The first speaker, Karni Liddell, was a dynamic and engaging woman. Karni was born with spinal muscular atrophy, the same neuromuscular disease I have. Unlike me, Karni is an amazing athlete. At the age of 14, she broke a world record in swimming. She represented Australia at the Sydney Paralympic Games in 2000. Her speech focused on making the most with the cards life deals you.

As Karni spoke, I noticed how often she mentioned her mom and dad. John, who spoke Friday night, also spoke about his parents. Whenever I speak, I always give credit to my parents as well. Some day I may need to engage a sociologist or psychologist for a research study on the parents of children with disabilities who go on to become over-achievers. Karni, John and I all share similar backgrounds in that as youth, medical professionals told our parents not to expect much from us. Little did they know how wrong they were. I was able to introduce myself to Karni when we took our lunch break. I hope I am as gracious and engaging when strangers approach me after my speaking engagements.

I was itching to get outside in the sunshine, so after quickly eating my lunch I took off for a walk down to the beach. It was a glorious day! The sunlight was sparkling on the water and the cloudless blue sky seemed to go on forever. The main shopping area in downtown Burnie is pedestrian friendly, although most pedestrians follow the crosswalk signals. But, if you are an impatient New Yorker who only has a short time, you can live on the edge and dart across the road quickly if there are no cars. Thankfully, I remembered to look right at the intersections and avoided being caught off-guard by oncoming traffic.

Fueled by sunshine and Vitamin D, I settled in for the second keynote speaker, Shane James. Shane is a fellow Rotarian from Burnie who was diagnosed in 2006 with Stiff Person Syndrome. Doctors told him he would never walk or run but now he is a marathon and ultra-marathon runner. Shane manages his pain by running, and said “The pain of not running is far worse than the pain from running.” Listening to Shane, I was impressed by his discipline and committment to his passion. As photos of his experiences flashed on the screen, I thought of the dedication required to get up each day and keep pushing forward when others have told you doing so would not be possible. I admire anyone who demonstrates such dedication on a regular basis, particularly as I don’t have any such motivation.

But I think we can all find the drive to continue forward if we let ourselves follow our passion. Sometimes fear of the unknown may hold us back, or uncertainty about how others might interpret our actions. The common theme from each of the keynote speakers was don’t be afraid to pursue your dreams and live without limits.

When it was my turn to speak, I did what I always coach people not to do. I evaluated my prepared remarks, realized I wasn’t saying anything new which the participants hadn’t already heard from the other presenters, and threw my remarks out the window. I decided on the spot to scrap my speech and instead spent thirty minutes speaking about my youth exchange experience, and how it has shaped my life. I honestly don’t remember everything I said – other than how grateful I was to be able to thank the Rotarians of District 9830 and Kingston Rotary in person after twenty five years.

Twenty five years ago, District 9830 took a chance on me and granted me an opportunity which changed my life. Because of my youth exchange experience, and the Rotarians who believed in me, I began to have a stronger belief in myself. I realized I could achieve milestones others may not perceive as possible. I have carried this belief with me as I have continued to pursue my goals and dreams. I was humbled and honored to have the chance to thank the men and women who made my exchange possible.

The current exchange students came on stage after my speech. Each year, the exchange students prepare a presentation for the District Conference. Twenty five years ago, our exchange student presentation was memorable for me because I accidentally started a fire with a candle and the stage curtains as I started the presentation. This was not a worry with the current exchange students, thank goodness, because I was sitting near the curtains on the corner of the stage.

We had a couple of hours before dinner, and we drove through the hills near Wynyard and out to the top of Table Cape. This flat promontory offers spectacular views of the Bass Strait. There was a wedding party taking photos as we pulled in to the carpark and we enjoyed watching the photographer stage the bride and groom as the bridesmaids shivered in the wind.

After a quick stop to freshen up, we returned to Burnie for dinner. I was excited to find myself seated next to a visiting Rotarian from New Zealand, who also happened to be the magician Jonathan Usher. Jonathan entertained us throughout the weekend. My nephew Joshua, also a magician, has warned me never to sit next to a magician at dinner. But Jonathan was a delightful dinner partner and did not try to make anything appear behind my ear or disappear from my plate.

I spent time after dinner talking with the Rotarians and guests. Many people offered kind remarks about my presentation. It was an honor to have been asked to participate. Knowing so many people found my message encouraging was very humbling and I was overwhelmed by the support and kindness expressed by the attendees. In between speaking with friends, I spent some time on the dance floor, twirling around with the Kingston Rotarians. It was a special privilege to spend time talking with the Past District Governor James Wilcox and his lovely wife Kathy. James and Kathy were the chaperones on my tour of the mainland of Australia twenty five years ago. We spent four weeks together, with 85 other youth exchange students, driving across Australia. It was the highlight of my trip, and it was wonderful to spend time reminiscing about the other students and our fun times.

Tired after a long day, we drove back to Leisureville and fell into bed. This conference was the reason for my visit to Tasmania, and I was relieved to have delivered a presentation which touched others and inspired them to live their own lives without limits.

**Today’s post is brought to you by my new friend George. George is the Rotarian who was assigned to assist me at the conference, to make sure I showed up where I needed to be, when I needed to be there. If you know anything about me – you know this is not an easy task! Thank you George for making it possible for me to inspire others to live without limits. I hope you will come see me in New York!

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