Twenty five years ago the night before I left my hometown for Australia to complete my year as an exchange student, I received the best advice from a family friend. As he gave me a hug, he encouraged me to make the most of the opportunities on my upcoming journey.
Whatever you are asked to do, any invitation you receive – say yes. Do it all. You never know if you’ll get another chance.
I have tried to live by that motto as much as possible. Saying yes has brought me challenges, but it has also afforded me opportunities I never could have imagined.
Last June, I received an invitation to return to Tasmania. The invitation came in an email from James, a Tasmanian Rotarian I met as an exchange student.
Would you be interested and able to be a speaker at the Tasmanian District Conference from 22 – 22 March 2015?
YES!!! I didn’t even have to think for a fraction of a second about that one. In fact, I didn’t take a moment to think. I typed back an affirmative response right away, screaming and shouting as I whipped through my apartment in glee.
Only after five minutes of yelling did I realize what I had done. I meant YES with every fiber of my being, but making the trip a reality would take months of planning and work. I sent another more rational email to James explaining how I would need to do more planning before giving a definitive answer. James’ reply was brief and all the encouragement I needed:
Great things don’t just happen = people make them happen, so keep planning.
I printed out the note, highlighted it in bright yellow and pasted it above my computer screen. I knew I had the ability to make this happen, and so did James because twenty-five years ago he was involved in another adventure of mine which required planning to happen.
One of the highlights of my year as an exchange student was the Capricorn Ramble. This trip took me and eighty-four other exchange students around half of the continent of Australia in three and a half weeks. That’s right – two tour buses of teenagers from around the world traveling across the continent for twenty-four days, pitching tents each night in caravan parks and campgrounds.
Sounds brilliant, no?! When you are seventeen, it IS a brilliant experience.
I almost didn’t get to participate in the adventure. The Rotarians on the Youth Exchange Committee in Tasmania expressed doubts about my ability to ‘manage’ and participate in the tour because of my disability. Their intentions were well-meant, but I perceived this attitude as paternalistic and discriminatory. My fellow exchange students rallied around me, devising a plan to assist me and threatening to boycott the trip if I were not permitted to go with them. Their acceptance and support allowed me to fully experience the entire year, including the mainland trip, along with everyone else.
Trips like our Capricorn Ramble are only possible because Rotarian
gluttons for punishment volunteers serve as chaperones. The Tasmanian chaperones for our trip were James and his wife Kathy.
From the first day, James and Kathy allowed me to be in control of my own needs. They allowed me to find my own assistants and schedule help as I saw fit. They never hovered or spoke out with unnecessary concern. Basically, they treated me just like every other exchange student – which was what I wanted and deserved.
At the end of the tour, I thanked both James and Kathy for giving me the independence to determine for myself what was possible and not possible. Some chaperones may have treated me as ‘ill’ or ‘fragile.’ Instead, they let me set my own path and find a way to make it happen.
So, when James issued the invitation to return to Tasmania I was confident he knew I would be up to the challenge to make it a reality. Once again his belief in my abilities provided a boost of confidence.
James, I am so grateful for the invitation to return to Tasmania. You allowed me to share my story of living without limits with the men and women who changed my life when they said “yes” to me twenty-five years ago. I appreciate your support in making the trip a reality. I promise, when you and Kathy come to New York (and I hope you will) I won’t make you stay in tents when I play tour guide.