In Appreciation of My Forever Friends

My hometown of Bainbridge, New York, is small. According to the most recent census, the population is approximately 3,000 people (of which 1,300 live in the village of Bainbridge). In a town like Bainbridge, everyone knows everyone else. I may not have appreciated growing up in a small community during my teen years, where I was one in a class of just 66 students, the youngest daughter of the manager of the grocery store. But things change as you mature, and now I am grateful I had the chance to grow up surrounded by a group of people who are my forever friends.

My forever friends have known me, quite literally, all my life. I met my best friend Stephanie at the summer playground program when I was three. Erin’s family moved across the street from my family when I was four. Sheri and I convalesced together when we both had the chicken pox in kindergarten. Rebecca, George, and I used to ride to and from religious education classes throughout elementary school. Allison volunteered to spend recess with me in third grade after I had surgery, and then was in almost every single class with me for the next 8 years. For most of high school, I saw the same friends all day as we moved from class to class.

After high school, some of us moved away for college and careers. Some stayed to make their lives in town. Though I no longer have daily contact with most of these friends, they are still the people I turn to when I need to be reminded of who I am. These are the friends who will challenge me if I say something out of line. They will question me if I appear to be acting out of character. They are quick to remind me of my importance in the world when I am facing difficult times.

This year I have come to recognize how much I value their presence in my life. During my hospitalization in January, their support and encouragement gave me the energy I needed to continue my recovery. Knowing they believed in my ability to endure fortified my resolve when the pain was too intense. Cards, emails, and letters seemed to appear whenever I was low and needed a lift.

When I was younger, the people who came back to town for their class reunions with their forever friends always seemed more mature than I currently feel. I always assumed they had life’s questions all figured out. I never imagined one day I would be the one going out to dinner with my school friends, laughing over memories, reminiscing over a meal and drinks on a summer night.

But that is exactly where I found myself on Saturday. Last weekend I gathered with some of my forever friends to commemorate 25 years since our high school graduation. Sitting at the table, laughing about summer marching band trips, prom, and favorite teachers, I was reminded how fortunate I am to have my forever friends. Time passes between our visits, yet we are held together by our shared history. We have adult lives now, and are spread in different cities and states, yet thanks to social media it is easier than ever to remain in contact. In fact, most of them will probably read how I feel about them when this post appears on Facebook.

I am most thankful to my forever friends for always accepting me for me, regardless of changing physical abilities. My forever friends always found ways to make sure I was included in activities. When my Brownie troop marched in the Memorial Day parade, my fellow Brownies pulled me in a wagon so I could be in the parade too. When we played games during recess, my friends allowed me extra time to “run” so I could play along with them. Friends pushed my wheelchair during marching band season so I could fulfill the requirement to march (it’s hard to play an instrument and wheel at the same time). They danced with me at school dances and never questioned why I was there. It wasn’t until I left high school that I encountered the “oh, it’s great to see someone like you out having fun” reaction on a dance floor.

Now that I have a disabled peer network, I have learned about the shame and isolation many of them experienced as youths. I never felt that. Sure, I was picked on by classmates. I remember being called names by other kids in school. But I also remember my friends sticking up for me, telling me I was better than those who might try to put me down. I never faced malicious bullying as a child.

Aristotle wrote, “In poverty and other misfortunes of life, true friends are a sure refuge. They keep the young out of mischief; they comfort and aid the old in their weakness, and they incite those in the prime of life to noble deeds.” My true forever friends may not have kept me out of mischief as a youngster, but their continual comfort and assistance enrich my life in many ways.

Too often, we forget to express our gratitude to our friends because their friendship has been a constant in our lives. I have used my 30 Days of Thanks posts to publicly thank those who matter to me. How about you? When was the last time you wrote a thank you note to a friend? Why not take a moment to brighten a friend’s day right now? I guarantee it will make both of you feel better.

30 Days of Thanks Day 21 – Bainbridge Rotary

I cannot thank the special people who made my trip to Tasmania possible without including the Rotarians who started it all. Today I want to share my thanks with the wonderful Rotarians from my hometown, the members of the Rotary Club of Bainbridge, NY. In order to do it properly, I need to share some of my Rotary story. I have written and spoken about this often, but this will be the first time writing it on my own blog.

Rotary is an international service organization. It is organized into Districts, which contain individual clubs. Founded by a Chicago businessman, Paul Harris, and some of his friends in 1905, the organization now boasts over 1.2 million members around the world. You can learn more about Rotary by visiting their website.

My Rotary story starts – well, I don’t really know when it starts because Rotary has always been a part of my life. My father was a Rotarian for several decades and was awarded a Paul Harris Fellow. He served as President of the Bainbridge club when I was a child. I remember other Rotarians coming to the house for monthly Board of Directors meetings, and tagging along with Dad when he worked on service projects in the community.

Bainbridge Rotary is a small club (it’s a small town!) but they have a strong commitment to youth exchange. They have participated in the program for more than 50 years. Our family hosted several exchange students over the years – Mariko from Japan, Suzanna from Peru, Patti from Bolivia*, Ariel from the Philippines, and Samantha from Australia.

When I was in high school, the club formed an Interact club.  Interact is a Rotary sponsored club for young people who want to make a difference in their community. I joined Interact and served as Secretary for two years, completing service projects along with my father and the other Rotarians. My involvement with Rotary, Interact and the exchange students opened my eyes to the fact there was a great big world out there beyond Bainbridge – and I always knew I wanted to explore it. But it took some encouragement from a special Rotarian to make me pursue exchange for myself.

My parents’ neighbor, Doctor Ken Benson – the local veterinarian everyone called ‘Doc’ – approached me at the start of my eleventh grade year in 1989 to ask me if I had thought about Rotary youth exchange. He was a former District Governor and was a living example of the Rotary motto, “Service Above Self.” I HAD thought about it, but I didn’t know of another student with a disability who had participated in the program. I told Doc I was skeptical of being selected by the District. Doc encouraged me to apply anyway.

Denise – you’ve never let your disability stop you from anything else, so why let it stop you from this?

I still wasn’t sure and talked about it with some friends at school. A classmate heard me and said, “You can’t do that – how could you be an exchange student?” Well, the best way to get me to do anything has always been to tell me I can’t! I decided on the spot – I was going to be an exchange student!

I applied to the Bainbridge club, and was selected to participate in the District interviews. My sponsor District, 7170 , has always had a large exchange program. The year I applied, they sent 74 students outbound to other Districts. There were 140 of us at the District Interviews and we all knew we had a 50/50 chance of being selected.

I was selected by the District but it took some time to find me a host District and a host club. District 7170 leadership wanted to send me to an English speaking country so I would have an easier time making my requests for help. When Doc felt the District was not acting quickly enough to find me a host District, he took matters into his own hands and reached out to the men who had been District Governor with him back in the 1970’s. I’ll write about the Kingston, Tasmania, Rotarians next week.

I became an exchange student because the men and women of Bainbridge Rotary believed in me and my abilities. They didn’t see a wheelchair or a disability when they interviewed me. They saw a teenager with a sense of adventure, a thirst for knowledge and a willingness to immerse herself in another culture for a year. When they selected me, I knew they had confidence in my ability to represent their club and their reputation wherever I might be sent.

I have maintained contact with the Bainbridge club even though I moved away. My father is no longer active with the club, but my parents are good friends with many members. I keep up with the club on social media and often read of their service projects when I visit and read the local paper. When the club celebrated their fiftieth anniversary of being involved in the youth exchange program, I was one of the former exchange students invited to speak at the ceremony.

I suspect my parents or my sister Caroline, who also still lives in Bainbridge, told a Rotarian about my invitation to return to Australia. Somehow, the club found out about it because a week after I began asking for financial assistance I received an envelope from the club treasurer. Enclosed was a generous check of financial support and a kind note encouraging me.

Denise – we are so proud of all you are doing and wish you the best of luck on your return trip. Please come back and share your stories with us when you return!

To all the Bainbridge Rotarians, past and present – thank you so much for all you have done to change my life over the past twenty-six years. It has been an honor to represent you at home and on the other side of the world. I am humbled to know I continue to make you proud. I hope my future actions next year when I am President of my Rotary club will further the legacy you created when you selected me to be your ambassador. I would love to come back for a meeting. I have so much to share!

*Correction: My sister Susan pointed out the exchange student from Bolivia who lived with my family was actually Patti. Christine did stay with us, but as part of a tour. Thank you Susan for reminding me of this!

30 Days of Thanks Day – Shelly

Shelly is another of my “forever friends” whom I have known all my life. Shelly was a year behind me in our small hometown school in Bainbridge, so she wasn’t in my classes. However, we did spend hours every day together each summer in marching band.

For the kids in our small hometown, summer marching band was literally a way out. The season started in April when we would first get to see the music for Memorial Day. If you played in concert band, you were required to march in the Memorial Day parade held each year at the end of May.

When I joined concert band in junior high our teacher, Mr. Smith, told me I would not be excused from this requirement simply because of my disability. He helped me find someone who was willing to push my manual wheelchair in the parades so I could march with everyone else. I marched every year.

Band didn’t end when the school year ended. Rather, that was when things got serious and Mr. Smith would give us the annual “you’re either in it or you’re out – go out and recruit people” speech. We practiced each night on the track and football field, occasionally marching on the village streets. Weekends meant trips to area parades, fairs and festivals. Most years included at least one big overnight road trip. In 1987 we marched in Philadelphia in the parade celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Constitution. The next year we went to Canada, performing our field show at baseball games throughout Ontario.

Shelly played the clarinet, which meant she was far ahead of those of us back in the percussion section when we marched on the road. While we didn’t line up together, we were often on the same bus riding to and from parades. Often, bus trips involved discussions of what we would do when we left Bainbridge for good. When I announced I was thinking about applying to be an exchange student, Shelly came up to me to tell me she thought I would make a great ambassador. I remember the conversation, because I thought, “Only Shelly would use the word ambassador to describe an exchange student!”

An ambassador is defined as “an official envoy.” I don’t know that I have ever been official about anything, but I do know both Shelly and I have been ambassadors of what is possible for young women who are given opportunities in a supportive small town school.

Shelly and I were both considered “smart kids” in our school. As such, we were groomed for academic success. We both left Bainbridge for college. I went to St. Rose and Shelly was accepted into a combined program at LeMoyne College and the University at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine. I decided to settle in the Albany area, but Shelly eventually returned to Bainbridge after completing her residency.

When I think of Shelly now, I think of commitment to community. Her dental practice is based in the town which shaped us. Shelly volunteers on the Alumni Association of our high school. At Halloween, she distributes toothbrushes in a candy exchange. During the month of February, which is Children’s Dental Health Month here in the US, Shelly provides dental care to disadvantaged children.

Shelly lives in an old farmhouse just outside of town, a house which used to be owned by my parents’ friends. I spent many hours playing hide and seek around the house when my parents were visiting. Shelly is maintaining it with the same care and attention to detail which she demonstrates in her professional life. I enjoy seeing the photos of her progress on social media when she shares them. I smile thinking that someone new loves the house now.

No matter how much time goes between visits, Shelly and I are able to just start a conversation as if we saw each other only yesterday. I know she will be honest and thoughtful. Shelly makes me laugh with her wit and observations of the world around her.

Thank you Shelly, for helping me fulfill my dream this year. You helped make it possible for me to spread my message of living without limits. I appreciate your continued friendship and your support.Photo of a white woman seated at a table. She has blond shoulder-length hair and is wearing a brown sleeveless dress.

Perspective on Priorities

I never intended to write this post. I intended to write about reconnecting with forever friends, and the value of friendships which stand the test of time. Then I got the message from my friend and neighbor Christy.

I just heard from a friend – there is a fire at the complex. Not our building, but a few buildings down from us on the other side of the street.

I was at my sister Caroline’s house, in the process of getting ready for a party. The Bainbridge-Guilford Class of 1990 was celebrating their 25th reunion Saturday night. I could have graduated with the class of 1990, but opted to spend a year as an exchange student in Australia instead. Thankfully, they still invite me to their parties even though I am a member of the class of 1991. I get to celebrate with both classes, which is the most fun.

Caroline lives on a hill in the middle of nowhere outside my hometown of Bainbridge, not quite in neighboring Guilford. Her house, with this amazing view, is one of the last places in the county which does not have cellular service. She does have wi-fi, which I use to remain connected to my everyday life while I visit, when I want to be connected.

View from a hilltop. A row of pine trees is across a road. There are green hills and blue sky with puffy clouds.
The view from Caroline’s driveway.

As I sat with my hair pulled back and mascara on only one eye, I wanted to be connected as concerned friends continued to email me and tag me on Facebook posts.

Denise – this is your complex. Are you OK?

Is this your building on fire? Where are you?

Please tell me if you are alright. There is a big fire in your complex.

Thankfully, I am fine. My apartment is fine. The building across the street is a different story.

While I was reminiscing with friends, catching up on life’s events, four families – my neighbors – lost everything they owned. They escaped with their lives and, thanks to the efforts of local volunteer firefighters, their pets made it out too.

I drove back to my apartment on Sunday not knowing what I would find. Pictures and video failed to prepare me for the feeling of despair which overwhelmed me as I drove down the hill. At first, I only saw the front corner as I turned into my parking lot. When I exited my vehicle, this is what I saw.

Photo of an apartment building shaded by trees. The corner of the building is blackened by smoke.
The view from the sidewalk in front of my apartment.

Then I walked around to the back, and the true scale of the devastation hit me. I cannot imagine what the occupants must have experienced. One of the upstairs tenants was awakened by his young son, asking if he wanted to see fireworks. When he realized what was happening, he got his children out and then assisted a downstairs neighbor who is blind out of her apartment.

A burned out shell of a building. The roof is missing. Charred debris litters the ground.
The rear of the building.
Photo of a charred building destroyed by fire.
For reference, that faint red arrow is pointing to my van, which is parked outside of my building.

I sat in front of my building, watching the parade of curious visitors streaming by in their cars. I never knew so many people did “disaster drive-bys” to stare in horror at the destruction. I would never dream of doing such a thing.

The nonstop flow angered me. These visitors who gawked at the ruined building which had previously housed four families would never have shown interest on any other day. In the span of twenty minutes I counted forty seven cars. I don’t live on a main road. I live in a suburban complex. People don’t usually drive down my street unless they live on it.

Then at 8:00 PM Sunday the fire trucks returned. A smoke alarm in the downstairs apartment was beeping and someone had called 911. I stood with Christy and my other neighbors, watching the firefighters as they crawled into the damaged building through the front window. Thankfully, they did not find any new fire and were gone within an hour.

Our apartment community is not a tight knit group, but this fire has forged new friendships. I have had conversations with neighbors I normally just wave to when we pass in the morning. I learned several neighbors had already gathered donations for the families, who are being assisted by the Red Cross. I am sure there will be other efforts and I know several of us will do as much as we can.

Because all of us are thinking the same thing: it could have been us.

It could have been my neighbors who had to help me out of a burning building. All of my memories from high school – the photos and yearbooks – which I shared with my friends over dinner and drinks, could have gone up in smoke in the blink of an eye.

I have never felt survivors guilt, but I imagine it feels like the emotions running through my head and heart right now. The relief I feel is tinged by sorrow, knowing others are struggling.

I hope this new sense of community with my neighbors lasts. I wonder if people will continue to stand on the corner and talk as they walk their dogs instead of strolling by with their heads down.

As for me, it’s time to update my emergency preparedness plans. I am replacing the batteries in all of my smoke detectors and updating my information with local special needs registries. Small steps, yes. But more than I had done last week.

Because none of us can predict those moments when life changes in a puff of smoke.