30 Days of Thanks Day 14 – The Wells’ Family

I started writing this post weeks before I learned of yesterday’s attacks in Paris and Beirut. My heart aches for the victims and their families. I am writing this month of posts because when I was sixteen, I had the chance to participate in an international youth exchange. This exchange, sponsored by Rotary International, taught me the importance of cross-cultural and international understanding. Now, more than ever, we need more of this international dialogue. I am sticking with my intended post because today, while a day of mourning for many, is also a day of celebration for those I love. Congratulations Simon and Emma – may you have years of happiness together.

When I was preparing to be an exchange student, one of my main concerns was related to the families which would host me. I did not need to worry. I was fortunate to be placed with four wonderful families. I developed close bonds with all of them and have stayed in touch over the years

My first email after accepting the invitation to return to Australia was to Malcolm and Rae. They were my fourth host parents, the final family to host me at the end of my year. Would they be willing to help me find accommodation once again? The reply came quickly.Photo of the author, a woman in a red wheelchair, with an older couple standing behind her. All three are dressed in business attire. They are in front of cloth drapes featuring Rotary Club banners.

We are doing some renovations and think you’ll be able to stay here. Would you be comfortable with that?

Would I be comfortable with that?! Of course I jumped at the chance to spend time with “family.” Who wants to stay in a hotel when you can stay at a place you once called home for a brief time?

Many of my memories from the time I spent living in the home on Bonnet Hill involve boys and golf. Malcolm and Rae have two sons, Martyn and Simon. This meant I was an “older sister” AND I had  younger “brothers” for the first time in my life. Martyn and Simon were curious about America, picking on my accent and the words I used. Along with Martyn’s friend David, they would try to pronounce “New York” as I did, then would tell me to say “alum-in-um” instead of “alu-min-i-um,” which usually resulted in all of us giggling. The boys took to calling me “DiNoto,” putting extra emphasis on the second syllable as I often did when I corrected people who said “Di-NAH-to” rather than “Di-NO-to.”

One morning I came out of my bedroom and almost stepped on a golf ball which was rolling down the hallway. I stared quizzically at Simon, standing at the other end of the hall with a putter in his hands, who proceeded to explain how the boys had created a putting course throughout the house and the lawn. Would I mind announcing myself prior to coming out of my room from now on so he would know not to putt? I probably rolled my eyes and told him to get out of the way so I could go to the bathroom. In addition to watching for golf balls rolling down the hall, the new course also meant I had to sit at a different spot at the dining room table to write in my journal so my chair did not obstruct the path of the green. I tolerated the golf until one morning in April. My bedroom door flew open at 6:30 AM on a Saturday as Simon and Martyn both came running in. “Denise – get up! The U.S. Open is on TV!” 

I rolled over, assuring them both I did not have the slightest interest in anything on TV, reminding them it was Saturday and we did not need to be up this early. “But, it’s live from America! Don’t you want to see it?” I yawned, and agreed to get up in an hour if they didn’t make me watch golf. I don’t remember if I actually did watch golf with Martyn and Simon that morning, but I do remember Simon’s insistence that I should care about it since, like me, the broadcast was from the United States.

Malcolm, Rae, Martyn and Simon welcomed their home and hearts to me twenty five years ago, and I remain grateful to be an adopted member of their family. We have stayed in contact since my exchange year. In 2010, I served as tour guide when Malcolm and Rae came to the United States as part of a trip around the world. They stayed with my sister Sandy, also a Rotarian like Malcolm and me, and each day we explored the many areas I call home. I brought them to Bainbridge, my hometown, to meet my parents. My mother especially wanted to be able to thank Rae for taking care of “her baby.”

Without Malcolm and Rae, my trip in March would not have been the wonderful experience Kelly and I were able to enjoy. Every time I had a problem or question before I even arrived, Malcolm and Rae had answers. Malcolm found the Invacare wheelchair charger I used during my stay, sparing me from frying the electronics in my power chair. Rae had extra chargers we were able to use for our electronic devices, which was wonderful since I’d forgotten my adapter. Malcolm coordinated the accessible van rental, a gift from Kingston Rotary, which enabled us to move freely around the state for two weeks. Malcolm and Rae hosted a barbecue in their home, and allowed visitors to pop over for coffee, chats and meals throughout my stay. They both took amazing photos, which they shared with me and gave me permission to use on my blog.

One of the highlights of my visit this year was our family dinner. The family has grown in twenty five years. Martyn is now married to Sonia and they have two adorable children. At the time of our visit, Simon and Emma were engaged. Today is their wedding and I know you will join me in wishing them years of love and happiness together.

As we sat around the table in March, laughing and telling stories, I was reminded of something I often say when I speak about my exchange year. Home is not just the place where you were raised. Home is wherever you find love, support and a base from which to thrive.

Malcolm, Rae, Martyn and Simon – thank you for making your home a place where I could find love and acceptance. I am blessed to have “family” willing to adapt to my needs and accept me for who I am. I appreciate your assistance in making my dream visit a reality. Malcolm and Rae, I am honored you were present at the conference to hear me publicly thank the men and women who made such a difference in my life. The two of you have changed my world in so many ways and I will always be grateful for the love and friendship you have given willingly for the past twenty five years. Martyn and Simon – you were the best introduction to younger brothers any girl could ask for. You have brought your parents joy and I know they are proud of you (as am I) and all you have become. I am with you today in spirit as you gather in celebration. “DiNoto” sends her love!

Multi-generational family photo of grandparents holding grandchildren, and adult children. One of the adult sons holds a dog.

30 Days of Thanks Day 8 – James

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.Photo of the author, a white woman in a wheelchair, posing with white ambulatory couple.

 

 

30 Days of Thanks Day 6 – Bill

I was introduced to Bill Brundle on the radio. His voice came on the Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC) newscast every hour. I first heard him while my host parents were driving me to tour the school I would be attending as an exchange student.

It took me several weeks before I realized the Bill on ABC was the same Bill I saw each week at Rotary meetings. Hannah, the other exchange student also hosted by my host club, Kingston Rotary, was living with the Brundles. Bill answered the phone when I called to invite her to a party. I think I blurted out something like, “You’re the radio guy!” He laughed, thank goodness. He may not remember that call, but I do.

Bill and his wife Lyn invited me to their house while Hannah was still living with them. Hannah had talked about her host siblings Samantha, David and Solomon every time we were together. We had a wonderful dinner with plenty of conversation. I think Lyn was worried it may have been a little noisy, but coming from a large family myself I thought it was just like home.

Bill also gave me the opportunity to tour the ABC studio. At that time, I thought I might pursue a career in broadcast journalism. I had the chance to ask questions and observe a broadcast. It was a wonderful learning experience.

Because of Bill, I have remained connected to “my club” for the past twenty five years. Bill is the editor of the Kingston Rotary weekly bulletin. Each Friday morning, I wake up to an email from Bill with the latest update from the Club’s weekly meeting. I read about their fundraising efforts, their service projects, new members, their current exchange students and guest speakers. Sometimes the bulletins include updates from other former exchange students. I’ve never met them, but I feel a bond knowing we all had the privilege of being hosted by this amazing group.

Bill has been a dedicated and active Rotarian for several decades. He served as Team Leader on a Group Study Exchange to areas of the United States in 1997 and was District Governor for the Tasmanian District (9830) in 1999.

When the Kingston club agreed to host me, they made an arrangement of reciprocity with my home club in Bainbridge, New York. Since Kingston accepted me, as student with a disability, Bainbridge agreed to host an Australian exchange student with a disability.  Bill’s daughter Samantha was born with a rare congenital heart defect. Meeting me and observing my experience planted a seed in her head which would forever tie me to Bill and his family.

In 1995, Samantha came to New York on exchange. She lived with my parents for part of her year. During that time, she participated in many of my family dinners, just as I had as a guest with her family five years prior. My father, who is named Sam, was thrilled to have another “Sam” in the house. He still mentions his admiration for Samantha’s zest for life whenever we reminisce about that year.

Like my exchange experience, Samantha’s year would steer her in a course never imagined.  Upon returning to Australia, she followed her love of photography – a passion developed here in an art class. She went on to work for Club Med before marrying the love of her life and settling in Sydney.  Bill and Lyn were told at birth she would live just a few years. Again like me, she refused to conform to medical providers’ expectations and lived for decades until her death nine years ago.

As soon as I received the invitation to return to Tasmania, I emailed Bill and other Rotarians in Kingston. If I said yes, would they help me once again? Bill’s response came first – an enthusiastic yes!

In March, the day after I landed in Tasmania, Bill and Lyn were the first to arrive for a visit at my host parents’ house. Lyn was flying to Qatar to visit their grandchildren but she made time for coffee with me. I saw Bill again the following week when I was the guest speaker at Rotary. After my speech, we posed for a photo. I posed for many photos that night and each one is special to me. But the photo with Bill is one of my favorites. It captures the love and affection between friends in a natural embrace. I have it framed with other photos from my trip and look at each day with a smile.

Bill, I have always appreciated your support and belief in my abilities. On behalf of my parents and sisters, thank you for letting my family have your daughter as part of our family for a short time. Samantha taught all of us to live each day as fully as possible. She learned to reach for the stars from the lessons you and Lyn taught her. I will always be grateful for our shared connection. Thank you Bill (and Lyn!) for helping to make this return trip possible. As you know, there are many in New York who would welcome you with open arms should you come for a visit!

Photo of the author, a white woman wearing a blue dress and black cardigan sweater and sitting in a wheelchair, being embraced by an older white gentleman. He is wearing a suit jacket, shirt and dress pants.

 

A young woman with short brown hair is smiling. She is holding a baby Tasmanian devil on her left arm. She is wearing large glasses circa 1990 and a black sweatshirt.

“T” is for Tasmanian Devil (and Tonia)

When I joined an online writing group last year, I had no idea what to expect. I had read horror stories from some other groups. I knew as a social person I would do well if I could connect with other positive people who were engaged in the same activity. I took a deep breath and posted an introductory note, hoping I was not making a mistake.

Tonia was the first to welcome me, to say hello and reach out with support. She does this consistently for new members. If I have questions, or need to share a moment of joy, Tonia is always there. Whenever group members are struggling, she is the voice of reason and encouragement. Tonia is honest but never malicious. Earlier this year, when I was overwhelmed by the positive response to one of my posts, Tonia sent me a note I now have taped to my screen. Writing is not about numbers; it’s about heart. The message keeps me grounded, and has helped me focus many times.

Tonia’s blog, The Vast and Inscrutable Imponderabilities of Life, is full of wit and honest observations about the wonder of life. Like many bloggers, Tonia is participating in the A to Z Challenge this month. She graciously offered me an opportunity to write a guest post. I asked for the letter “T.” My post on the Tasmanian devil appeared on her blog yesterday. If you are interested, you can read it by clicking this link. While you are there, please visit her other pages. Read her exquisitely written prose, and admire her gorgeous photography.

In the post I mention a photo from my days as an exchange student. I did not provide that photo for Tonia’s post, and of course another amazing writing friend commented on the lack of said photo. So, for Roslynn, here is the photo of me as an exchange student twenty five years ago holding a Tasmanian devil.

Tasmanian devil
Please, try to focus on the Tasmanian devil and not my gigantic glasses!

My Go-To Tunes – Flashback Friday

I’ve been listening to my “Aussie Tunes” playlist quite a bit lately. Most of the songs were popular during my time as an exchange student, and many (but not all) are by Australian musicians.

Music triggers memories for me. I may not remember all of the details from my two week tour of Tasmania with my fellow Rotary exchange students, but I can tell you the music we listened to on the bus. Those songs take me back to being sixteen, far from home, learning about other cultures and discovering what it meant to be me.

We began almost every day with this song – “Lay Down Your Guns” by Jimmy Barnes. So when the song came up on my iPod this morning, the first song for my commute, I laughed and thought about my friends and I dancing on the bus.

Thanks to Facebook, I am still in touch with some of them. Andrea is teaching Special Education just a few hours away from where I live. Christine and Cecilia are both mothers, living in Denmark and Sweden respectively. Henrik is teaching scuba diving. Liz, originally from South Africa, is now in England. Astrid, originally from Norway, lived in Canada for years but now is in Denmark. Hanna is a married mother in Finland. Marianne is a minister in Denmark. Although I don’t know where the others are, I think about Maiko, Philipe, Peter, Tina, Susan, Shawna, Tati, Chie, and Hiro frequently, especially now as I prepare my speech for next month’s conference.

It is impossible for me to describe my year as an exchange student without discussing what I learned about friendship from all of them. After our Tasmania tour, some Rotarians expressed doubts about my ability to ‘manage’ and participate in the exchange student tour of mainland Australia. Their intentions were well-meant, but I perceived this 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. I mentioned this recently in an email exchange with Andrea, thanking her for taking a stance with me. “Well,” she replied, “we didn’t do anything special. Just treated a friend as a friend.”

This morning as I danced in my car, singing along with this song, I spent a few minutes with my friends. I appreciate them stopping by to visit through music.