Is Anybody Out There?

Photo of a woman in a wheelchair speaking into a microphone. She is seated behind a podium with a red banner which reads "Light Up Rotary."
I am no stranger to speaking to Rotary Clubs or Conferences about my year as an exchange student.

I would like to thank everyone who sent me a message of encouragement prior to my presentation at the Rotary International North American Youth Exchange Network (NAYEN) conference last weekend. Some of you have sent email asking how it went so I thought I would write a follow-up about the experience.

First, I must express appreciation to Dennis White for putting my name forward as a possible speaker for NAYEN. Dennis is a psychologist and Rotarian who has been conducting research on the long-term positive effects of youth exchange. I met Dennis at the Rotary District 7170 District Conference in 2014, a conference which celebrated the District’s commitment and participation in youth exchange for more than fifty years. Dennis shared his research findings and I shared my unique story as one of the first disabled students to successfully complete an exchange year with Rotary International. At the end of the conference, Dennis told me about NAYEN and suggested I think about attending. Little did I know this would take the shape of an invitation to speak at NAYEN. Thank you Dennis for thinking of me and for allowing me to share my story with a wider audience.

With my broken leg making air travel impossible, I knew I would need to utilize technology like Skype or a webinar platform to be “present” at the conference. I have used Skype before, but mainly for one-on-one conversations or meetings with small groups. When presenting to conferences or large groups, I have always been on site, directly in front of my audience.

Last Saturday, I dressed in “work clothes” above the waist (nobody would see my fleece penguin pajama pants and slippers!), styled my hair, and put on lipstick for the first time in almost two months. I was reminded of the times my mom came to pick me up late at night after a high school marching band or orchestra trip, arriving at the school in her bathrobe and lipstick. At least I know where it comes from.

The Skype connection was clear and at 8:50 PM, Kevin (the NAYEN technology wizard) called me to tell me I was on. I had a quick glance at the audience of 475 people, seated at round tables in a hotel ballroom, as the emcee gave a brief introduction. After establishing they could in fact hear as well as see me, I shared my screen and began to talk.

Like most speakers, I rely on audience feedback to let me know how I am doing. Are they yawning? Are they laughing at things I meant to be funny? Are they checking their phones because they are bored? Are they making eyes at the person sitting across from them? When you are on stage in front of an audience, those visual cues are helpful. Last Saturday, I did not have visual cues from my audience.

Even more important, I did not have audio cues either. Feedback from my voice being projected into the ballroom was distracting to the audience and me, and Kevin muted the microphone on his end. I knew this might be a possibility as we had discussed it during our test run the day before. While I knew it might happen, I had not really considered what it would mean to be completely cut off from my audience. I have experienced similar situations, when all lines have been muted while I have been recording phone training sessions or webinars for work. But formal work recordings are different, because in those instances I am usually conveying required information instead of telling a personal story.

In the silence of my apartment, I began feeling a bit like I was speaking to an empty void. I did all the things I often encourage other speakers to do. I smiled and repeatedly told myself to slow down (my natural rate of speech is fast). I paused frequently at appropriate times, and kept an eye on the clock. Yet without the audible and visual cues from my audience, I had to assume my message was making it through and just keep going. I must have done a decent job though, because the audience responded enthusiastically at the end of my speech. It was a relief to see and hear them, to reconnect with them briefly before signing off and going to bed.

Ah, the exciting life I lead. The audience was going dancing while I was collapsing on my pillow. This was an unexpected perk of not being at the conference. I’m not kidding either. I shut off my computer at 9:29 PM and was in bed by 10:00. That doesn’t happen when you are on site!

Looking back on the experience made me think this week about how often we communicate without taking time to wait for feedback from our communication partners. How many times do we turn away from someone, missing an important facial expression which would provide a valuable clue about how that person is feeling? Do we listen, really listen, when we interact with others? Or do we just project our message hoping it will be received by those able to hear it? How do we know our meaning has been understood and received by those we want to reach?

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the conference, even though I missed out on being present in person. I learned many valuable lessons from the process which will help me become a stronger public speaker. Each time I speak, my audience helps me grow and (hopefully) improve.

Current status: Enjoying one more day of rest before returning to work part-time from home on Monday! I plan to spend the day learning to knit and purl while watching re-runs of Downton Abbey episodes, in preparation for tonight’s series finale. Will Edith find love at last? What will become of Mr. Barrow? Did you ever imagine I might feel bad for poor Mr. Barrow? And who will I quote once the Dowager Countess is gone?

Remote Viewing

Tonight I will be the keynote speaker at the North American Youth Exchange Network (NAYEN) conference. It is an honor to be asked to share my unique youth exchange story with the 400 conference attendees. I am excited and hope my words will inspire the audience.

Wait Denise – I thought you were still stuck at home because of your broken leg?

Yes, I am still home bound. Thanks to the wonders of technology I will be delivering my speech live from my dining room, via Skype.

This will be the first time I have addressed a large audience from the other end of a webcam. I have conducted meetings and interviewed using Skype, I have held webinar training sessions, but I have never presented to a large group in my slippers. (Trust me – I will be wearing slippers because shoes are still uncomfortable on my broken leg.)

I was initially invited to speak at the 2015 NAYEN conference. I would have accepted the offer, but I was already committed to making my Australia trip a reality. The chance to speak at the Rotary District Conference in Tasmania was an opportunity I could not refuse. Would NAYEN be willing to consider me for the 2016 conference?

Thankfully, they were. I eagerly prepared to travel to Cincinnati, Ohio, site of this year’s NAYEN conference. I recruited my friend Melissa to be my travel companion and Personal Assistant. We agreed on, and booked, flights which would get us to and from Ohio with the least amount of transfers.

Then I broke my leg on January 13. With the snap of a bone, plans had to change.

I did not want to back out of the conference again. I mean, I could have, and I’m sure people would have understood. But I already felt bad for not attending the conference in 2015, and I did not want to get a reputation as the speaker who never actually speaks when she is invited. Especially when it comes to a topic I am passionate about – the benefits of youth exchange, and how my exchange year positively changed my life. I felt so strongly about making it to NAYEN that it was one of the first things I mentioned after waking up from the surgery to fix my broken leg. My sister Sandy told me time and again not to worry about NAYEN, however I was determined to find a way to honor my commitment.

I am grateful to John, Ed, Kevin and the other conference planners who have worked to make it possible for me to fulfill my obligation tonight. After a successful test run yesterday, I am hopeful there will not be any technical glitches today. If there are, I know we will get through them. Twenty-five years ago, my exchange experience taught me how important it is to be flexible and creative (among many other lessons).

While I will miss being able to socialize with the conference attendees after my speech, I have to be honest and admit how relieved I am not flying to and from Ohio this weekend. My knee is certainly better than it was, but being lifted in and out of plane seats and aisle chairs would require high doses of pain medications. Speaking from the comfort of home, I can keep my leg elevated if I need to without needing mind-dulling narcotics. And I get to sleep in my own bed instead of struggling to get up on a high hotel mattress. In theory, this should result in me offering a more polished speech. All from the comforts of home.

Have you successfully used technology to solve an access problem? Share your story in the comments!

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 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.