Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Power of One

Walking down the trail this morning, with our Labrador and Rottweiler in tow, I looked down at the various shades of leaves on the ground. Brown, mahogany, yellow and green scattered beneath my feet and some floating from the trees as I walked. The dogs ran across them making crunching sounds, while I stopped on the dirt trail and reflected on the past nine days. My mind was still processing the previous day’s events and everything that transpired, from what I thought was a chance encounter that cascaded beginning with one action.

I believe that I’m positioned by God to influence. As a Christian, I believe that my decisions matter and with those decisions I make an impact. It makes sense that our actions affect those around us whether positively or negatively.  I also believe that if one person makes a difference, then it’s possible that the person they impacted may then affect the next person and it cascades from there. I read somewhere that 97% of people operate in a comfort zone while the other 3% operate in the growth zone. How often do you step out of your comfort zone to make a difference?
“We need to leave by 10:30am. The construction traffic in Dallas was a mess on Monday and your appointment is at 1pm.” I said knowingly. I’d driven the same route earlier in the week and barely made my own appointment.

Two hours later we breezed out of the elevators and into the Dr.’s office, shocked by the fact that we blazed through Dallas morning traffic without construction or accident delays. That had never happened before and the chances were slim that it would happen again. We checked in, took a seat in the lobby, and waited for Aaron’s name to be called.

Moments later, a petite, young, red-headed woman stepped out of the Dr.’s office, but we didn’t pay much attention to her until she said, “This may seem inappropriate, but my partner’s in a wheelchair and I was wondering if I could ask you a question?”

 “Yes,” my husband replied without hesitation. For him, being approached by a complete stranger isn’t uncommon. People are curious or sometimes rudely think that they have the right to know what happened to him, but in this case you could hear the desperate need for knowledge in her voice.

“Do you have an ileal conduit?” she asked.

“No” he answered and then proceeded to explain why.

While my mind was trying to process what an ileal conduit was, a young man rolled out into the lobby and stopped beside her. He had shaggy, blonde hair, like a California surfer, and his eyes were steel blue. He wore a grey beanie on his head for warmth since the temperatures had dipped into the 30’s that morning. His face had a gentleness to it that hid all too well the pain he was dealing with. As the conversation continued over the next 30 minutes, I discovered that he, like my husband, experienced severe nerve pain 24/7, which is a condition that affects less than 2% of spinal cord injured people. That was the “I get it” moment when my heart felt connected to them and made me want to reach out somehow.

A nurse walked out and called our name, so Gentrie and I hurriedly exchanged phone numbers. In the past I’d given out my number, thinking that I’d made a connection with someone, only to never hear from them again. I don’t take it personally, but in this case there was a strong pull on my heart to make the first move. Whenever I meet another caregiver, I feel a need to connect. Sometimes it’s because I see that I’m further along in the journey and I may be able to shed light on their situation. Sometimes, it’s because I think I can learn from them, and on occasion we have something in common other than our spouse's disability. So, I sent her a text, knowing they were probably loading into their car, but she sent back a short reply. 

That Friday night, we became Facebook friends. Gentrie was a member in a FB group, in which members or their spouses are living with paralysis, and she had posted a question about getting a new wheelchair covered. She wrote: 

How do you get your wheelchair paid for? I just called my insurance company and was told that I have a $3000 deductible which I already knew… And that durable medical equipment was limited to $2000 a year…On paper, Medicaid pays for wheelchairs, but he keeps being denied. His wheelchair is from 2004.

As the wife of a paralyzed veteran, I’m familiar with the VA system and Tricare. My husband’s allowed two wheelchairs at a time so that he has a backup chair if one should need repairs. When I read her post, I couldn’t understand how her partner didn’t have the same. If his main mode of transportation is broken and there’s no backup then he’s stranded.  What would you do if were paralyzed and your power chair or vehicle broke down and no one was around to help you? Stop and think about it. What would you do? 

I wanted to help Gentrie, but we had only met in passing. I wondered how she would perceive it if someone she had just met offered help. Would she think I was being nosey, stalking her on Facebook, or too much in her personal business? My heart kept tugging at me as I struggled with whether or not to reach out. I even asked my husband if he thought it would be appropriate. Finally, I sent this Facebook message to her on Saturday:

Hello. I know we barely got to know one another the other day, but I want you to know that my heart goes out to you. As a veteran's spouse, I'm immersed in a community that battles the VA for our spouses’ healthcare regularly. Although the VA is less than ideal, I am learning from your posts that we have so much to be thankful for. When Aaron was first injured, he was incorrectly fitted for two different wheelchairs and the VA wouldn't take them back. We ended up donating both of those wheelchairs to others with paralysis. With this in mind, I'm reaching out to several of my friends, whose husbands are also paralyzed, in hopes that they may have an unused chair. If I'm successful at getting someone to donate a chair, would you be open to receiving it on behalf of Matt?

Gentrie told me that she was hesitant to approach Matt about the chair, as he had just been released from the hospital a few days prior and was still not feeling well, but she replied with the following:

You are so sweet! Chance encounters are really just blessings. Matt’s chair has to be a power chair and if you come across one his size that someone isn't using, well it will definitely be a God thing. Which I completely believe can happen. He has a push chair, but since he doesn't have enough trunk support to use it unsupervised (he falls out of it too easily) while I'm at work... he can't drive from it. Regardless, it warms my heart that you would even make the request.

So, I immediately messaged three of my peers to include Stacy, whose veteran husband is paralyzed and needs a power chair just like Matt. I asked:

Odd question, but does Chris have a wheelchair he doesn't use anymore? We met a young man the other day that was injured when he was a minor. He doesn't qualify for Medicare because of that. Anyway, he's in a ten year old wheelchair that’s so broken down that he's continually getting pressure sores. I'm trying to find anyone that may have a chair they're not using anymore. Any help would be appreciated.

Stacy wrote back:

Wouldn't it be great if we could get them a new chair? Chris has two power chairs. His new one is in for repairs as the airlines damaged it. After he gets it back he won't "need" a "back up" chair. He went six  years and functioned JUST fine with only one power chair! I’m going to work my wifely mojo on him. Then we would be able to give him a new chair and tank chair to get him back to good.  

Over the next six days, the three of us messaged back and forth gathering information from one another regarding chair features, measurements, weight, cushion sizing, pictures of the wheelchair, etc. At this point, I didn’t want to share their names due to privacy reasons which made me the common denominator! So, when Stacy would ask me a question, I’d ask Gentrie and then I’d respond back to Stacy. I toggled back and forth on personal messaging trying not to mix up all three of our conversations. I was so excited to make this happen, but I also knew that there was the chance that Matt may not want any part of our conspiring. I was trying to not get ahead of myself, although I’ll admit that I did have some of my ego involved in making this happen. If it did take place, then I would get to witness the power of my actions and the generosity of my peers.

Then the following message came from Gentrie, one week later, on Friday evening:

"Guess what!? I actually decided to go ahead and mention it to Matt. He immediately said yes. I can't believe it. He never makes decisions quickly. I mean I can believe it b/c he needs it. It makes me simultaneously happy that he agreed and sad b/c that further tells me how much he is in need. I'm your spirit, Stacy and Chris' and then Matts' immediate response. Stacy friended me on FB yesterday so I can let her know BUT I'm sure it will bring you joy to let her know first since this is a direct impact of YOUR sweet actions...let me know."

I was ecstatic. I read her message twice and then I read it aloud to my husband. I think at this point he was tired of hearing me talk about the power chair, because I had read every Facebook conversation to him over the course of the week along with every single thought I had surrounding it.  I felt in my heart that meeting Gentrie and Matt was not a chance encounter, but an encounter orchestrated by God. As a Christian, I felt my actions were meant to make a difference in whatever capacity. Delivery still had to be arranged and I lived two hours away, which meant I wouldn’t be present for the hand-off. I really wanted to be a part of it, but I reminded myself that this event wasn’t about me.

Sunday afternoon, Stacy and Chris delivered the chairs and had the opportunity to meet Gentrie and Matt for the first time.  Not only was Chris donating his gently-used power chair, but he was also donating a tank chair that would get around outdoors for things like hunting and fishing. It’s relevant to point out that a power chair typically cost fifty thousand dollars or more depending on different features. A tank chair can cost anywhere from fifteen thousand up to twenty-five thousand, so this was a huge blessing that lifted a financial burden off of Gentrie and Matt, while at the same time giving both of them some much needed hope.

This is where my actions cascaded to Stacy, who over the course of the afternoon realized Matt didn’t have a reliable vehicle. He’s been fighting the government system for over two years to get his unsafe truck repaired. This leaves him virtually housebound when Gentrie is working or traveling for business, which she has done twenty-eight times in the past ten months. Stacy had experience in fundraising so she quickly jumped into action by starting a “Go Fund Me” campaign, which is based on the premise of crowd-funding.  The goal was originally to raise at least thirty thousand dollars to buy Matt an adapted van among other things. Stacy not only started the fundraising, but she also called the local FOX news television station and spoke to a reporter about airing the story.

So, Tuesday morning, all six of us met at Gentrie’s home to be interviewed by FOX channel 4. It was surreal to be sitting in her home when we had only met nine days prior and spoke on the phone one time since meeting. Everything was happening so fast and yet here all of us were in her living room getting ready to be interviewed for that evening’s five o’clock news. Although Gentrie and Matt weren’t part of our wounded veteran community, they still had similar struggles in common. Those struggles united us and made them part of our family.  All of this was happening, because I chose to listen to my heart and move beyond my comfort zone, which lead to Stacy doing the same. The power of one now turned into the power of two people making an impact.

The power of two people has currently led to close to two-hundred people making a difference. Twenty-three days into the “Go Fund Me” campaign and the donations total $18,325 which was funded by one hundred and seventy-three people, many of them virtual strangers. Those strangers were making a difference by being part of a bigger movement, stepping out of their comfort zone. Over time, more and more people will decide to make a  donation, which will eventually lead to the purchase of a safe vehicle for Matt.

So often, it's easier to look at the world and only see the negatives. We see the darkness that surrounds us and wonder how we could possibly do anything to impact the majority. But if we believe that notion, then we might as well give up, and if we give up then we’re part of the darkness. I challenge you to be the light. I challenge you to be the person who smiles at a stranger and possibly alters their mood, or buys your co-worker a cup of coffee, donate to a local charity or volunteer in your community. If you do any of those things, I believe that you'll see the power of one person making a difference. It starts with you.

*To see the Dallas news interview go to: FOX 4 News interview
*To donate to Matthew go to:

Monday, November 17, 2014

In Two Places

She sits on the burgundy, leather sofa with her reading glasses on while immersed in a Dean Koontz novel. Her head is tilted in the way that older people do when wearing bifocals. I ask her a question, but she doesn’t hear me. I ask again with more volume to my voice. “What?” she answers. It’s the first time I realize that her hearing isn’t what it was when I saw her two years ago.

I watch him casting the fishing line across our pond, while I stand at the front window inside our home. He fractured his right arm 4 weeks before this visit and it’s the first time he’s taken a chance to cast the line in hopes of catching “the big one.” When he came to visit last year, a big catfish broke his line and swam away! His original plan was to help us with numerous projects around the property, but due to doctor’s orders, he’s restricted to lifting no more than 2 pounds. I’m fairly certain that the catfish’ in our pond are more than 2 pounds. As far as the projects are concerned, I can get them done later with someone else's help and the reality is that having his company is more important.

She’s organized, structured and analytical, not leaving anything to chance. She’s a perfectionist to the end, not missing any details. He’s enjoys being outdoors working on a project or in the garden. He struggles with staying away from snack foods like ice cream, baked goods and hot tamales candy. They’re both compassionate, generous and love their family. Also, I have to mention that although they’re not from the south, they love sweet tea! I forget that I have all these traits in common, until they are both in my presence.

These two people are my parents. I have the pleasure of visiting with them only once every year or two. I hope they’ll forgive me for saying that when they arrived this time, I was reminded of their age. For me, seeing them so rarely, I keep them safe in my mind as I saw them last. It’s easy for me to stay in my denial about the fact that they’re aging and with that comes health concerns. A year or two makes a big difference, especially now that they’re in their late 60’s. In the past year, two of my friends had a parent pass away and I don’t take for granted that mine are still alive. I can still call them and ask for their advice or simply call to say “I love you and miss you.”

Like so many military families, whether active duty or retired, our families are far away. We spend too many holidays without them and although neighbors or friends may invite us to their homes, it’s not the same. Of course we appreciate the offer and the companionship, but our families are being missed in our heart. At a friend’s house, I don’t think I’d get away with talking loud, bickering or eating the last piece of dessert. When we spend holidays with our families we can get away with leaving dishes in the sink or letting the dogs lick the plates, but don’t think for a minute that your friends would appreciate it!

This morning my parents and I said our goodbye’s before they headed off for a 5 day drive home. As I have done so many times in the past, when I would say goodbye to friends from a military move or when I had the rare chance to go home for a visit, I said my goodbye as quickly as possible. No sense in delaying the inevitable since it’s the last thing I want to be doing. Although we got on each others nerves a few times over the three week period (what family wouldn’t?) I start to get teary as I hug them and wonder when I’ll see them again. I think of how much I miss those hugs and wish I could have that safe place more often,  like I did when I was a kid. 

Unfortunately, they won’t be with me for this year’s holidays, but I’ll cherish the time I spent with them and the memories we created: great meals together,  exploring new places around town to include the new bakery and walks around our ranch. As my dad so eloquently said to me years ago, when I was leaving my childhood home and going back to my adult home to be with my husband, he said “You’re heart is in two places.”  He was so right with that statement, because my heart IS always in two places.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Lost Creek Ranch

Entering through the red, metal gate your eyes are drawn to the twenty-acre meadow on the left, which is surrounded on three sides by large trees, almost creating a picture frame. Part of the year the meadow is covered with hay and other times it’s a blanket of yellow Cone flowers. The half-mile gravel road curves through the trees bending left and then right before arriving at the pond. It passes by a small clearing in the trees, where a seven-foot rusted, metal cross is positioned across from a wooden bench. It's intended as a place to sit and reflect, which is easy to do when surrounded by nothing but trees. Further back into the woods is an U.S. flag hung sideways from a piece of lumber placed ten-feet high between two trees. Your eyes are drawn upward towards the flag, which serves as a reminder of the many brave men and women in uniform that have sacrificed for our country with honor and courage. Lost Creek Ranch is being created for those veterans that we call family. The family is a small one, within the civilian population, but it's one that we are comforted by when in their company.

Looking out the front window, another American flag sits at the edge of the pond waving in the wind. The water on the pond reflects the trees surrounding it and ripples when the wind blows. The turtles rest on partially underwater trees that create habitat for the fish in the pond, and a blue heron waits patiently for a fish to come close enough to snatch it. In the evenings, the bullfrogs echo one another and the sound cascades all the way around the pond like a symphony, with the crickets chirping backup. Many veterans have fished in this pond and found relaxation in doing so. Each spring, a bird builds her nest on the front porch spot lights, and as soon as I go out to drink my morning coffee, she flies away. She stays close enough to let me know that she is not happy with my presence near her nest, and for a moment I feel guilty that I’m invading her territory. Looking at the flag waving in the wind, I think about the freedoms that we often take for granted.

While exploring the wooded property, there are numerous trails to wander on. Each trail has been cleared with two things in mind: to create accessibility for our veterans in wheelchairs and to create a place of serenity. Local churches, boy scouts, friends, and fellow veterans have taken part in creating these trails. One trail has a bottle tree located on it and a bench to sit and relax. The bottle tree was created when a veteran family came for the weekend and painted designs on wine bottles using nail polish. The painted bottles were then placed on the small branches of the tree. The painted colors bounce off the bottles when the sunlight passes through the branches of the trees. Some people call it the “poor mans stained glass” and southern folklore states that bad spirits go into the bottles at night.

The south trail is approximately two miles long and has a dry creek bed running through. The grass is trampled where the deer bed down at night, and several benches and birdhouses are placed throughout. The variety of trees include: post oak, shagbark, red cedar, black locust, hickory, and other trees that are potentially hundreds of years old and easily up to sixty feet tall. The canopy is so thick that only a dapple of sunlight reaches through. If I was a kid again, I’d build a tree house high up and the view would be breathtaking, with nothing but trees for miles. Instead I enjoy the beauty, while safe on the ground, and standing beside the huge trees I feel small in stature.

The north trail stretches from the front entrance straight to the back of the ranch, where it ends at Wolf Creek. The creek creates a natural property line on the west side and is deep enough that it can only be crossed by finding a large tree that has fallen lengthwise. Eventually there will be an adjacent connector trail running along the creek, which currently is obscured by sticker brush, fallen limbs and poison ivy. The north trail was originally so dense with trees and shrubs that it's likely no one had passed through in decades (except the occasional deer hunter) for fear of wandering across snakes, poison ivy, and other critters in the underbrush. Coyotes, red-fox, deer, rabbits, raccoons, and armadillos have been spotted along with water moccasins, copper-heads and other poisonous snakes.  

The vision is only beginning for Lost Creek Ranch. A celebratory event was held May 2014 to honor local veteran families, with close to one-hundred people in attendance. More than ten families have visited so far and in time that number will grow. Visiting veterans commonly state that once they experience Lost Creek Ranch they can’t wait to come back. It’s not about pomp and circumstance, but simply getting away from the day-to-day routine and chaos of life and getting “lost” in the woods.  As one veteran wrote in our guest book, “We’ve faithfully served the American people. It’s now a beautiful thing to see warriors serve one another. Visiting this place always helps to bring life back into perspective.”