Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Stop, Look, and Listen

Another high school student's life was tragically cut short this week on the train tracks near our home, making this the second in one month and the third in our community this school year. Every time I cross the tracks, I worry about our teenagers not understanding how incredibly short life is. When I was in high school and college I had many dark and depressing days. To combat this feeling of hopelessness, I discovered hundreds of little ways to reach out to other people, especially when I felt there was not one thing to look forward to. I don't know exactly where the idea to serve came from, but it saved my life.

My passion for volunteering and community service started when I was a junior at Homestead High School in Cupertino, California. I had moved there from another high-caliber school in Almaden Valley
, where I had been a somewhat popular cheerleader with lots of friends and academic success. My first few months at the new school were dismal and lonely as I realized these students had known each other all their lives and had no need for new friends. Luckily for me, there was a group of hearing-impaired students who got together in the cafeteria every day at lunch. I quickly realized that this was my safety net. Instead of sitting out in the quad, exposing to everyone the fact that I was obviously alone, I would drift inside the center and buy lunch just so I could run into the silent bunch of students, busily working their hands into chatter. They took me in, and even attempted to teach me some signs so that they would not have to rely on the inaccuracies of my lips as I spoke. Their simple acceptance of one who was not their kind gave me the confidence I needed to try and make a friend or two at the new school. It was a long, slow process, and I didn't succeed very much, but by the time I graduated there were a few more people I could call friends.

The best outcome of this personal trial was the discovery of several volunteer opportunities in my community, which on some days were the only bright spots: El Camino Hospital Auxiliary ("candy stripers"), a convalescent home in Sunnyvale, and the academic-service clubs at Homestead. I worked with the physical therapists for a while at the hospital trying to rehabilitate a young woman who had tried to take her own life. This reminded me of the need to reach out for help and to never give up. Also, one of my new friends coerced me into adopting a grandmother at a nearby convalescent home. I chose a lady named "May," same as my grandmother and my middle name with a different spelling. May taught me what's it's really like to be lonely twenty-four hours a day. Finally, with two of the high school clubs I helped to provide CPR training and sponsored a Warren Miller ski movie as a fundraiser. Through these events I learned that I might possibly share similar interests with other students at Homestead. Even though it was still an empty time in my life, there were a few unique experiences that drew me outside of myself.

The efforts to assimilate into a community of which I did not feel a part eased the pain of once again being the new kid in town, but some days there was just nothing that would bring me out of my funk. My greatest growth came from the example of a girl from church, Mindy Williams, who may have taken me on as a project but the outcome was the same; she performed little good works for people in her midst for no reason other than to feel good herself. She was also the one with the idea to adopt a grandmother at the rest home. The nicest thing Mindy ever did for me was to make a specially-decorated cake for my sixteenth birthday. I didn't really want a party, because there weren't enough in my circle yet to fill a room, but she brought a few of the church kids over and they sang to me and gave me presents. I decided that night I would try to follow Mindy's lead in reaching out for opportunities to connect with others, instead of looking inside myself at the vast emptiness. It has not been easy, and anyone who knows my story can attest that my losses have been monumental, even after high school. The service ideas I learned as a teenager are what I have always reverted to when facing personal tragedies or even when I am just having a bad day.

As I remembered that very challenging time in my life and its effect on me, I could relate to the students who recently fell prey to the dangers of teen suicide. I wanted to tell all teenagers everywhere, and anyone who feels like calling it quits to "Stop, Look, and Listen." That is the little phrase my kids were taught to recite when they crossed the street as young children. It's also a useful reminder to slow down, especially when we think there is no hope. As my wise mother, a special education teacher, often reminded me, "There's always someone out there who has it worse off than you do." Volunteering and encouraging others to do the same has given me the daily perspective to stay connected to the world around me. Not one of us is expendable; we all have something to give and a purpose. Though it may take a lifetime to find it, we must keep turning the page to our personal story to discover our path, and never give up.
  • Stop: Stop doing one thing that makes you unhappy, and start doing one thing that makes you happy.
  • Look: Look around yourself at others to find someone who is suffering or hurt, who needs your help.
  • Listen: Listen to your heart to think of one small way to make a difference today, at home, at school, at work, or in the community.
Please spread hope in the world by sharing this message with
anyone you think might need a little light today!

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