Being different was something I totally understood my entire childhood. It was pointed out by nearly every adult and most of my peers on a regular basis. As a result, I spent quite a bit of time alone, wishing I could belong. Once I got into high school, I found many ways to “belong” one of which, was that I was completely accepted by the drinking crowd who hung out on the steps of our massive school building. It wasn’t that they thought me to be special, they were simply so caught up in their stupors to the point where they didn’t care who was out there, as long as they weren’t trying to kill their buzz. Considering I could chug a bottle of vodka, swiped from a nearby liquor store like the best of them, I found UNITY in the form of drunkenness.
We relocated in the middle of my junior year and there was no such crowd with which to hang during school hours at the new school. Alas, it was shoulder to the wheel until I realized that the theatre crowd in which I was immersed, were also hearty partiers. Sweet! I not only belonged and but found UNITY in creativity and drunkenness once again!!
Okay, my drinking days are l-o-n-g behind me and that’s material for a whole other post. I have seen the errors of my ways, I promise.
However, on the topic of UNITY, there was this one time in my “just coming out of my mid-teens”, era, when I found that belonging to something that served others more than my addictions could be so fulfilling that my heart would want to burst with joy. That something was volunteerism!
We lived in what was called, a sub-division, which was basically a collection of houses that were all the same (and no one seemed to care – thank you Carole King). It was streets and cul-de-sacs of three-bedroom brick ranches, surrounded by beautiful trees. These houses were filled with families and the trees were well marked by many friendly dogs. Around the corner, literally, was a park. On one end of the park and across the street, was an elementary school. At the other end of the park and across a street were more family-filled houses. In one of those houses was a family whose children never got to go play in that park, at least, not the way the rest of us could. All three sons of this family had Muscular Dystrophy (MD).
They had ramps instead of stairs leading in and out of their house. The family drove specially equipped vans instead of sedans or station wagons. The boys missed a lot of school so we rarely, if ever, saw them at after school activities such as football games or dances. They spent most of their free time at doctor appointments while the rest of us had part time jobs or were hanging like year-round Christmas lights at the local shopping mall. Talk about a feeling of not belonging…
One of summer day after I graduated from high school, someone came to our door, collecting donations for MD. I had very little cash but because of the personal connection to the local family, I smiled through my tears as I handed over my cigarette money. I apologized saying that I wished there was more I could do for them. The volunteer smiled and handed me a piece of paper that changed my life.
This piece of paper had a name and phone number of a Regional Director for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, who was asking for volunteers. I was dialing the number before that canister carrying volunteer was done at the next house. Next thing I knew, I was agreeing to be a Neighborhood Director. Guess who was pounding the pavement the next week, carrying a canister and a stack of flyers? It was my honor to walk for those who couldn’t and might never know that freedom. Before the month was out, I had replaced the Regional Director who moved up to the local telethon crew. Whoa, the LOCAL telethon crew? I never knew such a thing existed.
Of course I had seen the annual Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, hosted by Jerry Lewis. It was entertaining as well as exciting to watch the tote board numbers grow. I’d chain smoke myself into oblivion with concern over whether or not Jerry would make it through the entire show and of course if they’d make MORE money than the year before. Not only was there this big national production but they’d “cut-away” once an hour to our local affiliate for updates of what we had collected in our area. We were promised that most of what we raised locally, would stay here to help the local families. It was heart wrenching and yet more thrilling than anything I had ever experienced before. Watching all these people come together, from all walks of life, to form a unified front against this monster of a disease.
Our local telethon segments were produced in Detroit, where we used to live. What I didn’t know was that there was also a local pledge center set up in the basement of the shopping mall where I had spent so many hours just wasting time with my friends. And it NEEDED VOLUNTEERS! People to do everything from answering the phones, to running the pledge sheets to the accounting room, to cleaning up, even manning the food room. I signed up!
I walked the one and a half miles to the mall the Sunday night before Labor Day that year. My energy was visible and I just knew this was going to be an amazing experience. Once I walked in, I could tell that everyone else there had been part of this crew for years as they were completely focused on their roles. I hung back a bit until one gentleman took pity on me and assigned me the task of clearing filled pledge sheets from the baskets in front of those answering the phones. YES! I was on it like whipped cream on an ice cream sundae! And that was great for the first three hours, until the calls slowed down…
Wandering around like lost sheep was how a couple of us spent the wee hours of the morning. We tried to look busy, sweeping floors, cleaning the food room and tried NOT to fall asleep. That kind gentleman suggested that I might want to just go home, as there wouldn’t be any real activity for several more hours. No, no, I was part of the crew! I was in it for all the energy I could give! I was determined to stay until the last numbers went up on that tote board.
Boy, was I glad I did…
There is nothing more thrilling than seeing efforts pay off. The tympani played and the numbers jumped higher than the year before. We were monitoring the national broadcast of course, and our hearts burst with pride to know that a part of that total was contributed by our fellow local citizens. For me and many others in that center, it was knowing that a local family was going to have whatever it needed to make the lives of their sons as comfortable as possible, that brought the tears.
Sheer elation carried me as I walked the mile and a half home nearly 24 hours after my adventure began. I don’t recall being able to feel my legs and didn’t care. I had been a part of one of the greatest crews and found UNITY in the common cause of truly loving thy neighbor. I stumbled in the front door, made it up the one little step into the living room and collapsed on the floor under the picture window. When I woke nearly 24 hours later, I realized my mother simply covered me with a blanket and left me alone.
While they have not found a cure for MD, they have made tremendous strides in treatments and services that they provide for families. All of this has been possible because of the UNITY of hundreds of thousands, probably more accurate to say, millions of people who gave and continue to give more of their time than money to raise awareness. The families affected by MD benefit, but so do those who come together in UNITY to volunteer.
My story took place 42 years ago and I have been back in our house for the past four years. The family around the corner have all passed on. The boys actually passed by the early 80’s and the parents stayed until they, too, passed. Their house is still there. No more ramps, in fact, if you did not know they had lived there, you would not know. As I drove past that house today, I felt a tug on my heart strings. It was as though I was being asked, by that family, to use this story to illustrate UNITY. I hope I have succeeded in honoring that request.
Please accept my help
To stand with you in your quest
We’ll lift another
Shoulder to shoulder
Through the hours and the dark
Until we see light
(c) 2016 Annette Rochelle Aben