As told by Jeff Nunham, Supervisor – Adult In-Home Care
Have you ever attended a Fund Raiser event where the food is actually delicious and the speakers are riveting? As fundraising events go, they can be all of that, but in my experience they tend to be a moment of emotion with little substance that rises like steam and quickly dissipates into the air. On the 27 of April, we hosted our annual Helping Hearts Giving Society Fund Raiser Breakfast, themed Rising to Challenges, and it was, in my experience, a meeting I will remember for a long, long time. What I saw, heard and felt will stay with me because it will encourage me to work with greater purpose and passion. I would like to share my take on two of the several excellent talks we heard.
The room was full. The food was good. But the speakers were extraordinary. As I sat listening to them, I was moved. The reason? All of them spoke with deep emotion and transparency. Each speaker’s life has been deeply influenced by someone with a disability.
Aunt Michelle explained the tragic story of her sister’s life and sudden death and how her two nephews, Josh and JC came to live with her. Her sister made poor choices. The life she offered her two sons was….difficult to say the least. Josh and JC, her teenaged boys are on the Autism Spectrum with Fragile X Syndrome. When mom suddenly died, the two orphaned boys were about to become wards of the state. Michelle and her husband were newly “empty nesters” when Community Mental Health called to explain the situation. Michelle said yes, Josh and JC, with all their special needs, could come to live with her.
As her story unfolded, I could sense a collective groan sweeping the room. Would I have said yes? I felt a deep surge of emotion as Michelle described her love for these two young men. Her words took us into their living room as she described the way they watch TV together. JC looks at the TV and then back at her and then the TV and back at her. This goes on and on and on, until she turns to look at him and smile. Aunt Michelle is their life. She has given them a life of love and stability, something they had never had before. In her words, she could do this because of the help she received through Respite Care services. I felt gratitude to be a part of an organization that supports families who, through love, are providing care for a child or adult with a disability.
About the time Josh and JC came to live with her, Michelle determined to return to college to get her Bachelor’s degree. Again, we sat in wonder as we thought about all that she overcame in order to achieve this tremendous goal. Last fall, while the boys were at our Respite House, she walked across the stage at Spring Arbor University and was awarded her Bachelor of Social Work degree. We had a hand in that moment. It wasn’t huge, but it was significant. Her words, richly validated the reason we were in the room and being asked to contribute to an organization that supports dreams and the dear people who have them.
Special Guest at Fund Raiser – Lt. Governor Brian Calley
Another talk was given by a special guest. The Lieutenant Governor of the State of Michigan, Brian Calley accepted our invitation to speak. As the Lt. Governor began to talk, he moved away from the podium toward the seated guests. I wondered if he was able to talk, not as a politician, but as a father of a child with Autism. That is exactly what he did. Brian spoke like a dad who loves his daughter. He spoke like a husband, who with his wife provide love and nurture for a child whose world is very different than most children. His talk was not what you would expect to hear from a high official of our state. His words were gentle, sensitive and obviously heart felt. He spoke of his struggle in his own household. About taking his child out in public, getting stares and scolding looks as if to say, “Why can’t you get your child under control.” He shared with us the constant challenge he and his wife Julie face, fighting the temptation to withdraw from everyday routine activities and relationships. Isolation, he said, is a constant threat. As a couple, they have great concerns about being able to trust the people who offer help. The temptation is to never ask, then adjust your life routines until no one comes over; you never go out; you huddle together as a family, alone. Brian wanted everyone in the room to know that this is what it can be, but does not have to be. His words were powerful.
Everyone was touched. We all heard how vital Respite is. We all understood how difficult, but important it is to trust someone to care for your child. We all knew that marriages and sometimes life itself is depends upon Respite. As John Stauffer our executive director says, “Respite is not a luxury, it is a necessity.” We all got it.
As Helping Hands board member, Sam Tucker took the podium, he knew that his responsibility was to ask the crowd to open their hearts and wallets to support this vital, life necessity. He struggled to do this. Not for fear that he might not choose just the right words to make a compelling “pitch.” But his struggle was the emotion welling up inside him as he tried to speak of his experience caring for his and his wife’s parents in their last years. They didn’t know about Respite Care services. They struggled as all people eventually do. The impact of this upon Sam led him to establish a business which focuses on the construction needs of the family who are caring for a loved one at home.
When the breakfast was finished and all the guests were gone, we gathered our things and left. We reassembled back at the office and began opening the envelopes into which the guests had placed their gifts and pledges. There was an air of excitement and wonderment. What had we just experienced? For me, I felt like I had witnessed something very special. Aside from the fact that we had nearly twice the number of guests than we had last year, I felt like our Helping Hearts Giving Society which was birthed last year, stood up and took a “first step.” We are the Helping Hands Respite -Helping Hearts Giving Society and we are making a difference in the lives of families. Together, we unite our hearts and hands to prove the power of respite.