Saturday, November 29, 2014

Small gesture, big change

This post is long overdue, but since we have just celebrated Thanksgiving, I wanted to share this story because it really is so important. Even if you do not think you can make an impact, a small gesture can change someone's world.

In the past four and a half months, I have gone through a few setbacks: a head injury/trauma, family drama, the death of my grandmother, followed by the end of my relationship six days after the funeral, a suicidal friend and another friend going through a challenging time. The week of Nov. 10 was a rough one. I worked long hours, made a big mistake and went through hell while trying to secure my replacement phone through LifeProof, to no avail. Suffice it to say, when I left work on Friday, I was not in a good mood. The stress of the past months, and especially the past eight weeks, has been pretty brutal.

Around 4 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 14, I remembered that I had signed up to ring bells for the Salvation Army at Pick ‘n Save in Stoughton. Although I was really exhausted from the past week, there was no chance of me missing my 6-8 p.m. shift. I packed up at the office around 5:30 and made the trek to Stoughton.

Ringing bells was probably the best thing I did. Even though it was the first day of the Dane County Red Kettle Campaign, people were so generous. About two of every three people put something in my kettle. It might have been a few pennies, or a few bills, but most people put something in. And with every donation, I felt myself getting happier. The sadness inside me lightened and a smile spread across my face. It was not a fake smile, the one you put on to show the world, but a real one. The kind of smile that you only get by helping others and a cause much greater than your own.

Me with my Good Samaritan, Mitchell.
Twenty minutes before my two-hour shift ended, my day changed. One of the young cashiers, Mitchell, came out and gave me an individual bottle of milk and a pack of double-stuff Oreos. He thanked me for ringing the bells and went back to work. It seems like such a small gesture, the items probably cost about $3, but it totally changed my day. Tears came to my eyes as I was touched my the simple, selfless gift. After my shift ended, I turned the bells and kettle in and proceeded to tell the store manager about the kind gesture one of his employees made. I also took the time to thank the young man, who is a sophomore at Stoughton High School.

He said growing up, the start of the bell ringing marked the beginning of Christmas, and he just wanted to thank me for ringing. I told him how much his simple gesture meant to me. What really touched me is the simple, yet thoughtful gesture from someone so young. It warms my heart to realize the next generation has kind and thoughtful people. You don’t have to make a big gesture to change someone’s life. Indeed, it is the small things that mean the most. I am not sure if Mitchell realizes the power of his actions, but his gift had the power to change my day and my outlook.

As my shift came to an end, another young store employee tucked a couple bills into my kettle. Although I have been ringing bells for four years now, the kindness, support and generosity that I witnessed that day blew me away. The people of Stoughton - young and old - have huge hearts with a large capacity for love. I cannot wait to return there. Although I walked into the store feeling stressed and overwhelmed, I walked out with a smile and a spring in my step. It is true what they say: when you help others, you help yourself.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Performing in New York City

Talk about amazing. Yes, Monday, Nov. 10 got off to an early start. I chose to forsake the hotel breakfast at 5 a.m. and get an extra hour of sleep. The bus indeed left at 6 a.m. as the Edgerton High School band and choir students had to be in Times Square at 7 a.m. Rehearsal for the Band of Pride Tribute began at 7:30 a.m. sharp, with the performance beginning at 9 a.m. It was not what I was expecting.

All of the high school students, and I do mean ALL - from each of the 10 bands across the country - wore a white Band of Pride Tribute sweatshirt. Was that confusing? Yes, indeede do. Good thing I was traveling with the band and choir then or I might have gotten lost.

Imagine, students from 10 bands across the country all converging on Times Square to simultaneously perform patriotic tunes honoring our nation’s veterans. Approximately 100 of those students are Edgerton High School Choir students. The only choir in the nation selected to perform, the bands ceased as their voices lifted and they sang “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

In addition to honoring the nation's veterans, the 2014 Band of Pride Tribute marked the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam Conflict, a fact which hit close to home for some students.

“I think that this trip was absolutely wonderful, especially because of the fact that it was honoring the Vietnam War-which is where my grandpa fought and died,” Grace Reinhart said.

“Honoring the veterans was amazing because my grandfather died on duty,” Danielle Erb said. “This was so amazing and something that I will never forget.”

“Coming from a military family myself, it really hit close to home. This was an extraordinary trip to be on, and I am glad to be a part of it,” Kaleb Dix added.

The musical honor continued on Veteran's Day, when Edgerton students assembled to march down New York City's 5th Avenue. Students from across the country were not the only ones who showed up to honor the nation's veterans. The parade boasted 20,000 participants from veteran and service organizations, military groups, musicians, even Miss New York Jillian Tapper, who wowed the crowd with her baton twirling skills.

The Band of Pride Parade was more than a form of national entertainment. While the parade participants were assembling, local veterans were being honored in nearby Madison Square Park.

“Today we are here to pay tribute to America's veterans, the brave men and women who served in the military in war time and times of peace. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the writing of the 'Star-Spangled Banner.' 'Land of the free, home of the brave' is the ideology this great country was founded on,” said Wounded Warrior Project CEO Steven Nardizzi. “But I like to say that phrase a little differently. We are the land of the free because of the brave. Because of all of you here today. That is why today and every day we need to salute the service men and women who protect and preserve our way of life."

Wounded Warrior Project is an organization that supports wounded veterans in many ways. The Combat Stress Recovery Program addresses the mental health and cognitive needs of warriors returning from war. Soldier Ride is a four-day cycling opportunity for wounded service members and veterans to use cycling and the bonds of service to overcome physical, mental or emotional wounds. Wounded Warrior Project also offers educational programs, information technology training and employment assistance service to encourage economic empowerment for warriors.

“It is an awesome and humbling responsibility, but one we readily accept because this great country and the freedoms we enjoy are only possibly through the service and the courage and the sacrifice of our veterans,” Nardizzi concluded. “We live in the land of the free because of the brave. As American citizens, we are all responsible for helping our veterans - no matter what their injury - successfully reintegrate into their community. Today and everyday, let's let our veterans know that we remember and appreciate them because the greatest casualty is being forgotten.”

As the 95th annual Band of Pride Parade began, Edgerton High School student waited patiently to make their entrance behind the U.S. Army Band. First the Edgerton Color Guard, twirling the silver and black banners, followed by the band. Although they did not sing in the parade, members of the Edgerton High School Choir marched behind the band. Sixteen students were offered banners to march with, while other choir students teamed up to carry a large American flag down the street.

“One of my favorite moments was when we began the parade, we turned the corner onto 5th Avenue and saw the streets lined with thousands of people as far as the eye could see,” Skifton said. “People were yelling to us things like 'Welcome to New York,' 'Thank you for coming,' 'Go Packers!' and 'Go Badgers!' I also loved the looks on their faces everywhere we went.”

The importance, honor and pride of having the opportunity to honor the nation's veterans was best summed up by Edgerton High School student Alex Schmidt.

“New York City was one of the best experiences of my life. Representing our State of Wisconsin (and) honoring the veterans who protect our country was amazing, and nothing could ever beat that,”

Monday, November 17, 2014

Touring New York City

OK, so I am just a little behind on blogging about Edgerton High School’s New York City trip. But with everything that went on, I have been a little overwhelmed. The second day of the trip, Sunday, Nov. 9, included a bus tour around New York City and stops at Central Park, Conservatory Gardens and a visit to the Strawberry Fields memorial to John Lennon.

Selfie with a street performer at the Strawberry Fields Memorial
There was a really neat moment at the Strawberry Fields memorial when the Edgerton students sang along with a street performer, then decided to take an epic selfie with the man.

Central Park was absolutely beautiful, although an hour is not enough time to really do it justice. As a photographer, my eye was drawn to the natural beauty of the spot. It is hard to imagine a serene, beautiful and wide open area like Central Park in the middle of a city which boasts a population of more than eight million people. And yet, we had a leisurely stroll and a beautiful day.

Conservatory Gardens was another breathtaking spot. We had but 15 minutes to check out the three separate gardens, which included fountains, trees...and tons of flowers. If I had more time, or if I lived in New York City, I could totally see myself going there on the weekends, sitting on a bench and reading. I did my best to capture the scenery, but it is just not possible to totally capture the beauty.

Allison Miller, Nikkia Johnson and Emma Tinoco at Conservatory Gardens.

After lunch at Shake Shack in Grand Central Station, it was off to see the Broadway production of “On the Town.” We were not disappointed. The singing and dancing was exquisite. I could tell immediately that the female lead had a strong dancing background. As it turns out, it was her Broadway debut, but she had indeed danced with the New York City Ballet. I must admit, I had no idea that those Navy guys were such good dancers. (;
Rockin' at Hard Rock Cafe
Dinner was at Hard Rock Cafe. The students ordered in advance, and rather than wait around and see if I could get a meal, I took the opportunity to take some night photos around New York City. I stayed within a few blocks of the restaurant, but I could not miss how alive the city became at night. And upon returning to the restaurant, I of course had to get my own picture in the iconic establishment. My inner rocker insisted.

The night ended “early,” as we returned to the hotel at about 8 p.m. That was mainly because Monday started bright and early, with our bus leaving the hotel at 6 a.m. That is when the real work will begin, with the students performing in the Band of Pride Tribute in Times Square.

Stay tuned....

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Touchdown in New York City!

Students re-enact Titanic on the ferry
It is about 11 p.m. over on the east coast, and I have to be up at 5 a.m., so this is going to be brief. On Friday, Nov. 7 at 1 p.m., Edgerton High School Band and Choir students departed for New York City. Last summer, Edgerton High School Band and Choir directors Valerie Gaffney and Kristin Skifton announced that their students had been selected to participate in the 95th annual Band of Pride Tribute and Veteran’s Day Parade.

The Edgerton community has rallied around the group, and the support was unbelievable. The $16,000 needed to purchase new choir uniforms was raised in a matter of weeks. And within the last year, donations totaling more than $80,000 for the trip have come flooding in. The Edgerton School Board approved more than $50,000 alone in the past two months. So when the students were boarding the bus to leave, it was no surprise that the community turned out to send them off. Students at the elementary school created handmade signs, and parents lined the streets to wave as the buses departed. Edgerton VFW members performed a gun salute before the buses left. The Depot Cafe wrote a message in chalk on their outside board, wishing the band and choir luck.

Me in front of Lady Liberty
Arriving in New York was a rather long affair, almost 19 hours (not including going forward one time zone). There was no rest for the weary, however, as students and chaperones needed to leave quickly to board the ferry for Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

Our Lady of Liberty is more than 300 feet tall. If you take the ferry past, she looks pretty tall, but for the first time, I docked and was able to walk around. And in person, she is a very imposing and proud woman. Taking pictures of the students with our Lady in the background was fairly challening, partly because there were so many people and partly because she was almost too large to get in the same frame. We had a half hour before we had to leave, so there was no time to walk inside the statue. I’ll save that for next time. We were supposed to make a stop at Ellis Island, but time was of the essence (and we missed an earlier ferry) so we had to skip it. I’ll have to save that for next time.

From there, it was time to catch a subway to Little Italy/Chinatown. We enjoyed a delicious pasta dish and dessert before making our way to the 9/11 Memorial Museum.

I was there in April 2013 and saw the memorial pools, but the museum was a different experience. As I wandered through, it all came flooding back, and tears filled my eyes, although I kept them from overflowing. The video of the planes flying into the towers was horrifically mesmerizing, but what really got to me was a picture of three medical professionals. They had rushed to the scene and were prepared to help with the mass injuries that were expected....only they never came. Stretchers outside a nearby clinic remained vacant. There was no need for them. There were very few wounded from the collapse of the Twin Towers, and many dead.
The 9/11 Reflective Memorial pool at dusk
It was a history lesson for many of the students. As freshman to seniors, they would have been 2-5 years old when the terrorist attacks occured, much to young to really know what was going on. Touring the 9/11 Memorial Museum helped them understand. The videos, audio clips and artifacts can make it real for anyone. There were firefighters in the building helping evacuate people when the towers collapsed. One of the displays was a fire truck, half-crushed from the collapse.
By the time the group, including myself, checked in at the Hilton Hotel in New Jersey, it was around 9 p.m. I cannot speak for the students, but I was feeling pretty exhausted. Being on a bus for 20 hours and then touring for 12 hours? Sunday was going to be another busy day.

The half-crushed fire engine ladder truck