One early morning, I was waiting outside the pool where I used to train. It didn’t open until 6am, and I found myself standing outside in the dark, with another crazy person. She started talking with me and asking me questions that showed a far deeper curiosity than most people. It turns out she had started a program at a high school in a town 20 minutes from my comfortable suburb, that helped teen mothers stay in school in spite of their overwhelming circumstances as a child mother. Blown away by Marie’s kindness, energy and humor, I immediately agreed to stop by the next day and bring all of my baby paraphernalia. My son was now a toddler and I had no desire to have a third baby.
This began an amazing relationship for me, with a woman who called herself a Catholic feminist. She had the courage to create and champion a program in spite of huge obstacles and plenty of judgment and mocking and misunderstanding by others. Marie became, in many ways, a surrogate mother to me. She was very different from my mother, whom she never met, in that Marie was larger than life, while my mom was tiny, quiet and meek. Like my mother, Marie embraced the underdog and made every person in her presence, feel loved and cared for, and significant. Whether you were the mayor, or a 14-year-old girl following in your grandmother’s and mother’s footsteps and continuing the cycle of teen parenting and poverty – Marie would speak to you sternly and firmly and always with respect. Marie swam laps every day, and ate M&M’s every night. She loved people and hated closed-mindedness. She went to church. Every. Single. Day. And, she condemned certain churchy attitudes that she believed lacked compassion.
Tragically, Marie died quite suddenly just over a year ago. Often, as I find myself in certain life situations, I think, what would Marie do? Given the insanity we are witnessing, and participating in, these days, I often wonder, what would Marie think right now? What would she do? She was certainly flamboyant (purple hair) and would have definitely gotten a kick out of all the women now marching around with hats and posters using locker room language.
I would visit the program at the high school 2-4 times per week, to talk with the teen moms, give them some mentoring, show them how to use my fancy camera and take pictures of them with their beautiful babies. Many of the girls were completely clueless about nutrition and exercise, so I would try to give them some guidance and motivation in those areas. Eventually, though, especially as more and more 12-year-olds were getting pregnant, I became frustrated. I felt like my efforts were coming too late in the game. These girls needed to be taught earlier in life, about self-respect, self-care, breaking family cycles. I wanted to start something at the YMCA to get them moving and more connected with their bodies. And then, I read about a program in a small blurb in a magazine I almost threw out but decided to bring for my trip to Mexico, for my first Ironman triathlon. When I read about the program, it hit me that this was what I was looking for! A few months later (in 2010), we started a youth triathlon summer program at the Waterbury YMCA, and the rest is history.
In the seven years we have run this program, which is now Race4Chase and in multiple locations in a few states, we have, I know, helped create change. One kid at a time. One family at a time. Originally, the program (ACHIEVE) had been focused 100% on kids from urban, underserved environments. At the Waterbury location, Jim (the Executive Director at the YMCA) and I agreed that it was important to include kids from all walks in life, because really, all kids are “at risk.” Also, this YMCA truly is a big melting pot, and we wanted the program to reflect this diversity. It ended up being one of the best decisions we made, as we have seen what can happen what kids and families from totally different backgrounds and ethnicities and life experiences, can accomplish, when given the chance (or forced) to work together – and yes, play together.
I don’t know if any of the kids we have served (about 245 at our location alone) have made different choices as a result of our program. I like to think, yes. Dozens have learned to swim and ride a bike. Many have gone on to compete in other triathlons. I do know that some quit drinking soda. Some learned how to cope with their anxiety. Some learned to open their minds to people who were totally different from themselves. Being a part of this program has had a huge impact on me personally, and on my family. Our comfortable suburb is a bubble town, and I am grateful for the privilege of being allowed into, and bring my kids into, a reality that is not nearly as protected or protective or white-washed, as the one in my town and I imagine, many other suburbs and “nice parts of town” in other areas of the country/world.
Right now, there is a knee-jerk reaction to wanting to create change, which is one way to respond to the realization that our beautiful country does include a great deal of disparity between races, income brackets, educational levels, religious views, genders, sexual orientations, amendment champions. I am so, so glad that people are waking up, finally, to this truth, and I am even more thrilled that people actually care. Once you see certain things, if you really look, it’s really hard to unsee them. That being said, it is my hope that the reaction become a mature movement toward real, lasting (r)evolution. Given some of the stuff I have seen on social media, I realize that a lot of people still don’t get it. Compassion is not true compassion, if it only has room for your point of view. Compassion means, putting yourself in another person’s shoes and really taking the time to consider their viewpoint. Compassion means, listening. Truly listening. We are motivated either by love or by fear, and I see both, on all sides. I truly believe that we are all doing our best, with what we have and know, right now. If we are women, we want to feel loved and significant. If we are moms, we want to keep our kids safe and healthy and guide them toward success, whatever that means for us. If we are providers, we are doing our best to earn, to support our needs and wants.
It has taken probably years if not decades or centuries to create the sort of atmosphere we are living in now. Not one person or group of people, but rather, the maverick spirit that started our nation, the arrogance, innovation, resourcefulness, chauvinistic, Puritanical, rebellious energy, the impatience, that has moved our country forward, has brought us to where we are today. It is easy to vilify one person or one group of people or political party, but I fear that is too simplistic, and it is not at all helpful. We are an incredibly interesting and complex nation, and our problems, and any real solutions, must also be complex. In other words, writing and sharing articles that excite your supporters and shame everyone else, is not going to change anything, at least not for the better. Particularly women – if you are reading this – I beg you to be mindful of what you share and encourage. I have always considered myself a feminist, and I believe that if we are to become a more evolved species, it is up to the girls and women. Sharing links that make fun of our fellow women who do not agree with us, or who perhaps epitomize our idea of a self-serving “bimbo” – only hurts us. Supporting our gender and working toward a more inclusive, mindful world means we need to refrain from shaming and hating on others. If you don’t have something nice to say, please don’t say it, or at least keep it to your private circle. Be pro, not anti.
If, however, you really are bent on working toward change, which I sure hope you are, I recommend you check out these links. Supporting causes like these, will help turn our knee-jerk reaction into long-lasting, sustainable, profound change. These are just a few that I have been involved with and know personally, but if you would rather find your own, I hope you will consider this a launch pad for your own efforts.
Race4Chase - youth triathlon summer program
S.M.A.R.T. - promoting healthy, positive families and children
Naugatuck Youth Services - mentoring & other support
The CT Coalition Against [Sex] Trafficking - awareness and support for victims
IRIS- refugee and immigrant services
Boys and Girls Club- mentoring, youth programs
The Avielle Foundation- preventing violence through brain health advocacy
Dylan's Wings of Change - helping children with autism reach their potential
The Ana Grace Project- promoting love & connection
Jericho Partnership- mentoring, homeless outreach, addiction support
Support for Addicts in Recovery - help those in recovery get back up
Communities in Schools- help kids succeed in school
REACH - youth mentoring
St Vincents de Paul - homeless outreach
NewArts - inspiring kids through the arts
Sega School for Girls - my friend built this incredible school in Tanzania
I recognize that perhaps today, some of us may not have the bandwidth to commit to something as meaningful as mentoring a child, or volunteering at a shelter, or coaching an urban running program. I was on a flight once and my seat mate, a very wealthy man, said, “I really admire how much you do. I wish I dedicated more time to causes like you do.” I replied to him, “Please keep working and making loads of money – so you can write checks to my causes.” We can all contribute. I think what really matters is that as we participate in this conversation, we do so being mindful of our intentions and the consequences of our words and actions. At all times, take the high road and be kind.
Motivational coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.