Sunday, June 14, 2009

Role Models

Having spent the past few years amidst members of the sports world, I've seen my fair share of sports lates, greats, and just down right embarrassing. I make no bones about the fact my niche in sports lies mainly in color commentary, first person perspectives, and behind the scenes stories. After all, not too many men want their play-by-play handed to them by a woman, just like I don't want fashion advice from Deion Sanders or Craig Sager. My stories, whether they’re articles or special interest pieces for broadcast, have always been about the people behind the numbers on their backs.

After all at the end of the day, athletes are really just people who happen to be better at a particular skill than the average lot of us. That doesn't stop some of them from creating this huge, larger-than-life persona about them though. No matter how big or small the star, I've always found it interesting the way they seem to handle themselves both in a professional and public arena. Part of being a superstar is accepting the responsibility of becoming a role model, someone kids and sometimes even grown men can look up to and admire. That's not to say that they aren’t allowed to make mistakes, after all we’re all human. It does mean however, they should hold themselves to being a higher caliber of human being.

When you get to superstar status, you get to make superstar salaries. You see paychecks some people would see as downright extortion all for your talents and abilities at your particular sport of expertise. This opportunity breeds more opportunity for endorsements, exposure, etc. Hell, people may even make puppets that look like you! (I’m still waiting on mine, Nike!) But one thing I can’t stand is when an athlete adopts a cause in the forefront, while not standing up for its ideals in his real life. I can't tell you how many times I've sat in front of a television and watched a commercial for anti-tobacco campaigns where a team’s marquee “faces” all deliver a “mmm drugs are bad, mmmkay” message, only to later spot them lighting up in public. Now I'm not judging anyone, but isn't that just a tad hypocritical? It was enough to make me want to throw my bowl of popcorn at the screen and shout.. “LIAR!!!!!”

Since moving to NYC, I've lent a hand to various charities as a means of trying to immerse myself in the community, meet new people, and just feel more proactive in my own life. Problem is, it was hard to find any cause that allowed me to be as hands on as I wanted to be. It seemed all these charities were all about throwing these big elaborate expensive dinners that only the likes of Donald trump and NY royalty could really afford. What about the people who wanted to get their hands dirty and actually “do work” in the community? Then, my management team at PR/PR and one of their clients, NY Giants Offensive Tackle Dave Diehl, introduced me to Project Sunshine. And like that, I had found my home.

Growing up, my grandparents were always very involved in my life. They were the kind of grandparents that were at every awards ceremony, every Friday night football game (to watch the band of course), and every bowling tournament I ever participated in. I still largely credit my grandfather for teaching me how to bowl, as he was the only one capable of removing my head from my ass when I was having an off day. He was forever an inspiration to me, always about making other people smile, and never knowing a stranger. In short, he was my superhero. Even when he was diagnosed with his second bout of lung cancer. Having watched my grandfather fight and eventually lose his battle, I knew all too well all the hardships patients with the disease face: losing hair, weight, and some their will to live. All things that come with grueling chemo treatments, invasive medical procedures, and extended hospital stays. Not to mention what it did to my grandmother and my mom. After all, cancer doesn't just affect the patient; it touches their families as well.

Sometimes cancer patients and those facing other life-threatening illnesses, especially young children, would find themselves enduring extended stays in hospitals. The overnight stays in hospital chairs, and lobby couches can take their toll even on the most doting parents. They simply can't afford to live day and night there or they'd lose their jobs, their sleep, and possibly their sanity.

That's where Project Sunshine comes in. P.S. started as one college aged kid’s dream to make children’s stays at hospitals a little less scary. To be that one thing every day a kid could look forward to: a new face, a new playmate that was there solely for the sake of making their day better. You’re not only putting a smile on a kid’s face, you’re helping a parent know that they’re not fighting this battle alone. I've made numerous trips to various hospitals with Project Sunshine, and attended their banquet dinner they held to raise money. I’ve seen first hand the far reaching effects P.S. has not only had in the NYC community, but in their satellite branches as well. And out of all the amazing experiences I have had in the past five years, I've found helping these kids to be the most rewarding.

And I’m not the only one. Recently, I learned of a Project Sunshine success story that really hit home. Literally and figuratively. New York Yankees centerfielder Brett Gardner recently volunteered to escort Babe Ruth’s granddaughter, Linda Ruth Tosetti, to read to kids at a local New York hospital, where he befriended an 18 year old girl, Alyssa, who had been awaiting a heart transplant since January. The girl often watched the televised games from inside her hospital room as well as the lights of the New Yankee Stadium from her hospital room at night. So she was beyond ecstatic when she learned a real live Yankee would be coming to visit the hospital.

That day she gave Gardner a P.S. bracelet and told him… “Keep this you’ll hit a homerun.” Gardner just kinda laughed and graciously put on the bracelet. Even he thought to himself, “but I don’t hit homeruns.” In fact, Gardner wasn’t even scheduled to be in the line up that night.

But fate, as it often does, had other plans. During the third inning, Johnny Damon was ejected from the game, and Gardner was sent in to replace him. And with Gardner’s first at bat that night, he hit the very first ever inside the park homerun in the new Yankee Stadium.

Unfortunately, Alyssa did not get to see it.

That’s because that very night after waiting over 100 days, Alyssa received her new heart. The following day in the recovery room, Alyssa’s parents replayed the game for her, and showed her Gardner’s at bat. As she watched him run the base path, she smiled at the TV and said, “he’s running for me.”

That night, Brett Gardner became Alyssa’s superhero. But more importantly she became his.

People faced with medical issues, particularly young children, are some of the bravest people you will ever meet. That was certainly the case with my grandfather. Even when he lost all the weight, and much of his strength, he never lost his will to put a smile on others faces with his quick wit, his sarcasm, and his never ending pranks. I’m still convinced my grandfather held on as long as he did, because he knew we were fighting with him. I would go over to my grandparent’s house and feed him Ben & Jerry’s “Phish Food” ice cream every day after school in his final weeks. And while he really couldn’t stand the sweetness of the stuff, he enjoyed my company and seeing my smile.

Then one Friday night I had to stay after school to perform in a concert, the first function of mine my grandfather had ever missed. Turns out, he didn’t. My grandfather passed that evening. I’m still convinced he saw me play that night, and knows how incredibly awful I felt that I wasn’t there with him. More importantly, I know he knows I loved him more than anything. I haven’t been able to eat “Phish Food” since. That day I lost my superhero. But it made me become one of my own.

If my grandfather taught me anything, it’s that you don't have to be a 6'5 300+ pound superstar, or hit 30 homeruns a year to put a smile on someone’s face. You simply have to show you care… you have to give them someone to believe in. He was one of the most selfless men I have ever met in my life, and I hope that he’d be proud of the person I’ve become and the work I do for others today.

Maybe if we all found a role model within ourselves, the world would be a much different place. All it takes is YOU. Whether its volunteering your time at a soup kitchen or signing up to become a Big Brother or Big Sister, we can all make a difference. I promise you won’t end up with a kid like the ones from “Role Models”, and the experience will not only enrich your life, but those of the people you help. If you have to ask how much difference one person can make, then ask a child. After all, children are some of the most brutally honest people you will meet. And believe me when I tell you that they'll say the difference… means the world to them.

For more information on Project Sunshine please visit www.projectsunshine.org

3 comments:

Veritas said...

Well Jenn I really loved this blog.
Inspiring and above all filled with hope, which all of us need, now more than ever.
It's true that many celebrity stars aren't all they were suposed to be, many times they are right down disapointing.
But the true heroes to this journey I call life are ourselves and no one else, yes there are those that inspire the best in us (like your grandfather did with you) but it is up to us to keep this world from falling apart.
To me being a role model is having the strenght to not only live our lives but also to share the time we have with the people that really need it without asking nothing in return.
I'll tell you Jenn it really pisses me of when I see a celebrity taking advantage of other people suffering and then they try to make themselves all heart broken and sensitive about the suffering in the world when in fact all they want is good press material.
Many of my friends see in me a role model because of my health situation and how I deal with it, they see that just because my time is short they don't see me being depressed or all negative about everything, in fact if anything this situation has showned me how to be objective about my goals and to live my life to the fullest while I can.
Basecly all the world really needs is a large injection of hope to see if we can really turn things around.
Thanks for sharing your experience with all of this, keep doing your think and if ever your hope for the future fails remember those that are fighthing for their lives each day and take strenght from that.
Big hug, Jenn.
And once again thanks for sharing.

anthony0358 said...

just beautiful
what a lovely blog to read first thing on a Monday morning

ken said...
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