From the words of a dying man, Kyle Nienaber learned about never giving up. From the undaunting spirit of a people crowded into one room shanties – makeshift homes without running water, sanitation or electricity – the 18 year old learned about hope and appreciation.
These are the lessons that can’t be taught in any textbook or school classroom. They are the life affirming consequences that occur when people reach out to one another with their hearts, their hands and their souls.
It’s a beautiful thing to see such education at an early age. Kids and teenagers are not just performing acts of kindness, but really understanding the bigger meaning. They’re learning about caring and respect and responsibility. They’re becoming a generation of people with compassion and deep rooted interest in making their world a better place.
Hospice of Cincinnati strikes me as a difficult place for a young person to choose to volunteer. But it’s become a sort of family tradition for the Nienaber’s, first with Kyle’s mom and sister and then Kyle filling his sister’s role after she graduated.
“It’s something that you can look back on and say you helped someone in their last moments on earth and it puts perspective on life,” he told me.
Especially when that perspective comes from someone with a finite time to experience life’s pleasures.
A huge sports fan, John was given six month to live when he moved into Hospice. It was Kyle’s job to bring him breakfast on weekends, which usually meant having to save the food and bring it back later – when John would finally wake up. The reason? Well, if the game happened to go long John would stay up until the last out was made or the last second ticked from the clock.
“He was always very happy and thankful to have had another night to enjoy his life and the sports he loved to watch,” Kyle said. “He very much enjoyed talking with someone about the games and I was lucky enough to be that someone on many mornings.”
But John shared so much more. His thoughts taught Kyle not just about sports but about living.
From his friend, Kyle wrote in an essay, “I learned that a person’s attitude about life can help extend it. John believed that staying with something until the very end was the best way to appreciate it. Sometimes things don’t end the way you expect. ‘That’s why they play the game,’ he used to say. Most important he used to tell me to never give up.”
In 2008, through Hospice Kyle traveled to South Africa where he helped its sister organization, built shanties and delivered supplies to AIDS patients. “I was one of those unappreciative Americans until I stood in that shanty town village and realized how lucky I am,” Kyle wrote about that journey.
And there, in the impoverished town in Mamelodi where hundreds of children and adults live on each acre, Kyle observed an incredible kindness and thankfulness. “The unbelievable spirit of these people makes me believe that hope is in their future and they can make progress on the very difficult issues they face as a nation.
“They taught me that compassion and caring for others knows no bounds in terms of nations, cultures and socioeconomic status.”
At home Kyle takes what he’s learned to heart, volunteering around Cincinnati. He was secretary of Beechwood High School’s Honor Society where he maintained a 4.27 GPA. And he was honored three times – with the Hospice of Cincinnati Terrific Teen Service Award, as a finalist for the Simon Lazarus Jr. Human Relations Award by American Jewish Committee, and as a YMCA Character Award recipient. He will be attending Notre Dame University this coming school year and chose it because of its focus on service.
And, as for those lessons?
“I’ve used John’s advice on many occasions since he died last year. I always try to keep a positive attitude about everything. Most recently I was inspired during a tennis match. After losing the first set, I remembered John’s words and stayed focused until the end and was able to win the match in three sets…I wish I could have told John all about it.”
There are people in this world who brighten a day just by being in it. Jade West is one of those people. She’s heard around the Tri-State on 101.1 FM The Wiz and where ever I’ve seen her, young people gather round.
Jade is just that way. She has a magnetism about her that evokes a smile from everyone with whom she comes into contact. Her caring about others is truly genuine, as is her love for life.
Last month I was organizing a ‘Downtown Hoedown’ clogging competition on Ft. Square and the lack of parking got in her way of making it on time to compete (something to take into consideration next year because she’s definitely going to be asked again!), but she arrived in her usual happy spirit.
“You know, I would have won this if I had gotten there on time,” she said to me after our hug. She stayed around until almost everyone was gone…except the students by her side. I just love her positive attitude.
Through my work with the YMCA, Jade has been a part of a number of events that reach out to teens. She’s of course top on my list to get involved because I know the positive impact she has on others – including myself – and, as long as she’s available, she has a heart that always wants her to participate.
So it didn’t surprise me one bit when Jade told me a few weeks back that she’d been training to walk more than 100 miles to support her friend, Senator Eric Kearney, in raising awareness about childhood obesity issues.
“I’ve done plenty of walks for other causes but nothing like this,” she told me before their journey. “When I got hip to what it was all about and that Eric was behind it, I knew it was something I wanted to do. I love kids and was all for it.”
I think that conversation was the only time I’ve heard her doubt herself when she was wondering if she’d make it. I had no doubt at all. And, you know what, they made their distance ahead of schedule…in typical Jade style.
If you call Jade at The Wiz and get her voice mail, you’ll hear at the end her parting words of wisdom…”A simple act of kindness can change the course of a lifetime.”
Yes Jade, they absolutely can! Thanks for being you.
(Photo is Jade West and Cincinnati Bengals’ mascot Who Dey at the Downtown Hoedown)
There is something so beautiful to me about seeing a room of young people exuding positive energy, students who are doing so much more than working toward a goal. They’re working because they want to make a positive difference. They really get it.
Teens with a higher purpose. That’s what I saw a week ago when I walked into Tim Hubbard’s sophomore English classroom at Deer Park High School. It was going on several hours since the last bell rang but no one was even thinking about leaving. They were sprawled out on the floor and sitting at desks grouped together, each student with a specific project.
They really didn’t have a whole lot of time to waste. In less than a week they will be opening their gym up to the public, hoping everyone they know will invite nine people – or at least one, to raise awareness and funds for a culture that has won hearts worldwide after a devastating earthquake rocked what was already a country in need.
But if you come, know this; ‘Soiree Pour Haiti’ is not about focusing on poverty and disaster. It is about celebrating the richness of the Haitian culture. This is the first year in history that that country has had to cancel its Kanaval – an annual ushering of spring – because of the earthquake. So this year, teens, many of whom had never even heard of Haiti before January are committed to ensuring their community is connected. All their funds raised will go toward the relief efforts of the American Red Cross and the Restevek Foundation.
The Soiree will have a Haitian marketplace that will also include authentic food and a Kanaval parade in which kids will be able to participate. Deer Park students have been researching and making traditional Haitian foods, and learning folkloric songs and the Haitian national anthem. Groups from sophomore English classes have been working on posters to educate guests about different parts of the Haitian culture. People who come will also have an opportunity to vote on the best shanty made by the teens (for a small fee).
“Ever since I saw the news about the earthquake, I wanted to do something but I didn’t think I could on my own,” Kalina Procas told me. She was making tissue paper flowers that would be for sale at the event. “One day I want to make a different in the world like the man from Restavec (Restavek Foundation’s Jean Cadet spoke to the students).”
Actually, Kalina already is making a difference in this world. And so are her classmates.
Gini Verbesselt Niekamp, PR coordinator for Deer Park School District, and Tim Hubbard, sophomore English teacher and high school service-learning coordinator, have been overseeing the project.
Soiree Pour Haiti
where: Deer Park High School (8351 Plainfield Rd; 45236)
when: Thursday, March 11 from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
cost: $2 for adults; kids 12 and under are $1
(Pictures – upper left, Sarah Keefe making bracelets that will be
for sale; bottom right, Kalina Procas with tissue flowers she made)
I have been so blessed to have been given opportunities to be inspired by some incredible young people – teens who have come to realize they have the power to affect change, volunteering at homeless shelters, organizing efforts for international epidemics, and helping neighbors in need; students whose resilience to their personal circumstance has given them strength of character and motivated them to succeed; and sons and daughters whose compassion for others grew as an extension from lessons taught by their parents.
Adam Hoover, a 15 year old student at Harrison High School, is one of my inspirations. His story is an example of how it’s not so much our life circumstance that brings out the best in us, it’s our choices about what we do in life – and not despite our circumstance, but because of it.
It was a little over a year ago when his teacher, his role model, his mom – Anna Abdim – lost her job and the income that was supporting them (including three other siblings). But Harrison is a close-knit community where neighbors take care of each other and people gave what they could to help. “It really makes you feel like there’s hope in our society,” Adam told me.
Paying it forward
One day Adam was looking around Craig’s List. He was searching for anything with the word ‘free’ on its price tag but what he was drawn to instead were the stories he found. Stories like that of a woman in Indiana who had used her last check to buy things for her children only to have their entire life collection destroyed in one horrendous night when their home succumbed to ravaging flames.
“It just clicked. There are too many people asking for help and not enough help to give,” Adam said. And so, he and his mom got to thinking. They could make a difference. They could help others just as others helped them.
Their program is called Gifts of Kindness. They collect gently used household items, clothes, toys, and just about anything that would be of value to a family who is in need. They can’t afford to rent a storage facility so their home has become a warehouse, stacks of donations everywhere. To date Adam and Anna have helped about 100 families but that number keeps growing.
Now Adam would like to hold a fund raiser. He has an Elvis impersonator group willing to donate their time but needs to find a facility willing to donate their space. If you a place, he’d love to know.
You can learn more about Gifts of Kindness at their web site http://www.giftsofkindness.yolasite.com