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)
At 8:00 p.m. on September 13, 2009 in Madison, Wisconsin David had nothing to say but he had everything to say. In that instant, it was his scream that spoke what words could not express. His arms that for the last 13 hours pulled and swung and balanced his lean body mass across
land and engulfed in water spontaneously rose above his head in triumph when he crossed the banner that said ‘FINISH’. Moments later he was in the arms of his wife.
This is what a man does after pushing himself beyond his capacity against the will of some 3000 other elite athletes – all comrades in a battle of a lifetime, giving all that he has to give and finally, FINALLY, realizing a personal goal that for the last 25 years of his life was just a dream.
“Pure elation,” David said to me. “To this day, I can still feel it.”
It was actually a twist of faith that made this conclusion even more special. You see, a year ago supporting him through all that goes into training for one of these things was his 40th birthday present from his wife (and his family including 4 children). They became team Martorano, changing their pantry to all ‘healthy’ foods, getting dad to bed by 8 p.m. even on weekends, and giving dad that boost when the 4 a.m. buzzer goes off and he didn’t feel like working out.
David looked to them for inspiration. They were his rock. On the really, really tough days,
there was one thought that always moved him to action. His normally energetic voice softened. “I would think of Nathan and Michael and how hard they have it,” he told me. “They don’t get to take a day off and so I couldn’t either.”
Nathan, 14, and Michael, 3, are David and Viki’s oldest and youngest sons. They both have autism.
The dream that almost wasn’t fulfilled.
It was a Saturday morning – one week before his 40th birthday – and David was ramping up his training. The big race was just six weeks away. He and a buddy had already finished their swim in the Houston Woods Lake. They were in hour two on their carbon-framed bicycles, manufactured to be light enough to hold with one hand yet strong enough to withstand the stress of human pressure on road disparities and imperfections.
But the bikes were not meant to withstand one thing. Without warning, a pick-up truck traveling 60 mph pummeled into them from behind and all that stood between the cyclists and the pavement was their helmets. David stares into blank space when he talks about it, wondering out loud why they were chosen to be spared when another mother in another moment lost her son.
The recovery was long, but not too long. After all this is David we’re talking about. Working at the YMCA, he had everything he needed to begin the journey all over again. In the meanwhile he happened to read about a program called Train4Autism that gives people tools to raise money for local work surrounding the disorder. David had a new inspiration.
Another thing you may not know about David is that as the district vice president for the YMCA of Greater Cincinnati overseeing the Clippard Family branch, he, his wife, and staff have started an effort to offer support for families like the Martoranos.
Once a month families of children who have autism are invited to David’s YMCA for free nights where siblings and parents can participate in recreational activities or simply visit with one another. On average more than 200 families attend. Under David’s leadership this year, the Clippard Family YMCA also was approved by the Ohio Department of Education as a private provider for the Autism Scholarship Program – making it one of the area’s few preschools providing students with all of the therapy and other services that are written into their Independent Education Plan (IEP). As part of its expanded all day inclusive preschool, his YMCA branch also operates an Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) Learning Center for kids who have autism.
“I know firsthand the challenges faced by families like ours. Most insurance companies don’t cover costs of early intervention and some children require intensive therapy that many families can’t afford,” David said. (pictured at right with his son, Michael)
You can probably guess for whom David set out to raise money. This was the beginning of the letter I received: Please join me in my journey to participate in the Ironman Triathlon on Sunday, September 13, 2009 – Swimming 2.4 miles – Biking 112 miles – Running 26.2 miles while raising awareness about autism and the autism inclusion programs at the YMCA of Greater Cincinnati.
And so, team Martorano was back in training. This time David was leaner and in the best shape of his life. He wasn’t about to waste this second opportunity, and I’m not just talking about the Ironman.
The time had finally come.
It was 6:00 a.m. when David and Viki left their house for Wisconsin, way too early to get the kids up. Their good-byes were said the night before. But as the car was pulling out, the front door opened. It was Nathan. He had some final words he needed to say. “Dad, you have to persevere,” Nathan told his father. It’s pretty hard to describe how words like those affect a man like Dave but I bet you can guess.
On September 13 at 7:00 a.m. David was ready. There he was amidst a sea of competitors. When the gun went off they swam like a huge school of sardines, powering through every stroke two loops around Lake Monona. Then, with only their bare feet, they ran up a three story ramp for a quick change before hopping onto their awaiting bike. David described those first 20 miles as a warm up to the next 40 miles of rugged hills and wind desperately trying to push them backwards. By mile 56 he was still very much in control.
Then the final 19 miles awaited, and ‘it was all into the wind’. “At this point you just want to get off it and get running – after all you’ve been on the bike for over 5 hours,” David said.
In any other race, David would have been ready to call it a day, but this was an Ironman. He still had an entire marathon to do. By mile nine, he said, ‘the doubt, the internal talking really picked up, the demons, can I do this?”
It was about mile 12 when his right calf and hamstring cramped, causing him to nearly tumble to the concrete street. Only the most prepared athlete, someone with team Martorano behind them, would have thought to carry a pair of compression socks for just this situation. A quick stop with help from a race volunteer and David was back on his way…still with half the distance left to go.
They say in Ironman that the marathon is 20 miles of hope and six miles of reality. That reality struck David right in the face. The finish now in his mind, David looked up and saw it. There, along the side of the course where supporters could post messages of inspiration, David read, ‘dad, you have to persevere.’
Nothing, and I mean nothing, was going to get in David’s way now. The crowds grew electric in that final mile. “David Martorano – you’re an Ironman,” were the sounds echoing around him. Then he did it, he crossed that finish line.
Yes David, you are an Ironman. And Nathan is extremely proud.