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.”