Endless Gratitude

This time of year makes me quite sappy. I am currently listening to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Pandora station, taking a break from making Christmas cookies. To my left is a small pile of colorfully wrapped gifts addressed to James and I, and behind me is a well-fed cat cuddling into a fuzzy blanket on the couch. I have a roof over my head, food in my fridge and cupboards, plenty of work to keep me busy and secure, and a life full of people I love. And I am wondering how it could be possible that I got so ridiculously lucky.

Holiday Cheer - our tiny tree for our tiny house.
Holiday Cheer – our tiny tree for our tiny house.

While enjoying a Thanksgiving weekend with extended family in the Portland area this year, I was struck by this deep sense of gratitude a few times. When my dad’s side of the family gets together (The Pru Crew, and then some) we top out at well over 30 people. I met three new babies in my own family and one belonging to a good friend from high school on my trip. I marveled as I shared food, games, small talk, and stories with my family how amazing it is that we all get along relatively well, enjoy seeing each other, and are all relatively healthy and happy functioning humans doing amazing things (like raising twins – holy cow, my cousin just had the second set of twins in the family and I thought one baby sounded like work; two at the same time of the same age?!?! Yeah, parents are superheroes, and parents of twins are super-duper heroes). I’m not sure what I ever did to deserve to be born into a happy, healthy family support system like this, but I sure am grateful. Call it privilege or an “original birthday gift” (in my sister’s words, more on that later), I am a very lucky girl. And I am very thankful that I have such a loving, supportive, and pretty damn functional family and family of friends.

Pru Crew assembling on Thanksgiving.
Pru Crew assembling on Thanksgiving.
Braxton and Koleson, my cousin's twins and two of the four new babies I got to meet on my trip.
Braxton and Koleson, my cousin’s twins and two of the four new babies I got to meet on my trip.

After being stuck in Portland waiting for car repairs (which VW ended up paying for due to it being a known issue – yet another reason to be grateful!) for four days longer than expected, I made the very long drive home. That night I put on my onesie footie pajamas and watched Adventure Time while snuggling with my man in his onesie and our cat on the couch in our cozy tiny house. I may feel like I am struggling at times, but it’s simple little moments of bliss like these that make me realize just how great life is, and how very blessed I am to have the life I do. Especially at this time of year, the warmth and goodness that fills my life seems at sharp contrast with those whose struggles are far more burdensome than mine. As hard as it is, I urge you to open your eyes and your hearts and do whatever you can to support the less fortunate, oppressed communities and those in poverty. We all have something we can give… like perhaps a donation that could help improve an orphan’s life in a third world country, or one that could give cold neglected dogs shelter this winter?

Onesie snuggles, pizza, and Adventure Time right after getting home. Ahhh this is home and it is SO GOOD.
Onesie snuggles, pizza, and Adventure Time right after getting home. Ahhh this is home and it is SO GOOD.

And on that note, I leave you with some very inspiring words from my sister, Rachel Prusynski, who may be my little sister but is also one of my heroines. I have always loved this speech (and admired her bravery for being able to deliver it so eloquently) that she gave at the high school graduation ceremony of the high school we both attended, only 5 years after she had graduated from there, in 2010. I re-read and remember these words whenever I am feeling the weight of my own problems that seem to eclipse the rest of the world. Reading this helps me to put things in perspective and realize just how lucky I am with what I already have in life.  I realized the only place I could find the text of this speech was on her Facebook page, so I am sharing the speech here to give this inspiring message a bit of a wider audience. Hope you don’t mind, sis, but I just have to share this brilliance with the world. <3

Rachel Prusynski’s Bishop Kelly High School Graduation speech 5/30/2010

Thank you and good afternoon. I feel very honored to be here.
But I do have a confession to make. When I was thinking about what I wanted to talk to you about today, I realized that I don’t remember the subject of the speech, or even who the speaker was, five years ago at my own graduation from BK. I apologize to whoever that person is, but I figure either I was too preoccupied by my itchy graduation gown to pay attention, or maybe the speaker just didn’t make enough of an impact on me. So I decided that while I can’t do anything about that horrible polyester tarp that you’re wearing, if nothing else, even if I can’t inspire you or change your life in my allotted 5-8 minutes, at least maybe I’ll say something that will strike you enough that you’ll remember it five years from now.

But first I have a second confession. I’m barely twenty-three years old, just graduated high school in 2005, and I have no idea what I’m doing here. What could I have possibly done in the five short years that are separating me from you that gives me enough infinite wisdom to qualify me to send you off to the next stage in your life? It could have something to do with the fact that Mr. Coulter sat in the audience when I spoke to my college graduating class and he liked what I had to say. But more likely it has to do with the fact that I’ve seen and lived through things in places around the world that not many twenty-three year olds have been fortunate enough, but also unlucky enough, to experience.

But here’s where I want to start with you. Guess what? High School is nothing like real life. No matter if that realization elicits feelings of excitement, gratitude, or remorse and panic, it’s true. Everything is about to change. Everything. Even the part of your brain, called your orbital gyrus, that determines your beliefs, personality, morality, and behavior hasn’t stopped developing. That fact may have just made some parents in the audience breathe a massive sigh of relief, but it’s true. Everything could change starting today, but only if you allow it to.

I know that the next four years, no matter where you’re headed, will offer a ridiculously overwhelming amount of options for you. But coming from the same seat you’re all sitting in, here’s one thing that I wish somebody had told me. No matter what your plans are, I encourage you to leave. Go. As far away as possible and as many times as possible. Leaving, going anywhere else at some point in college or the next stage of your life, is probably one of the best ways to allow all sorts of changes to happen. And don’t think that even if you’re headed out of state or across the country for college, that that necessarily counts. Realize that an idyllic ivy-covered college campus in New England can be just as sheltered of an environment as staying at home with your parents. Speaking of parents, when I asked my mom what she thought I should say today, she told me not to forget about speaking to the parents. Even though my own mom and dad almost lost me to a collapsed building in Haiti, my mother still said I needed to tell you to not be afraid to let your children leave. Because there are things in this world that just don’t exist here. And these things need to be witnessed firsthand, encountered at close range, for the true magnitude of the experience to be felt and any sort of real lesson to be learned.

So I want to share with you some of my own firsthand painfully close-up experiences that I allowed to change everything for me. As a disclaimer, I will mention that what I’m going to say is similar to what I spoke about last year at the University of Portland’s commencement ceremony. That’s not because I didn’t have time to write a new speech, but because even after the earthquake in Haiti changed everything; after it turned my world upside down; after it made me question some of the most fundamental beliefs I had carried with me, not only did what I am about to share with you survive the upheaval that Haiti brought to my life, but it was strengthened by it. The thoughts I shared with my own graduating class a year ago were fortified by my experience in Haiti, and when you can ride a seven-story building to the ground and be trapped under rubble and get evacuated by helicopter to Cuba because of injuries, and when your best friend who gave a year of her life to work with orphans and kids with mental disabilities dies in that same rubble you were pulled from, when all that can happen and you still believe in something, when that something is all you have left and you are able to rebuild off of that foundation and pick up the pieces and live on, you know the foundation is good.

My foundation is something I call the original birthday gift. And I’m about to tell you what that means.

I’ve spent some time in the two poorest countries in the western hemisphere; Haiti and Nicaragua. They are beautiful, but also terrible. Traveling to these types of places is not a vacation, it is not relaxing, it is not even pleasant half the time. But what I brought back with me, my foundation, was a million times worth it.

In Haiti I held babies that at three and a half months old were only about the size of a grapefruit, I hugged children born with AIDS who never knew the mothers that gave them their death sentence, I did physical therapy with kids stricken by entirely preventable diseases like meningitis and malnutrition. In Nicaragua I drove through a massive landfill called La Chureca and watched thousands of people dig through mountains of burning garbage looking for food or something valuable enough to sell. The young girls who lived in the dump would be sold as prostitutes to the garbage truck drivers so their families could eat. The little boy I saw climbing over a pile of trash would never have an education, much less a full stomach.

And that’s when I realized something. Something so important that if you have not listened to a word I have said so far, if you are like me and won’t remember this speech in five years, please listen now. Haiti and Nicaragua and all of my travel experiences have taught me one essential thing. I did nothing, absolutely nothing, to ensure that it wasn’t me that was born into that garbage dump or born with AIDS to a mother that abandoned me. None of us chose to be born into these lives where we have food and clean water and families that can afford to send us to BK and maybe to college. We did not earn this incredible blessing. It was a gift. An original birthday gift.

You are here through no fault or effort of your own. You are probably healthy and full from breakfast and you have a high school education and a future, all stemming from your original birthday gift.

But there’s a bit of a catch. It’s as if your original birthday gift made you start your life already in the red and in debt to the world. As potential future college students figuring out student loans and how to pay for school, you’re probably thinking “great, more debt. The last thing I need.” But original birthday gift debt isn’t monetary, it just comes with some responsibilities. All you have to do is try to start deserving your gift. And the great thing is, every morning you wake up, you have a new chance to do something extraordinary. And please don’t think that you have to be a valedictorian or a world traveler or someone rich and famous to do it. My friend Molly that died after deciding to move to Haiti to work with orphans had an average grade point average, slept til noon, ate copious amounts of Taco Bell, and had an unhealthy obsession with Diet Dr. Pepper and America’s Next Top Model. She is the perfect example that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. I can’t tell you how to give back, or which of your talents to use to pay back your debt. But I know you’ll find your way to give back to the world in exchange for your original birthday gift. But know that you have the power to turn your life into one big thank you note. But the last thing I want to say is that Molly is also the perfect example that you have to start writing that thank you note now because you never know what might happen, so please wake up tomorrow and start paying back your debt. Don’t let today be the best day of your life.

Thank you.

All I can think of to say after that is: Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you, for my original birthday gift. I strive to keep trying (and trying harder) to live my life as one long thank you note. I hope you’ll join me. 🙂

Haiti’s Got a Piece of My Heart

I can’t read or see anything about Haiti, and especially about the earthquake that shook the poorest country in the Western hemisphere on January 12, 2010, without tearing up and feeling a heavy tug in my heart. But I’ve never even set foot there, I’ve never witnessed the earthquake’s destruction in person, and I certainly don’t speak a word of Creole.

To understand why Haiti pulls at my heartstrings so much, all I really have to say is that I almost lost my only sister Rachel to that earthquake. But that’s only a tiny part of the story. The real story is not so much about my sister narrowly escaping the earthquake’s destruction that took the life of her friend Molly Hightower, a hospital volunteer halfway through a year-long stay there, who she was visiting on her winter break. The real story is how my little sister became my hero, by taking a tragic and traumatic experience and the loss of a dear friend and turning it into a personal mission to do as much good as she can for Haitian people that touched her heart and literally rescued her from the rubble.

My sister, Rachel, in Haiti with an abandoned baby.

To say the least, Haiti was a mess before the earthquake reduced much of its capital city, Port-au-Prince, to rubble. Upheaval and political turmoil have long been a big part of Haiti’s struggle, and the majority of the population there lives in poverty. Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, and was not prepared at all for such a disaster. The earthquake crumbled what little infrastructure they had and threw the country into a state of chaos and desperation that they will be struggling to overcome for some time. Sadly, very little of the aid money poured out by the world shortly after the earthquake actually went to helping the Haitian people. The earthquake destroyed countless homes, shattered families, and reduced much of the city and surrounding area to rubble. I can’t even imagine the devastation my sister must have witnessed as she was taken from the 7-story building she was in that pancaked to the hospital and then to the US embassy in a pickup by a group of Haitian men who brought her to safety before even checking on their own families.

When Rachel first visited in 2010, she was in a Physical Therapy program at University of Puget Sound. The earthquake shook her foundation and made her question whether she could even go back to school. But she did, and in May 2012 she graduated with her doctorate degree, and has returned to Haiti every year since the earthquake to help at the hospital and orphanage where Molly worked, cuddling orphaned babies, bringing toys to the children (and sponsoring one herself), and training PTs in Haiti.

Not only has she returned to Haiti to help the organization her friend worked for to continue Molly’s legacy, she has also given speeches and interviews about her experience, raised awareness and funds to help the earthquake relief effort, and redirected her entire life to focus on helping Haiti. She also founded and chairs the NPH USA Northwest Associate Board to raise funds and awareness for the organization Molly worked for in Haiti. Additionally, Rachel founded a scholarship at her alma mater in Molly’s honor to provide a college education to a Haitian student who grew up at NPH. The student who was awarded the first scholarship to University of Portland, Jean Francois, grew up at the NPH orphanage and is now working on his degree. He has become a member of our family and spent the holidays with us last year, where he got to experience skiing for the first time.

Through her work on the NW Associate Board of NPH, she has organized fundraisers, including one in Molly’s honor called Music for Molly, shortly after the earthquake. NPH runs a number of homes and hospitals in poor countries throughout Central and South America, and Rachel’s board has planned and organized several events in the Northwest benefitting NPH. I’ve had the privilege of working with her to create flyers, logos, and event promotion materials for several of them, and though these are but small contributions to the cause, it is nice to be able to use my design skills for such a noble purpose. Last fall, Rachel put together a stroke manual in Creole to help families and caretakers care for stroke patients and aid their recovery. It was the first thing I have ever designed in Creole, so that was a challenge, but I hope that our simple booklet helps Haitian stroke patients and their families. On her most recent visit, which is just now wrapping up, she led a tour group of NPH supporters, including my parents, around the facilities at NPH. Now that my parents have been to Haiti, I guess next it’s my turn!

Music for Molly Poster

Haiti will never be the same, but with the dedication and hard work of people like Rachel and organizations like NPH, there is hope. Aid organizations may have long forgotten about Haiti and squandered the money meant for rebuilding, but the hearts and souls of the Haitian people are obviously strong and resilient. And though I haven’t been there yet, Haiti will always have a piece of my heart.

Ever since the earthquake I have tried to think of a way I could help Haiti. I have no medical training like my sister, and I’m not sure if I could even handle seeing the pain and desolation caused by the earthquake, poverty, and turmoil I’d see there. But if I have even a tiny fraction of the strength and compassion my sister has, I am sure I could help somehow. Recently I have begun dreaming up an idea, a way to use my passions and talents to help make life a little easier for the people of Haiti. It may not seem like much — I have no cure for cholera, nor do I know how to build houses or even speak the language — but sometime I would like to bring the joy of flow arts to Haiti. There isn’t much in this world that makes me happier than hooping, and play is a universal language — so someday I hope to raise enough money to build and take hoops, poi, staves, and other flow props to the orphans of Haiti and teach them how to spin. I am not a teacher, or even that great of a spinner, so teaching flow arts would be something I’d have to practice and learn. It would surely take some time to gather up the funding and supplies to build hundreds of props, round up donated props from the spinning community, and maybe even recruit some spinners to join me in this mission (I know James is on board at least!). But, inspired by organizations like Spark Circus and Performers Without Borders, who bring the joy and fun of flow arts to disadvantaged communities around the world, and of course with the inspiration and help of my amazing sister, I’m sure that we can make it happen. I look forward to seeing a sea of smiles and colorful spinning toys arising out of the rubble of Haiti, and I will surely keep you all posted as I start planning to make this journey happen.

In the meantime, I urge anyone touched by this story to visit Rachel’s blog and learn more about Haiti and her work there. If you are moved and able to help, you can donate here.