Sunday, October 5, 2008

An Ordinary Joe Who Did An Extraordinary Thing

My friend Joe is that guy we all knew in school - playful, handsome, has an easy smile, quick to laugh, with that rugged but gentle, laid back kinda look. Joe teaches special needs high school students, he is a great father, husband, and friend. He is a self-deprecating guy who always has a great story or joke at the neighborhood party. Joe's passion for being on the water, combined with his genuine desire to help others, and his seemingly endless supply of energy appears to have also added grass-roots leader, advocate and healer to his list of attributes. A few years back, Joe sat on a local river bank with his paddling buddy talking about the war. Both kayakers shared a sense of frustration and desire to help in some way. The number of young people coming home injured, both physically and emotionally, broken in spirit made them want to take some kind of action. That day they convinced themselves they could make a difference by sharing the passion and exhilaration they felt on the water. Confident that by spending time on the water the vets would be able to see the beauty in the world again, feel the adrenaline rush of kayaking through white water and regain their strength and confidence mastering those sharp drop ins. Sitting on the riverbank they realized if they could do it, the vets they helped would be that much closer to feeling whole again. They parted, committed to finding a way to make it happen. A true volunteer, grass-roots effort, with amazing people called Team River Runner was born from that conversation by the river. People's lives are being changed for the better, just from one guy saying to another, "we could do this, we can make it happen." The E World provided my connection to Joe, via an email written about a teacher titled, "What I Did On My Summer Vacation," by Joe Mornini. Reading the familiar name out loud, I realized he was a local parent at my son's high school. Later on, thanks to the close proximity of high school bleachers, I politely listened in on a conversation behind me, the obvious passion in what they were talking about caught my ear. I quickly realized the teacher I had read about - Joe,was right behind me! Constantly striving to show my kids what they do in life, small or big can make a difference, I was grateful for Joe, and told them his story. Joe didn't set off to start a nationwide effort. He and his friends simply wanted to see if the amputee vets at Walter Reed would enjoy being out on the water and regain their lost confidence and their physical abilities, by kayaking. Joe learned that the small steps they were taking towards their goal were turning into huge leaps of achievement. Joe and his friend's energy and passion for their cause, was quickly attracting others. Soon, the movement took on a life of it's own, and Team River Runner was launched, and they became "official." Over the past two or three years Team River Runner has grown, spreading to numerous VA hospital units that specialize in Amputee and Severe Head Injury Treatment, therapy and re-hab. Joe's local group reaches out to the other centers and help the local volunteers get started, establish relationships with the equipment providers, and guides them through the myriad of government rules and paperwork, etc., At the same time, they continue to work with their group of amputees and other severely injured right here in DC. They are always looking for donations of old kayaks, vans to transport, kids to make sandwiches to feed them during day trips, and help push wheelchairs down the bumpy dirt path to the water. They send CDs to patients while they are in rehab, showing the patients what Team River Runner does and invites the vets to join them when they are ready. They have "graduation" trips and when the donations are up, they try to take the vet's wives with them, as they gain a lot of support by being with each other, sharing their stories, and their joy in their husbands recovery progress by being on the water. Then,they start over; every week, after a full day's work, a group of people take time from their families and carry a bunch of kayaks and gear up several flights stairs to a therapeutic pool at Walter Reed Medical Center. There they start again, teaching the new vets, young and not so young, how to kayak. This unusual recreational therapy has done wonders! From simply seeing a guy smile again, to the serious head injured regaining a sense of balance, physical control, and self-confidence. Seeing a double amputee who knows when he is sitting in a kayak, he looks the same as everyone else; watching the proud, wide grin of a boy who recently lost his arm while he deftly maneuvers his mechanical looking arm/hand to keep is boat on course; hearing families voice their overwhelming gratitude to Team River Runner in helping their sons or husbands ability to feel strong and "whole" again; you can't help but be in awe of the actions of an ordinary guy like Joe and his friends. Joe has been named one of the Washingtonian Magazine's "Volunteer of the Year," has had spots on morning talk shows, traveled (often on his own dime) all over the country as an advocate for these men and women who need programs like his. None of this has changed Joe. Like yesterday, as I sat in the high school parking lot next to Joe. As always, in boating trunks,he was stretched out with his head on the curb, hat tilted down, arm lazily thrown over his wife's leg,catching a quick snooze before his daughter's homecoming float performance. I glanced over, and suddenly I had an epiphany! I thought to myself, good gosh, it could be any of us, any of us could do it, any of us could make a difference if we really tried. Joe's passion, commitment and tenacity is contagious! From my perspective, these are the ingredients needed to make a good idea become an amazing, life-changing achievement.

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