“Where do you see yourself in five years?” was a questioned I heard a lot five years ago.
Back then, I envisioned myself working at an entertainment firm or in a large law firm. As I made my way through the interview rounds, this prophetic question was the one constant I faced in life.
Upon hearing this question, as I sat in front of the interviewer in a freshly pressed suit, I oftentimes would think, “Well, ideally, in five years I’ll be married with a child or two. We’ll live in a nice house and be surrounded by good friends. My babies will go to church on Sunday. I’ll live within 30 minutes of my parents. I’ll be active in my community and life overall, will be good.”
In law school, they teach you not to answer the question that way. As it turns out, generally speaking, most law firms don’t care about your personal life, at least when you’re a new associate.
So, time after time after time again, I’d say, “Five years from now, I envision myself being someone who attracts top-notch clients to the firm. I imagine that I will be close to becoming a partner at that point in my career. I want to be someone who has my own book of business and someone with whom clients trust, respect and want to work with. I see myself as a leader in the entertainment industry, completing research into emerging trends and writing law review articles that are valued by my peers.”
Oh, how life has changed in the last five years.
In the corner of my condo sits a 5-foot tall tinsel Christmas tree. I’m getting ready to leave Miami for the holidays, meaning I won’t be home to enjoy a fresh, pine-sceneted, real Christmas tree. So, I settled for the next best thing: An obnoxiously silver Christmas tree from my personal shopping mecca, Target. The thing is gaudy and tacky and I love everything about it.
The presents sitting underneath my obnoxious tinsel Christmas tree speak loudly to how the last five years–or more accurately, year–have unfolded for me. When I look underneath the tree, the bulk of the names scrolled on stickers attached to packages are those of people I didn’t know five years ago. They are the names of new friends. They are the names of new business acquaintances. They are the names of ten children living in Haiti.
When I peak underneath my Christmas tree, what I see is the truest testament to what, unbeknownst to me, has been the mantra for my life: Go with the flow.
If my best friends are reading this (hey, guys!), they probably just spit out their coffee upon reading that. I know that if my mom is reading this, she also is probably on the floor laughing. My dad is a little bit more gentle with my feelings, so he’s probably just sitting in front of the computer looking confused. Each of them is probably saying out loud, “You think ‘Go with the flow’ is a phrase by which to describe your life?” Fine, I’ll admit it: In the grand scheme of things, “Go with the flow” and Alicia Jessop have never been synonymous.
I’ve been a planner my entire life. In fact, I take planning to new levels and to places even the biggest of planners probably doesn’t even know exist. You can ask any of my best friends about the email they get from me EVERY summer where I lay out about 50 activities we are going to engage in before Labor Day. “On June 1, we’ll go boating. On June 8, we’ll have a park day at Wash Park. June 15 is a brewery bar crawl and let’s climb a 14er on June 22. Oh, and we need to cross off every happy hour spot we’ve been wanting to try, so Thursdays are happy hour night and on Tuesday, well on Tuesdays, we’re joining a kickball league. On Wednesday, I’ll have a bar-b-que at my house and we’ll play lawn games. See you all there. This is going to be the best summer ever.”
Being a planner for most of my life, I generally know the types of responses I will get when I fire off this email to my close circle of friends. There’s my fellow planner friend, Megan, who says, “Awesome! Looks good. Let’s add X, Y and Z.” There are my friends who have just come to accept that I’m neurotic and respond with, “Sounds fun! I’ll come out as much as I can.” And then there is my one friend, Brit, who’s honest. Without fail, she zings me back an email saying, “Come on. I’m exasperated just reading that.” I laugh when I read her response and for a brief moment think, “She’s right,” but instead write back, “Brit, if we don’t have a plan, how are we going to get ANYTHING done this summer?!”
And therein lies my obsession with planning. If there ever was a spokeswoman for the line, “Proper planning prevents poor performance,” it should be me. (If you’re my agent and reading this, if we could get to work on that endorsement deal, that’d be legit). For most of my life, I’ve lived under the belief that if I didn’t have a plan, everything would fall apart. I wouldn’t have a job. I wouldn’t have a roof over my head. And arguably most importantly, my friends and I wouldn’t have fun. To me, not having a plan–and not just a plan, but a well-crafted and immensely detailed plan–led only one place: To destruction.
I operated under this belief until relatively recently. I can’t pinpoint exactly what changed in me, other than to say that everything changed. For some reason though, planning just stopped being important to me. Instead, I decided to just start going with the flow. And guess what? The world didn’t end! I have a roof over my head. I eat every day. And my friends and I are still having a really, really good time.
In going with the flow, my plans changed. Clearly.
I’m not practicing law anymore. I traded entertainment for sports. I’m a professor! I’m living a life built up by three things I didn’t ever really see happening.
I don’t live within 30 minutes of my family, but I have a job that lets me see them for a good chunk of time each year. I don’t rock my own babies at night, but my heart is full with love for a nation’s worth of babies. I still haven’t found “the one,” but I’ve found love and hope to find it again.
All of these things happened without one thing: A plan. The life I’m living right now looks nothing even remotely close to what I envisioned for myself five years ago. Yes, what I’m doing currently involves things that at some point in my life I obviously envisioned. The difference, though, is that nothing I’m doing now is part of a hard and fast plan that I had.
The best part of all of this, is that I’m happier than I’ve ever been. Ever. And that’s what they don’t tell you about failing to plan. Sometimes, failing to plan leads you to true happiness.
What I mean by that is this: When you relax your plans, you ease up on your expectations. When you ease up on your expectations, you give way for life to unfold for you in the way that it should. When you hold onto your standards but give up on deadlines, perfection and specificity, a world of excitement and surprise has an opportunity to design a life for you filled with joy.
If anyone told 25-year-old Alicia that the thing gripping her heart the most right now was a group of orphaned children in Haiti, she would have said, “Yea, ok. Right,” and moved on. She wouldn’t have listened, not because she was a jerk, but because it would’ve seemed so far-fetched.
If anyone told 25-year-old Alicia that she’d write for Forbes and The Huffington Post and gain access to some of the greatest sports leaders in the world and dawn credentials for events like the Super Bowl, she would’ve said, “Yea, ok. Right,” and moved on. She obviously would’ve liked the sounds of this, but it would’ve seemed so far-fetched.
If anyone told 25-year-old Alicia that the most joy she would find in her career would be at the front of a classroom in Miami, she would’ve said, “Yea, ok. Right,” and moved on. She would’ve remembered the first time she was in Miami–when the city seemed so big and intense–and not have been able to see a path that would lead her to becoming a professor out of law school that didn’t seem so far-fetched.
When I look at life these days–whether it’s Christmas presents under my tinsel tree for new friends and babies in Haiti, the opportunities I’ve been given to cover sports stories or the chance I have to impact future sports leaders at the University of Miami–one thing becomes very clear. And that thing is this: My life began when I laid down my plans.
These days, I don’t stress about what’s next. And for someone who lived the way I did for most of her life, some days, that’s hard. Really, really, really hard. Then I remember this: The best laid plans can be destroyed, but some of the best gifts in life are surprises.
As 2015 approaches, I’m working, like many others, on resolutions. And as it inches closer, what I’ve settled on is this: I’m scrapping the five-year plan. Actually, I’m scrapping the plan entirely. I am done pretending like I’m a prophet for my life who knows what tomorrow holds. Rather, what I am going to focus on is the person I can become. Instead of making plans for my life, I’m going to work on being the person I want my life to be defined by.
Am I joyful? Am I giving? Am I kind? Am I honest?
Am I happy?
If any of the answers to those questions are “No,” I know it’s time to change. I know it’s time to shift what I’m doing and move forward. I know it’s time to get on with things and to take myself and my life down a new path. I know it’s time to perhaps go somewhere and do something that I never planned.
Sometimes I wish I had a time machine. Sure, I wish I had a time machine so that I could go back in time and take back some of those decisions I’d later come to regret. Sure, I wish I had a time machine so that I could go back in time and see historical events and walk alongside history’s greatest leaders. Today, though, I wish I had a time machine to zap me back to a place that I really didn’t want to be in the first place: Those stuffy law firm board rooms. If I had a time machine, I’d want to get back there, because five years later, I finally have the best answer to that age-old question.
“Ms. Jessop, where do you see yourself in five years?”
“It’s funny you should ask that, sir. It’s funny, because I see myself somewhere you probably don’t expect me to be.”
“Oh, really? Indulge me.”
“Certainly. Well, after giving it some thought, I know where I see myself in five years. And when I look forward and when I look at my life and the person I want to be holistically, what I see is this: I see myself scrapping the five-year plan entirely. And in doing so, I plan on doing something different, something that maybe isn’t the most rewarded or even respected in this industry.”
“And what would that be, Ms. Jessop?”
“I see myself living.”
Today is your birthday! Today, we celebrate you and the fact that you are here on this Earth. We celebrate your mischief, your funny little personality and most of all, your potential. Happy birthday to you, dear Prosper!
Last Saturday, I held you on my lap as an interpreter sat next to us so I could have him tell you in Creole that you no longer have to worry and just how much you are loved. You will be taken care of.
I asked you how old you are, and you said, “8.” I asked you if you knew what day your birthday is, and you said, “No.” The date that your life began got lost somewhere in the years you spent living in orphanages.
I pray every night before I go to bed, Prosper. I pray that God keeps my parents safe and healthy. I pray that he shows me the path I am supposed to follow for my life. I pray for world peace and the impoverished. And these days, Prosper, I pray for you.
I pray for something else every night, Prosper. Every single night, I pray that God brings me a good husband and that he lets me have a child.
I had a dream in July, Prosper.
I have dreams every, single night. Vivid, vivid dreams that a lot of times when I wake up, come true. I’ll never forget this dream, though, Prosper. Like every night, I prayed for that good husband and I prayed for that baby. And in my dreams that night, the message was sent to me that, “there is a boy.”
When I woke up, I knew in my heart that it wasn’t a baby of my own or that good man I’ve been looking for. I knew in my heart, rather, that “there is a boy” meant something else. Every day, I would ask God that He would show me what He meant. And luckily, Prosper, He didn’t keep me waiting long.
Just one week after that dream, Prosper, you came into my life.
Along with being prayerful and having many of my dreams come true, the other thing you need to know about me, is that I don’t believe in coincidences.
I live my life with intention and purpose and faith. And when you live your life with those three things, Prosper, there is no room for coincidences. My path was meant to collide with yours.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw you in Haiti. They told you I was coming. I don’t know what they said or who you understood me to be, but when I turned the corner, we both just looked each other in the eyes, raised our foreheads a bit and smiled a closed-mouth grin.
When I see you, Prosper, I see a little boy who is afraid to let people fully in. I see a little boy who is afraid to let people fully in, because he’s been hurt before. And in that, I see myself. I get it.
When I see you, Prosper, I see a little boy who is afraid to let himself go, to live freely, because he’s been hurt before. And in that, too, I see myself. I get it.
I will promise you this, though, Prosper. From July 2014 until the time I leave this Earth, I will walk alongside your life. I will never quit on you. I will never give up on you. I will always believe in you. I will always support you. My path was meant to collide with yours.
I spent last Sunday morning playing with you. We hit baseballs and I chased you on your scooter. You and that dang scooter go everywhere together! We worked on sharing with the other children, and well, you have some work to do in that area. I brought you a basketball and I taught you some dribbling tricks. I also watched as you played tricks on other kids. Namely, the kid who got a hold of your scooter. You hid around a corner, waiting for him to scoot by, with the baseball bat I also brought for you in your hand. Luckily, it was a soft bat. When that kid came around the corner on your scooter, you jumped out and WHACKED him with the bat. I shot you a mean look and said, “Prosper! No,” and you shrugged it off.
You’re too smart and cunning for your own good. And trust me, I get that. Well, at least the cunning part. There are no boundaries between you and what you want. And trust me, Prosper, I get that, too.
That afternoon, I left you and went with the adults to the beach. When I came back that night, you and I sat down to talk. You only speak Creole and I only speak English, so T-john interpreted for us. As I held you in my lap, and before I could say anything, you uttered something under your breath. I asked T-john what you said. “I was sad today,” he said.
I asked T-john to ask you why you were sad.
“Because you left,” he told me.
And in that moment, my heart fell to pieces. I knew I was leaving the next day. And this time, I was leaving for much longer than an afternoon.
I had T-john explain to you that I live in Miami and that I’ll be back to see you soon. As I pointed to my heart, I had T-john tell you that’s where I always carry you with me. You looked down at the floor and mumbled something else. T-john shot me a look of, “I don’t want to tell you what he said.” I waited a couple of seconds, grew impatient and then said, “What’d he say, T-john?”
“Take me with you.”
My heart shattered.
I told David later about our conversation and I think he saw the tears coming. He said what you said to me was a good thing. I looked at him and said, “How?!” He said it was good, because it shows that you are bonding with people.
You are finally free, Prosper.
Free to love, free to feel, free to give of yourself. The hurt is over. You will be taken care of.
I came to say goodbye to you last Monday afternoon. And when I got to the house, your parents were there. Your parents! There are no coincidences, Prosper.
From what I know, you haven’t seen your parents in years, when they left you at an orphanage. When I walked in, you were sitting on your dad’s lap and your mom was sitting to the side of you both. Your mother beamed. She looked so proud of you. You have your mother’s face. Your father was solemn and serious. You carry your father’s emotion. As you sat there, you showed none. Just as he showed none. I will never forget the look on all of your faces as I peered into that room.
As I looked at all of you, I thought to myself, “There are no coincidences.” There is no coincidence, Prosper, that on the day I left Haiti, your parents arrived to see you for the first time in a long, long time. There is no coincidence, Prosper, because the message to you should be this: You are beloved.
Like you, I needed to see your mother, too, Prosper. There are no coincidences. The thing I want most in this life and the thing that has eluded me the greatest, Prosper, is a child. Heaven help me–and it–if I have one. That baby will have to be pried from my fingertips before I hand it over to anyone. I can’t imagine the pain a mother must feel when she has to give up her son. You were woven in her womb, Prosper. She carried you and took care of you while you were growing inside of her to the best of her ability. I can’t imagine how badly your mother’s heart hurts, Prosper, that she doesn’t get to take care of you and watch you grow outside of her womb. No mother should have to make the decision your mama did, Prosper, to be forced to have strangers raise her baby. No mama should have to go years without seeing her boy, the creation that she made inside of her.
I wish your mama had more opportunities, Prosper. I wish she was educated. I wish Haiti’s economy was better. I wish there were valuable jobs and resources for her. I wish someone was there to empower her to find a way to keep you. I wish she could hold you and tell you how loved you are every night.
You are beloved.
Seeing your mother lit a fire in my heart, Prosper. A fire that made me realize that I will fight for your and Haiti’s well-being until the day I die. I want you to have your own babies, Prosper, and I want you to support them and give them good lives and watch them grow. I want you to share life with them.
David was talking to your parents and I could tell that the conversation had shifted from chit-chat to something more serious by the looks on their faces. I knew it wasn’t my place to be in the room, so I turned around and went downstairs to play with the other children. You were still on your dad’s lap when I walked away and I didn’t know if I’d be able to say goodbye to you before I had to head to the airport some 15 minutes later. Shortly thereafter, though, you came down the stairs. You grabbed your scooter, then came straight to me and buried your head in my side.
You kept uttering something. This time, though, T-john wasn’t there to interpret for us, so I had no idea what you were saying. You kept saying it though, as you looked at the ground and shuffled your feet around. I knew I had to find out what you were saying. I finally found someone who spoke Creole and she sat down and asked you in Creole what you were saying. You wouldn’t repeat it. Finally, she coaxed it out of you.
“Take me with you,” you said.
I got on an airplane last Monday, Prosper, and my heart hurt and was happy at the same time. It hurt, because I can’t take you here with me. It was happy, though, because we’re building a future for you in Haiti, your home. We’re building a future where hopefully, someday, your mama will find you again and see how well you’re doing. We’re building a future where hopefully, someday, you’ll see and understand your mama’s pride and love for you. We’re building a future where hopefully, Prosper, you will be able to give life to your mama.
David hasn’t told me yet the full extent of his conversation with your parents, but he will soon. When I landed on American soil last Monday night, though, there was an email waiting for me from him, and it said this:
“We did find out though, that his birthday is November 17, 2006–which means he turns 8 on Monday!! We’ll make sure to celebrate his life on that day!”
What a difference a day makes, Prosper. First, contrary to how old you thought you were, you actually gained a year! An extra year of life! I don’t know what better thing there might be to celebrate, my friend. An extra year of life is something many people would fight tooth and nail for and something women in Hollywood spend big bucks on!
More importantly, though, less than 24-hours after I asked you when your birthday was and my heart sunk when you didn’t know, you learned it. And for your little soul’s sake, Mr. I Get What I Want, you have no idea how excited I am that you don’t have to wait longer than a week to have your first birthday party. You have a way of managing to get it all, Prosper! There are no coincidences.
Today you will have one of those great, Haitian birthday parties. There will be loud singing and music and dancing and cake. You told me that Bensley is your best friend, and my hunch is he’ll wear his tuxedo t-shirt, which someday you’ll realize is pretty hilarious. As all of this celebration for YOU goes on, I imagine you’ll be riding your scooter throughout everyone at the party, carefree but still not letting the partygoers get too far into your space. Regardless, though, it’ll be a celebration. A celebration of the 8 years you lived that brought you to where you are today. More importantly, though, it will be a celebration of all that awaits you in this beautiful life that is yours. And so help me God, Prosper, I promise you this: Only goodness awaits you. You can let go, Prosper, because you are taken care of now.
Your life is valuable, Prosper.
And I would give everything in the world to be there today to watch you blow out the EIGHT candles on that cake.
Happy, happy birthday, precious, mischievous and smart boy. You are beloved.
Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
For a long time, I’ve had this personal belief that this is the most over-covered song in the history of songs. Every time I hear a cover of “Hallelujah,” my initial reaction is why? Why, why, why?
The last four days of my life can best be summed up in one word: Juxtaposition.
Over the last four days, my heart was broken down only to be built back up again.
Over the last four days, I saw things I never knew existed and never thought to be possible.
Over the last four days, I found hope in the craziest of places.
To say it’s the most impoverished country in the western hemisphere doesn’t even begin to cover it.
There are no paved roads. There is no infrastructure. In the faces of many, there is no hope.
On Saturday afternoon, we parked the truck in a big, dirt lot surrounded by concrete buildings. This picture describes the way much of Haiti looks. As we hopped out of the truck, everyone I was with became solemn, so I followed suit. Truth be told, though, I had no idea where we were headed or what we were about to encounter.
As we turned the corner to enter the large concrete building, no sounds echoed out of it. Our first greeting, rather, was a smell. It was a smell I’d later come to describe as hopelessness. Urine mixed with feces mixed with body odor all churned together in the hot, Haitian heat.
We walked up stairs and turned another corner into a dark room lined with a dirt floor. There were no pictures, no toys, nor any light in the room. Just 40 little faces staring back at us as they sat tightly together on six, thin wooden benches.
They were the faces of children. Children abandoned. Children forgotten. Children lost. And although their lips were tightly pursed silent, their eyes void of any joy screamed loudly. “Help me!” “Love me!” “Please,” they said.
Before I could grasp the gravity of the situation we encountered on what started as a relatively uneventful Saturday afternoon, one of the older children was walking towards me with an infant in his hands. The infant was wearing a white shirt, torn to pieces and dangling off of his slim body. Without so much as a smile on his face, the older child thrust the infant in my arms. As I positioned the infant, he immediately grasped his arms around my neck in a bear hug-like position. We’d remain this way for hours.
I looked him in the eyes. I brushed his face. I coo’d in his ear.
He didn’t flinch. No smile. No movement. No giggles. No noise.
Just a body. No life.
I kissed his smelly body. I whispered, “You’re perfect, sweet boy” in his little ears. I told him that Jesus loves him.
He didn’t flinch. No smile. No movement. No giggles. No noise.
Just a body. A boy forgotten.
There are over 500,000 orphans in Haiti. In July, they became my cause. The rallying cry of my life.
Through a series of twists and turns and avenues, I’ve become connected with I’m Me, a foundation co-founded by NFL player, David Nelson, and his brothers. Through I’m Me, I sponsor a 7-year-old boy, Prosper. I went to Haiti this weekend to meet Prosper and see what I’m Me is doing on the ground there. Most of all, though, I went to Haiti to see how I can serve the 500,00 orphans in Haiti. I went to Haiti to in my small way, show them that they haven’t been forgotten.
As my trip approached, I began researching Haiti. Its economy. Its government. Its natural resources. At the end of the day, though, the only thing I wanted to know was why are there so many orphans?
Through internet research, I couldn’t find a clear answer. It took going to Haiti to understand why so many children are orphans.
The majority of the orphans in Haiti are not children whose parents have passed. Rather, most orphans in Haiti are “poverty orphans.” These are children whose parents give them up to orphanages because they cannot afford to take care of them. The average daily income of a Haitian family is $2. With a lack of access to birth control and no formal educational system, the birth rate in Haiti is high. With many mouths to feed and few financial resources to do so with, many Haitians surrender their children to orphanages. The thought behind this decision, is that the orphanages are better equipped to provide for their children.
The concrete building we walked into on Saturday afternoon was one of those orphanages. And if this “institution” is better equipped to take care of anything than anyone else is, I’ll be damned.
There was no electricity. There was no running water. There were no beds.
All there was, were 40 tiny faces, some “caretakers” and those six wooden benches.
The children’s bathroom was a small room covered by a door with a hole to urinate and defecate in. The problem, though, was the hole was filled up. So, children urinated and defecated wherever they could, the most common place being on the floor which also served as the place where they rest their heads at night.
There were no toys. There were no pictures. There was no sound.
There were no beds. There were no mattresses. There were not even mats. We learned that to sleep at night, the children oftentimes piled upon each other, to gain some semblance of comfort.
There was no life inside of those concrete walls.
I went to Hell on Saturday.
And the worst part about it, was 40 innocent, helpless children were living there.
Soon after we arrived at the “orphanage,” David stood in front of the room and with an interpreter, asked the children if they had dreams for their life. He asked them what they wanted to be when they grow up. A few raised their hands. Those who did, were asked to come in front of the group and share their talents. Some danced. Some sang. Him, though, I’ll never forget him.
He walked to the front of the room quietly. And he stood in front of it for a few seconds before he did anything. Everyone remained still, looking at him silently, lifelessly.
Then he opened his mouth and sang,
“I’ve heard there was a secret chord that David played to please the Lord, but you don’t really care for music, do you? It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift, the baffled king composing Hallelujah.”
In the face of Hell, his words sang out, “Hallelujah.”
When we walked into the concrete building and I saw the conditions, I told myself to hold it together. To be strong. To not show the horror I felt on my face. For anyone who knows me, I SHOW EVERYTHING ON MY FACE. There are no secrets in Alicia Jessop land. For the first time in 30 years, my face almost didn’t show the cards of my heart. After all, this concrete building void of anything was these children’s home. And I didn’t want my face to reveal to them how dire their situation was.
When his voice rang out, “Hallelujah,” though, I lost it. I walked across the room, turned my body the opposite direction and wept. I held that sweet baby and just prayed for him. I prayed that God would rescue him and send angels to lift all of the other babies in that “orphanage” out of their Hell.
Shortly thereafter, we began touring the “orphanage.” We saw the floors on which the children slept. We saw the garbage that surrounded their home. We saw their kitchen without running water. And at some point, David asked the question we all wanted to know. “When was the last time they ate?”
The little body I was holding hadn’t eaten in four days. He was lifeless for reasons other than his surroundings. He was lifeless, because truth be told, he was facing death.
David rounded us up shortly thereafter. I kissed babies goodbye and whispered words of hope in their ears as I brushed their heads and squeezed their hands. We hopped back in the truck and as I sat on the tailgate as it wound through Port-au-Prince’s crowded dirt roads, I wondered WHAT THE HECK I JUST ENCOUNTERED and HOW CONDITIONS LIKE THIS STILL EXIST ON THIS PLANET.
About 30 minutes into our drive, our driver stopped the truck. He got out of the car and walked somewhere. I figured he just needed a break from the traffic and from our incessant listening to Taylor Swift’s “1989” album.
He came back a few minutes later and said to David, “They have some.” David hopped out of the truck and at this point I was royally confused but figured it best not to ask questions. David returned a few minutes later with two of the biggest bags of rice I have ever seen and before I knew it, we were reversing our course and heading back to the “orphanage.” For the first time in days, the babies wouldn’t have to worry about being fed.
As we entered, there were a few more smiles on the faces of the children. The woman who ran the “orphanage” was gracious. For the moment, there was hope.
“Your faith was strong, but you needed proof.”
Through despair, dirt, pain, suffering, hopelessness and in Hell, I saw God this weekend.
I saw God this weekend, because THANK GOD, I experienced Friday before Saturday came.
I landed in Haiti on Friday, November 7–David’s 28th birthday. Shortly after I landed, we went to the children’s home he and his brothers started. The children’s home houses nine children who were taken from the “orphanage” we visited. David tells me that when he took Taina, Germima, Rodelencia, Georgina, Witza, Robensley, DaeDae, Wilson and Prosper from the building, that they were in worse condition than the children that we met there on Saturday. Knowing the gravity of those children’s condition made this thought sting in my heart. How could a child be worse than lifeless?
As we pulled up to the house, the lights were off. We walked to the door and as David flung it open, there was screaming and shouts of joy. The lights burst on and music was turned on and nine, loud, happy voices started screaming, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU, DAVID NELSON!”
As I stood there behind him, I thought to myself how fitting it was that on the day we celebrate the beginning of David’s life, we celebrate the life that he and I’m Me have given to others who needed life the most.
Beyond that though, in my heart I said to God, “Thank you God, for love.” Because only through love, is hope created.
David’s 28th birthday party was the most fun birthday party I’ve ever been to, and for brevity’s sake, I’ve been to some really good birthday parties. It was the most fun birthday party I’ve been to, because there was so much joy. I’ve never laughed so hard. I’ve never danced so freely amongst perfect strangers. I’ve never felt so comfortable to lend my voice to song.
That night, at that house, was heaven.
And it awoke my eyes to the possibility that hope is not dead in this world.
It awoke my eyes to the belief that a few people can change the world.
It awoke my eyes to the knowledge that now, since I have seen Haiti’s pain, I cannot turn on it.
My life’s purpose has been revealed.
And it is to give all of those babies a life free of worrying where their next meal will come from.
It is to give all of those babies a life free of wondering where they’ll lay their head at night.
It is to give all of those babies a chance to live out their life’s purpose and experience their full potential.
The past four days were a roller coaster for me. I cried myself to sleep every night, hoping no one else would hear me. There were happy tears, over the promise of the nine children I’m Me dug out of Hell. There were sad tears for the children still living there. There were tears of thankfulness that God brought me here. There were tears of fear wondering if I’d ever be able to do enough to help.
Most of all, though, there was hope. Hope found in the promise that our God never leaves us. Even when the world looks like the pit of Hell, He is there. Hope found in experiencing firsthand the goodness of others. Hope found in the understanding that we are all here to help our fellow man, no matter how old, young or far away he may be. Hope most of all, though, hope was found in the learning of just how quickly love can restore life in another.
The children in the I’m Me home are thriving. They are fed three meals a day and eat snacks. For the first time in their lives, they are attending school. They are being taught about Jesus and how to place their worth in Him. They are the most fashionable kids I’ve ever laid eyes on. They have their own unique, special personalities. Personalities that are comedic, shy, mischievous and flirtatious. They are becoming themselves, exactly in the way that God made them and intended them to be. Through love that has been showered upon them over just four short months, their lives have received hope. They are living. They are thriving. And my happening upon their lives is the greatest blessing I have ever experienced in my 30 years of life.
And for that, the only thing I can say, is Hallelujah.
Today might be the first Halloween in my life that I don’t dress up as something. It’ll be a game-time decision as to whether or not I go out, but with my trip to Haiti exactly a week away and my friend, Rachel Baribeau, coming to stay with me this weekend, I’ve got stuff to do!
In Life Lessons Class–er, Sports Governance, this week, we spent some time briefly on the topic of making good decisions. One of my students in the back of class piped in with, “Yea, but a little mischief is ok!”
Yes, a little mischief is definitely ok.
And on that note, two of my favorite Halloween memories:
1. 8th grade was probably my most epic trick-or-treating session. For some reason, my parents thought it would be a good idea to let me two best friends and I stay in a vacant duplex my grandfather owned. On our own. Alone. I guess they thought we were responsible (which we were).
That Halloween, it seemed like Jessica, Courtney and I trick-or-treated FOREVER! We went into every corner of my small Wheat Ridge, CO neighborhood, unwilling to relent on our search for candy.
Finally worn out, we decided to make my grandparents’ street our last stop. My grandfather built the house he and my grandmother lived in in the late 1950s. Everyone else on the block had done something similar. So, their neighbors were a group of people who started their families and aged at the same time.
Across from my grandparents’ house lived the Walker’s. These were the people that would never buy Girl Scout cookies from me as a kid and generally seemed pretty reserved. So, as my friends and I approached their house, I was expecting a less-than-impressive Halloween treat, or even worse, a refusal to open the door.
Little did I know, that into her 80s at this point, Mrs. Walker had a little bit of mischief in her still. As we opened the gate to her house and started walking up their walkway, we heard a noise in the bushes. “Wooooooo wooooo boooo. WOOOF!”
Yes, elderly Mrs. Walker was hiding in her bushes pretending to be a ghost/dog. And it was AWESOME. She jumped out at us “woo/hooing” and barking. It was confusing and really weird and sent us into an obvious fit of laughter. It was mischievous.
2. My actual favorite Halloween memory, though, comes from when I was seven-years-old. At that time, “Beauty and the Beast” was my favorite movie and Belle was my idol. Every year, my mom hand-sewed me a Halloween costume, but in second grade, probably realizing that designing and sewing a Belle costume would be a MOTHER, she let me just buy it.
I felt like a queen in that thing. The problem, though, is that I also felt like I was going to puke the entire night, because I was really sick. My parents urged me to stay home, offering to just buy me candy and get me treats. Every kid knows that that is not an option come Halloween, though, so I trudged it out.
My dad and I went to a few houses around the neighborhood and I was feeling more and more nauseous. I told him that I didn’t think I could do it anymore, and he told me we had to go to my grandparents’ house, then I could go home. In my mind, I knew that this wasn’t a good idea, but I went with it.
Dawned in a golden, silk dress, I rang my grandparents’ door bell and waited on their front porch for them to hobble to the door. My grandfather opened the door. “Trick-or-treat,” I said under my breath, feeling like I was going to die.
I’m the youngest person in my entire family. As such, I feel like my grandpa liked to hassle me sometimes and generally give me a hard time. Rather than just handing over the candy he said, “If you want a treat, you have to show me a trick.”
I’m also an only child and very stubborn, so this response just annoyed me. In my seven-year-old mind, I probably literally thought, “Ok, gramps. Let’s just get this thing over with so I can get on my way.” Not wanting to be a jerk, I opted to just say, “Trick-or-treat” again.
And again, Grandpa Watts said, “Trick for a treat!” I rolled my eyes, turned back to my dad and kind of shrugged my shoulders, because I am still candy-less at this point. “What’s this dude’s problem?” is also probably a thought that rolled through my head. Nonetheless, I knew what was coming.
I shot a look up at my grandfather, who was still demanding a trick, and then turned they other way and vomited all over his entire front porch.
“WHOA, Alicia! I wasn’t serious about the trick!”
Yea, that’s what you get for hassling a seven-year-old who’s just out trying to get treats. Showed that guy.
In all seriousness, though: A very happy Halloween to all of you! It’s a night for a little bit of mischief, but in all reality, a night for a lot of fun.
Earlier this week, I had a great opportunity to speak to the women of Kappa Kappa Gamma at the University of Miami about my career. My student, Claire, is their Vice President of Scholarship and in that role, she is expected to bring in a career-related speaker each year. Her instructions to me were simple: Just talk about how you got to where you are.
Leading up to my speech, I sat down to think about what I was going to tell these young women. When I think about how I got to where I am today, I realize that the road wasn’t so simple. There were cross-country moves. There were risks taken. There were people and things and hearts left behind.
I wanted to provide the Kappa Kappa Gamma members with instructions on how to make their dreams a reality. I’ve been lucky in the sense that when I’m really honest with myself, that is what I’ve done. If I were to tell my 12-year-old self what life would look like as a 30-year-old, she’d probably do a standing backflip.
I spent some time standing in front of my mirror practicing different speeches. I had one all put together and memorized. And at the last minute, I scrapped it. I decided to speak from the heart instead.
When I think about how I got to where I am today, it begins with those two words: I decided.
When I look at my life and my path to where I am today, a place where I love my job, am surrounded by good friends and am in great health, I realize that what got me to this point was intentionality.
There was a brief period in my life when life wasn’t smooth sailing for me. I wasn’t me. I was anxious and unhappy and had misplaced my priorities. I was working a job that I hated, although it was one that I should’ve been more grateful for. I was spending my time and money on wasteful things. When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see the good, wholesome, kind, giving little girl I used to know.
And then one day, I woke up and I decided to change everything I didn’t like about myself and my life.
When I look at people who are stuck in their lives, it is the simple act of deciding to change something that is the biggest thing holding them back from better things.
Re-read that last sentence. And then think about it.
It you want your life to get better, you need to decide that you are worthy enough of a better life.
If you want to find your dream job, you need to decide to pursue it with full energy.
If you want to find the love of your life, you need to decide to open your heart.
Life is all about decisions.
What time to wake up. What to eat for breakfast. Whether or not to shower (kidding). What to wear to work.
In my life, the biggest decision I’ve made is this:
I decided to say “yes” to myself.
And in turn, I’ve said “yes” to a life of full possibility and potential.
My life these days is busier than I ever could imagine. I’m going non-stop from 7 a.m. until I lay my head down at night.
It’s so much fun, though.
Because I decided to make it that way.
I decided to build a life centered around my passions.
I decided to build a life surrounded by good people.
I decided to create a life built around the word “yes.”
Yes to right now. Yes to my dreams. Yes to others.
People always ask me, “How did you get to where you are so fast?”
I hate this question. A) Because I still have further to go and B) Because I didn’t get here fast. Where I am now is the result of hard work and passion that have been the cornerstones of my life for as long as I can remember.
I also hate that question, because I am not special.
I have not accomplished anything that you, your friend or anyone else isn’t capable of accomplishing.
The only thing I did, that I see as being different from most that I come into contact with, is that I made a very simple decision. And then I stuck with it.
So, what do you need to decide to change? What in your own life can you decide to say “yes” to so that you can head in the direction you want to go? What is holding you back from making that decision? What do you need to do to finally decide to make your life the best it can be?
I’m here today in a life of happiness, because I decided my life was worthy of being defined by happiness.
I’m here today working my dream job, because I decided to stop pushing my passions aside.
I’m here to living a life that I’m proud of, because I decided that there is no other way to live a life.
Three weeks from today, I’ll be going to Haiti.
I’m getting on an airplane on Friday morning and coming back to Miami relatively quickly later, on Monday night.
I’m getting on the airplane alone. There, I’ll meet with friends that I’ve connected with over the phone and internet, but have never met in person.
I’m going to Haiti alone.
Yesterday, I sat in a doctor’s office to get some vaccines. Hepatitis A. Typhoid. A tetanus shot, because what do you know–I haven’t had one since I was 12! Whoops.
The doctor and I started shooting the breeze about my trip. At one point he said, “Why Haiti?”
And as I sat there on the uncomfortably papered doctor’s office bed with my legs dangling off the side, I didn’t have to think long for an answer.
“I’m going to Haiti, because when I was a kid, I thought I could change the world. And when I look at Haiti, I see a place that just needs a little bit of help to get back to being the great place that I see when I look at pictures of it. I’m going to Haiti, because now that I’m an adult, I realize what changing the world looks like: Changing the world is about making places better.”
Sometimes I look at how my life has unfolded and I can see so clearly how the paths I’ve traveled down led me certain places.
Some may call it coincidence. Others may call it fate. I call it what I’m supposed to be doing.
This summer, my heart wasn’t in the best of conditions. My heart was burned by a second chance. It was a heart that was unsteady after giving someone a first chance. It was a heart that was prioritizing in the wrong areas, as I spent much of my summer months off from teaching spending my salary. On everything. I didn’t feel like myself. And I knew that I wouldn’t again until I got my heart back.
Towards the end of the summer, in July, I got an email. I get hundreds of emails a day, most of which ask me for something. I scanned it quickly and saw that a Jets player was having a party in New York for his charity and that I was invited. I quickly wrote back that I live in Miami and would be unable to attend.
Later that night, though, for some reason I dug the email out of my trash. I actually slowed down to read it. In the email, I learned that the Jets player was David Nelson and that his charity was unlike any I’ve seen a professional athlete undertake. David had launched an orphanage in Haiti, because he wanted to change a group of people’s lives. For the better.
That night, I wrote the publicist back again. I asked her if I could write a story about the organization for The Huffington Post. Shortly thereafter, I interviewed David and learned more about what I’m Me is doing not just for the children it houses, but for the vast number of Haitian children it serves through its after school program. In our conversation, I heard a plan that was based upon a belief in the worth of other people. I heard a plan that was well-built and sound. I heard a plan that was based on following one’s heart.
Towards the end of our conversation, David said he was looking for sponsors for the nine children I’m Me had begun housing. As it turns out, I’m Me opened up its doors to house children earlier than the organization expected to. This is because one day, David and the I’m Me representatives were called to an “orphanage” to see its conditions. When they arrived, they saw children living in squalor, filth and extreme hunger. They had no choice but to act. And so, they brought the children home. To a place of safety and permanency, and perhaps more importantly, a place of love. That afternoon, I told David I’d sponsor one of the kids. I think neither of us thought much about that comment, but as time went on, that decision would change my life.
Over the course of the next few days, I’m Me began introducing the children in its home to the world, so that they could begin sponsoring them. Every day, I saw beautiful children whose eyes were wide. Some smiled, others didn’t. The stories of some broke my heart to pieces. In their faces, you could almost see them crying out, “Help me.” When I looked at these children, all I could see was a little soul saying, “Just give me a chance.”
Give me a chance to be a kid.
Give me a chance to follow my dreams.
Give me a chance to live out my full potential.
Every one of the children struck a chord in me.
Then, there was Prosper.
This kid. Seriously. When I looked at that little face, I was willing to drain my bank account and hand over whatever David and I’m Me needed to give this kid whatever he needed (or wanted).
I took a step back, though, and started reading about Prosper. He’s 5. He was left at an orphanage by parents who never returned. Even though he looks so joyous in this picture, when David and the I’m Me group found him, he was in a corner alone, sitting downcast. He said that he never had any friends. He showed them scars on his arms caused by children bullying him.
As I read this, my heart wept. No child should have to endure any of this. Childhood isn’t for worries. Childhood is about freedom and fun.
That day, I committed to sponsoring Prosper. At the end of the day, it’s a minor financial commitment. I remembered, though, something I saw when I visited Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthplace. There, I saw a posting that handing someone money doesn’t change the world. Rather, change comes from actually sitting with a person, learning about him and his condition and working through ideas on how to better his situation.
That’s why I’m going to Haiti in three weeks. My commitment to Prosper and his I’m Me friends is deeper than a monthly payment. I want to go to Haiti and see what it’s like. I want to see what resources exist there that can create possibilities for Prosper’s future. I want to learn about the education system to understand what more it might need to ensure that Prosper can become as knowledgeable as possible. I want to meet Haiti’s people and get to know their hearts so that Prosper understands there is a country full of people waiting to be his friend.
I’m going to Haiti, because in my 30 years, I’ve realized this: Change doesn’t happen by sitting on the couch. Change happens when you get up and facilitate it. I have 13 years until Prosper is 18. During that time, I will have donated thousands of dollars to ensure that he is clothed, fed and comfortable. That all will be worthless to me if I haven’t during that time done my fair share of work to ensure that once he leaves the I’m Me home, he can pursue his dreams and live out his full potential. I want him to do as his namesake says: I want him to prosper.
I think about the roads my life has traveled a lot. I try to find a reason in everything. I try to understand how I got here.
These days, I have a greater sense of why I’m in Miami. Miami is as close to Haiti as you can get while being in the United States. And as luck would have it, these days I have a lot of work to do in Haiti.
I walked out of the classroom today after teaching my second class and began my walk across campus to Starbucks. As I walked, I noticed hundreds of backpacks sprawled across the lawn at the University of Miami. As I got closer, I noticed that there were letters attached to the backpacks. On some, pictures. As I walked along and looked down, it became clear that the backpacks belonged to college students across the country who had taken their own lives.
I teach a class at 12:30 on Tuesdays and Thursdays called Sports Governance. It’s become a joke of sorts amongst my 28 students, but I start each class with a life lesson. Some life lessons are simple, like why it’s important to find a hobby. Others are more focused on the situations students find themselves in, like it’s ok if you bombed the LSAT. Others are closer to my heart, like be nice and a friend to everyone. My particularly favorite life lesson came when a football player who sits in the corner of the room sheepishly raised his hand one day and said, “I have a question: How do I get a date?” Somewhat annoyed that his question wasn’t about Sports Governance, I paused briefly and then said, “Step one: Talk to, be nice to and take interest in someone you’d like to date.” I was proud of that answer.
When I kick off the class with life lessons, I inwardly know that I’m probably aging myself and sounding like the old fogey at the front of the class. Inside, though, I know that I do this for a particular reason: I want each of my students to know that they carry value in this world.
Value goes beyond how you perform on the football field and whether you get drafted. Value goes beyond the score you get on the LSAT and the law school you get–or don’t get–accepted to. Value goes beyond the grade you get in my class, although I hope you pass it.
Value, rather, is how you treat people in this world. You become valuable by treating everyone you come into contact to, regardless of who they are and what they’ve done, with respect.
Value isn’t about test scores, acceptance letters or the amount of money you make.
Value, rather, is what you make of the situation life has handed you. You become valuable by choosing to put a smile on your face even when your heart doesn’t want to. You become valuable by refusing to be a victim to your circumstances, but instead turn them into opportunities. You become valuable by leading a life lived with gratitude.
My students have their first exam next Tuesday. As I began helping them review today, I said, “So, what do you think is going to be on the test?”
One of my most verbose students piped up and said, “Life lessons?!”
I chimed in, “Are you sick of my life lessons?”
Much to my surprise, he said, “No. I feel like I’ve actually learned something in this class that I can apply to my life.”
I then said something I probably shouldn’t have. “First, life lessons aren’t going to be on your test. Sports governance issues, however, are. If I were to be honest, though, I really don’t remember much from my undergraduate classes. If you asked me to do a calculus or physics equation, I’d have to get a book out. The one thing I remember, though, was from a lecture arguably about life lessons. My Economic Development professor lectured one day about what makes people happy. Are people with more money and power happier than those with less? Ultimately, we learned, they aren’t.”
Perhaps I made a mistake by admitting I don’t remember much from my undergraduate education experience.
I hope that’s not what my students dwell on, though.
I hope what they took away was today’s life lesson: College is about learning how to survive and making it through.
Which, if we get down to it, is what life is about.
The backpacks sprawled across the University of Miami’s campus today were placed there by an organization called Send Silence Packing. According to them, 1,100 college students commit suicide each year. A big reason for this astonishing number is because of our society’s tendency to keep silent about mental health issues or the problems hurting us. Rather than talking about it, we attach stigmas to both or bottle up the problem.
We need to talk openly about the issues our college students are facing. The pressure spans beyond the walls of the classroom and the examinations taken within the classroom. The pressures mount from parents and the fears placed on them of whether they’ll be good enough to graduate and compete in the workforce. There are social pressures ranging from using drugs and alcohol to fit in to engaging in self-destructive behaviors like eating disorders to look a certain way. There are pressures to spend more and buy more. There are sexual pressures. There are race issues. There are religious issues. While a college campus is supposed to be a safe bubble for a student, that bubble can quickly escalate into something that even the strongest of adults would find difficult to navigate.
I want my students to know and fully understand how sports organizations govern themselves. I believe that I teach them in an effective enough manner for them to fully accomplish this. I’d be thrilled if they remember our sports governance lessons after they graduate. However, I will consider myself a success if they each hang onto this: No matter what problem you’re facing, no matter what you get yourself into, no matter how badly you’ve been hurt, here is the one lesson you need to know about life:
It goes on.
The lesson about life isn’t that it’s easy. No. Life is hard. Really, really, really hard.
However, it always, always, always goes on.
For every bad day I’ve had (and there have been some pretty bad ones), I’ve had a good day.
For every time my heart has been broken (and it has been broken more than I want to say), it’s been restored.
For every problem I’ve faced (and there have been some big ones), I’ve eventually found a solution.
It may not have seemed like I’d see another good day, restoration or solution when I was in the mix of things.
But I’m glad I gave life time to go on.
Because time after time after time again, there was another good day, restoration and a solution.
It has never failed.
I wish the 1,100 college students each year who take their lives could have someone near them to just whisper to them, to just remind them, to just nudge them and say those three simple words: Life. Goes. On.
However, we can’t remind people that life goes on if we don’t know they’re hurting. We can’t tell someone what they need to hear if we don’t know how badly they need the words.
The silence must stop. And the best place to stop the silence on the college campus is in the classroom, where discussion is meant to happen.