Monday, March 12, 2018

Red, White and Blue

I can't remember a time when I wasn't wildly patriotic.  Growing up, I spent my summers on a lake in Northern Michigan and July 4th was always elaborately celebrated.  There's just something about that red, white, and blue, you know?

In college, I was assigned to a VA hospital for my internship in Therapeutic Recreation.  I worked with veterans suffering from PTSD, and Substance Abuse issues. It was then when I learned what happens after these men and women are finished with their service.  Sure, they voluntarily signed up to protect our country, but I'm not so sure they knew all of the sacrifices they would make and the long term struggles they would go through.  Then, 9/11 happened, and America was changed.  Everywhere you looked you could see love for our great country.  And while we were here, settling into a "new normal", our military men and women were being deployed overseas to fight for us.  What kind of people leave their husbands and wives and children and families to lay their lives on the line for their country?  Heroes, that's who.  Every single man and woman who raised their hand when the shit hit the fan is a hero.

And when we started having children, we made sure they knew how lucky they are to live here.  We talk about 9/11; we talk about Vietnam; we talk about why WWII happened; we talk about slavery and the Civil War.  We have made sure that the sacrifices our military have made are not lost on our little family.  It is considered a lucky day when we get to see or talk to someone in uniform.  My children and I are in awe, as we should be.  We celebrate them at parades, and special events, at the Marine Corps Ball and of course, on July 4th.

 When I ran the 2015 Chicago Marathon, I first noticed it: a sea of red shirts.  Who were these people?!  Must be some kind of team, I guess.  I saw them randomly throughout the race, something about veterans written on their backs and an eagle on the front of their shirts.  It seemed kind of cool.  And then, last year at the Bayshore Marathon, I saw the red shirts again with the eagles.  Team RWB.  What is Team RWB?  I had no idea, but I as soon as I got in my car, I googled it:

"Team RWB's mission is to enrich the lives of America's veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity."

As I read about their purpose and who was involved, I knew that this was an organization I wanted to be a part of.  They were looking for veterans and civilians who were interested in making genuine and authentic connections with our veterans to enrich their lives.  And all I could think was, "Who wouldn't want to be a part of that?"

So, I signed up, got my shirt, joined the Flint Chapter of RWB, and finally made it out to a social with my family near the end of last summer.  I met our chapter captains and some of the other members of the group, and when they asked if I was ex-military and I said no, I wasn't quite sure how to explain why I wanted to be a part of RWB.  But, they accepted me anyway, and I was honored to wear the Eagle to run the Marine Corps Marathon last fall.  What I didn't know was that being a part of Team RWB meant that I had a family wherever I was.  The race was filled with Team RWB shirts and every time I passed a runner wearing that red shirt, or was spotted by someone in the crowd who was a member, there were high fives and cheers and "EAGLE UP" being yelled.  The sense of camaraderie I felt from these complete strangers was unbelievable.

As time passed, I attended more events-laying wreaths at our military cemetery for Wreaths Across America, fun social events, volunteering at the food bank here in town, and even removing those same wreaths at the end of the holiday season. When our captains found out I was a runner, it was only a matter of time before they asked me to be the Run Coordinator for our chapter.  I gladly took on the position because I wanted to be more involved and what better way than running, right?  

The great thing about Team RWB is the support, in every aspect of the organization.  They didn't name me a leader and say, "Now go do it!"  They make sure their leaders are trained and that they have all the resources they need available to them.  This past weekend, I was given the opportunity to attend a training academy in St. Louis, with not only other Midwest leaders, but also some leaders from the Southern region, as well.   So, about 37 Team RWB leaders flew and drove to St. Louis last Friday, for a weekend to remember.  

There were three of us planning to attend the academy from the mid-Michigan area, so we decided a road trip was in order. We left Thursday night, stopped in Indianapolis overnight, and then headed for Missouri.  Along the way, we took a little detour to check out an old covered bridge and then we found ourselves in Casey, Illinois among the World's Largest Rocking Chair, Wind chime, Pencil, Mailbox, Golf Tee and Pitchfork.  

And then it was time to get to St. Louis.  At the hotel, several members had already arrived, so we quickly checked in and then had some time to hang out prior to our evening meetings.  We spent that first night getting to know each other.  We each took turns standing and introducing ourselves and telling why we were a part of Team RWB.  There were veterans, and people from military families, but there were also civilians other than me who felt the way I did.  The very best part was when one of the leaders, who had been deployed many times stood up and basically said, "We don't give a shit if you're a veteran or a civilian.  We are all equals in Team RWB."  And I think I needed to hear that.  We are all a part of this for the same reasons-we all want to enrich the lives of veterans.  From there, we had a casual pizza dinner where we were encouraged to get outside of our little chapter circle and meet new people.  And what do you know?  I met a bunch of runners.  I even met a few who ran ultras.  And if you know me, that's a fast way to my heart.

Early on Saturday I joined a few runners for some sunrise miles over the Mississippi and then we had a larger group run to the arch.  

The rest of Saturday was filled with small and large group activities and we were given many opportunities to speak to other chapters and to get and give ideas and to just share our stories.  The day was filled with laughter and teamwork and nothing but positivity.  

That night, we headed to the City Museum for dinner and exploration.  Let it be known, this was less of a museum and more of a work of art and an adventure.  The old building has been converted into a multistory maze of caves and slides and hands-on activities and an outdoor jungle gym of epic proportions.  We climbed and crawled and slid for hours.  I was even somehow coerced into climbing through that wire tunnel waaaaay up there, despite my fear of heights.  

We were there for several hours, but I am quite certain I didn't even see half of what was inside.  It was truly amazing.

And just like that, it was Sunday.  We started the day with breakfast and a little RWB yoga.

After a few more small group sessions, we headed out in the snow/rain to get a team picture near the arch.  To passersby, you'd never guess that we weren't all lifelong friends.  The bonds that we made in just three days were strong.  We were laughing and hugging and taking selfies and just having fun.

We headed back to the hotel for one last exercise: The Circle of Gratitude.  

Half of the team sat in a circle with their eyes closed and the other half stood behind them.  As we walked in a circle, we touched the shoulders of those who we shared a connection with, or a smile, or a tear, or someone who taught us something, or someone who had made our experience just a little more meaningful.  If any of us had any doubts at the beginning of that exercise, we surely did not by the end.  We had learned that opening up and being vulnerable makes you stronger, not weaker.  

We came together as a group of 37 men and women from all walks of life, but we left as a family.  We made connections that will stand the test of time and learned more about ourselves in the process.

At the end, when we received our leadership patches, we weren't given handshakes, we were given hugs.  

I truly believe that you get out of things what you put into them, and each and every person there this weekend, lives that way.  They came with open hearts and open minds and had the time of their lives.  

If you are interested in becoming a member of Team RWB (why wouldn't you be), please contact me or go to for more information.  It costs nothing to join, but I guarantee you will be richly rewarded for your efforts in supporting our great American veterans.  

I'm just going to leave you with this little clip of my daughter singing.  I found it on my phone the other day and had no idea she had recorded it.  

Friday, March 2, 2018

The Time of Our Lives

In the fall of 1996, I embarked on adventure.  On a long and winding road, on the way to nowhere, in the town of Philippi, West Virginia, is the site of the first land battle of the Civil War.  There, in Philippi, atop a hill on the outskirts of the Appalachian Mountains, sits a college named Alderson-Broaddus.  This college is where I called home for three years. 

After playing basketball at the junior college level for two years, I had earned a scholarship to play another two years at this Division II College.  While my parents were unsure about leaving me at a school, eight hours from home, in a town that had little more than a grocery store, a bank, a gas station, and a bar, I had no doubts.  I mean, there were mountains and a beautiful river and so many places to explore, and there was basketball.  What more could I want?

When I had visited A-B at the end of my final semester of junior college, I was a big girl.  You know how people talk about gaining that "Freshman 15"?  Well, in my two years, that Freshman 15 had turned into more like 50 pounds.  So when my new coach, Coach Mair,  had seen me last, I was a heavy power forward-looking player.  That summer, I worked at the Flint V-8 Engine Plant on the assembly line, building pistons.  My regular shift was second shift, but most days I'd work half of the first shift, all of my shift, and then half of third shift.  I was summer help, there to relieve the full time workers so they could take vacation time, and I had nothing to do but work.  That, combined with sweating my butt off in the steamy plant on 90-100 degree days literally made me sweat my butt off.  By the time I showed up on campus that fall, I had gone from 188 pounds down to 140.  Her power forward was now tall and thin with a lot less "power" and when I came to meet her that first day, Coach didn't recognize me.  I promised her I would not disappoint.

And then, we started.  There were 10 of us.  We came from West Virginia, Ohio, Virginia, Michigan and Indiana.  We were daughters, sisters, cousins, girlfriends and we were teammates.  We practiced early in the mornings, before class and we practiced again after dinner.  We shared dorm rooms and borrowed each others' cars and we were a family.  We'd drive to Eat 'N' Park at midnight on a whim, or we'd hurry down the hill to Sheetz for 2am coney dogs and pepperoni rolls and then STRUGGLE through  6am practice.  But man, were those days fun.  We worked hard in class and on the court and we played hard. 

Game time was GO time.  We had our music and our rituals and our chants and we knew what to do.  Our point guard, Quita, was amazing.  Our favorite play was an out-of-bounds play where I'd take out the ball, yell, "BREAK", and she would fake towards me and then turn around and sprint all the way down the court, where I'd have a baseball pass sitting out in front of her for an easy lay-up. 

That first year, we were given the news that we were not going to be able to go home for Christmas.  Really?  Instead, we'd be practicing and then heading to Albany, New York for a holiday tournament.  Afterwards, Coach planned a couple days for us in New York City, where we stood in Times Square in the freezing cold for eight hours, waiting for that ball to drop and ring in the New Year of 1997, and had the time of our lives. 

At the end of our first season together, we said goodbye to two graduating seniors, and another who transferred elsewhere.  We had had a decent season and we were making plans for the next year, which would be my last.  Coach had some new recruits on board and after a short summer, we were back at it in the fall of 1997.  We lived and breathed basketball. Practices were more intense, curfews were more strict, and you did NOT miss a class for any reason.  That year, we had the season dreams are made of.  We had come to win, and we did.  Our team of 12 went undefeated in conference play, and we earned the right to host a part of the Division II National Tournament at our little college.  In the end, we finished just one game short of the Sweet 16.  Quita had been named Player of the Year in our conference and Coach Mair was named Coach of the Year.

That night, we each took turns cutting down the net to celebrate our season with the best record in our school's history. 

And then it was over.  Some of the girls graduated that year, some continued on with their careers, and I finished up my degree with an internship at the V.A. hospital in a neighboring city.  In 1999, I graduated from Alderson-Broaddus and said goodbye to my friends and the mountains and the place I had called home.


Two weeks ago, I went back.  In fact, six of us went back, along with Coach.  We had been invited back to celebrate the 20th anniversary of our championship season.  And it was almost as if no time had passed.  We hugged and laughed and passed around pictures of our kids.  We reminisced about those late nights and early mornings long ago, along with that epic out-of-bounds play we had. 

The time we spent together went by in a flash, but we got what we needed-a chance to reconnect and a chance to feel young again.  Young like those girls we once were. 

I couldn't have chosen a better group of women to share the floor with.  We were all who we needed to be for each other.  We are still those daughters and sisters and cousins and teammates, but now?  Now we also mothers and wives and aunties and teachers and professionals and coaches.  We have the chance to encourage a new generation to chase their dreams and build solid foundations. 

In the years since we have been gone, Coach Mair and Quita were both inducted into the Battler Hall of Fame.  And in true Quita fashion, she said she'd never have made it there without all of us with her every step of the way. 

Two weeks ago, we walked out onto center court of our old stomping grounds and looked up into the stands one more time. 

I didn't know that when I first took a drive down that narrow two lane road that leads to a little college on a hill, it would lead to all of this.  I didn't know that hot dogs at 2am and huddling in a freezing cold circle in Times Square would ever mean so much.  I didn't know that endless hours of practices with my teams and after practices with my dad and practicing alone in my driveway would have such a huge reward.  Coach Mair might have thought she was building a team, but she ended up building a family.  We are a family that has stood the test of time, and I am a better person for having them.