Remembering a Brave Prom King

Corsage and CrownMost people attend a prom or two, but I’ve attended lots of proms. Like most teenage girls, as a high school junior, I was excited about the prospect of my first prom. Truthfully, it wasn’t much fun, since the boy I had a crush on didn’t ask me.

My senior prom was monumentally worse. By then, I was a patient at Toledo State Mental Hospital following an almost fatal suicide attempt. After spending a couple months in a private psychiatric ward, my insurance ran out. I was committed to the decaying institution that then housed thousands of mentally ill individuals. Before Mental Health reform, that horrible place was reminiscent of the one depicted in the classic film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Battling depression and an eating disorder, I looked more like a 17-year-old Holocaust victim than a carefree teenager. The psychiatrist granted me a weekend pass hoping that attending prom would lift my spirits. My date was a classmate who suffered from epilepsy. He must have empathized with my situation, and proudly escorted me to the prom ignoring the stares from a few overly-curious students.

Fast forward three decades to May 2002, when my life looked nothing like that struggling teen. Faith, education, and the support of a few encouraging mentors had positively changed my circumstances. I was also engaged to a wonderful man who was a school administrator, whose job necessitated that we chaperone prom. Never having had an opportunity to go to prom together, Larry and I decided to don a tuxedo and gown and make it our night, too. Larry and me

Since then, my husband and I have attended quite a few proms. The impressive decorations, twinkling lights, and colorful dresses, still take my breath away. But the prom I remember most vividly is the one when a precious senior who was dying of bone cancer was elected prom king. It was the last year that my spouse served as a middle/high school principal at a rural school in northwestern Ohio.

We had all come to love this quiet dark-haired youth whose given name was Anthony-Dillon James. Better known as A.J., he had waged a long and valiant battle against Osteosarcoma. For nine months, he was spot-free, but then the disease turned deadly. Despite his illness, A.J. was compassionate and wise beyond his years.

Somehow in a tight-knit community where folks have known each other forever, tragedy is worse, because everyone is affected. Prom wouldn’t have been prom without A.J. being there, and he knew it. Even though, it had been months since the senior had been able to attend school, he mustered all his strength and accompanied by his dedicated fiancée`, he showed up looking handsome in a white tuxedo.

As the disc jockey played pulsating music, the students danced energetically, while silently grieving the inevitable loss of the fun-loving youth who had always been part of them. When his classmates voted for their prom king, I shouldn’t have been surprised  when A.J.’s name was announced.

There was a moment when the reality of the high school student’s dismal prognosis hit me full force. It happened when a pretty senior asked if she could take a picture with him, and they  posed humorously cheek to cheek with toothy grins. What A.J. didn’t see, was that when the blonde turned away, her expression crumbled into a painful grimace. She had taken the photo as a memory of the boy she had probably known since kindergarten, realizing he would soon be gone. Like a trained actress, before she turned to face A.J. again, the golden-haired girl mustered her courage and smiled brightly. Her affection for her terminally-ill classmate wasn’t romantic love driven by adolescent hormones. Rather it was the kind of caring that country kids take for granted growing up in a close circle of friendship.

When my husband and I visited him for the last time, A.J. sensed that my heart was breaking. He smiled his dazzling smile, and said, “I’ll be okay.” Then the 18-year-old lifted his T-shirt sleeve and displayed a large tattoo of a compassionate Jesus. A visual reminder of the Bible’s promise, “I am the Resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.”

That July, the bravest prom king I’ve ever known took his last Earthly breath. Still, he lives on in the hearts of those he inspired, forever wearing a white tuxedo and a jeweled crown.

Christina Ryan Claypool is an AP & Amy award-winning journalist and inspirational speaker. Contact her through her website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com.

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Poverty Simulation and the Banana Nut Bread Christmas

Christmas Tiny TimThat holiday season three decades ago, “…was the best of times, [and] it was the worst of times…” as Charles Dickens once wrote. The best of times, because we were healthy, the worst, because as a single mom I found myself part of the U.S. poverty statistic.

This memory came flooding back on Wednesday, November 19, 2014, when I participated in the C.O.P.E. (Cost of Poverty Experience) hosted by Edison Community College’s Academy for Community Leadership on the Piqua campus. According to the college’s Website, “C.O.P.E. is a powerful simulation that has been used to help many organizations and communities across the nation work more effectively with low-income families and understand the issues of poverty more comprehensively.”

The U.S. Census Bureau now estimates that “over fifteen percent of the American population lives below the poverty line.”  Since I was once part of this statistic, I was unsure that the simulation would result in a greater personal understanding of the tragic plight of millions of Americans. However, it reminded me that poverty can be really tricky, because the destitution and shame it produces silence you. Once your voice is gone, you can give in to apathy and hopelessness.

I was also wrong about not needing a refresher course on what scarcity feels like. Through the years, I have been blessed with financial stability, and had forgotten the frantic tension that not having enough money for monthly bills, rent, food, or even diapers can produce within a family unit. It all came rushing back that icy morning, while engaged in the free event which was funded through the CareSource Foundation and conducted by the Think Tank.

I also remembered the daunting challenge of finding sufficient employment, which countless Americans continue to face. Unemployment statistics can be misleading, because there are individuals of all ages who have fallen off the unemployment rolls and are no longer accounted for. In addition, the underemployed are another marginalized group trying to make ends meet on a less than livable income.

Besides, the daily struggle, Christmas is coming for this economically endangered population. Thankfully, many communities take note of the needs of those less fortunate during this season believing the Biblical viewpoint that, “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” especially where children are concerned.Christmas Single Mom

Yet even when your financial situation is rocky, Christmas comes with the human expectation that one should celebrate by giving to others. That’s when my mind recalled my own plight as a young single mother on welfare living in a government-subsidized apartment, despite a newly acquired college degree. I was ashamed of betraying my hard-fought dream of becoming a middle-class citizen through higher education. After months of sending out resume after resume during the recession of the early eighties, there was still no career prospect on the horizon.

Wanting to give presents to my loved ones is how the banana nut bread Christmas came to be. Not blessed with much domestic talent, I surprised myself that winter by mastering a recipe for banana nut bread.

I got a couple boxes of Bisquick, nuts, some reduced over-ripe bananas perfect for baking, and a dented box of foil from a food salvage store. Loaf after loaf of golden brown bread baked in my little apartment oven in borrowed loaf pans. Then once the delicious smelling bread cooled, I wrapped it in seasonally appropriate, silver (aluminum) foil and tied a festive red bow around it. Admittedly, the nuts in the nut bread were quite sparse, due to my budget.

Since, “It [really] is more blessed to give than to receive,” giving homemade banana nut bread as presents to family and friends gave me special joy. I had beaten the recession Grinch who had tried to steal Christmas.

When one is able to give something – anything – hope arises in the midst of lack. Hope for a brighter future and better life!

Christina Ryan Claypool is a freelance journalist and inspirational speaker. Contact her through her Website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com . This column was originally published in the Sidney Daily News and the Piqua Daily Call.

 

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Liesl’s Legacy: A Holocaust Survivor’s Lessons for Life

Liesl celebrated our wedding as if she was the mother of the bride.

Liesl celebrated our wedding as if she was the mother of the bride.

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams,” said Eleanor Roosevelt. The late Elisabeth “Liesl” Sondheimer was deeply inspired by this former first lady who was once her house guest. Yet many of us in northwestern Ohio can readily admit that Mrs. Sondheimer was the one who inspired us.

Liesl has been gone for over four years now, but her life lessons live on. Being a Jewish Holocaust survivor, she had every reason to believe that the world was an ugly place filled with horrific evil. As a young woman she was forced to flee her beloved Germany during Hitler’s regime.

Instead of becoming bitter, she embraced forgiveness. Not the cheap kind of forgiveness that pardons atrocity by denying its existence, but genuine forgiveness which is a gift to yourself. Once, during an interview, I asked her how she could forgive. She gazed at me intently, and simply said, “You must forgive, or Hitler has won.”

Liesl was silver-haired and wrinkled, but still ethereally beautiful, by the time I met her shortly after her 90th birthday in 1997. While interviewing her for a TV feature about the Holocaust, I was honored when the local celebrity asked me to join her for supper. One of my greatest life blessings was that this courageous woman took me under her mentoring wing.

Since Liesl loved adventures, especially ones that involved supporting the arts, music or books; I would occasionally pick her up and whisk her away to an event. It was on these outings that she freely shared her wisdom about life. Once while I was driving her to an art museum, my friend absentmindedly asked, “Did I ever tell you about the time Eleanor Roosevelt stayed at my house?”

“No, I think I would have remembered that,” I jokingly replied.

She then began to share how over five decades ago, she had invited Eleanor Roosevelt to visit northwestern Ohio simply by sending her a letter. Her cause was successful, due to some assistance from an influential friend. This Liesl dissertation was the, “You never know… anything can happen if you try” lesson. I needed this motivational message, because life circumstances had tattered my own faith.

My brokenness was probably one of the reasons that this dear lady reached out to me. Surviving a near fatal suicide attempt, and then being confined in a state mental institution as a teen had left scars on me that only another survivor could see. Therefore, Liesl, who had been educated in social work, gently guided me in understanding the lesson of “Survivor’s Guilt,” that I must go on, and be grateful for surviving.

In explanation, when one triumphs over negative circumstances, it is easy to get stuck in the guilt created by contemplating why others have not been so fortunate. After the Holocaust, the Jewish survivor admitted that this quandary haunted her, too. But she refused to allow this never to-be-answered question about the past, to destroy her future.

Yet to prevent these tragedies from reoccurring, she also believed that it was a survivor’s moral responsibility to speak up on behalf of those still struggling. Even though she forgave, she never forgot the millions of Holocaust victims. Instead she passionately shared her story to warn others about the dangers of prejudice.

On a lighter note, there was also the “Beauty is Ageless” teaching, which I learned vicariously while watching Liesl shop for clothes. She took time to look her best, and never stopped caring about fabric, color, or finding just the right accessory. In 2007, for her 100th birthday, I drove her to a mall in a neighboring state where she enthusiastically tried on countless outfits looking for just the right pieces for her wardrobe.

Although most important was the “Love” lesson that Liesl taught me. When I met school administrator Larry Claypool in 2001, past hurts had left me too afraid to love. When it came to romance, Liesl used to describe me, “As a burnt child, who was afraid of the fire.”

But at heart, Liesl was a hopeless romantic, who challenged my initial fears about dating Larry, by asserting that one must be willing to risk everything to have another opportunity for happiness. The following year, she sat smugly in a church pew dressed smartly in a pale pink suit smiling with satisfaction as Larry and I recited our vows in a candlelight ceremony.

For me, Liesl’s legacy of living courageously includes: the challenge to embrace forgiveness, to speak up against injustice, to support the arts, to reach for your dreams, and to always look your best.

However, I will always be most grateful for Liesl’s “Love” lesson. After all, it was my precious husband’s protective arms that comforted me when we buried my remarkable 101-year-old friend in spring of 2009.

This humble humanitarian shared her messages with civic clubs, women’s groups, universities, and in school classrooms across our community. Her story of surviving seemingly impossible circumstances graced her listeners with the gift of hope everywhere she went.

Today, her lessons live on. You see, those we love never die. They are always in our hearts, shaping our tomorrows with their valuable influence.  

Christina Ryan Claypool is an author and inspirational speaker. Contact her through her Website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com. This column originally appeared in The Lima News.

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Finally Saying Thanks to Vietnam Vets

Vietnam. Just mention the geographical place where the United States was heavily involved in the Vietnam War, and for many individuals emotions still run deep. The website, www.about.com, states, “The Vietnam War has become a benchmark for what not to do in all future U.S. conflicts.”

One of the primary items on that list of what not to do concerns how fellow citizens treated American soldiers returning from serving in Vietnam. After all, during the 1960s and until U.S. troops were finally withdrawn in March 1973, almost 60,000 Americans died in Vietnam. In addition, of the more than 2.5 million who served in South Vietnam, 75,000 were severely disabled.

Yet it is with shame that I remember as a teenager when our servicemen and women returned home, they were not met with a hero’s welcome. Those of you who are also old enough, can probably recall nightly news casts of soldiers being greeted in airports with signs that called them, “Baby killers,” or worse. Instead of being honored, many of these courageous patriots endured bystanders shouting profanities or spitting on them.

One myth that exists is that most of those serving in the war were drafted. According to a 1993 Memorial Day speech made at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall by Lt. Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, 70 percent of those who died in Vietnam volunteered for service. This correlates with the fact that two-thirds of those who served during this conflict were volunteers not draftees.

Whether drafted or volunteered, there is little difference that the majority of these men and more than 7,000 women, who were primarily nurses, believed in their mission. During a 1986 speech, it was Gen. William Westmoreland who The History Channel documents as saying, “Ninety-one percent of Vietnam veterans say they are glad they served.” Even though there was such great loss of life and limb.

Staff Sgt. Greg Huston - Missing in Action from Shelby County, Ohio

Staff Sgt. Greg Huston – Missing in Action from Shelby County, Ohio

One of those losses can still be felt in Shelby County, concerning one of their own, Charles Gregory Huston. According to www.findagrave.com, “Staff Sergeant Huston was a member of the 5th Special Forces Group. [Forty-five years ago,] on March 28, 1968, he was conducting a reconnaissance patrol about 15 miles inside Laos…when the patrol was attacked by an unknown enemy force. Extraction was attempted, but heavy ground fire forced the helicopter to leave Staff Sergeant Huston on the ground.” Along with the then 22-year-old Huston, Sgt. Alan Boyer, and Sgt. 1st Class George Brown were also left behind.

Neither Huston’s body nor either of his comrades has ever been recovered. Huston was given the official casualty date of Jan. 26, 1977. The Green Beret is the only Shelby County, Ohio, resident who remains missing in action, while nationwide more than 1,600 soldiers are also unaccounted for from the Vietnam War.

Greg, as friends called him, was born on Sept. 29, 1945, graduated from Hardin-Houston High School, and later “enlisted” in the Army according to his 55 year-old-brother, John Huston, who lives in the Sidney, Ohio, area. The youngest of eight siblings, John said that his late mother, who died in 1982, never gave up hope that her son would be found.

John Huston, his brother, Robert, and friend, Keith Goins, were effective in getting the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall to the Sidney community in 2005 in Greg’s honor. Robert Huston was even employed with the commemorative project until about two years ago. John’s son, Gregory Huston, who was named after his missing brother is following in his uncle’s Green Beret footsteps by enlisting as part of the military Special Forces last fall.

As a journalist, interviewing Vietnam War veterans these past decades has taught me one important lesson: The responsibility that we as Americans still have to thank them for their service. After risking their lives on our behalf, they should have been greeted with gratitude and respect instead of name-calling and jeers.

As a nation, we have tried to make up for our tragic treatment of these brave men and women. For example, last year the Ohio General Assembly officially designated March 30 as Vietnam Veterans Day.

For me personally, whenever I encounter a Vietnam vet, I reach my right hand out to shake theirs while sincerely saying, “Thank you for serving our country.” Once a veteran told me it was the first time that he had ever been thanked

On the upcoming July 4th holiday, I will be remembering Huston and all the other brave men and women who died defending our freedom. Their sacrifice has allowed America to remain, “The land of the free, and the home of the brave.”

This blog post is dedicated to my nephew, Nicholas Anthony Lombardo who is currently serving in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan.

 

 

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Battling Addictions: There is Help!

Scotch & WaterWith headlines pointing to celebrities in and out of rehab clinics and many communities plagued with serious drug issues, we can forget that alcoholism remains a problem of great dimension. It is, “The most abused drug in our society,” said Cynthia Moore.

A lot of clients who are struggling with addictions including alcohol are referred to the Shelby County Counseling Center where Mrs. Moore is the Substance Abuse Clinical Supervisor. “…90 percent of our [addictions] client base are ordered by the court to be here, which means they have had an alcohol or drug related offense.” Getting help is often, “An alternative to jail or prison, if they successfully complete a program,” she said. Mrs. Moore has been in the business of helping folks overcome addictions since 1987. Yet the passion for the cause is still evident in her voice. Working in the field began as a college internship. “…I had some family members who struggled with alcohol addiction. I just thought…I’ll just try it. I never did anything else since. I love it,” she said.

It appears difficult to isolate alcohol abuse solely though, since many of the agency’s clients struggle with cross-addiction. “They may have another primary drug, heroin is huge right now, but always drinking in the interim,” said the addictions expert. “We see cross-addiction…where they are addicted to many substances.”

As for putting a face on the problem, the supervisor believes, “The reality is we are interacting with people who are functioning with addictions everyday. First, we must get to know individuals better, before we see their struggle.” Whether it is an employer or family member, “Sometimes they get angry, they don’t understand that drug addiction or alcoholism is a disease,” she said. “It’s important to separate the person from the disease.” Moore is emphatic in stressing the importance of recognizing that, “This is always a disease. You are going to see mood swings…[also] this disease causes people to break their value systems.”

How do we know when it’s time to seek help for someone we care about? “As theAlcoholics Anonymous disease progresses, the effect on those major life areas get bigger and bigger and easier to see,” said the supervisor. “What people don’t realize is that chemical dependency treatment is a cumulative process,” she said. “Many things throughout someone’s life have to accumulate before they are ready [to get help]. They might be job problems, health problems, legal problems, medical problems, spiritual problems, [ etc.]” Alcoholism is “cunning, baffling, and powerful,” said Moore, quoting from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. “Part of our treatment program is to introduce them to Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Al-Anon. She asserts that it is, “Very important for an addicted person to find others who have walked that path and succeeded. They cannot fight addiction alone. They need others with them to help them deal with the thing that has become more powerful then themselves.”

As for church support groups like Celebrate Recovery, Cynthia Moore considers these to be, “Very helpful avenues, as well.” Although she admits that the drawback is that many individuals battling with substance abuse can also struggle with a lack of worthiness initially making seeking assistance from a religiously-affiliated source difficult for them. To be an advocate for someone fighting addiction, “We have to be aware of the resources in our community. In every county there is an agency that is dedicated to helping the addicted population,” said Moore. Agencies like Shelby County Counseling Center offer, “…support services to the family, as well the addict,” she said. The Center’s primary “funding stream comes from the Tri-County Board of Recovery and Mental Health Services. We have a sliding scale based on family size and income,” Moore explained. [Although] “…we never ever refuse anyone service based on ability to pay,” she added.

If you are wondering if you have a problem, or concerned that someone you love might, you “…can call and just talk to counselor,” said Moore. This doesn’t require an appointment, instead phone the center and ask, “Can I just talk to counselor for a moment?” Moore suggested. “Really, what it is about, if this is the time for them to be ready,” said the mental health professional.

Is it your time to get some help? It takes a lot more courage to pick up the phone, than to simply suffer in silence. Call the Board of Mental Health in your area and ask for a referral, visit a church recovery group, or attend an AA, NA, or Al-Anon meeting to learn more. Check your local newspaper’s community calendar for meeting places and times. There is hope for breaking free of addictions, but you have to take the first step. After all, the life you save may be your own.

Christina Ryan Claypool is an Amy Award winning journalist and inspirational speaker. This post is excerpted from a column which originally appeared in the Sidney Daily News on February 4, 2013.

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Clemmie’s Colorblind Love

 

Philadelphia’s Valley Swim Club made national headlines again last month. The now bankrupt organization gained notoriety over a June 29, 2009, incident when Black and Hispanic children from a nearby day camp were subjected to racial remarks from club members. This happened, even though the Creative Steps camp had legally contracted for their children to swim there.

“73 members of the camp will share a settlement of $700,000 to $1.1 million, pending approval from a federal bankruptcy court judge,” according to an August 19, 2012, Philadelphia Inquirer article titled, “Campers hope swim-club settlement will help fight racism.” During the racially turbulent sixties, as a Caucasian child growing up in west central Ohio, I didn’t know anything about racism. Therefore, it seemed natural when Clemmie came to take care of me and my siblings, while my mom was seriously ill.

 Clemmie was an extremely overweight Black woman who had a heart as huge as the girth that surrounded it. My financially struggling family couldn’t have paid her much of a salary, yet she lovingly looked after us. With Clemmie there, I instinctively knew that everything would be alright.

What I didn’t know then was that a Civil Rights movement was being birthed out of the frustration regarding injustices that African Americans like Clemmie could no longer bear. Not yet a first grader, I couldn’t imagine anyone hating such a wonderful woman, simply for the color of her skin. Eventually, my mother regained her health, so Clemmie no longer came to care for us. Yet her colorblind love, which was based on her faith in the Gospel’s message, “…Love one another, as I have loved you…” had made a lasting impression.

A few years later, on June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy gave his memorable Civil Rights address calling for an end to the acceptance of segregation in educational institutions, retail establishments, restaurants, and hotels. He also demanded that African Americans be able to vote without the fear of harmful consequences.

Just hours after Kennedy’s eloquent speech, Medgar Evers, a Black Mississippi Civil Rights leader was brutally gunned down by a white Ku Klux Klan member. Evers, a World War II Army veteran had survived the Battle of Normandy, but that June night he lay bleeding to death in his own driveway. Fifty minutes later, he died at a local hospital.

Although I’ve never been grievously wounded like Evers, I do know what it feels like to lie on cold asphalt too hurt to move. As an eight-years-old girl walking to school, I tripped and fell so hard that it momentarily knocked the wind out of me and scattered my science project everywhere. I was blocks from my family’s house, but an older middle-aged woman heard my cries, and rushed down her porch steps to care for me.

I didn’t know my Good Samaritan who shared Clemmie’s mahogany complexion. My grandmotherly rescuer tended my cuts, and then she carefully helped me to put my science project back together. She smiled with maternal satisfaction when she finally sent me off to school. That beautiful smile is a treasured memory, as is the remembrance of Clemmie’s massive arms hugging me to her bountiful chest.

It’s important to remember the selfless acts of compassion of others. Because whatever our race, everyday society gives us the choice to tolerate racism based on the justification that someone of another ethnicity probably once mistreated us.

The late Jewish Holocaust survivor, Liesl Sondheimer, often shared a profound truth regarding racial forgiveness. Like Nazi Hunter Simon Wiesenthal, Mrs. Sondheimer spent decades retelling the painful account of the extermination of more than six million European Jews during World War II. Unlike Wiesenthal’s quandary concerning forgiveness outlined so poignantly in his book The Sunflower, my friend, Liesl, always maintained that, “You must forgive, but never forget, or Hitler has won.”

Christian apologist C.S. Lewis once wrote, “…if we really want to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo.” But Mrs. Sondheimer didn’t have that choice.

Neither did 12-year-old Mikkel McKinnie who made a decision not to let the prejudice of others destroy his dreams. One of the claimants named in the Valley Swim Club lawsuit, Mikkel has earmarked his possible settlement for higher education. He hopes to someday be a physician.

We all have a daily choice about permitting racism, which continues to be just as deadly to our society, as Hitler’s gas chambers once were. But sadly, not everyone has a Clemmie or a Liesl to teach them what compassion for their fellow man is all about. Still, if we follow Jesus’ command to, “Love one another,” it would be a much better world.

Christina Ryan Claypool is an Amy Award winning freelance journalist and inspirational speaker.  Her Website is www.christinaryanclaypool.com. This column originally appeared in Ohio’s Sidney Daily News..

 

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