I interviewed for my last job in 1993 when there were no cell phones; the internet was in the infant stages. Blackberry was still a fruit. The following year, a careless driver ran over me as I walked my dogs in upstate NY leading to a two month hospital stay. I lacked health insurance but that’s another long story. Permanent injuries knocked me out of the workplace, which I entered at the age of 16 at the now defunct Alexander’s Department store in New York City. There were times when I held two jobs because of crushing student loans, rent, and the high cost of living in Manhattan.
At the age of 39, there was no way I could sit home watching television but permanent injuries prevented working a full-time job. I had to do something but what? I always led an active social life. After work, there were dinners, movies, Broadway shows, gallery openings, shopping at Macy’s, and charity events. I competed in three New York City marathons, running all 26.2 miles. I straggled in close to the end but I always crossed the finish line. For an adventure, I moved away from New York City in 1989. I bicycled in the Colorado Rockies and jogged along the Charles River in Boston. I backpacked state parks in Vermont. Always ready for new challenges but the one that happened on 1/6/94 was not what I expected.
Living each day with a damaged brain and body tested me. I held a master’s degree from New York University and read the New York Times. Various weekly and monthly magazines were on my reading list but that wasn’t enough to escape the effects of a traumatic brain injury. Research suggests that around 80% of disabled people remain unemployed. Available jobs were menial and paid minimum wage. At first, I didn’t bother to look because my mind was too scattered. By evening I could barely remember what happened after breakfast or if I even ate. A long recovery aside, I ultimately re-invented myself as a volunteer. I performed civic duties in animal shelters, with former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano’s office, as a therapy team with Gabriel’s Angels to spread compassion and kindness among abused and neglected children, the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club, and as a navigator at Sky Harbor airport. Each position fulfilled and rewarded me in unique, special ways.
When I answered the phone in the Governor’s office of constituent services, callers were usually disappointed they reached me rather than Janet Napolitano. During my first week, a caller asked for Janet. I didn’t recall meeting anyone named Janet. So I asked the caller, “Who’s Janet?” She shot back, “The governor.” The caller wanted legal advice from the governor who had served as attorney general from 1998-2002. I said the governor didn’t offer legal advice on the phone. A small business owner who hadn’t paid rent, the caller faced eviction proceedings. I suggested she contact a lawyer because the state could not help. During a group luncheon with the volunteers and the governor later that year, I told the story. The governor laughed. Five years later I left the state house when the governor resigned to work in the Obama administration. I was proud of my service to Arizona, the governor and parted with a long list of stories from dealing with constituents of Arizona.
For years, I provided snacks to beat up stray dogs cats that may never have experienced a shred of decency at four different shelters in different states – MA, CO, FL and AZ. One dog, a beagle/hound mix, weaseled his way through my protective wall and snagged my attention. I don’t remember why the old boy ended up with the shelter but confinement made him so unhappy. He yipped and yowled for hours on end that he became hoarse. I took the floppy eared dog outside for walks and he pranced around as if he won best in show. Yet no one expressed interest in adopting the happy yapper. I always left the talkative dog with a comfy blanket, canned food and a crunchy treat. I felt sorry because his age and loud mouth worked against him. No longer cute and adorable like a two-month old puppy yet he was tender and sweet.
About a dozen children swarmed around me and my adopted dog Luke on our first day as a therapy team at a homeless shelter in Mesa, AZ.
“What’s your dog’s name?” the shy boy asked.
“Can I pat him?” a girl with neatly braided hair asked as she stood next to my tail wagging dog. She giggled when Luke tried to kiss her.
“What does he eat?” the girl’s older sister asked.
“Does Luke watch the Animal Planet?” another boy asked.
That began my seven year odyssey with Gabriel’s Angels, a group dedicated to ending the cycle of violence in abused, at risk and abandoned children through healing pet therapy. Homeless children who I met learned the awesome power of healing from my dog Luke. I could fill a book with stories from my seven years as a volunteer but one particular moment stands out. Teaching compassion and kindness extended beyond animals. On December 26, 2004 tragedy rocked the other side of the world. A giant tsunami nearly swallowed up Asian countries like Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. Thousands of people perished while the savage storm left millions homeless. Businesses and infrastructure were demolished. Moved by the frightful situation I shared my thoughts with the children. Despite being homeless, they opened their hearts to lives shattered by the tsunami. With a just a little help from me, they wrote letters to the ambassadors of the most severely impacted countries. I added cover letters explaining who we were and mailed them to the United Nations. A few weeks later, a migraine headache zapped all my energy. As I rested, my phone rang. I almost didn’t answer it. A woman with a foreign accent asked for me. The ambassador’s office from Sri Lanka called to say thank you for the kind and thoughtful notes. The woman’s name escapes me now as soon as the country recovered from the massive devastation she’d read our letters in schools. I felt so proud. I returned the next week with the good news.
At the end of 2008, Luke and I retired. During sessions kids would ask me, “Why does Luke sleep so much?” One boy laughed at Luke’s snoring.
Age crept up on Luke. His spirits were bright but he slowed down. Seven years with Gabriel’s Angels changed my life. I experienced the hardships of homelessness and how they ruptured family ties. I sensed the children’s pain as they talked of loss. Homelessness involves leaving behind good friends, familiar neighborhoods, beloved pets, and comfortable schools. Living in a shelter among strangers can be scary as well as stressful. Talk of family violence unsettled me. I taught children negotiating skills to get along in the world. I hope they listened. Luke cuddled with them. He kissed a few cheeks. He rested his paw on kids who sat alone. We cared, we loved and we extended ourselves to make a difference to children who needed us. I hope their world is better because we were there.
Luke died from massive seizures in January 2010. I’ll always miss the dog nobody wanted. He was truly the best.
Founded by naturalist John Muir in 1892, the Sierra Club has 64 chapters across the US. Over 2 million members work for a clean, healthy and safe environment. I volunteer for the Grand Canyon chapter in central Phoenix twice a month by filing, light typing, shredding, and other clerical duties. I regret that my disability locks me out of chapter outings such as day hikes in the Superstition mountains or kayaking in the Verde River. I bypass group clean-ups along roadways that keep Arizona vibrant and beautiful. Nonetheless, I am pleased to contribute my skills to the Club for a better world. My disability, however, does not prevent me from writing or calling legislators encouraging them to veto or to sign environmental legislation. I attend community meetings when possible. I remain a registered voter with a voice.
At Sky Harbor airport, volunteers like me work as navigators, assisting passengers with questions about connecting flights, ground transportation, airport services and more. We volunteer for at least one four hour shift a week. Now and then, we are scheduled to work at a post behind security. ID cards allow us entry on the employee line, which is almost always shorter than the public line. TSA agents protect us from harm. The job can be tedious and stressful but constant vigilance is a must. Because my scooter cannot pass through the x-ray machine, a female agent screens me personally. Agents always explain the personal search procedure, especially around sensitive areas like the breasts, as required by Federal law. During the procedure, I ask agents about their jobs.
A woman arrived at security with a 20 pound frozen turkey. Odd, I said to myself. What part of the country doesn’t sell frozen turkeys?
“What’d you do?” I asked the agent as she performed her job.
“I ran it through the x-ray machine,” she said.
“The bird was clean so I let her go.”
Recently, I started to volunteer with the American Muslim Women’s Association and the IRC (International Rescue Committee), two new chapters in my life.
Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer but life got in the way. Around the time of the accident I looked into journalism and fine arts programs but I later scrapped that idea. Once home from the rehab center, I used software programs to regain memory and other damaged cognitive functions. Those programs lost my attention and I took up writing to pass the time, even though my left hand was compromised neurologically and from multiple broken bones. Typing is uncomfortable using only two fingers but I persisted. A year later, I won second place in a writing contest and continued to hone my skills through non-credit college classes, support groups and writing magazines. It’s been more than 20 years since the accident happened. My goal to earn a living from writing and become self-sufficient once again still remains elusive but one day when someone asks me what I do for a living, I can say, I’m a writer. I’m not there yet but I keep trying.