Tuesday, September 10, 2013


We had a lovely summer, and before we knew it, it was almost time for the kids to go back to school again. I wanted to spend some special time with my children before hopping onto the crazy happy merry-go-round of school-dance-piano-homework-sports-friends-etc. So, we decided to take a road trip, hang out together and just really enjoy being a family. In the twelve days that we spent driving around the country, we got that and so much more than we could have ever anticipated.

Upon entering Kansas, we spotted a note hanging from the "Welcome to Kansas" sign.  Well, curiosity being our calling card, we just had to investigate. This is what we found:

Here we are, holding the note and the gorgeous yet simple piece of artwork that came with it. We posted this picture on the Artsurprize Facebook page. Go check them out and like them!

We loved our wire heart art so much, not only because it was such a random act of beauty, but because it added a bit of magic to our trip. And, later on, we would have a chance to share that beauty with people who have had to face a lot of ugliness in their lives. But, at the time, we didn't know that yet. So, we hung our heart in the car and drove on with love guiding our way.

In time, we arrived in Oklahoma city. We had been talking a lot about doing selfless service. I want to instill in my children a sense of gratitude for all the blessings in their lives, as well as a sense of duty to help those who are not as fortunate. So, not knowing what we would do, or for whom, we drove into town and were open to providing selfless service in whatever way we were able to.

What we found profoundly and permanently affected all of us. We were introduced to people who had lost everything in the tornado which hit Moore, Oklahoma on May 20, 2013. The devastation was all around us, and these people had been living with it every single hour of every day for over three months.

Entire neighborhoods had been leveled to the ground, and 25 people were killed as a direct result of the tornado. Hundreds of people were injured, one of whom was a teacher, who sustained a devastating spinal cord injury as she used her body to shield her students from the storm. 

Being in Moore was a surreal experience. While most of the country chugged on - fighting rush hour traffic, following the latest happenings on reality television, going to ball games, having cookouts - there I was, in the midst  of shell-shocked survivors trying to gather their lives together. Just months before, these people had been living ordinary, everyday lives, just like millions of other Americans, and now they existed in what might as well have been a bombed-out war zone, smack dab in the middle of this country. I couldn't shake the thought that this could happen to any one of us. How fragile are the threads that keep us safe and comfortable in our daily lives.

This is not the first time that the region was hit with such a destructive Tornado. In 1999,  a tornado hit the same area, killing 36 people and causing $2 billion in property damage. You have to ask yourself why, 14 years later, there still are no dedicated shelters in the schools and why children and school workers are left vulnerable to the fury of the next tornado.

Among the hardest hit areas were two elementary schools - Briarwood and Plaza Towers. At Plaza Towers, there were 75 people inside the school when the tornado hit, and seven children died. We met the family of one of these children.

This was a family who had lost everything, and I mean everything. One of their sons had separated from his classmates at Plaza Towers and gone down the hall to comfort a friend who was scared and crying. His action saved the friend's life and that of another child's, but he lost his own when a wall crashed down on him. As a parent, my heart broke into pieces for this boy's family.  It is bitter and sweet sorrow all at once. It does not help a parent's loss to know that their child was a hero and saved another, it only lessens the grief to know that the values you instilled in your child were apparent at his death.  

These poor parents were still in a state of shock and remorse that they hadn't picked up their children from school, thinking that they would be safer there during the tornado. Their daughter was wearing her hearing aids in one ear and a tube in the other, and the pressure from the tornado ruptured both of her ear drums. Their other son underwent surgery a week after we met them to remove insulation and other debris from his entire sinus cavities.  

When they returned to where their house used to stand, they recovered one picture, 3 totes of books and a couple of their daughter's dresses that were left hanging in the closet. There was nothing else to find.  Their lives had been destroyed in 9 short minutes. After the tornado, they had been living in a shelter and just got into a house 3 weeks ago. Their only possessions when I met them were things that were donated by their friends at church. 

The members of their church had also built a tranquility garden in the back of their new home. The garden was designed as a memorial for their son, a place where the family members could sit and remember the good times, talk, and cry when they needed to. Nicholas decided that the heart shaped art was a perfect gift for the family to hang in the tranquility garden, and so it was.  They loved it!  It was heart shaped, it had a beautiful green stone in it, and we "shared it",  as was instructed in the note.  The little heart found the perfect home and it will be a reminder to the family that they have friends who love and care about them and their brave boy, whom we never had the opportunity to meet. 

It had been a little more than 90 days since they had lost their son. Their pain was deep and the wounds had not even begun to heal. We had very intimate moments of conversation with this family, who have been through unimaginable hardship, and who had been virtually unable to express and talk about their experiences with anyone.  They let us into their personal story, and I think that it was a relief for them to just share it all with people who hadn't gone through the ordeal. As the saying goes, shared joy is a double joy and shared sorrow is a half sorrow. Sometimes the most helpful thing you can do is to provide a sympathetic ear, and we were so honored to do that for these dear people.

As if the human loss wasn't devastating enough, both parents had lost their jobs. One had been laid off and the other had been sent home and told to take a year off because of the loss of a child. It is just incomprehensible to me how these people are going to get back on their feet. They have hit rock bottom, and yet, in spite of it all, they had beautiful smiles and are living in the light of God and the strength of their family to know that everything will get better with time.  

In spite of it all, they are leading a fundraiser called SOS (Shelter Oklahoma Schools) to ensure that every school has a tornado shelter, so no other students or teachers are killed. Here is their Facebook page.  And here is their website, where you can see pictures of what happened and learn about what is being done to make sure that the people of Oklahoma are prepared for future events. Please consider making a donation and, please, spread the word to as many people as you can. Our news media have long ago moved past this story, but we can keep it alive by sharing it with the people in our circles. It is definitely not over, nor will it be for many years to come.

We helped set up and sell t-shirts for one of the fundraising events to raise money for the shelter fund. As we stood at the ground zero of the school and all the homes that were gone, all we could do was to cry. The stories were horrendous, the weight of the incident was everywhere we looked.  My children cried. I cried. It was humbling. It was painful.   

It was very difficult for us to leave our friends, knowing that they would still be dealing with their loss and grief and we would go back to our own lives. We promised to stay in touch. My kids and I walked away, grateful for having had the opportunity to serve these beautiful people. I knew that my children were proud of having made a difference in the lives of others and of sharing our found artwork as a reminder that we will always love our new friends.

I wanted to show my children that, just as much as grief is a part of life, so is joy. While driving through Alabama, we stopped to pan for gold in an old mine site along a river. Although I already know how to pan for gold because of my 17 years of work in commercial underwater gold mining, I took the kids to a class where they learned to use their pans and capture gold.  We all got some gold, but not a lot, because we couldn't move that much material through a gold pan, but the experience was one of the most exciting things we have ever done.

We camped out in a rustic cabin. We cooked outdoors and had picnics at the river.  The kids found a red clay mud bank and, of course, proceeded to coat themselves in mud.  After they got out, I spent nearly 45 minutes getting mud out of their ears, hair and clothes, and, what do you think they did? That's right,  they went right back into the water, found a log they could float on and went downriver.  

With the river being shallow and not too swift, it was a perfectly safe playground. In the children's journals they all say the log and mud was the most fun and best part of their experience there. But they loved the gold too!  

All in all, our cross-country drive was more heart-breaking, more soul-filling and more surprising than I could have ever planned it to be. We set out with the intention of spending time as a family, and, what we realized at the end of our journey was that our family is much bigger than we had ever imagined. 

We love you, Moore, Oklahoma.

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