Moments from South Dakota

Six months ago I was asked by the awesome and amazing Lisa Hemmingson if  I would come out in June to Camp Bring it On if she could get all coordinated. This camp if for children that are currently battling cancer or are in remission. It is a camp where they get to just be them – kids, not their illness. This year the camp was at Joy Ranch in Florence, SD. I, of course said “YES!!!”, the moment she asked. She worked with Angie Wahl, from the Optimist Club to help make this happen. Optimist Club members, Deb Ziemke and Star Munch were also instrumental in making this trip extra beautiful with some personal donations for books and monsters to give away. The itinerary was to go to the camp on Tuesday, then the hospital on Wednesday to see the kids not well enough to make it the the camp. That afternoon we would also go to a local Sioux Falls Boys and Girls Club. After a delayed flight in Atlanta, a missed flight, delayed flight and finally cancelled flight creating an overnight in Denver, I FINALLY made it on a standby flight to South Dakota! Woohoo!

Here we are at Camp Bring it On!
From Left to right, Usborne Books and More consultant, Natalie Van Houten, Me, Usborne Books and More consultant. Lisa Hemmingson and Optimist Club President, Angie Wahl.

After dinner I spoke with the kids – age 7-18. It was amazing, as it always is when I get to talk to a roomful of kids. I had so much fun. I know I was connecting with lots of kids, I could see it in their eyes. And I have to tell you, by looking at these kids? You would never be able to tell that any of them were sick. At the end Angie got to tell them that they each were getting a book and a Whatif Monster. I always love the squeals of delight from the kids (especially middle and high school girls – hee!) when they find that out. The they stood in line to have me sign their books. The moment I will never forget? A boy, maybe 15 or 16 came up to have his book signed. He wanted it signed next to a particular illustration of Jonathan James after running a race just for the fun of it – realizing winning was not the goal, the joy of participating was. I told the young man that this was in the book because I run half marathons and that I can never hope to win or ever really have a good time, but it is for the joy and accomplishment I feel at the end. I said, “Why are you having me sign this page? He said, “Because I am doing an Iron Man one day.” I looked into his eyes and saw determination and not a shred of doubt in them. I said, “Oh yeah, you are! You better let me know when that happens!” He promised he would. I found out he was not one of the kids in remission, but was having treatments at the camp while he was there. No matter, that kid? He’ll get to that Iron Man, I have no doubt.

Here is a picture from that evening with a group of girls that wanted their picture with me. Sweeties!

J.CastleNow this awesome dude?? This is J. I won’t use his full name, but I cannot get this 12 year old boy out of my mind. I met J at the hospital I went to on Wednesday this week. I went room to room meeting kids and talking to them and reading them my book. I mean it when I say every single child was just amazing, but J? He and I connected. He had just had surgery on his spine a few days before. He had a trach in his neck, so I wasn’t sure he could talk, but he nodded and smiled when I asked if he wanted me to read my book to him. As I read he looked from the book into my eyes and there was so much expression in his eyes, his eyes seemed to smile. I just was so instantly smitten with this boy. When I finished he grinned. I asked him if he wanted me to sign the book for him. He nodded yes. When I went to put the book down, he said, “Did you sign it?” That was the first time I realized he could talk. And I heard the happiness and joy in his voice that matched those happy eyes. I said, yes I certainly did sign it. He smiled bigger. Then I told him that sometimes kids write to me and I stay in touch with them long after we meet. I said if his mom wanted to help him find my website and write to me, I would love it. He immediately said, “Mom, get her website!” and had his mom get the iPad and put in my website. I asked if we could get our picture taken together and the mom said, “I was just about to ask you the same thing!” In the picture I am looking at his mom and J is looking at the, Lisa or Natalie taking the picture. See those eyes? See that smile? Tell me your heart is not melted too.

J, I hope you do write me because I would love to get to know you more. I am pretty sure we would be good friends. And even if you don’t? Please know that you touched my heart forever and I won’t forget those smiling eyes of yours!

Then I went to the Boys and Girls Club that afternoon. So much fun! The kids were on summer break and suddenly telling 150 kids age 4-16 to quiet down in a gym like at school? Heh. It had its challenges, but I got them through my WHOLE presentation! At the very end after question time was done I said if they wanted to come up to me afterward to ask questions that way I was sticking around a bit. Right after I said that, one little boy ran up to me, gave me a giant hug and ran out of the room. Heart = Melted.

These two sweet girls are best friends. They stayed with me until everyone was gone and I was packing up. They had a million questions. I answered all their rapid fire questions as fast as I could. They asked if they could have a painting. I said I couldn’t do that. They asked if they could help put them away. I said of course they could. They stacked them all up and brought them to me. Then I took them aside and said, “You know what? This was my very, very last presentation of this school year. See these three books?” I held up Jonathan James and the Whatif Monster, Dogs, Dogs! and Cats, Cats! “I have used these books for a very long time. See how they are not brand new and looked used?” They nodded. “I have read these books hundreds of times and shown them to kids all over the country. Because you stayed so long and helped me so much you can each pick one of these and I will sign it for each of you.” Their smiles lit up the room! They were a bit more shy for the picture. 😉

After that we HAD to go visit the name sake of the town. I mean, how could we NOT? The Whatif Monster was very excited!

We ended the visit with a morning meeting (7:15am, HELLO!!!) with the Optimist Club. Within 10 minutes of their meeting starting I was fighting back tears. Talk about feeling so at home amongst a group of strangers. When it was my turn to speak I began with, “Here you all are! I have been looking for you! You are all my people!” I will be looking for a local Optimist Club to join this summer. They are the epitome of how I try to live my life. I mean really, just read their creed:
Promise Yourself
To be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind.
To talk health, happiness and prosperity to every person you meet.
To make all your friends feel that there is something in them.
To look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true.
To think only of the best, to work only for the best, and to expect only the best.
To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own.
To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future.
To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile.
To give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others.
To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble.

Thank you Sioux Falls, South Dakota for the PERFECT ending to my visits for the 2012-2013 school year. I will never forget you and I hope to be back SOON!

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