Thursday, November 19, 2009

What I Learned

B. Stuart Noll
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In the past several weeks I have encountered some unusually rewarding interactions with people. These folks, varied in their lives and lifestyles, were complete strangers. Further contact is uncertain but, trading in the experiences would be unfathomable. The quality of the exchanges so touched my soul I cannot help but bathe in the presence of the indescribable and stand in awe of the diversity, complexity, and mysterious power implanted within each being and each moment.

I’m reluctant to admit it but, initiating relationships, as gratifying as most of them are for me, is not my forte. Fortunately for me, I’m married to a woman who loves people as much as I do and is a natural in the art of networking. Being unintentionally reserved, I’m often apprehensive entering into new relationships. I’m painfully aware of my insecurity but I’m learning with each introduction. Growth experiences come in all shapes and sizes. Relationship development is an area of need for all of us that contributes significantly to the quality of our lives, yet we so often overlook its practice.

This story isn’t about me...directly. Though it is my perspective, it’s more about encouraging the pursuit of relationships that develop, reinforce and enhance a sense of gratitude for who we are, what we have and why we’re here. Better yet, it’s about finding something within ourselves with each new person we meet. Uncovering the truth about ourselves through discovery and discernment can be a frightening episode or an exhilarating journey. The choice, essentially, is up to us.

Reaching out and honestly approaching other people or looking within ourselves isn’t easy for many of us, but it is necessary. By challenging our own comfort zones, within or without, we discover new worlds, or should I say worlds that parallel our existence here. Often, we’re just too comfortable and unaware to see them.

My deepest gratitude goes to my wife, Debbie Phillips Noll, (pictured below)
for being who she is and for being the impetus of change in our lives. I also want to thank the people with whom we have shared a few moments in time over recent weeks and months. Experience may be the greatest teacher, but its people who attend and conduct the classes! I extend my gratitude to Judith Richerzhagen, Professor Conrad Heatwole and his wife Janie, and the Geiger Family, Gene, Holly, Cassie, Jenn, Grant, Brooke and Tess, and all of the people and families who participate in the Mennonite Your Way program. My appreciation also goes out to Debbie Dugger, Director of the Chesterfield County Youth Group Home and to her staff for the opportunity to work with young men and women in their care.

It doesn’t seem to matter who the teacher, author or messenger is, we approach a significant life when we remain spiritually aware, focused on the present and most importantly when we demonstrate love unconditionally to those in our presence. My wife, Debbie is a phenom at spotting opportunities that will enhance our lives and she never misses a chance to remind me to practice what I preach! She’s a great coach too, and I’m sure she intuitively knew we would both benefit greatly by our recent experiences.

In retrospect my childhood conditioning did not prepare me well for adult living; so the diversity of recent experiences helped me understand some old but very important principles, albeit later in life than I would have liked. Those principles are; that we actually do get what we sow; time is relative and passing so not making good use of it is unwise. Our spirits may transcend this world but history dictates that our bodies are on a timeline. Being honest with ourselves and others is critical to finding joy, and life is a lot more pleasant when we recognize, as Jesus said in the gospel of Luke, “the Kingdom is within.” Internally I express that as meaning I already possess all I need to live the life of freedom intended for all of us. So while gratefully accepting this gift of life and the gifts of those with whom we have recently interacted I view each occasion as a blessing intended to enhance an already unbelievable set of circumstances we call life!

What’s unusual is that as a mentor, fitness instructor and budding life coach I have opportunities to observe and discuss some of these values regularly. I find, however, that an unexpected or impromptu set of circumstances leads to the greatest life instruction because you aren’t preconditioned to expect a specific outcome. Don’t get me wrong, expectations and conditioning are important but it’s the point of application where I believe the greatest lessons are learned.

So, here’s what I learned. First from my wife, a person doesn’t need to have the best of everything to get started. It doesn’t matter what you are trying to accomplish, “done” never comes before “doing” and you cannot “do” if you do not start! I have seen Debbie begin things she had no experience with and become successful at by doing it one step at a time. Did she make some mistakes along the way? Absolutely, but that never stopped her from doing anything or attempting anything new.

Our association with the people in this story is a direct result of her desire to learn about bed and breakfasts and to discover new, cost effective ways to travel and meet people at the same time; activities we both enjoy immensely. I have asked if she experiences fear during her new adventures. She assures me she confronts it, but often forces herself to push through each occurrence the best she can throwing caution to the wind and paying attention to the moment she’s in.

Those who venture beyond what can only be experienced by the physical senses know about the goodness associated with the faith they used to get beyond the unbelievable. I am fortunate to learn life lessons this way, vicariously, through my relationships with Debbie and others. I don’t think she knows to what extent her spiritual proclivity for and love of life and people influences my growth as a man and as a human, spiritual being. She just keeps on giving. That’s unconditional love.

I’m not sure Judith Richerzhagen will even have time enough to read this far down the article, though I really hope so, because she was our introductory quest as a host for Mennonite Your Way. There could not have been a more appropriate example of service than this strong spirited woman who graced us with her presence for two evenings on her way to a two year stint of service to the Malawi tribe in Africa.

As I read her blog I realize that nothing worth having or experiencing is easy. I am sometimes a slow student, I know. Life is rarely trouble-free but even the weakest people can be strengthened by spiritually mature individuals and Judith was one who had a powerful connection to the source of all being. I saw her energy and steadfastness through her pain the day I dropped her off at the bus station in Richmond, Virginia. She put her army sized duffle bag on her back preparing to board the bus that would move her one step closer to helping an African culture with health care needs. Her back was weak and strong at the same time. I saw her heart on her sleeve and I will not forget the example she set and offered freely as our first experience with Mennonite Your Way, but more importantly as a servant with a calling she clearly recognized and was willing to answer regardless of the obstacles. That’s unconditional love!

From the Giegers I was reminded that families are so important and it is critical, for the development of the individual, the family and society to have examples of unconditional love at the head of the household. I saw this in the eyes and actions of Gene and Holly Geiger. I also saw it in the eyes of their children, Cassie, Jenn, Grant, Brooke and Tess. They were together. They enjoyed each others being. You could tell they were family!

There seemed to be an understanding that what mom and dad said or did was good for them, not just something coming from an authority figure. The children were respectful of their parents and each other. Granted this was vacation, but I sensed for the most part this was the way they lived their lives. How refreshing!

There was joy and anticipation in their hearts and I sensed that each child knew they were fortunate to be in this family unit. The Giegers would not know how much this affected me because intellectually, I knew this kind of family unit existed, but as a child I didn’t experience it. I can only hope that love remains, humbly and intentionally in the hearts of Gene and Holly as well as each child, for what I observed while they were in our home for one evening was spiritually exhilarating. I saw a presence that only accompanies the kind of love found among people who genuinely care about each other and practice it with each and every breath. That’s unconditional love!

Then, there was our fabulous stay with Conrad Heatwole and his gregarious wife Janie. Debbie and I have been in search of a piece of property in the country for a while now and we got to pretend a little bit with two really fascinating and active people. The Heatwoles are perhaps the epitome of Mennonite hospitality and I could not possibly describe the peace and beauty that was their home.

But that home was not just material in nature, it was Conrad and Janie. Despite being professional people they are good with their hands and minds and hearts. They opened up their home to us with all it represents of them and what they believe. By the way, it’s a very popular venue for many who travel through the beautiful western Virginia Mountain area, but you visit more than just their home. They are humble in their service and I would not do their story justice by attempting to repeat what little I know, but with Conrad and Janie you’re guided by a spirit of life, an extension of their mastery of the gifts given to them and, in turn, shared with their fellow man; not out of obligation, but out of the experience, presence and example of a higher form of unconditional love.

The last but certainly not the least of my recent experiences and one that is ongoing is the Chesterfield County Youth Group Home in Chesterfield, Virginia. I have had the great good fortune to mentor young people for over 20 years now and I am still in awe of the power or love to overcome the greatest of obstacles, especially in today’s ever growing society of immediate gratification and identity crises. It seems that every year that passes is one more year in which we seem to feel we have to stretch or open the envelope of life a little wider. When will we learn the lesson of responsibility and contentment?

I was introduced to the director of the home, Debbie Dugger by, who socially adept wife Debbie. As I listen to the young men and women in the county’s care, or anywhere for that matter, it seems as though they are seeking some external force to bring them peace or happiness or sanity. Of course at the age of adolescence peace and happiness take a back seat to identity.

It has been said and I have learned “there are no mistakes, only lessons.” I learned that each of the teens I see is on their own path and neither I nor their parents, or anyone else for that matter, can live their lives for them. The only thing we can do is love them; love them with the gifts we were given to do so and trust that there is a higher power; a God who loves all of us so unconditionally that the judgment and justice we experience is not penal but in actuality, life giving.

My greatest hope is that each child who comes into our presence will learn the lessons of sowing and reaping, the lessons of choice and consequence and the realization that eternity exists and we all have a place in it. But most of all, I pray that they will have the opportunity to experience what I have learned in the last few weeks and months; something I’ve known in my heart; that there is faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love…unconditional love.

The lessons of life are never ending. Thank you to all of you who believe, practice and share the wisdom...”God is love”...healing, life giving, unconditional love.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Picture This!

B. Stuart Noll
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Imagine you’re a fitness instructor at the Manchester Branch of the YMCA of Greater Richmond and on the Tuesday after Labor Day - September 2006 in walks a very intense 266 pound woman from Buffalo N.Y. who is clearly on a mission; a no holds barred mission to “overcome the fear of the unknown,” as she puts it. It was the day after she joined the Y and it was time for her new member orientation and her first workout. She remembered it was time to “pull myself up by my boot straps” and begin to work on a goal – to lose half her body weight – yep, 133 lbs.

Erin McLean (center of photo) came to the YMCA because she believed in its values. The instructor on duty that night was Doug Hartwill. Our instructors here really want to help members improve their health and fitness so Doug asked Erin “what’s your goal?” She blurted out, “I want to look HOT…in 6 months!!!

Friends, this is the same woman, who had, for some time prior to her appearance at the YMCA, devoured family size bags of Hershey Mini-bars, chips and ice cream - daily, camouflaged as comfort food without any deference to its enormous detriment to her health. This is the same woman, a Senior HR manager who also worked 16 hour days when she was first moved to Richmond by her company after a chain of personal life changing episodes, .

She was known to her friends as jovial, Little Mary Sunshine who, at the same time, did everything at 120%. She still does! I asked her what motivated her, she said, “I got mad enough to overcome the unknown.” Here’s the great part; when I asked her how she did it she quipped, “The same way you eat an elephant.” I thought, Huh?

Though by her own admission Erin wasn’t looking for the social side of exercise, she felt right at home after Tina took her on the facility tour. She would soon be engulfed by the light of the people. That happens in our fitness center – even for someone like Erin who finds it hard to accept a compliment. Actually, she was partially inspired by the accountability of other members encouraging her…and partly by her results!!!

Workouts grew…it was 30 minutes of cardio and 30 minutes of weight training. Gradually it became 45 and 45, and then this woman who was uncomfortable in groups because of her appearance became a class-a-holic and not just jazzercise. It was hard in the beginning says Erin, but Melissa (the instructor) said, “keep coming, you’ll get it.” Boy howdy, did she ever get it.

Okay, I know the suspense is killing you. So how much does Erin McLean (center of photo) weigh, almost 3 years later? 127 pounds! Wait! It wasn’t three years later. It also wasn’t 6 months either. The transformation took an extraordinary nine months. Doug would ultimately call Erin his “A” student. An “A” student she was too! It wasn’t glamorous. Ms. McLean worked her butt off, literally and figuratively, 6 days a week. She learned the basics of the body and the mind as well as researching nutrition and exercise. In short, she committed to changing her lifestyle!

You can see the physical benefits of her commitment in the photos but what you cannot see is the freedom Erin enjoys. Look in her closet! She no longer worries about what she will wear to work or whether it covers her stomach or her butt or whether it’s too tight. Most of all, she never has to fear being in a group that wants to take the stairs instead of the elevator! She is free from the judgment!

Humans aren’t always kind and yet some of the most unkind comments and feelings can motivate us to break through the fears that keep us bound in our personal prisons. I always say “when you are imprisoned by fear there is only one means of escape…the truth.”

The truth is Erin McLean’s phenomenal accomplishments are an inspiration for all of us. She wanted to live life…for her daughter Victoria, and for herself. For the full scoop on her “journey,” ask her. You’ll probably have to wait until after her workout to find out more about her story or maybe even how to create your own!

I know there are two things Erin would say. They are; 1) believe in your ability to accomplish anything and 2) do it the same way you eat an elephant…one bite at a time!

Erin, you inspire me!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Future - The Elliot Shaw Story

B. Stuart Noll
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This has been one of the most difficult stories for me to write since I began writing a couple of years ago. Most of the people whom I have interviewed have been friends, acquaintances, co-workers or others I have been fortunate enough to know or meet. Though Elliot Shaw fits into several of those categories he is somewhat of an enigma to me and maybe, to himself.

I’m very grateful to Elliot and my other friends and co-workers who have consented to a quick look inside their lives, sharing personal insights and other, often privileged or sensitive personal information, so we can all get to know them a little better. To Elliot and my other friends I say, thank you!

Elliot Shaw (“one T”) (pictured above) is indeed a rare breed of young adult. You would think a guy who comes from great stock, speaks two languages fluently and pieces of a few others, has studied in France and is a World Cup soccer fan would have his life all figured out, a slam dunk, a sure thing. Part of the enigma is that Elliot is as far from that as the east is from the west. Don’t get me wrong, Elliot Shaw is one of the finest young men I know. He is hard working, intelligent, cordial, affable, courteous, humorous, and socially savvy. He also possesses a multitude of other qualities seen by the naked eye if you know him at all or missed entirely only if you are totally unconscious.

Therein lays the mystery which is Elliot. What is he doing here, stocking shelves? This story essentially revolves around two things; Elliot the human being and my short but fruitful relationship with him as a co-worker and friend. Since I believe there are no mistakes; only lessons, some of the puzzle pieces to the mystery that is Elliot can be seen in this piece.

Elliot came into my life approximately a year ago and the impact he made on me and nearly everyone else around him was almost immediate. I expected him only to stay a short time as most college age kids do in between semesters. Along with the beneficial attributes stated above, there are character qualities which he displays that cannot be taught in school. They can only be learned by a man whose connection with his creator is so intimate and powerful he is seemingly one with the original source.

Elliot is honest and trustworthy, kind and considerate, talented yet humble, calm in his demeanor and not afraid to initiate a relationship or a task. This unique set of living skills is instilled by great parental conditioning with the guidance of a divine presence. But its effectiveness is enhanced when the conditioning is not only accepted but practiced and appreciated by all the parties involved.

I have been mentoring young men for over 20 years and though I’m not quite old enough to remember Telemachus I consider it every bit as much a privilege to spend time with Elliot as Mentor did with the Son of his friend Odysseus in Greek mythology. Granted, our bond is not quite the same but from my perspective the obligation to him and to his parents is, as it is with every other young man brought into my presence. But Elliot is unique in many ways. What follows is a brief reason why it’s easy to be positive about the future of mankind.

I had the chance to sit down with Elliot several weeks ago to discuss his thoughts about whom he was, what he wanted to do with his life and what he thought the future had in store for him. During our discussion we covered topics like music, politics, marriage, music, character issues, music, sports, did I mention music? Elliot convinced me to listen to Blisters & Coffee by The Classic Crime. I was kind of surprised (although I shouldn’t have been, knowing Elliot’s passion for great musicians, especially guitarists) to know he included Stevie Ray Vaughn in his list of the best music. He said he felt that way because Stevie Ray revolutionized guitar playing.

Though admittedly not ready for close relationships of the intimate kind (marriage) because of the self-confessed stress of the commitment and “the proposal,” the kind of woman that would garner Elliot’s attention would be one who is God fearing and selfless. When I asked him how he would know or measure that Elliot said, “The key would be how she treated others.” – Wise man eh? I wish I could say I taught him that but that’s part of the conditioning I was speaking of earlier.

I have been working with Mr. Shaw for almost a year now and I was so excited to hear of his return to school. (VCU in the fall) And though Elliot could not commit to a particular vocation I know he has the talent to do whatever he sets his mind to do. When I asked him, as I often do with college age men, about the intended destination after graduation or what Elliot he envisioned at the finish line, he acknowledged he could not yet see that far ahead. But, and this is different than the answers I generally receive from the average college student who doesn’t have a clue about the future, Elliot knows he has an obligation to use the gifts he has been given. He knows he is loved by his family and has the support of the people who are most important in his life.

Confident in his familial environment and in himself, Elliot has the opportunity to choose his own path. (As do we all in reality) Another part of the enigmatic persona of Elliot Shaw is that he knows his path, once chosen, would be relatively unimpeded and with the kind of guidance that induces success, however you define or measure it. After spending the last year with him 4 or 5 days a week I know that whatever call he ultimately answers he will work at it diligently and with more than just himself in mind.

The last question I asked Elliot was what encouragement he would have for his peers facing the same issues his generation faces. He quickly responded “find the truth; not the truth as you see it but, unbiased unprejudiced reality.” I thought, if this is part of his quest, he too will find it – unbiased and unprejudiced. Elliot is wise beyond his years and the main reason is because the condition of his heart which produces seven life-giving qualities; love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.

No matter what happens in his future Elliot Shaw will “inspire people to live more than just an A to B life.” I have been encouraged and inspired in the last 12 months by Elliot’s personal conduct. His ability to learn complex concepts is extraordinary and I believe sufficient to prove that whether it’s music, business, or any other form of expression of his gifts, that Elliot Shaw will not only find the truth but inspire others to seek it with a joy and a peace that surpasses all understanding. Will he fall at times? Yes! Will he rise again? Absolutely; because he knows that if he listens and learns and applies a Word to his search wiser than his own.

When Elliot returns to school I will lose a day to day friend, a protégé of sorts. But, I gladly release him into his next destination with confidence that he has received all that was ordained for him during this season.

Lastly I wanted to leave Elliot a few morsels of wisdom that he can carry with him on his journey and I offer the following because I know they’re short and he won’t have to read a book to get the point.

·        What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
·        Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.
- Martin Luther King JR.
·        "The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play,
his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation,
his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of
excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing.
To him he is always doing both."
- James Michener
·        “When you are imprisoned by fear there is only one means of escape – The Truth.
The choice to seek it is yours.”
– B. Stuart Noll

The solution to the enigma that is Elliot Shaw will be seen when the seed within him matures in season. When will that be? I’m not sure. I just know he is a masterpiece of creation as we all are when nurtured with love! Thanks Elliot (“One T”) I’ve enjoyed the ride!

Sunday, May 31, 2009

It's Not How You Fall

B. Stuart Noll
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It doesn’t seem to matter where it occurs – New York, Philly, Detroit, LA, DC, or Richmond, or any other city, town or borough in this country, when you’re a young man and you fall, you’re going to fall hard! That’s just the way it is. It’s a part of life; it’s a part of growing up. The fall I’m referring to isn’t skinning your knees of course, it’s a fall from grace, it’s a significant life lesson we choose or sometimes fail to choose; it’s an experience or set of experiences from which we learn. Some also die and others often never learn or never recover.

This isn’t a story about where a man started or where he is, or even where he’s headed. Though we aren’t traveling the same path, we’re connected by a common bond, a common desire, a dream to finish in a different place than where we began. I think we both want to leave something more meaningful than a few memories behind us. This is a snapshot of a man I call my friend; a quick peek at his life’s journey so far, as seen through my eyes, a fellow traveler on the same train riding in a different car.

"Choices are the hinges of destiny." - Pythagoras

Karnel Banks, (pictured) referred to by most of us as “C” was born March 6, 1972 at Flushing Meadows Hospital in Queens in New York City, NY. The middle child of 6 children he grew up to be a sensitive and empathetic listener despite living a former life he characterizes as “a cycle of hopelessness.” Education is often an indicator of success or failure so I asked him where he went to high school. “C” looked down momentarily, perhaps a bit apprehensive about divulging he didn’t graduate and then he looked back up again and said “Walton HS in the Bronx.” He quickly let me know he gained his G.E.D. later on. That fact by itself made an impression on me. “C” wasn’t a quitter and he knew what he needed to survive. In my mind it was one of those steps in his success story.

As he spoke to me I heard a story about a teen in the ‘90’s on the streets in the Bronx. I heard a story about a man now living a new life; perhaps an ordinary life if you view it from a distance but, an unimaginable life to a guy who never expected, as a youth, to see thirty! As we talked, “C” revealed some of the situations he experienced to get to this point in his life. The ones he described were what you might think of growing up in the Big Apple. He gave me an account of a few choices and changes, part of his old life, some of his new life and certainly a piece of his legacy.

I didn’t want to sensationalize the details of his fall; I wanted to contrast the kid of his past with the man he is today. I will tell you there was strength of character even back then that kept “C” from experiencing a fate similar to many of his friends – jail, illness and death. Somehow, I wasn’t surprised that he participated in many of the activities he told me about because as a kid from Philly I had seen much of it myself, drugs, alcohol and violence, though not to the same degree or proximity. Karnel realized he had to leave NY to escape the madness in his life. He told me much of what happens, happens for survival. He told me that’s why he admired his friend Jimmy, who stayed there all these years. Jimmy overcame the hardships while remaining in the environment.

What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

When I watch “C” work today and interact with our teammates it’s hard for me to imagine him as an at-risk youth or a young adult on the border of the wrong side of the law and society. He possesses a positive attitude and is dedicated to his team and his contribution to our organization. When I asked him how he survived and how he managed to come to Richmond he mentioned his sister and the importance of family in his turnaround. Though he would, at the age of 18, begin to toggle back and forth between Richmond and NYC trying to find himself, he recalled the old women on the block where he ran with the gangs telling him this wasn’t the life his mother wanted for him. That meant something to “C” – it must have hit a nerve that was connected to his heart and his brain.

The most moving moment of our interview occurred when I asked Karnel “what was the saddest time of your life?” Without hesitation he said, “When my mom passed.” I understood because that too was a sad time for me as well. But, I could tell there was something special in the relationship “C” had with his mother so I asked him to tell me more about her. Now, with tears streaming down his face he said “my mother knew me, I never had to lie to her; she knew who I was. I could tell her anything.” And he often did! Believe me friends, some of the things they discussed must have been hard for a mother to hear about her son and his activities, but that also was a testament to the strength of her character and the bond they had between them.

Most mothers take a lot of nonsense from their sons. It’s like God builds something extra into their chemistry just for that reason. But this relationship was special because there was truth and honesty and love spoken, often without words. She knew him; she knew his heart, his soul. That was enough! I would miss a friend like that too!

Karnel’s mother also set an example for him, a work ethic that would ultimately help him later in life. She did everything from driving a cab to working for the police review board and some unconventional things moms don’t ordinarily do like negotiating peace agreements of sorts with thugs from a different turf. I got a glimpse of where “C” learned composure, discretion and respect. Sometimes it just takes a little longer to demonstrate what we’ve been shown.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” -
Dr. Martin Luther King

Time has passed and Karnel has a family now! He is a hard working man with responsibilities; to his team at work; to his daughter and to his sons; and to himself. I asked him why he changed, why he began to act more responsibly. He said, “I wanted to teach my children how to be a man, but I wasn’t being one. I had a choice.” I didn’t know “C” then, but I imagine He came face to face with himself and he examined what he saw, knowing what he had to do! And he did it!

He always has had a choice, and he knows it! I couldn’t possibly know what Karnel Banks was like back in the 90’s because I wasn’t with him. But I’m with him quite often today. I sense what kind of man he is and I’m very proud to call him my friend. I think he said it best when he said, “It’s not how you fall, it’s how you rise.” I respect a man who keeps getting up, dusting himself off and trying to do the right things for himself and for his family. “C” is a great example for all of us that rising is an art, often painted with sweat and tears, all that is necessary is to stand up in front of the easel of life, pick up a brush and begin to paint! It is a choice and it belongs to you!

Thanks “C” – you inspire me!

Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Precious Gift

B. Stuart Noll

It happens without us knowing. We take time and people for granted and when we least expect it, POW! We get blindsided by life. In our younger years we feel invincible, time has little meaning and guarding our health isn’t all that high on our list. Sometimes those punches have a way of changing us for the better.

As with all of the stories I write for the YMCA their brevity simply cannot do justice to the incredible accomplishments, obstacles and barriers overcome and the lives lived by the people I’ve been fortunate enough to interview. Such is the story you are about to read. I encourage you to get to know Brian Holtzman, his wife Denise Papeo-Holtzman and their son Robbie. (Photo) Prepare for a heartwarming voyage into the tribulation and triumph of 3 spirited Manchester YMCA members.

Robbie is an active 11 year old boy; a yellow belt in the YMCA’s Karate program. When I asked him what other activities he enjoyed he said “I like the skate park, playing Basketball, the pool and….” Needless to say Robbie is one of our more enthusiastic members. Little did I know there was so much more behind this young man and his Mom and Dad?

Brian, Denise and Robbie are fabulous people but until you get to know someone you just don’t know why they do what they do. The late great broadcaster Paul Harvey would say “and this is the rest of the story.” After recovering from complications due to surgery for breast cancer Denise chose to get involved with the Silver Sneakers program, participating along with her father. Brian and Robbie would follow shortly thereafter but not before Brian’s visit with the doctor would reveal his diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure) and other dangerously out of whack vital signs. Even after working with a personal trainer 7 or 8 years ago, the motivation to improve his health didn’t finally come until this past year when Denise’s battle proved life was so much more important.

When we talked about the events of the past year I sensed a relief that became clear after my last question for the night. I asked Robbie what he got most from the Y. He said, “My dad used to come home from work and go right to the couch. He was so tired he wouldn’t come outside and play.” Brian said, “I couldn’t even mow the lawn.” Robbie quickly added “Now, I have my dad back.”

At that, I looked into Denise’s eyes and my eyes began to tear. Here’s an 11 year old boy who, in the last year, could have lost his mom to breast cancer and his dad to any number of complications from obesity.

Talk about adversity and the faith, courage and will to overcome it; Robbie could have no better example of love than his mother and father. Brian would examine himself, and then work incredibly hard to lose 115 pounds to date so he could live with his family. Denise would wage an incredible fight for the very essence of life and inspire those around her to do something more than just recover. I looked back at Robbie’s smile and I knew this was a special moment for all of us.

I think Denise and Brian will agree there will always be battles. But if cancer, arthritis, fibromyalgia and obesity won’t stop these courageous people from living, Robbie’s in pretty good hands! It’s truly amazing what part love and a couple of silver sneakers can play in life! Thanks Brian, thanks Denise, and thank you Robbie for sharing yourselves with us! And I thank the YMCA for being here. You all inspire me!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

It's A Choice

B. Stuart Noll

Respect, honesty, caring and responsibility are words the YMCA uses to present the 4 core characteristics of its mission. These four words are also core characteristics of great relationships. One of the many things I enjoy about working here at the Manchester YMCA is the chance to develop new relationships within our community and to observe people interact with each other. It’s a true learning experience and one of the many blessings I receive each week.

Recently, I interviewed Kevin and Laura Hopkins – (photo), two longstanding members here at the Manchester YMCA of Greater Richmond. We sat down together to talk about their relationship with the YMCA - and each other.

Near the end of the interview Laura asked me, “does being married for 21 years count for anything?” Oh my Gosh! Think about this one; I’ll give you the answer later. They have been together for 26 years but their association with the YMCA began approximately in the year 2000. Laura became involved as a Youth Sports Specialist at the Tuckahoe Branch and both have been active in organized sports almost all of their lives either as participants or as a referee/umpire in Laura’s case.

Their story is much more interesting than just a daily workout together. Get to know them, because if you do I assure you, you will be lifted up, as I was and am, by their encouragement, their heart for each other and for the community in which they live and serve.

When I think of respect and caring I think of Kevin and Laura Hopkins. When I imagine couples working out together (something many couples find hard to do) I think of Kevin and Laura. Both of them had obstacles to overcome to stay interested in their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. It didn’t matter whether it was Kevin’s diagnosis of diabetes or Laura’s injuries, over the years they have continued to support, encourage and love each other. They simply made whatever sacrifices were necessary to help each other heal, grow and stay in the game – and I think both would agree the YMCA was an integral part of their recoveries.

Working out or training 5-6 days a week can become intense no matter how close two people are. Laura said “sometimes the workout became a competition.” Even solid relationships can deteriorate because of constant one-ups-man-ship. But Kevin and Laura respected and cared about each other enough to overcome their intense individual competitiveness by deciding that their lives together were more important than any barrier they could face. Did they stop working out? No! What did they do? They didn’t change their lifestyle, they changed their mindset to honor each other even more and make it fun again. How? They rearranged their schedule, began to get involved at church on Wednesday evenings, made Friday nights a date night and redefined their workout to accommodate the physical and emotional changes in their lives.

All I can say is Wow! What better definition of respect and caring is there than when two very competitive people care enough about their partner’s health to surrender their own egos in order to transcend the complications that life throws at them? Which is exactly why they have been married for 21 years; it is the answer from above (pun intended) and it was a choice. They both chose to put the needs of the other above their own!

Thank you, Kevin and Laura Hopkins, for sharing a piece of your story with all of us and for demonstrating the principles the YMCA says build strong kids, strong families and strong communities.

More Than Weight Loss - Regina Hamlor's Story

B. Stuart Noll

Everyone’s life is its own unique story, a tale of intrigue in so many respects. The whys and wherefores of our lives are sometimes a mystery, often as much to us as they are to family and friends. One thing is certain though – no matter who you are or where you were born, if you’re human and you live on planet earth, we’re connected! Subsequently, we impact each other to one degree or another; consciously or unconsciously, positively or negatively. If the previous statement is true then wouldn’t it be prudent for us to associate with those people who have the most positive impact on us; people who, by virtue of living their lives, help us grow.

I know such a person – one of our members here at the Manchester YMCA - a very unique story and I would like to introduce this person to you. Before I do, imagine one day recognizing that you are grossly overweight, agonizingly short of breath and unknowingly living this life on the threshold between the here and the hereafter. Imagine a day approximately twelve years ago when you had to grab onto the railing with each upward step and you had to stop intermittently to gather your breath as you climbed to enter the Y, so you could work out for just 15 minutes. Imagine saying to yourself “I must take control of my life” or I will be medicated for hypertension (High Blood Pressure) for the rest of my life – however long that’s going to be!

I would like to introduce you to the woman that lived that life, but if I did, it wouldn’t be the one she is today. So let’s start again! In my brief interview with Regina Hamlor I saw a determined, unconquerable spirit of joy from a woman to whom it was revealed that she no longer had to “just hold on” to railings - or to life. Regina told me her story as I asked her why she had come to be a member at the YMCA.

After communicating with her doctor she decided that “just holding on” wasn’t good enough for her anymore. She said she was determined to beat all the statistics that said she couldn’t do it. She was ready for a change; she decided not only to begin but to finish! Over the 12 year period Regina has been a member of the YMCA, more specifically, in the past 5 to 6 years Ms Hamlor has lost in excess of 100 pounds. That’s right, I said over 100 lbs. And she isn’t done yet. Her commitment was to a life-changing experience, not a fad or a flash in the pan. Her history indicates she has what it takes to finish the race. Her doctor removed her from the medication and now when she arrives to work out she is no longer out of breath. She is, instead, invigorated and invigorating!

As a fitness instructor and a budding motivational coach I am fascinated with each individual’s reason for change and what keeps them going; their why, so to speak. It was easy to understand why Regina began a new lifestyle. I also wanted to know why she kept coming back to the YMCA. As she humbly smiled at the thought of answering, Regina quickly responded “It’s like we’re family. Life is not complete without it.”

Another big smile and then, Ms Hamlor pointed out that “it wasn’t just exercise.” There were a number of elements that contributed to her weight loss. She changed her eating habits and memorialized her desired blood pressure reading of 120/80 on her tape player and her refrigerator. She used the power of envisioning to produce her desired end, and she developed enriching, lifelong relationships with people here at the Manchester YMCA that continues to be a huge part of her success, even today.

There is one other enormously important element that Regina relayed during our brief interview. She said, “I prayed every day. The Lord is my source and it is He who receives the glory.”

I learned a lot about Regina Hamlor during our discussion. Over time I have watched her interact with others at the Y; on the bikes; on the mats and on the machines. My conversation with her and the things I learned from her and about her are my reward for this article. I am inspired by her conviction. I believe the adversity and perseverance through hard work enriched her life. When she shares her story it becomes an inspiration to others to make similar life-changing, and sometimes lifesaving changes. Ironically, in that respect, I think she has gained much more than she has lost!

There is something very, very special about her and not just because of her smile or her successful transition to a healthier life. I encourage you introduce yourself to her because I’m sure that if she just speaks her name to you it will be a blessing!

The Manchester YMCA of Greater Richmond has more to offer than just machines. It’s a place where respect, honesty, caring and responsibility are alive – in the place and in the people. Regina has had a positive impact on me, as well as others here at Manchester, and she is one of many inspiring members and stories in our family. We invite you too; to experience the interconnectedness and exhilaration of living a healthy and family oriented life at home and here at the Y!

Thanks for your time and remember;

“Your greatest discovery is yourself and your greatest investment is of yourself in others. The reward is sure. The choice of course, is always yours.” – B. Stuart Noll