The young woman walked confidently up to the wooden lectern, with the beautiful bright blue Jefferson Awards Foundation logo sparkling with all the camera flashes.
Without hesitation she began her story.
“At the age of eight my father was incarcerated for one hundred and thirty-five years. For several years my mother and I were left homeless.”
She took a deep breath and continued.
“At the age of thirteen my mother tried to kill me by shooting me.”
My heart sank, my throat constricted, and tears welled.
Without skipping a beat this seventeen-year-old offered that she had chosen to dedicate her efforts to Habitat for Humanity, so that no other family had to live without a home.
I approached her after all of us regional Media Partner Jefferson Award recipients had the chance to share why we were chosen to be honored to the audience.
“I’m so glad to meet you,” I said. “After hearing your speech I just wanted to hug you.”
She opened her arms, smiled and replied, “After hearing yours, I wanted to do the same.”
I found it rather ironic that I would make a connection with a young woman living with a mother who clearly doesn’t deserve to be one, while being recognized for honoring my own daughter taken from me entirely too soon.
This young woman was a reflection of the incredible individuals I met throughout the two day national Jefferson Awards conference. I was touched by the work other bereaved parents are doing in honor of their children. And others with their own losses and challenges. I met a woman from Aiken SC who lost her husband to a drowning accident. She’s providing life jackets and safety lessons to those enjoying the lake her husband lost his life to. I met a man who is providing camping experiences to special needs kids. And another who lost most of his lung capacity due to an accident who is teaching children how to fish.
Most of all, I came to terms with being recognized for what I have always considered to be a family and team effort.
Just as I cannot claim Claire entirely as my own, for she belonged to all of us who loved her, nor can I take ownership of what we have created in her honor.
When it was my turn at the lectern, through tears and smiles, I offered our journey. As a mother, as a family, as a community.
I was honored with rousing applause after thanking the audience for allowing me to share Claire’s story, our story.
And I touched a young woman who is back living with the mother who tried to shoot her, for the physical abuse she suffers is “better than the emotional abuse from the foster homes.”
I’ve been asked by many friends what the experience was like. It was amazing being in the presence of so many giving back to their communities. It was incredible sharing all the “goose bump” moments with Brad, Kyle, Ian, my brother Gordie and niece and goddaughter, Hannah. Icing on the cake was having my two dear friends Susan and Pam along, as well as Jeanette and Diana from Read for Literacy/Claire’s Day. The gala dinner was spectacular, with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor roaming through the audience as she spoke. The Secret Service agents must have been having conniptions. She didn’t care.
But most of all, the ceremonies left me wanting to do more, to give more. To recognize more children who are working so hard to improve their reading skills. To give more books to children who don’t have any in their homes. To share Claire’s story with the world.
And to perhaps help make a difference in the life of a young woman who deserves better.