Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Sparti Gras Gala & Auction at De Smet Jesuit High School, a fundraising event at my high school alma mater De Smet Jesuit High School with my two of my three brothers—all four us of attended De Smet but one had a conflict. What a great evening it was—for so many different reasons! I’m embarrassed to admit this is the first such event I’ve attended since I graduated in 1980. To be honest, I’ve only returned to the school a handful of times over the years. No real reason. Life just seemed to get in the way.
The auction was huge success, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to help provide scholarships, financial aid and funding of programs that help accomplish De Smet Jesuit’s mission of forming “Men for and with others for the greater glory of God.” It was a philosophy that certainly stuck with me throughout my life and spring-boarded me toward a 35+ year career of service cultivating in the creation of the MO Better Foundation.
In 1980, De Smet required each senior to do a service project the last month of the school year (it is now spread out throughout the four years). I chose Litzsinger School, part of the Special School District of St. Louis County, which provides special education services to students with disabilities. Up to then, I had never really worked with anyone with a disability. I really didn’t know anyone who was disabled. But I was excited to push myself and I nervously reported to the classroom I was assigned (it was during recess and a bit chaotic) and witnessed a couple of kids in the corner playing with matchbox cars. One of the kids, I believe he was 8, was in long leg braces, struggling to keep his balance while pushing a car along a table.
As I waited for the teacher to come over, I saw a larger child run up, push the kid in the braces back and take his car. I was shocked. How mean. Then all hell broke out. Yelling! Screaming! Cars flying! I wondered what I was getting into. The teacher quickly restored order and came over to greet me. She apologized and said that they had a "problem child" and was hoping I could work with him throughout the next month. Problem child? This kid was a brat! I told her I just witnessed him take the car from the little boy in the braces. The teacher looked me in the eye, shook her head and said, "No, James isn't the problem. He is sweet. Scott is our problem child!" Ooops! Turns out that what I didn't see is that moments before I entered the room, Scott took ALL James toys, threw several across the room to create a diversion (one hit James in the head) and stole his car. James was taking his car back.
Yep—Scott was indeed the problem and I just got assigned to him. True story! I got to know Scott very well over the next few weeks. I found out he had something called Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and instead of getting stronger, his muscles were getting weaker. And while he had a bit of a temper, he was funny. We got along well. At the end of the project, Scott and I stayed in touch, going to movies, the mall, etc. His parents were divorced and his mom was just diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and she couldn't take him out as much.
That next year, Scott asked me what I was doing over the summer and asked if I could be his counselor at MDA’s week-long summer camp. He told me all about it—including a friend of his named Benji he made the summer before. He wanted me to meet this kid (he said they were troublemakers together and it would be fun). I hadn't done anything like that before, but I was finished my first year of college, not interested in pursuing the "management track" at KFC and had the whole summer free. I went. It changed life.
At the end of the week, it was the custom for counselors and campers to sit around the campfire and sign each other’s yearbook. Benji, 8, asked me to sign his book and vice versa. Benji was a little shy and having a hard time figuring out what to write. I told him to just say something about what he was going to do the rest of the summer. Benji wrote two words, “Have Fun.” In turn, I added to Benji’s yearbook, “Be Happy!”
I remained in contact with both Scott and Benji and many other of the kids/young adults I met along the way as a volunteer at the camp for nearly 30 more years. They became part of my extended family and I became part of theirs. Against all odds, Scott is still living. He lives in a care facility in California and recently celebrated his 47th birthday (the life expectancy of an individual with DMD is mid-20s to 30s). Sadly, Benji passed away in 2005 at the age of 33. I was by his side. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about him. We had some great times and created some great memories. However, the four words he wrote in my summer camp year book—“Have Fun. Be Happy!”—became my mantra and have guided me throughout my life, including the founding of the MO Better Foundation dedicated to Scott, Benji, and all of their friends, past and present, living with muscle-wasting diseases and other disabilities.
As I sat there listening to De Smet Jesuit President, Corey Quinn, talk about the importance of De Smet’s mission, I couldn’t help but notice the 50-60 students working the auction that evening. Like me, I am sure many of the students have heard the phrase “men for others” many times since they first entered as freshmen. At this stage in their lives, I’m sure many—most—don’t really understand how important that philosophy will be in shaping their lives. They will.
If I could tell them all one thing it would be to remember that we are in this world for a short period of time. I would tell them to have fun! To be happy! And most of all, to live their lives as men for and with others for the greater Glory of God!
MO Better Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicating to making life “more better” for Missourians living with physical disabilities. With the support the community, MO Better provides funds to help cover the costs of assistive technology, mobility aids, access modifications and other aids to daily living when no other source is available or when other funding sources are not adequate. For more information, or to make a donation, visit www.mobetter.org