Who is your Sally?
My Mom and dad are both my Sallys. They were a young 50 and 52 when they died with six different cancer between them. I was 22 when my dad died; 23 when my mom died. I had only been out of college and in the military for about a year at the time, but thankfully the Air Force was able to assign me close to home. My dad passed away a month after I arrived in CA; my mom five months later. I was my mom’s primary caregiver for the last six months of her beautiful life, and she was my best friend for every month of mine.
What is your role in the military? What skills have you learned? Have you applied these skills to mentoring?
I am an Air Force officer, currently serving as the commander of a small unit. Many of the skills the Air Force has developed in me over the past 13 years on active duty, plus four years at the US Air Force Academy, could certainly apply to mentoring—patience, identifying and encouraging strengths in others, active listening and direct, open and honest communication. However, I’m not sure Emily has needed many of those skills from me, given her lovely blend of childlike spirit with impressive maturity for her age. When we were matched, I think she was looking for an outlet for fun she didn’t have to share with anyone else, even other members of her wonderfully large family. The military teaches us to “work hard, play hard,” and spending time with Emily has provided some of the “play” in that work-play balance for both of us. Even when she’s volunteering as a junior mentor for WWS, exemplifying the selfless service we’re taught to value in the military, she does so with a smile. In other words, often times Emily sets a character example for me as much as I hope I do for her.
“Make the best of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.”
“If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”
The first is something I have to remind myself frequently, whether caught up in small things like daily frustrations or big things like surviving losses to cancer.
The second is something I have always believed to my very core, and I think the principle underlies Walk With Sally, too. With compassion and community, we don’t judge one another for how we handle the struggle; we simply recognize the struggle, relate deeply to the struggle, and do what we can to support each other with all the love we have to give.
Why Walk With Sally?
I was raised as an only child, and even when counting extended family, the family tree is pretty small. When my parents died, I felt like an orphan. But I also felt incredibly lucky. I’d had about 23 loving years with my parents. They were both story-tellers, too, so I had learned so much about them as people in that time, and they were able to begin to know me as an adult. My half-sisters, on the other hand, were six and 10 years old when our dad died. They had each other and they had their mom, but that wasn’t enough. Being in the military, I have only lived near them for about half of their lives, and as close as I’d like for us to be, the age difference and geographic distance have limited that closeness. They’re now 18 and 22 years old, and both have struggled with depression and suicidal tendencies. When I learned about Walk With Sally, I couldn’t help but wonder if my sisters, and my step-mom, would be healthier today if they had had the support of a community like this. Being surrounded by people who understand without needing explanation, who love and support without asking questions, who demonstrate the possibility of surviving and thriving despite tremendous hardship and loss—what a light for such dark times. I may not have been able to be that light for my little sisters back then, but I thought maybe I could shine a little for someone like them now.
What has been your highlight while volunteering at WWS?
When Emily and I realized we had a scheduling conflict and would miss our last Friendship Activity together before I move to my next Air Force duty station this summer, we were both crushed. She offered to do something the following day—Mother’s Day. All we did was grab lunch and ice cream at some of her favorite places, then shop for a gift for her aunt and guardian. Yet for me, the day was magical. She was open, engaging, lively and affectionate, more so than ever before. Naturally, we’ve grown closer over time, and she has opened up and become more comfortable with each and every visit we’ve had. But on that particular holiday, which for both of us could have been sad or difficult, to be spending it together laughing and celebrating was such a joy. I felt like our hearts were in sync. All I could think was how proud Emily’s mom would be of her, and how happy my mom would be that I have Emily in my life.
Advice you would give to someone considering volunteering with Walk With Sally?
If you have a Sally, you’ll find a home in Walk With Sally, whether you decide to become a mentor, support fundraising events, assist the hard-working office staff, or some other means of volunteering. If you’ve ever felt that familiar ache, upon hearing the news of yet another friend, colleague, family member diagnosed with cancer, and you think, “I know…” and you just wish somehow your understanding alone could be of help to that person and their family, then you will find kindred spirits among the WWS volunteers, staff and supported families. We’re fortunate in this country to have a number of great support programs, but this one is special. So ask yourself what it is you’re really looking for and what you’re really willing to give. Then remember, when dealing with cancer, every contribution from the heart goes a long way, and try taking that first step in Walk With Sally.
What advice what you give a new mentor?
Once matched? Be patient. Don’t try to force the relationship to be what you envisioned, what you think you would have wanted in their position, or what you think they should want from the friendship. Just be you, be present and let the mentee drive the rest. That said, be committed and be persistent. Whether reaching out to ask about a life event in between visits (test at school, girl/boy/friend troubles, class trip, cancer treatment or memorial activity, birthday, etc.) or reaching out to remind them it’s time to schedule another outing (again!), you’re turning that presence into something stable, something your mentee can count on…something which may be scarce in their otherwise chaotic lives. When you reach that point when you can feel the easy closeness of an old friend or family member, you’ll have no doubt it was worth the wait.