Friendship – one of the life’s greatest gifts.
Good friends make good times more fun and bad times easier. Good friends are those people you hand pick and treat like family. They are the people you can call at 2am when you’re nervous about an important upcoming work presentation or when life feels like it’s caving in due to a divorce, the loss of a job or loved one, or any unexpected challenge. They are the ones you provide massive lead time to in order to ensure their attendance at your milestone events (your wedding, your child’s baby naming, etc.) because they just NEED to be there! Their presence brings a constant smile and most often, lots of laughter.
Christopher was my friend. Ten years my junior, I called him my little brother and he would introduce me as his big sister. Late night talks into the wee hours of the morning about life, love, dreams, and goals – there was a very special soul connection and I loved him just like I love my own biological little brother. Early in our friendship, Christopher explained that being with me was like being with his Mom. Not knowing his Mom, I asked, “Is that a good thing?”
Christopher replied, “That’s a great thing! My Mom is an AMAZING lady and you’re SO much like her! I’m excited for you two to meet – you’ll be best friends!”
Given location and logistics, I replied, “Well, I guess I’ll need to wait to meet her at your wedding. You’re forever the romantic and I don’t see how we could organize it before, given our schedules.”
Christopher smiled and said, “I hope we can arrange it way before any wedding, Dani.”
That meeting never came. We lost Christopher on Feb. 26, 2016.
Christopher passed 4 days after my 43rd birthday. I had received a PM from him over Facebook wishing me a Happy Birthday and we had fun catching up, as he explained that he was with his Mom, Cammie, preparing for their humanitarian trip to Cambodia the next day. Just four days later, mutual friends contacted me with the news that Christopher passed away. In complete disbelief, I contacted Cammie over Facebook asking for verification. I will never forget falling to my knees when reading the PM from Cammie confirming that the disturbing news was true. He was gone.
There are no words of comfort to offer a parent who has lost a child. This is an unnatural rhythm to life: Children bury parents – not vice versa. Despite my own pain, I showered Cammie with love and support. She lived abroad, but our regular communications helped me heal. Funny how that works – I focused on helping Cammie and those efforts helped me! I had, somehow, lived for 43 years without ever losing a dear friend. The grieving process was shocking, intense, and unchartered territory for me.
Just a few weeks after Christopher’s death, Cammie started Christopher’s Hope – an initiative to add a medical clinic to the Cambodian Children’s Fund so that children and their families could receive proper medical care. I jumped in to raise funds to help build Christopher’s legacy and through that work, I gained a good friend. Profound tragedy brought us together, but shared goals, values, tears and laughter built a beautiful friendship with Cammie.
While working together, I learned about Cammie’s passion for children’s causes. She’s a tremendous philanthropist with a focus on youth development. Most notably, she took a traumatic, violent experience and transmuted it into a phenomenal mechanism to prevent it from happening to others.
Cammie was the victim of a home invasion. A gun was pointed at her head for two hours while 3 teenage boys went through her home taking whatever valuables they could find. These boys were caught, tried, and Cammie needed to testify. They all went to prison. Post-trial, Cammie went to the lady’s room and was confronted by one of the mothers of one of the boys who was going to prison. She begged for Cammie’s forgiveness, proclaiming it was her fault that her son got caught up with the ‘wrong boys’. A single mother, she was too busy working two jobs to keep an eye on her son and as a result, his future was ruined. They cried together as mothers that afternoon and Cammie realized that this crime occurred not because these boys were evil, but because they didn’t see any other way to survive. They were teenagers of struggling single mothers within underserved communities burdened with the daunting challenges of survival.
A few months later, Cammie was introduced to Usher’s New Look (UNL) – a nonprofit in Atlanta focused on helping disadvantaged youth graduate from high school and move on to secondary education. Due to their unique programming, UNL has held consistent results for years – 100% high school graduation rates with 98% moving onto secondary education. In fact, these results are so impressive that The Harvard Graduate School of Education invited UNL’s President to provide a presentation about their success secrets. Now, this small nonprofit is sharing the secrets of their success with the greatest educational institution in the world!
Cammie serves on the board of UNL. Instead of traditional therapy, medication, or developing phobias around her violent experience, Cammie went into the heart of the matter and works tirelessly to build UNL so it can reach more children. How many people do you know could be violently assaulted and then turn around and work with the same demographic from which their perpetrators came?
Not only does Cammie support UNL, she mentors the students. She personally gets involved to prove to these teenagers that there’s a better way out – a more productive, happier, healthier life is waiting for them through their surrogate family, Usher’s New Look.
How many people do you know could turn around a traumatic experience into a productive calling?
How many people do you know can transmute violence?
Cammie did and she continues to do so through her steadfast support for UNL’s mission. As the saying goes, “There’s always a silver lining amongst the clouds.”
Losing Christopher wasn’t a cloud – it was a category 5 tornado that ripped through many people’s lives. And at the core of this disaster that took place exactly three years ago today is Cammie. Despite an unimaginable amount of pain and previous tragedies, this spiritual warrior shows up every day in everyone’s life as a comforting, loving, supportive presence.
I once asked, “Cammie, how do you do it? How do you not get bitter when people fail you? How do you not get upset when something doesn’t work out? How do you move forward with that beautiful smile, despite all of these intense tragedies you have survived?”
She replied, “My Dear – we are here to love and learn and grow. How can I learn anything if I stay trapped in my pain, trapped in the past, trapped in the echoes of disappointment, resentment, or victimizing myself to circumstances? We are here to serve others – how can we make any real difference or progress if we don’t see the big picture?”
She continued, “We don’t learn from what makes us laugh. We learn from what makes us cry. If you’re committed to a spiritual path, you take what you’ve learned to help others. You need to take a step back from the natural reaction of being the victim, see the big picture to learn the lesson, and then transmute it to help others. I can live no other way.”
Thank You, Cammie, for being such a positive, inspiration to us all!