Friday, May 17, 2013
The month of May is always an exciting but fearful time for parents with teenaged children. It is also the month of Prom for many schools. Teachers fret the details of the weeks leading up to graduation. Kids eagerly anticipate their junior or senior prom. And parents do what they do best. They worry.
Parents have good reason to worry. Teenagers are not known for their good judgment. Poor impulse control, peer pressure, and a few drinks can lead to nightmare scenarios and the worst decisions possible. Adults know this and do their best to advise their kids. Kids tune them out. It’s the way of the world, and it’s dangerous.
My business time of year is in May when high schools are planning their junior and senior proms. This is a time for kids to learn new social skills, to test themselves, and all too often to let down inhibitions they are normally in touch with. The worst thing of all is that it’s often a time when kids drink and drive. And there’s no worse combination.
During April and May, schools reach out and ask me to speak with their junior and senior classes in the hope that I will be a vivid and visual example of what can happen if you let your guard down for even a moment. One momentary lapse in judgment, one misstep, and your life can turn on a dime. Worse yet, you can maim or even kill an innocent third party all in the name of a foolish impulse. Is it really worth it? Of course not, but I don’t preach because it doesn’t work. I inspire and motivate. I joke around with the kids, I tell stories about rehab, I show pictures of my car twisted and bent in half with me inside it, and I let them draw their own conclusions. I’ve learned that telling kids what to do and what not to do is the wrong way to go. After all, they know so much more than we do. Hmmm. The real answer is to tell stories and parables, show some pictures, and let doing the right thing be their idea. If it’s their idea, kids become invested in it. If you insist on making it your idea, then it’s just something to be challenged or ignored.
Kids are great, and I love working with them. They need to learn the skills to make good decisions, and that’s what my appearances are all about. All in all, one junior and one senior at a time, I think the message gets through. One thing I know for sure is that if there’s one benefit to living life in a wheelchair because of a drunk driver, it’s I can help others avoid the same fate. That’s a pretty good benefit.
To for more information on my missions or to purchase a copy of "Still Standing," visit www. StillStandingWithDwight.com
Friday, May 10, 2013
“That guy is driving way too fast,” I said to myself as I glanced in the rearview mirror. “He’ll probably just pass me,” I thought, and I turned my attention back to the wet road ahead. It was rainy afternoon, and I wanted to keep my eyes in front of me.
BAM! I felt a hard jolt and immediately swerved into the ditch colliding with a tree. I had just enough time to say a short prayer before passing out and not regaining consciousness until I found myself in the emergency room. I had massive internal injuries, a severed spine, and only a slight chance to survive.
The driver who hit me was a 71-year old drunk who had been convicted of numerous DUIs in recent years. He was driving an unregistered truck and without a license. I lay on my back undergoing surgery after surgery, suffering unrelenting pain, and condemned to a wheelchair for the rest of my life. That is if I survived at all. I did, and so did Herman Posey, the drunk driver.
“That rat bastard is walkin’ around free without a word of apology,” said Cedrick, my older and sometimes hot-headed brother. “We gotta do something about this,” he suggested to me and the others assembled in my hospital room. There was a low murmuring of agreement as everybody turned their attention to me wanting to see how I would respond. I waited a minute and gave my answer.
“No, Cedrick,” I said. “That’s not the answer. I have to focus on me and my recovery. I need your help to do it. If I worry about revenge and trying to set matters right, that won’t make me walk again. In fact, it will only hurt me. We have to let the system do whatever it’s gonna do, and we need to focus on my health. That’s what matters most to me.”
I don’t know where I found the wisdom or courage for that response because I was truly angry at what Posey had done to me. But I knew I had no future without finding a way to forgive, and in that single moment, I think I took my most important step toward recovery.
There seemed to be a collective sigh of relief in the hospital room when I gave my answer, and Cedrick went along with it. I can tell you it took two years of surgeries, grueling and painful rehab, and many setbacks along the way, but I am now as happy as I have ever been in my life. I have a wife whom I love profoundly. I have a child that makes me smile day and night, even when she gets her schedule upside down and won’t let me sleep. I have a job I love speaking to groups of high school and college students across the south and to a host of other organizations. I drive anywhere I want to go, and I do anything I need to do. Sometimes when Tamika and Brailey are both asleep, I sit there and smile and thank God for the way my life has turned out. And the only thing I know for sure is this. If I had not forgiven Posey and focused on revenge instead of recovery, none of these wonderful things would have happened. Forgiveness is a path toward grace, and it benefits the forgiver far more than the forgiven.
God bless you all.
Visit www.StillStandingWithDwight.com for more information on my story or to purchase a copy of "Still Standing."
Friday, May 3, 2013
S.T.A.R.S (Striving Toward Awareness and Respect For Self)
C.H.A.M.P.S (Changing Hearts Attitudes and Minds for Personal Success)
Readers of this blog know how much I admire the spirit of volunteerism and the notion of giving back to the community. Perhaps it’s because of my own upbringing, but the organizations I like most are ones that help children. And that’s what “Stars and Champs” is all about.
I grew up in a rural, poor county in Mississippi, and even in the best of times, life was never easy. We had some income, but not much. We hunted, fished, and tended our own gardens to put food on the table. Clothes were passed down from older brother to younger brother until they were too threadbare to wear. My younger brother, Voncarie, got the worst of it. He was the youngest, and jeans and shirts would go from Cedric, my older brother, to me, to Voncarie. By the time he got them, they were barely hanging together by a thread. Growing up this way can build character, promote frugality, and help you develop a love of family. Sometimes, however, especially in urban settings like the City of Memphis, kids fail to develop self-confidence, and they nurture a sense of hopelessness instead of hope. That’s what Stars and Champs combats every day, and they do a terrific job.
Some years ago a wonderful lady named Johnnice Ulmer started Stars and Champs in Memphis before bringing it to Mississippi, and its purpose is to provide individual mentors for children in the 3rd through 12th grades. Each child has an individual mentor, and that mentor commits to stay with the child through high school graduation. They often stay longer. Child by child, case by case, the program supports the mentors who support the children. The kids get help with homework, go to events with their mentor, become friends with their mentor’s family, have a shoulder to lean on, and get a role model to help them through rough patches. While the kids in this program may not be underprivileged, many are underserved and miss many of the opportunities of those in larger urban areas. These kids need additional help and attention to enhance and improve those areas that families do not have available. No program can be 100% successful, but this one gives a life line to many. It is hard, enduring work, but that hard work pays off.
Johnnice moved to Mississippi and has started the same program in her new town of Laurel. The program has an indomitable spirit and a proven track record of success. I have met with Johnnice, spoken before many of the kids in the program, and fallen in love with their work. These kids are bright-eyed, energetic, and big hearted. They are not yet well educated academically or in the ways of the world, but they are heading in the right direction. Their mentors are committed to them, and the kids are grateful for the help.
Unfortunately, the Stars and Champs is in the last year of being funded. The program will continue despite the loss of funding, but it will need your support. The program is located at Sawmill Square Mall in Laurel, MS. Donations can also be made at http://starschamps.com/index.html .
It’s hard to measure the success of programs like Stars and Champs, but when you see kids who spend six or eight years with their mentor come back and become mentors themselves, you just know it works. Child by child. Case by case. Bravo to Stars and Champs. They are making a difference where it counts.
To learn more about my missions, to get involved, or to purchase a copy of "Still Standing," visit www.StillStandingWithDwight.com .
Friday, April 26, 2013
There are times when I suddenly realize just how much I love my life, and one of those times was last week. The administration of Spain Park High School in Birmingham, Alabama invited me to speak to their faculty and student body, so I packed up my truck and made the five hour trek the day before. I did the same thing for Hoover High School in Birmingham last year, and it only seemed fair to meet with Hoover’s rival, the Spain Park Jaguars, as well. I’m glad I did.
I’m from Mississippi, and our natural rival is Alabama. I pull for the Golden Eagles and the Running Rebels at every turn, but life in ‘Bama centers around the Crimson Tide and Auburn Tigers. And while this football and basketball rivalry is fierce, it ends on the field. When it comes to hospitality, the people of Alabama can’t be beat.
When I arrived last Thursday, I spent an hour with the faculty first thing in the morning, and they were as generous of spirit as anybody could be. I gave my testimony, and the thing that the teachers focused on most was forgiveness.
“Dwight, how were able to forgive Posey, the drunk driver who severed my spine, I so quickly?” asked one teacher. “I don’t think I could have done it.”
My answer was simple. “After the accident, I needed to focus on me, on my own recovery and my own health. If I focused on revenge and on Posey, I probably wouldn’t be here. Forgiveness is freedom.” I emphasized every day and every second counting for something.
As wonderful as the faculty was, the kids were even better. They were more interested in justice and jail time for Posey than forgiveness, but they peppered me with questions at each session. I spoke to each class in turn from the ninth graders to the seniors, and each class was more receptive and attentive than the one before. They quickly got over any shyness and asked honest, direct questions.
“Can you drive?” Yes. (I’ m totally independent.)
“How can you drive in a wheelchair?” (Not as hard as you’d think. I drive with my hands)
“Do you enjoy taking care of your daughter Brailey?” (Yes. It’s my favorite job.)
“Do you ever tip over in the wheelchair?” (Hmm. A few times, but I have also rolled uncontrollably down a hill and smashed into a car. Lol.)
"Why are you so full of joy?" (Because I'm still here!)
They heard about my surgeries. They learned about my grueling rehab. And most importantly, they saw first-hand what one self-indulgent, thoughtless act could do to another human being. Did they really want that on their conscience? I think they all asked themselves that question, and I think they knew the answer.
Actions have consequences, and while I want kids to be kids and test themselves in every reasonable way, I don’t want them drinking and driving or making any choices they will later on regret. Nobody wins, and they saw that first hand. I didn’t preach or lecture. In fact, I laughed a lot. But the message was clear all the same, and they got it. Drinking and driving is no laughing matter, and as prom night nears for Spain High, I think many of them will keep that message in mind. I hope so.
I take off my hat to faculty and students of Spain High. They were wonderful hosts, generous listeners, and more than friendly to their Mississippi neighbor.
Saturday, April 13, 2013
Most of us take it for granted, but driving is liberation. It’s mobility. It’s freedom. And for me, it was probably the most important thing in regaining my confidence and self reliance after my accident. My dear friend and author of “Still Standing,” Jon Praet, is legally blind. That seems an odd condition for a writer, but he can zoom the computer to 250% and manage quite well. What he can’t do is drive. And while he handles his vision problems with humor and dignity, at least most of the time, his one persistent complaint is that he can no longer drive. I understand his longing better than most.
I’ve written about this before, but the day I got my truck after it had been modified so I could control speed and breaking with levers on the steering column, I left Tamika and my mom in the driveway and took off. I just said, “See you later,” and went off for the day. I went to Jackson and back, drove throughout my county, and didn’t even let bad drivers annoy me. I had a smile on my face all day, and it was glorious. I probably took it a bit too far because I didn’t even answer my cell phone. I returned that evening to two very angry women who couldn’t wait to let me have it.
“Dwight, you didn’t even answer your cell phone,” Tamika said angrily. “You could have been in a ditch or had an accident. That was thoughtless and rude.”
“Yeah, Dwight,” my mom said because she was anxious to join the fray. “You had us worried sick. What were you thinking? I’ll tell you what you were thinking. You weren’t thinking at all.”
This went on for fifteen minutes, and if one lost steam, the other picked up the slack. They were a tag team dedicated to the proposition that I should feel miserable for my sin. I finally gave my answer after we all took a collective breath.
“I know it was thoughtless of me, and I apologize,” I said. “But understand this. For the past year plus I have been flat on my back or rolling around in a wheelchair. Even though I’ve tried to do everything I can for myself, up to now, other people had to drive me everywhere. For the first time in over a year, I felt freedom. I could go where I wanted, drive alone with my thoughts, and feel a sense of independence that you two take for granted every day. I am sorry, and I know I was inconsiderate, but I loved every minute of it. I can finally do all those things you do and don’t even think about, and it feels great.”
It was more of an explanation than an apology, and mom and Tamika still had to nurse their anger a while longer, but they understood. Mom went home after complaining about me throughout dinner, and she couldn’t quite leave without getting the last word.
“Dwight, I forgive you, but I raised you to be more thoughtful than you were,” she said. “Do it again, and I’ll throw your keys in the pond.”
Tamika, who is also fond of getting the last word, said: “You won’t have to, Lesa. I’ll drive his truck in the pond first.”
And with that, we made up, and I think we all learned some lessons. They understood just how important it was for me to drive again, and I agreed that I would never take off for the day and ignore their phone calls. I think we all grew a little bit that day.
As of now, no one can take me off the road as I continue to strive to bring joy and inspiration to the lives of others.
Friday, April 5, 2013
I like to write about people and organizations that make a difference in this blog. One of the best of these is Forrest General Hospital. This may seem an odd choice because hospitals are engaged in the business of making people better. Of course, Forrest General does this in spades. They saved my life and put me back on the path to health. That’s their job. But the truth is, they do much, much more.
I have kept up my relationship with Forrest General over the past eight years because of the genuine care they show for their patients. This isn’t simply a paragraph in some operational manual, it’s their way of doing business. They have ongoing staff meetings with senior administrators, doctors, nurses, and other hospital professionals to review feedback from patients and make course corrections to improve their service. They invite patients back to speak to hospital staff about what was good and was, well, less good about their stay in the hospital. They constantly review their operations, and they are open to change. In short, they are willing to admit they can do it better, and then they do.
A few months back, I spoke before a large group of professionals in the hospital. They wanted to hear about my month-long experience in the hospital, and no critique was off limits. I spent a lot of tie in the hospital after my accident, and I had a lot to say. In my case, I wanted the hospital staff to understand that it’s important to show something of their personalities, to show me who they are. I already knew they were experts at what they did, but medicine is more than just diagnosis and treatment.
I told them about my favorite doctor in the world, Dr. Duncan Donald, who is a trauma surgeon. But he’s more than that. Each time I dealt with Dr. Donald, he spoke with me in an open and frank way. He explained in non-technical terms what they were about to do and why they were doing it. He told me what to expect, described possible complications, and patiently answered my questions. He explained why each procedure was necessary, and what I was likely to feel as a result. Dr. Donald was also willing to share a joke or a story and put me at ease. He exuded confidence and concern for my wellbeing, and in my view, that’s every bit as important as all the technical knowledge in the world. Dr. Donald wasn’t the only person like that, there were many others. And over time, I came to trust the staff at Forrest General and realize that I wasn’t just a patient to fix and move along. I was truly their “client” and the focus of their attention.
What Forrest General does makes a difference. This hospital reaches out to the community, seeks input and feedback from the people who need their services, and is open-minded. They want their staff to focus on the entire patient, not just on the case before them, and while no hospital visit is ever pleasant, they make it as bearable and painless as possible. That’s my idea of what a great hospital is all about.
Sunday, March 31, 2013
My wife Tamika and I have been happily married for almost six years now, and our joy in each other has only grown deeper with the arrival of our first child, our beautiful daughter Brailey, this past December. Tamika and I knew before we got married that we wanted children, but it took a little longer than we expected. The wait was worth it.
When we brought Brailey home in December, every gurgle, every cough, every noise was cause for concern. We were brand new parents, and it took a while to understand that this fragile, precious creature in our care was really much sturdier than either of us knew. Brailey has been a wonderful teacher for Tamika and me, although she’s sometimes a bit impatient when we don’t get it quite right fast enough. We have come to learn what the coos, gurgles, cries, and various noises mean. We have come to learn her language, so to speak, and she is remarkably expressive. Brailey has learned to coo and gurgle and laugh with delight, and she has stolen our hearts. And sometimes that’s a problem.
Weeks before Tamika had to go back to work as a high school guidance counselor, she started tearing up at the thought of it.
“Dwight, this is going to break my heart,” Tamika told me one day. She was anticipating the worst, which may be a good thing because in the end, it wasn’t that bad. We found reliable day care for Brailey, and each morning Tamika dresses herself and the baby, spends an hour with Brailey before heading off to work, and brings Brailey to day care about a mile from the school. The day care center is terrific, and they also have cameras that we can tie into our computers so we can see Brailey any time we want. That gives both of us a great deal of reassurance. In addition, the employees at the day care center have become like family to us.
One day shortly after Tamika went back to work and Brailey joined the world of day care, I glanced at the screen to see what Brailey was up to. I was shocked. There was a woman there leaning over our baby and kissing her. I immediately got on the phone and called Tamika.
“Tamika, there’s some woman leaning over our baby kissing on her,” I said with concern.
Tamika paused for a second and let out a big laugh. “Dwight, you big goof, that’s me.”
Well, like most men, I hadn’t paid any attention to what Tamika was wearing that day, and I could only see her from behind because of the camera angle. Tamika went to check in on Brailey. At the end of the day, Tamika was pleased that I had been watching the screen and called her, although she continued to call me a goof for not knowing it was her.
What I do know from all this is that Brailey has already done much in her short life. She has made herself the object of our affection and brought Tamika and me even closer. Our hearts leap with joy when we see Brailey, and we smile constantly at this new addition to our life. Tamika, a happy and loving wife already, is now filled with a new joy. And that makes me happy too.
To learn more about my story or to purchase "Still Standing," visit www.StillStandingWithDwight.com