34,000 Lives began October 23, 2012 as a project inspired by a friend on a mission to make a difference for her 50th birthday. My friend, Teresa Benge, had finished her first IronGirl Duathlon, won an essay contest sponsored by O, The Oprah Magazine and Crocs Cares, and coordinated an event providing diabetes education, awareness and protective footwear to members of her community: The David McVicker Foot Fair. David McVicker, Teresa’s father, had lost his leg to diabetes at the age of fifty. Fifty, for Teresa, was a big deal. I was fast approaching my 34th birthday, and while thirty-four wasn’t a particularly special number, I decided I wanted it to be a particularly special birthday. Why not? My hope became to positively impact 34,000 lives by January 23, 2013.
My idea was to share the the essays entered into the Kelly Culhane Writing Prize and explain how the book “Upon Arrival of Illness” came to be. I wanted to generate excitement for the courage it takes to share a personal story, and show that by sharing stories and experiences people feel connected and not so all alone in their journey. Envisioning a wildfire of sorts, I began.
Fall 2011, Mike Savage of Savage Press announced the Kelly Culhane Writing Prize – a writing contest held in honor of his 41-year-old niece, Kelly Culhane, a Minnesota wife and mother who lost her three-year battle with Breast Cancer in 2010. The contest topic was Upon Arrival of Illness – Coming to Terms with The Dark Companion. Writers could interpret the topic as they saw fit. In addition to several prizes, entrants had the opportunity to have their essay published in a book. The publisher hoped to honor his niece, promote writing as a form of therapy, and raise funds for cancer research.
October 9, 2012, for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and to celebrate Kelly Culhane’s birthday, Mike Savage sent copies of the book to the submitting authors. The essays were heartfelt. The writers were courageous in sharing their stories. Finding out, too, that a portion of proceeds from the sale of the book ($14.95, www.savpress.com) would go to cancer research, I thought the book would be perfect in the waiting rooms of clinics and hospitals; as a gift to people going through treatment and getting diagnosed; and a valuable tool for family members and friends. So, I began telling people about the contest and the essays and the book. And I created an online community for people to connect and share stories, and feel not so all alone with whatever battle(s) they may be facing.
I imagined large donations to cancer research because strangers heard about this writing contest and these stories and they purchased the book. I smiled thinking of writers never noticed before being featured in their local newspaper and interviewed by their local news stations, their stories giving readers hope and encouraging other writers to take a chance and share their own personal experiences.
Recognizing others, igniting hope, helping people connect and not feel alone – how cool is that? A wildfire, that’s what I wanted. A wildfire of “Oh, did you read this one yet?” . . . “Wasn’t that amazing?” . . . “I had no idea a spider bite could do that.” I kept telling myself: One person. That’s all. I just have to get one person to tell one person who tells one person. I just have to do that four thousand times.
By January I had inspired the sale of more than fifty books, articles in more than eight newspapers nationwide, and more than one hundred likes on the 34,000 Lives Facebook community page. The wildfire I had dreamed of didn’t exactly happen. But, I was making a difference.
My 34th birthday came and went. I did not reach 34,000 people. The 34,000 Lives Facebook page did not become as interactive as I had hoped. Some days, in fact, it felt like I was simply typing online to myself. Toward the end of January, struggling with the loss of my dad and grandpa, I considered letting go of the project. Then, I began to receive notes and emails. One read: I wanted to tell you on your birthday, you may not realize how you did achieve your goal, as you are like a pebble thrown into the lake – the ripples keep going and going because of what you do! You truly inspire others!
I. Inspire. Others. That’s all I needed. To have a positive impact in a person’s day; to evoke a smile; to take a moment to thank someone who has brightened my day; to provide some form of inspiration; and to connect people so they don’t feel alone in their battle. That, my friends, is what this 34,000 Lives project has become: a project worth the time and effort; a project that embraces, celebrates and shares everyday moments and special stories in such a way it inspires others to also, in some way, positively impact the individuals they know and meet.
Every birthday and every day may I celebrate the people in this life who have played a part in me becoming who I am. Every birthday and every day may I celebrate my ability to have a positive impact on the lives of others.
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