Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Role Models Who Guide Us

            One of the difficult things about this time is that many of us are hard-wired to help others, and of course the best way we can help right now is to stay where we are. There are important ways we can offer assistance, from donating to relief organizations, to making masks for essential employees, to donating blood. Another way we can help is by paying attention to the lives of individuals who guide us toward the better angels of our nature.
            A few weeks ago, my high school commemorated the one-year anniversary of the death of our late principal, Derrick Nelson, who died from complications while donating bone marrow to a teen-age boy in France. This past week, our school initiated a quarterly award honoring students who selflessly help others. It’s named the “Lift While You Climb” award, in honor of a statement Nelson once made. He said, “We have an obligation to our fellow human beings that if we are in a position to help someone, you do it. You lift as you climb. If you can do that, you have contributed more to society than anything your bank account can produce and, ultimately, contribute more to your own well-being.”
            I think of Nelson and his words while reading the stories of medical professionals who risk their lives in emergency rooms around the world. Lacking in sufficient equipment and in experience with a virus quite like this, our doctors, nurses and other medical staff are using skill, instinct, collaboration and heart as they serve on the front lines of this crisis. Last week, I read a doctor’s diary of life in a New York City ER, and I strongly recommend it. The author, Helen Ouyang, describes what it looks like to stare down a virus as it rages around you. She feels the stress every day, yet keeps coming back to do the job, then takes the additional step of sharing that experience with us.
            More than 50,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S., and we mourn those deaths in our own thoughts and in our collective grief. Some of us have lost loved ones, while others know students or colleagues who have lost family or friends. My family is actually mourning the loss of a dear friend who died last week from a different cause. One of my childhood friends, Scott Salinardi, died suddenly last week of a heart attack at his home. Scott was a man who had all of the qualities needed to succeed in any field – intelligence, personality, optimism, compassion, insight and connections, to name just a few. After graduating from the University of Chicago and dabbling in some initial jobs, he chose to devote his working life to serving developmentally disabled adults. Working alongside his father, Richard (a leader in serving the developmentally disabled for five decades), Scott helped run an organization called Lifestyles for the Disabled. He found productive working environments for hundreds of developmentally disabled adults on Staten Island, from cooking to horticulture to education to journalism. When not raising his four daughters with his wife, Sherry, Scott was working all around his hometown, making it possible for so many adults in this borough to feel fulfillment and pride in their lives.
            Scott was 45 when he died last week; Derrick was 44 when he passed away last year. Many others have died far too young during this time of COVID-19, and others, like Scott and Derrick, have left us too early for other reasons. Losing a loved one can feel paralyzing and helpless; living through a pandemic can feel like a true onslaught of despair. And yet, these stories of service can make it much harder to give up. We ask ourselves: If Derrick could give so selflessly, if Scott could make service his life’s work, if doctors can risk it all to aid those in need, then who am I to give in to the despair?
            We walk through a different world right now, one that requires us to keep our distance. But we still have the ability to walk together in all the ways that matter. And we have role models to show us the way.