By Shelly Oberhotlzer
I believe we are not defined by what we have but rather by what we give away. Whoever eulogizes us in the end will remember kind words we gave away and generosity freely and joyfully given from our hearts. People will recall what we contributed not what we gained. I want to tell you a story and it follows a rather improbable and winding road but if you can be patient it is a beautiful and poignant story.
It all started poolside at Campbell’s resort in Chelan. I was soaking in the sun with my girlfriend when she got an obviously disturbing message on her cell phone. The message was from a longtime friend of hers telling her that her daughter was very ill at Children’s Hospital. Not many details, just enough information to make your stomach start turning. A parent’s worst fear, the horrific reminder of how fragile our children are. I hadn’t met this girl yet — but I would in the coming weeks and I am proud to have stood witness to how she affected and continues to affect our community today.
The full ramifications of her illness were understood later: The daughter of my friend’s friend had acute myeloid leukemia. Shock and profound sadness overcame our community, and when I say community, I mean several communities actually, including Meadowdale High School teachers, students and coaches, friends and families, churches, the softball communityand local sports heroes, all the way to grocery checkers at the local QFC.
You see, this little girl had a lion’s heart and touched more lives in 18 short years than most of us will ever dream of, and her name is Ashley Aven. Her doctors told her she had between six and eight weeks to live but she refused to believe that and instead of giving up she made a “to do” list. Her list included things like graduating from high school, attending senior prom and seeing the movie “The Blind Side,” all of which she did. Seemingly impossible feats given your doctors told you in January that you have a few weeks to live.
She was a beautiful high school softball player who wanted to be a pediatric nurse. She endured three difficult rounds of chemotherapy but her cancer cell count was never low enough for a bone marrow transplant. At one point during a hospital appointment, her grief-stricken father Bill sat with his head in his hands and a stranger came by and put a hand on his shoulder and said to him “big, deep breaths.” “Big Deep Breath” or BDB as we call it, has become a mantra for many in our community and you will see cars with yellow softball-shaped window stickers with BDB #2, representing Ashley’s jersey number.
On an early August morning 2010 Ashley Aven left us, and I guess depending on how you look at it, I believe she won her battle with cancer by acting with style and grace in what I imagine to be the most frightening time in her life. Her father’s words when she passed: “She doesn’t have cancer anymore.”
I remember that morning very clearly. I went to the grocery store and the majority of employees were tearful while continuing about their jobs. I thought to myself, “Wow — that is saying something about her life when even the grocery store staff is mourning her loss.”
Ashley’s story exemplified the idea that courage is not lack of fear — but going forward in spite of it. She proved we are not defined by our circumstances and can only be limited by our own attitudes, and she demonstrated these lessons very publicly. I found this kind of wisdom in an 18-year-old surprising given it is rare among many adults.
Ashley’s father has developed a nonprofit organization called “Big Deep Breath” to help other families struggling with childhood cancer. He is giving back to his community in spite of an overwhelming loss. Meadowdale High School created an annual whiffle ball tournament in Ashley’s name to help raise money for local children with cancer and last year raised $7,000. This year, a new ladies softball scoreboard at Meadowdale High will be dedicated in Ashley Aven’s name during the whiffle ball tourney, which will be at 11 a.m. Sunday, May22 at the softball field.
Connectzone, where I work, donated that scoreboard and it was a pretty easy decision to make. One of my staff — who also happens to coach softball at Meadowdale High — brought this need to our attention. Funding for schools has been so severely cut that our teachers often have to pay for their own copies-much less is there money for new scoreboards. Connectzone is grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute not just to the community but the athletic department and mostly to the girls who make up the Lady Mavericks softball team. Everyone wins: The players get the scoreboard, Ashley Aven’s sense of spirit will be back out on the softball field and we at Connectzone get to feel a warm sense of contribution to our local kids.
I encourage all of you to consider what you can contribute to your community. Be sure and think outside the box. Contributions don’t have to be financial: maybe check on an elderly neighbor, volunteer at the pet shelter or help with the school carnival. Financial contributions can be small — buy a teacher a ream of paper or offer to take your child’s baseball team for ice cream; I promise it will make you feel good.
When we build strong schools, we get strong kids. If we have strong kids, we get strong communities. When we build strong communities, we end up with strong cities. If we have strong cities, we have strong states, which lead to a better nation. Better nations lead to better living for everyone worldwide. But don’t get scared, it’s okay to start small.
And by the way, when I say build a community, I mean build it as in an action word. This building process is not a spectator sport, it doesn’t mean watch someone else do it, it means push your own sleeves up and do something.
I would love to hear what your company does for your community. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shelly Oberholtzer was born in Seattle and raised in Edmonds. She graduated from the former Edmonds High School under the maiden name of Shelly Hutton, and from Shoreline Community College, and also attended the University of Washington. Connectzone is owned by Dann Oberholtzer, a south Seattle native who graduated from Rainier Beach High in 1981 and who has two children attending Meadowdale-area schools. Lynnwood-based Connectzone manufactures and resells computer cabling, fiber optics and connectivity devices and also installs network systems. ConnectZone.com can be contacted at 12512 Beverly Park Road, Suite B1b, Lynnwood, 425-212-4400.