Saturday, August 18, 2012

Our New Van and the Beauty of Paying it Forward

I wanted to write about the day we got our new van right away.
But, I had to work. A lot. Over the last few days.
So here, I am, armed with a heart overflowing with joy and gratefulness, some pictures, and even a video.

Tuesday, Michael and I headed up to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, MD. It's about 45 minutes away from where we live in Virginia.

I realize as I'm exiting the Beltway (about 40 minutes from home) that I didn't have my wallet in my purse! That meant I didn't have my driver's license. I did have two other forms of government-issued ID: My US Capitol pass and my White House hard pass.

The hard core officer at the gate took those, and my car registration, and made us park the SUV just inside the gate. Purgatory. The officer even questioned if Michael's ID was his! I mean, come ON.

I have been to WRNNMC SOOOO many times and I was just waved on. GRR.
So, I had to text the McConnells and sweet Krystina came to the gate to rescue us. And the hard core officer of course gave me a ticket, which he informed be was "only" $75.00.  For driving without a license.  I could have appeared in court with my license to show that I did in fact have a valid driver's license, but I don't have time to go to court in Maryland, so I paid the ticket.


Now, moving on to the rest of the day that was filled with nothing else like that! Phew.

We met up with Derek and Krystina and headed to a conference room where the group was having lunch.  It was packed in there!

There were wounded warriors and wheelchairs and family members and friends and even dogs! Michael spent some time getting to know some of the wounded warriors that we didn't know.
I finally got to meet Laura, from a great organization that helps out up there, Operation Ward 57.
I saw Derek's mom, Siobhan. She looks amazing. It's incredible, what we've seen this family endure. When I first met Siobhan, she hadn't slept in weeks, she was dealing with migraines, and keeping tabs on her son (one of her five children) who had just been blown up. I can't even imagine. It was so nice to see her refreshed. It's not easy, this family definitely still has lots of challenges, but life goes on.  They are so strong!
Laurie Hollander, who leads Help Our Military Heroes, talked about how their non-profit got started, and how their mission is to provide wheelchair accessible vans to the wounded warriors.  The government provides grants that cover the cost somewhat, but HOMH meets the military families in the middle and bridges that financial gap, so they can get their vans.  There were a few other non-profits and people who all worked together to get the McConnells their van, I can't even remember them all. If someone sends me the complete list, I will be happy to update this post so they can all get adequate shout-outs!

I loved hearing the background of the charity - and how they have these spin-a-thons (think spinning class) that raise some $250,000! Just a beautiful story that everyone can make a difference, you just have to do what YOU CAN DO and see what happens.

Laurie presented Derek and Krystina with the keys to their new van!
And that wasn't all!
It felt like I was watching the Oprah Show or Ellen! Because then Laurie gave Derek and Krystina a year of free gas, and a year of free car insurance. That may not even have been all. I couldn't keep up!
Then, Krystina spoke.  I can't help it, I'm going to gush here. Because this young woman is the real deal. Today is Krystina's 21st birthday! She is so young, but you would never know it. She has such poise. She lives her life with such grace. She is small, but spunky and I would not mess with her! She was laying on the beach a year ago, when she found out the guy she had been dating for four years lost both of his legs in Afghanistan. She didn't even pause. Krystina quit her job, dropped out of school and has spent almost every single day of the last year helping Derek to heal.  She is the picture of service and commitment, and even though she feels like a little sister to me, there is a part of me that looks up to her.

Krystina presented the van keys to us.

She cried a little, but held it together for the most part. I was crying too, and I was speechless after she gave me the keys.  I said a few words, just thanking them for their friendship and Michael thanked them and encouraged the wounded warriors that though the road is long and tough, they can live with these injuries.

It was all very emotional for me.

So. I had a cookie. Naturally.
Then, we headed downstairs to go to the vans!

Of course, we got lost. We went out the wrong entrance, had to visit the front desk to get a map, then the elevator was taking forever, so we walked around the building up a huge hill.
It makes me laugh now. We don't ever seem to take the easy road, do we?

The vans were parked in front of the tower, which is like the signature building on campus.
I wish I would have gotten a picture of both vans. Our van was parked behind the McConnells' van. If anyone has that picture, will you please send it to me?

Derek and Krystina showed us our new van!! We were so excited. Michael couldn't get in there fast enough! Haha.
I mean, you know, after it was fully inspected by Sgt. Archie of course!
Michael rolled right up FRONT! Yay. We are so excited to have a van that meets our needs, and allows us to ride together in the car. Michael used to have this big red van when we were dating, and the wheelchair tie downs were in the back. I always hated driving up front while he was in the back. It made me feel like a taxi driver, or like I was his mom. (no offense to my mother-in-law) I'm really looking forward to riding in the van together up front, where we can hold hands, share french fries, and of course - fight over the temperature and the radio stations!
There are a couple of things that needed to be looked at in the van - like the ramp and the door. There was a super nice guy named Randy from Ride-Away in Beltsville, MD who was part of the presentation. Ride-Away is a company that modifies vehicles for people with disabilities to ride in them, or drive them. Randy offered to go ahead and take the van to the shop and get it looked at for us! So, I handed him a key. I mean, that's service!

Then we went up to check out Derek and Krystina's new wheels.
Isn't that beautiful! It's a 2012 Charcoal Dodge Caravan and it was so awesome to see Derek and Krystina in it, checking everything out.
Derek and Krystina were ready to go crusin' in their new wheels!
So, we saw them off.
Then Siobhan took a picture of us with our new wheels!! :)
Thank you Team Derek!!!! Our life is changed, and we are forever grateful!

You guys. I am not even done!
After this, we went with Siobhan back into the hospital to go see Capt. Tammy Phipps. Capt. Phipps BUILT the driving rehab program at Walter Reed. She shared with us the road she has taken over the last few years to get this amazing program started. And she even showed us her adapted vehicles!
She explained different types of hand controls to us, and how she has taught other quadriplegics to drive, and what the challenges are, etc.  It was fascinating!
I could really tell how passionate she is about her job. She is THE person who teaches all of the wounded warriors to drive, ya'll! That is a big job! And an important one. I can only speak as a family member of someone with a disability - but having these guys able to drive has GOT to make it so much easier on their families, and I'm sure it works wonders for the wounded warriors - giving them back control of a vehicle, and giving them freedom and independence!

We drove home in our SUV. It looks like we will be getting our van back from Ride-Away next week, probably Tuesday or Wednesday. We are SO excited!

What moved me more than anything else that day was the people.  From Laurie, who started this charity by riding a stationary bike - to Derek, Krystina and Siobhan - giving us the van that someone else gave to them in their time of need - to the people at Ride-Away, to Capt. Phipps. It took a HUGE group of people who care A LOT to make this happen.

It's like a huge food chain of paying it forward. It's fueled by good people who pour their time, their resources and their hearts into healing our wounded warriors.  It takes a team effort like this to get them back to life, to their new normal.

Michael isn't a wounded warrior.  He is not new to life in a wheelchair.
Yet, here we are - benefiting from this same pay-it-forward food chain.
It is an honor.
And we promise to keep the chain going forward.

I think his post on our Facebook page said it all:
"Hey all. Just wanted to amen all of the comments... this is a great step for us because it means no more transfers in the heat, cold, rain and scary side streets. No more people watching my wife haul my big you know what in and out of the Escape. She can dress like a girl now. Like, wearing a dress and heels out -- even if I prefer jeans ;-) we can go out without worrying about Dana's back."

Let this be a challenge to you. What can you do to make someone else's life better? Everyone can do something. And when we work together, we can change someone's world. It matters.


Joyce Hawley said...

Wow! You have filled my heart! What an awesome day. Years ago Buddy and LaDonna saw a real need for our family. They gave us a little Plymouth Horizon. It was by far a huge blessing to us! It was a standard, I had to learn to drive it and no AC in Florida. But we didn't care it was so much more than words could explain! We had that little blessing for 10 years! Still after all this time I get tears in my eyes thinking about it. I'm so excited for you and Michael. Along with your friends Team Derek! <3

Cheri said...

What blessings! There is not a better joy than giving and paying forward, planting those seeds for God. Great post Dana!

Kristen Maddux said...

Oh my word. I am close to tears, and just beyond happy for you! I'm constantly overwhelmed by how MANY AMAZING people there are in this world. I wish I had time to get to know and hang out with every single one of them! :)
This van is a life-changer for you all, for sure. I love watching God's favor pour out on you both, for being faithful and for being bold in reaching out to others. It's a testimony to the rest of us, that if we feel God's nudging to help others in a specific way...DON'T SHYING AWAY FROM JUST DOING IT. God's richest blessing could be waiting on the other side.
Awesome. So pumped to hear all about your upcoming ROAD TRIPS! :) Have fun, ya'll!

Diane Moody said...

In the words of my hero Ronald Reagan, "Well, there you go again!" Once again I'm a puddle of tears, all of them happy tears - SO blessed to read about your AMAZING day, the AWESOME gift that was given to you, the ANGELS who were all a part of this . . . it just goes on and on. Thank you so much for sharing with us. And CONGRATULATIONS on your new wheels!!! Love you guys!

~~~Siobhan~~~ said...

Love you!

Tales of Life an Adventure said...

That picture of you two is perfect. Glad to see good people still exaistance.

Dana Brown Ritter said...

Thanks, Joyce! I hadn't ever heard that story about the Plymouth Horizon, how sweet of them! They are the best. I married into a very sweet family, that's for sure!

Dana Brown Ritter said...

Thank you, Cheri!

Dana Brown Ritter said...

Love you too! So much!

Dana Brown Ritter said...

Thank you so much for sharing in our joy, Kristen! We have already been on a few road trips, and you are so right - it is a life changer! We are so thankful for our friends who gave this amazing blessing to us!

Dana Brown Ritter said...

Derek!?!?! I just realized this is you. I am forever grateful that our paths crossed.

Dana Brown Ritter said...

Thanks for caring about us so much that it brings you to tears. You are a sweet, sweet friend, Diane!