In Celebration: a tribute

I’m often asked why I got into fundraising. I’ve heard it all, from “I couldn’t ask people for money” to “fundraisers are just glorified car salesman.” What people don’t understand is that there is so much more involved. We make connections, share stories, get to know one another and if the affinity for our mission is there, we make an ask, but it doesn’t stop there. We’ve built a relationship.

Fundraising is not just about the money. Yes, the dollars are important if we want to provide for the organizations we serve. Sure, we have goals to meet, but if we believe in the mission, see the impact and know we are making a difference, then pursuing those goals is easier, even more so knowing the next person we meet might become part of our life.

For me, it’s all about the people.  Since I began in this field in 2006, I’ve met some incredible humans. They’ve shared their personal histories, their life stories and many have become friends. I no longer work at WSU where my fundraising journey began, but I still exchange Christmas cards, have lunch, email and catch up when we can with some of the most genuine people. They’ve become a part of my life mosaic and for that I am blessed. One such piece of that mosaic is Duane Smith.

My first interaction with Duane was over lunch at Bella Luna. He greeted me, a stranger, with a hug then proceeded to show me a framed photo of his beloved “May Queen,” his wife. He shared with me about their journey with Alzheimer’s and how he cared for her in their home except when he had an appointment, needed to run errands, or attended a Shocker game, at which time he had a nurse or family member stay with her. When he spoke of her, you could see his love and dedication, you could hear it in his voice.

And, he told me about his volunteerism. He volunteered at the Ronald McDonald House, Meals on Wheels and the Alzheimer’s Association of Central Kansas where he was a guest speaker and helped other caregivers and in 2012, was honored when the Alzheimer’s Association created the Duane R. Smith Annual Caregiver of the Year Award.

He was inspiring, especially through the sharing of his motto, Continue to Celebrate! Duane told me he believed in celebrating life – all things, big and small. He told me we should not wait to just celebrate the big stuff and the milestones, or we might find ourselves holding a bag of confetti never to be tossed. He used to sign all his emails and cards in celebration of life and was tickled when I began to do the same.

After I left the WSU Foundation, we kept in touch although lunches were a bit harder to schedule. He moved his May Queen into an assisted living and soon moved himself into a retirement community. At every Shocker game (he was a season ticket holder for 50 years), he would come sit with me, my dad and husband and talk basketball, as well as catch up on dad’s golf game and ask about Brad’s business. But, a few seasons ago he had to move from his seat to the handicapped area and we would go to visit him at his seat, so he didn’t have to climb the stairs.

When I left WSU, a virus erased all my contacts in my cell phone and I was not able to call or email him, but he found me, sleuth that he was, at the Wichita Children’s Home. We had lunch on the day after his birthday and although he was no longer driving and was moving a bit slower, he was still sharp-witted, looking forward to the Shocker basketball season, and celebrating. We planned to have lunch again after the season started to compare notes.

Sadly, I discovered through an announcement by his daughter that Duane passed away on October 30 after an illness and hospital stay. I am heartbroken but take comfort in knowing he is with his May Queen, once again. And while I am saddened, my spirit also soars in having the honor of knowing Duane Smith. He inspired and more importantly, he celebrated. Duane always reminded me that people should be celebrated just as much or even more so than events or things. We don’t celebrate one another enough.

In his honor, I will continue to celebrate.  You cannot imagine the simple joy it can bring to sign an email or card with “Still celebrating,” “Continuing the celebration,” or “In celebration of you.” To celebrate means to praise, extol or eulogize, so I can think of no better way to pay tribute to Duane than to carry on his celebration, and I hope you will do the same.

Always in celebration,

Natalie, Your Mermaid of the Plains

For more about Duane, I’d like to share a story from the Wichita Business Journal when he was recognized as a Health Care Hero, as well as his obituary. Godspeed, Mr. Smith. Thank you for teaching me to celebrate all that life has to offer. Your champion spirit shall be greatly missed.






The Story and the Advice Mosaic

This has been a tumultuous year.  Back in May, I wrote a post about finding our identity and our story – our life story. I asked the question I often ask myself, which is What is your story and where is it guiding you? I had no idea that a few months later I would be making my fourth career change in one year. One more life rewrite.

Always one to be open to opportunities, when this position was brought to my attention I felt I had to continue to take my own advice and be open, once again, to the possibility of change. It was nearing my one-year anniversary of leaving Wichita State University and I felt a creeping doubt within me. I knew that while I was enjoying writing content for a local business, there was still something amiss. I didn’t feel like I had found my true purpose. I didn’t feel like I was making a difference.

As I engaged in the interview process, I kept hearing the words of a longtime mentor who told me during my “career hopping” that my path would always lead me to where I belonged. He even told me he believed my path would lead back to nonprofit fundraising where my compassion, empathy and need to make a difference would make the greatest impact.

I knew in the first minutes of my first interview that I would be making yet one more change. I felt comfortable, the people familiar, the mission close to my heart. Plus, I was provided a small reminder by a young woman I’d once hired as a student assistant when I was at WSU. A brilliant young lady I’d mentored and who has now become a dear friend and one I consider my “spirit daughter,” repeated my own words to me over Great Expectations sandwiches at Watermark Books: “I always remember the words you said to me, ‘Listen to your heart and follow your gut. Don’t be afraid of change because it could lead to the place you are meant to be.’”

It was then I realized another aspect of my story has always been to encourage others to write theirs. Sort of a subplot, if you will.  What follows are the lessons and advice I find myself giving to others, especially those trying to find their path and either just beginning to write their story or tackling that rewrite:

  • Be open to possibilities. Something you never imagined yourself doing or experiencing could be the undreamed dream of a lifetime.
  • Never fear change. Life is always changing – the path always twisting. Listen to your heart, follow your gut and have faith.
  • Do not build your own obstacles. Never let age, experience, gender, race or any other self-made brick of doubt stand in your way of trying something new, accepting an opportunity or taking that leap of faith. We tend to be our own worst walls.
  • Nothing is given. You must work for what you seek and work hard. The benefits of a strong work ethic may not be visible in the beginning – be patient.
  • Remember, we all have wings. Some are just more aware of their ability to fly and cannot wait to try; others have been told for so long they could never take flight, they’ve folded their wings in fear; while some just flat-out refuse to believe. Always believe.
  • It’s your obligation to encourage and lift up others along your journey. No one succeeds on their own. No one. We are all in this together.

All of these have been a part of my journey—a chapter in my story. No, I am no sage. This advice is a mosaic born from shiny, multicolored and fragile bits and pieces of guidance offered to me through the years, which I molded and revised into mantras that move me onward. This encouragement I now offer to others after learning hard life lessons, facing my own fears and doubts and finally learning that the greatest battle I ever face is the one within myself. Each failure is a lesson learned. Each journey a highlight on the map.

Sure, there are times I forget my own advice, as we all tend to get caught up in daily stressors and lose focus of the story. What I have found in this past year is that the story is never truly finished. While there will never be pages torn from our life-books, there will always be rewrites, there will always be plot twists. And, there will be times we tuck our wings in self-doubt, find ourselves standing with a self-made brick in hand, believe the whispers of frustration by our own egos, fail to bring others along in the journey and overlook open doors.

Yet, if we are true to ourselves and our faith in the journey, we’ll find ourselves living the undreamed dream of a lifetime.






Our Stories, Our Rainbows

At my current workplace, I offer a weekly inspirational email each Wednesday. Words & Wisdom Wednesday offers a bit of push toward the end of the work week, a much-needed “we’re halfway there” in the form of prose, quotes, poetry or insightful thought.

I’ve found it has accomplished what I’d hoped in that a few co-workers felt inspired, took pause or saw a reflection of themselves, if even for a moment. Plus, I confess it helps me tremendously to think about what to write and while I write it forces me to reflect on where I am, not necessarily during this particular week, but where I am in my journey.

A few weeks ago, I shared my thoughts, as well an excerpt from a book I’d read recently, Story Driven by Bernadette Jiwa. The book is about the difference between being a competitive-driven company and a story-driven company. The following is the opening paragraph of the preface:

 Every one of us—regardless of where we were born, how we were brought up,               how many setbacks we’ve endured or privileges we’ve been afforded—has been           conditioned to compete to win. Ironically, the people who create fulfilling lives and           careers—the ones we respect, admire and try to emulate—choose an alternative           path to success.They have a powerful sense of identity. They don’t worry about               differentiating themselves from the competition or obsess about telling the right               story. They tell the real story instead (Jiwa, 17).

A powerful sense of identity. Knowing who you are is key in finding success, but more importantly, in being proud of who you are and to stop comparing and competing with others.

Personally, it has always been my thought that we are all a collection of short stories. Each one of us made up of vignettes from our lives—stories of where we started, what molded us, and the stories we share with others. My collection is filled with stories of family, women who inspired, mentors, friendships, unconditional love, and the treading of dark waters to get where I am. Our collections are infinite because even after we are long gone others whom we touched continue the story, adding to the epilogue. In knowing our stories, we know ourselves and our own story.

On April 4, the birthday of Maya Angelou, I shared her intention about being the rainbow in somebody else’s cloud. Many responded, touched by her powerful words. What they took from and what they chose to do with those words adds to the story of this fierce, yet gentle lady. Maya Angelou’s story is infinite because we continue to share her collection while adding to our own and others. Maya might say we share our rainbows.

Maya Angelou knew her story. Most of the time, I know mine. There are days I need to remind myself by rereading these stories, but I also know my story is only in its earliest drafts.  Knowing who you are and embracing your identity is truly the key. Knowing your story determines the life you lead, the successes you obtain, the legacy you leave. Everyone of us has a story. For some it is the simplest of stories, yet the most impactful. Some are stories of service or stories of the nurturer and the provider. There are stories about a life of action and a life of humility, while still others are of sharing the word and stories of faith. There are even the stories of the storyteller. And yes, there are the dark stories of the wanton, the lost, the empty and the forgotten.

Maybe I am so fond of stories because of the books I clutched against the beatings of my chest as a child. I was captivated by books and the worlds and characters within them. As I grew older, I became captivated by the stories and characters around me, especially my family. Or, maybe it’s because I found my sense of identity when I opened my eyes and heart to those stories—the stories that made me who I am. The real story.

While Story Driven focuses on those entrepreneurs and companies whose stories drive the narratives and successes of their business, many aspects of Jiwa’s book pertain to our personal stories. If these individuals did not have a strong grasp of their personal identity, they would not have the ability to know the identity of their companies nor lead by their company story. Something to think about.

As I am in the middle of a rewrite of an early draft of my life, I found two sentences from her book to be especially profound. In Part One, she references our “narrative compass” and states, “Our story illuminates the dark corners where only we can go. It’s our story that guides us.”

Which leaves me to ask of others what I often ask of myself. What is your story and where is it guiding you?

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