Do not wait

Matt with "Ms. Darla," who has opened so many doors for him.  February 2012

Matt with “Ms. Darla,” who has opened so many doors for him. February 2012

Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” — Mother Teresa

If I’ve learned anything at all since Matt was born, I’ve learned this: no government or agency can match the power of one dedicated and compassionate person to improve the life of another.

Agencies, laws and governments are necessary, but to the extent that we come to rely on them for needs that can never be answered except by the presence of another human, they can work against us.  Indeed, we can excuse ourselves from difficult or uncomfortable work by telling ourselves that “agencies” or “the state” or “the church” can take care of the problem.  This is an illusion, and a dangerous one.

When I look back on Matt’s life, it’s always the individuals who made a difference for our family.  The perceptive fourth grade teacher who saw past the disabilities to the intelligence that was not always obvious.  The occupational therapist who patiently helped me understand what Matt’s challenges are, and how we can do little things daily to help him overcome them.  Above all, the friends who simply loved us, letting their hearts lead the way and doing naturally the things that others, afraid of making mistakes, were too hesitant to do.

The remarkable lady pictured above with Matt has helped him, and many others with or without disabilities, in countless ways during the years — almost a decade now — that we have had the gift of her friendship.  Her considerable skills and experience make her a candidate for more lucrative and prestigious careers, but she chooses to dedicate herself to her community and its people, volunteering in various ways that bring her into contact with those who need her.

Most importantly, she does all these things with a joy and enthusiasm that could never be matched by a salaried person sitting behind a counter or desk.  In serving others face to face, person to person, she changes many lives.  While she is one of the few people who have ever been willing to join me in my political activism (we spent a marvelous day in Richmond at the capital, meeting with our elected representatives and their staff), she never waits for leaders to do things that need to be done.  How different our world would be if there were more people with her energy and dedication!

You may not see yourself as having abilities unavailable to powerful or well-known leaders, but in reality, you have opportunities that they will never know about.  In your own family, church, community, school — really anywhere you go — big and little doors are open to you, chances to act in small ways that cumulatively bring about great change.  It starts with a smile, a kind word, a human touch that no organization or legislature can produce.  When you step out as one person to make a change in your world, you really aren’t alone; you’ll become part of an unknown army of others like you, who make the world a better place every day.


  1. Hats off to Ms. Darla. But society takes too long to acknowledge the selfless service of such people.
    Once a TV news report pointed out a problem faced by the cleaning staff of the town. They lived in a slum and their complaint was that the place was never cleaned! What an irony! I don’t mean that they should do it just because they are poor. The rich and the poor alike are ready to wait for the benefits to trickle down.

    • Bindu, you are so right about that. We all get accustomed far too easily to having someone else do things for us. It’s such a trickly line to walk, finding a way to help someone without having them become too dependent. We are going through this now with our younger son, who has multiple disabilities. There are many things he cannot do for himself, but many others he will happily ALLOW others to think he cannot do, because he enjoys their generosity in doing things for him. I join you in saluting those who work tirelessly for others rather than sitting back and taking in the benefits.

  2. merry

    Julia, good morning. Great picture of Matt and his friend. I so agree with you. And
    Your choice of quote…“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” — Mother Teresa….is so right. Mother Teresa one of my faves.
    blessings to you and your family…

    • Good morning Merry! Yes, Mother Teresa had so much wisdom. A few years back when her diaries were published (something that dishonored her expressed wish to keep them private) a lot of people expressed surprise that she suffered so much depression and despair at times. I thought, “Why does this surprise anyone? One does not gain wisdom from an easy life!!” Thanks so much for being here, and for your encouragement.

  3. Kudos and many thanks to Darla! And thank you,Julia,for the observation that it’s we as individuals who really make the difference.

    • Yes, in the end, the most significant and longstanding thing done by agencies and institutions is to give people jobs in which they have meetings and talk about how people need help. Generally, other people are the ones out there helping them. Thanks for making a difference for at-risk students every day!

  4. Ann

    What a wonderful tribute!

    Re: your political activism…an old saying seems apt- ‘never get in the way of a good woman on a righteous cause’ ! Bet you and Darla were a force to be reckoned with in Richmond!!

    • Ann, we mostly had a blast that day, but yes, Darla is a force to be reckoned with, for sure! I can think of so many ways that she has changed (and is changing) the level of opportunities for young people with disabilities. She walks the talk. What we need are more walkers and fewer talkers (said the overly verbose blogger). Thanks for being here, and for your comments!

  5. Mike Bertoglio

    Thanks for comments on Mother Teresa. I did not realize she requested her diary not be published and that the publishing was a dishonor to her memory. I read a comment by Julian of Norwich- ” First there is the fall and then there is the journey upward and both are the mercy of God.”

    • Great quote – reminds me of the C. S. Lewis quote I keep on the wall of my garret (which can be read if one looks closely at the picture). Re: Mother Teresa, I’m sure you would get an argument as to whether the publication of her works was a dishonor to her memory; I think it was definitely a dishonor to her expressed wish that these, as other spiritual confessions, should be kept in confidence: “Mother Teresa recounted this interior darkness, which lasted half a century – just as the entire world was admiring her radiant Christian joy – to no one but her spiritual directors, instructing them to destroy her letters after reading them. But they didn’t…” (from Revisiting the Mystery: The Sanctity of Mother Teresa) I found the publications only underscored the whole reason, purpose and reality of how she lived. One cannot take part in suffering and remain above it. And yes, ultimately both are the mercy of God, as are so many other things beyond our understanding.

  6. Mike Bertoglio

    i.e .”One does not gain wisdom from an easy life.” Well said. I heard a talk by a Catholic priest- Richard Rohr- that our culture is the only one that glorifies teenage existence and hence we don’t have a lot of wisdom.” He says Eastern cultures honor the aged and look to them for wisdom, while here we shuttle the aged off into the corners of their care centers. I think I got some of the reverence for older persons while living in Hawaii. Or maybe I idealize my time there.

    • No, it’s not your idealization; Hawaiians definitely regard all the ties of family with special attention. The older Hawaiians are “Aunties and Uncles” to the keiki, and family ties are not bound strictly to blood relatives. I can remember Matt referring to his special ed bus driver and attendant as “Uncle Frank” and “Auntie Uku” (“uku” means “lice” so I had to assume it was an affectionate nickname because she was such a tiny lady ?!) Perhaps part of the American fascination with youth is bound up in the hardships involved in non-natives settling here, where our culture is a relatively young one and only the very strong survived much of the time. I’m guessing there were not too many elderly among the pioneers and newcomers.

  7. Sheila

    Julia, how lucky to have people like Darla in our lives who genuinely care and make the difference. Matt’s smile reflects his happiness to be with her. How special!

    • Sheila, we are so lucky. Mary Ann, who frequently comments on this blog, is another such gift (watch for her photo here; I’m sure it will be featured sooner or later). In truth, having a child with disabilities can be an isolating experience. Many– really most– people seem to avoid getting too close to us. But asI’ve told people before, it’s a sort of unavoidable litmus test, or screening device; the ones who do choose to come close are absolutely wonderful. I have a sort of “hero hall of fame” in my mind, peopled by those we might never have known except for Matt’s challenges and disabilities. God really does know how to work for good in tough situations. Thanks for being here! We are lucky to have you visit us here :-).

  8. Mike Bertoglio

    Here is another article on Mother Teresa by one of my faves Ron Rollheiser. Thanks for the link.

    • Mike, thanks so much for the link to this excellent piece. I am unfamiliar with this author, but I hope to read him again. During my last year in Hawaii, I experienced a similar crisis of faith that came to mind as I read Rollheiser’s words. In retrospect, I believe I was in the midst of an episode of depression that went undiagnosed and untreated, but when I survived it, I realized God had been there all along, though I could not see or feel him. During that time I could manage only weak and blunt attempts at prayer, along the lines of “I hope you will hang in there with me, because I really have nothing to say to you right now.” For some of us, the revelation of Mother Teresa’s struggles produced this internal reaction: Of course – did you really think it could have been otherwise? The surprise expressed by many simply told us that we really never understood what her life was like; that her choice to live among the poor and neglected was an immense sacrifice on her part. We tend to look at saintly people and think (if only on a subconscious level) “Well, it’s easier for them, I’m just not capable of that.” But that’s a sort of cop-out on our part, I think; a way of letting ourselves off the hook. Thanks again for the link – well worth pondering!

  9. Interesting and need to know.
    Great matter is covered in the comments above.

    • Thank you, I am glad you agree. The comments are perhaps my favorite thing about the blog. In more traditional forms of publishing, the writers do not get to take in the wisdom from their readers, but blogs are interactive, and thus the writer merely starts the conversation. I appreciate your being here to add to it!

  10. Mike Bertoglio

    That is a wonderful prayer- “God please hang in there with me.” Honest and direct.

    • Well, perhaps it is a better prayer than none. Maybe this was one of those times when the spirit intercedes for us because we don’t know what to say.

  11. Larry

    Matt, your grandmother thinks you look so handsome in this picture. She also enjoyed hearing you on the telephone earlier today.

    • 🙂 People always say he looks like his Daddy, and I agree!


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