The Contagious Power of Doing Good
Each week's Brave Tuesday Story draws from a member of our community. Today we are honored to feature Sheila Sadeghi’s piece on the healing power of galvanizing behind a charitable goal.
The other day a taxi driver told me, “You can’t know the meaning of life unless you have dealt with tragedy.” It may sound odd to get that deep into a conversation during my fifteen minute ride to LAX, but for me, it felt right. These days, I’d rather learn about people’s real lives and talk about real issues than just keep things light and on the surface.
I knew Julia since she was 6 years old because of my decades long friendship with her older sister, Sarah; but even for me, the impact of losing her so suddenly has proven far greater than I could have imagined, affecting how I live my daily life, how I behave at work, and how I view all of my relationships. I’ve always been mindful of our mortality, but somehow I was okay with letting my goals be achieved someday off in the future. As long as I had a plan to slowly work towards those goals, I felt content. Julia’s death has helped me take charge of my life, be more confident, and make things happen now rather than keep waiting for that someday.
During the eight months since Julia’s passing, I’ve gone through a range of emotions. I’ve felt devastated and shaken to the core, but also more connected to others and inspired. Through the grief, friends and family have come together. We all want to do something to help and I’ve learned that helping can be contagious. I thought I could offer my help by making a donation to the I Keep Dancing scholarship fund. I didn’t expect a chain reaction to follow that would culminate in a large group donation. I’m still amazed by how it all transpired.
That chain reaction began on a rainy Tuesday in January over lunch with my friend and co-worker, Wiley. As we alternated between venting about work stress and scarfing our lunches, Wiley pointed out an obvious element of my personality: I’m competitive. If you know me, you know it’s true, and I won’t deny it. I laughed at him, and told him about my latest win in my NFL Pick ‘Em league with my girlfriends. I felt a little bad about winning the pool a second consecutive year. When I won last year, I was ecstatic. Winning then had earned me bragging rights, an extra $350, and a shield from future smack talk. But winning now made me feel like I was taking money from my friends, and discouraging them from participating again.
Then it dawned on me: why not donate my winnings? Sarah had recently launched I Keep Dancing, and the scholarship fund was a charity close to our hearts. I shot an email out to the girls in the league to let them know I’d be contributing my winnings to the charity. They loved the idea. Later that week, I had another epiphany. My company has a gift-matching program for tax-exempt, public charities. Why not see if others wanted to join my donation? I emailed my closest friends and family and let them know that we had the chance to double our donations if they were interested in joining me.
The response was immediate and contagious: “Yes!” The more that people reply-all’d pledging their support, the more that others felt encouraged to reply-all, “I’m in, too!” This brought me so much happiness, and a real sense of accomplishment-in-progress. I started telling people at work how good it felt to be raising money for my friend’s charity, and that only led to more interest. I’d unknowingly started a club, and everyone wanted to join.
Meanwhile, our close friend Colby’s mom, Karen, was busy raising money as a birthday gift for Julia’s mom, Carol. Karen reached out to me, and we added what she’d raised to the group contribution I’d started. Before I knew it, we’d collected contributions from 30 people, creating a sizeable sum, and far surpassing my own vision of donating $350 from my football league.
The stories from donors who knew Julia are inspiring, and made me feel gratified to know that she touched so many lives. But what really amazed me was the volume of people donating who didn’t know Julia, Sarah, Carol, or anyone directly connected, aside from me. People like my co-worker, Jenny, whose 10-year-old son has already survived six open-heart surgeries. She heard me talking about I Keep Dancing at work one day, and asked me to send her the site. She went home that night, read the blog, watched the memorial video, and came to work the next day with an incredible contribution to our group donation.
People like Dalin and Daniel, who met when I hired them into the same department, and married a year later. (I made a marriage!) Dalin and Daniel had been searching for a scholarship to donate to, as a way to give back, since most of their college education was paid for through scholarships. Julia’s fund was the perfect match for what they were looking for.
As I compiled donations, I felt awed by the meaning behind each donation, big and small. No matter the dollar amount attached, each contribution felt huge.
Within a week of fundraising, I discovered a good problem: how should I tell Julia’s family the exciting news?
I’ve always liked to think of myself as an honorary Gardner. I’ve known Sarah since third grade. We were in the same friend group straight through high school, but we became even closer in college. Sarah left California for NYU in August 2001, one month before 9/11. It was a terrifying time after the attacks, and Sarah told us that she felt far from home. She moved back and transferred to my school, USC, and pretty soon, we became roommates. We remained roommates for ten years, from a tiny studio apartment with murphy beds, to a one-bedroom apartment with matching comforters, to a six-bedroom mansion in Los Feliz on Lambeth Street along with four other girls. If she didn’t feel like a sister before, living with Sarah from age 18 to 28 really made her feel like family.
I was eager to tell Sarah about our donation, but I also knew how meaningful it would be to Carol and Vance, Sarah’s parents and the heart of the Gardner family. I’d try to describe the moment Karen and “the moms” told Carol the news on her birthday, but the video captures it so well:
The following week, I set up a call with Sarah and Molly to tell them how much the charity they’d started had already spoken to so many people. The mission of this blog is to inspire hope and joy in the midst of adversity, and I felt compelled to show Sarah and Molly, along with Katie and Stephie, who started I Keep Dancing with them, how the movement they created has inspired us all to dig deep, and give. Sarah and Molly said they were blown away. “This is out of control!” is a direct quote.
I took a great deal of personal satisfaction out of coordinating our group’s efforts. While discussing how remarkable our donation turned out to be, Karen shared, “I truly think going outside and doing something to help somebody else makes you feel a sense of satisfaction, that the death of your loved one has some sort of purpose. It’s that feeling of having no ability to do anything that is so devastating.” This blog and charity has given us a way to do something through our grief. Helping has become a contagious phenomenon, and I’m both hopeful and joyful to think of what lies ahead. So Sarah, Molly, Katie, and Stephie: mission accomplished.
I wrote this post while in New York for I Keep Dancing’s first official fundraising event. The love and generosity we experienced there was simply heartwarming. During the trip, I visited the 9/11 Memorial. Being there reminded me how essential it is to rely on each other for the strength to move forward. It reminded me that a horrible tragedy from nearly fifteen years ago brought a best friend into my life. It reminded me that sweet time here is not endless.
The tragedies and struggles we face in life are not fair. Julia’s death is not fair. But how we band together to get through these devastating events can be beautiful. The I Keep Dancing community has created a forum to connect all of us who want to find a way to get through tough times together, and I am so grateful for that.
I’ll leave you with a message I found on a construction banner at the 9/11 memorial site:
Hello, tomorrow. We never forget what has gone before. Yet our eyes have always been on the possibilities ahead.
It’s hard to imagine a future without Julia’s infectious smile, laughter, and dance moves, but we can forever cherish our memories of her. Her spirit lives on, and the good to come from all of us inspired by her is limitless.
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