Sunday, December 31, 2000

Locally tested

A recipe to improve your life

        I start every new year planning to be a better person. And end it without noticeable progress.

        I still do not exercise every day. Heck, my next high school reunion is three years away. There's time. Plus I have complete faith in the All-You-Can-Eat Marshmallow Diet. My desk is messy, and my retirement plan still relies heavily on the Lottery.

        But, really, these things are minor. I was hoping to be better in a more profound way. Like my friend, Jan Boldt, who visited a village in Nicaragua. She listened to countless hours of Spanish tapes to prepare. After some minor hitches in communication — she told several perplexed villagers that she is a toilet and her uncle is a pencil box — her mission was accomplished.

Making it personal
        The plan was to find out how parishioners at St. Peter Church in New Richmond might truly help this little village they have adopted. You know, not just send a check or a box of clothing, but to see firsthand what will make a difference.

        That's why a well-dressed executive delivers a bag of new wrist watches to the FreeStore/FoodBank every year. He overheard a man talking about a wristwatch he'd been given there. No sooner had he slipped it on his wrist and walked outside when somebody asked him for the time. Calling him “sir.” Dignity. A connection.

        “Our people,” says Cookie Vogelpohl, the soul of Our Daily Bread, a soup kitchen in Over-the-Rhine, “are often so invisible.” Cookie, who is 5 feet 9 inches tall, tells about a man — “a real little guy.” When she leaned down to listen to him, she automatically put her hand on his shoulder.

        “I don't think anyone has touched me in years,” he said tearfully.

        Rob Riggsbee decided to touch somebody this year. And make it personal. Known for his holiday bash, starring a vintage rock band and those holiday elves Johnny Walker and Jim Beam, this year the ad exec used the money he usually spends to entertain a thousand people to do something for just one.

Losing everything
        Michael Clyde, an 18-year-old native of a little town outside Pittsburgh, makes his home at the Shriners Burns Hospital. He will be here for the next seven months, recovering from a fire in which both his parents died. After that, he'll need to wear a plastic face mask and a body suit for two years.

        It is an understatement to say that this young man lost everything. Third-degree burns over 65 percent of his body. Grievous damage to his face.

        Rob writes checks, he says, to “some of this town's wonderful charities.” But this year he wanted to give the gift of time as well as money. He went on a shopping spree for Michael. Then the Riggsbee kids helped wrap the stuff. Only it wasn't just stuff. They were carefully researched purchases.

        Baseball cards to replace the ones Michael lost in the fire. Movies. CDs. Some purchases — a laptop computer, for instance — were practical. Most were wonderfully frivolous and tangible evidence that somebody expected him to survive.

        Bobby Riggsbee, 7, helped Michael unwrap the presents. “Bobby told me Michael made this the best Christmas of his life,” Rob says.

        So here's what these people are telling me, I think:

        Look around for an opportunity to make someone else's life better. And in the bargain, you might notice some progress of your own.

       E-mail Laura at or call 768-8393.


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