The other night, a friend of mine told me about a turning point for him. It was when his wife asked: Are you going to be the guy who yells at the TV, or the man who does something about the issues that concern him. (Not an exact quote).
His statement hit me like a ton of bricks and brought me back to a significant memory in my life. I could see myself in the elevator with my mother and some of her B’nai Brith women. I must have been about 12 or 13 at the time. I recall my mother asking these women to volunteer to join her at the Bronx Veteran’s Hospital where she and others were volunteering to entertain (afternoon tea) the men in the locked psychiatric ward. A couple of these women refused; their excuse being they cared too much to help. That statement struck me as specious and stupid.
In that moment, my life’s work – both professionally and as a volunteer – was born.
I started volunteering in the psychiatric ward and in the paraplegic and quadriplegic ward. I found that I had a knack – an instinct if you will – for knowing how to cheer someone up, how to challenge and encourage people to do more, to grow, to change, to be their best.
I started gurney races down the corridors. The nurses hated me. I was disturbing the status quo. The head of psychiatry found out what I was doing. He observed the results and my actions. He gave me carte blanche to work with these paralyzed men and warned the nursing staff to not only allow me – but to enable me as well. Among the other interventions I instigated was to get some of the wheelchair bound men out on the grounds to play basketball. This was the pre-cursor to what we now know as the wheelchair basketball league.
The head psychiatrist also started case-conferencing with me about individual men in the psychiatric ward. There too, I was helpful. I can recall helping a man come out of the shadows and into the room itself. This took weeks of joining him in the corner in which he hid. His fear was that if he liked someone, they would die. He had lost siblings and his girlfriend and blamed himself. Over time I convinced him that he really didn’t have that much power and cajoled him to risk being with people again.
People today ask me how I acquired my self-confidence. This story is the answer.