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Sunday in the Park

There’s an old axiom in journalism and it goes something like this It’s hell when the truth gets in the way of a really good story. I was reminded of all that this week when, in the face of national horror stories about crazy people entering schools and committing unthinkable crimes, and local stories about wanting our test scores to be better best — and just a general malaise over the news about people in positions of power abusing that power over children who worked for them, I discovered some truths that got in the way of the news.

And they go something like this

1) When tragedy strikes, you can never predict how you will behave and how you will remember. My friends, Ted and Sophia, whom I met about five years ago when they were leading a rather glamorous life in New York City, lost their 11-year-old daughter Hallie two and half years ago when she stepped outside her own front yard between two parked cars to cross the street and was hit and killed by a car who simply couldn’t or didn’t see her. Days later, the family went into Hallie’s room and discovered their daughter had been saving her lunch/allowance money, a total of $328 to be exact, to send to needy children in Africa. They also discovered her journals and on one page, of the more than 1,000 pages of the writings and drawings she left, was a note and it read

People be nice to each other. Love, Hallie

And from that was born a commitment by Ted and Sophia and Hallie’s sister, MJ, to honor Hallie by teaching kids to give to kids. Out of that was born the Love, Hallie Foundation, which has, among other issues, for two years gone to South Africa and brought back to the United States children from the most AIDS-infected place on the planet — Durban, South Africa. These children sing and dance and tell their story of being orphaned by AIDS and they explain they are not infected by the disease but affected by the disease. They have performed with Alicia Keyes and Paul Simon. Despite the fact that their orphanage burned to the ground in January of 2005, they return home to live in metal cargo containers with sporadic running water and little food. Ted and Sophia are in the process of adopting a 15-year-old girl, Naussi, from that orphanage who, when asked what she wants to be when she grows up, says with a clear strong voice, "The President of South Africa."

The Love, Hallie Foundation and the story of Ted and Sophia fully forgiving the woman who accidentally killed their daughter was featured last spring on a segment of Oprah Winfrey’s television show. Oprah honored them, not only by telling their story, but by traveling to South Africa to donate money to help the Agape Center rebuild. Oprah carried with her, to add to her own donation, Hallie’s $328.

2) Stories about how well or poorly Park City children are doing in school are just stories until you visit those schools. Which is what I’ve had the privilege of doing this week. It was a part of my job and a part I could easily have delegated to a staff member. But here’s my dirty little secret: Despite the job I currently have, I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. I find time spent in the classroom and around students invigorating. At Ecker Hill, I watched principal, Greg Profitt, not only quiet an auditorium of middle school students — turned over twice in one day, more than 700 kids total — but lead a sing-along of that karaoke classic, "R-E-S-P-E-C-T." They sang it and got it. The kids didn’t just listen during the assembly, they became engaged. At the appropriate time they asked appropriate questions. They shared their own feelings and insights and asked their visitors thoughtful questions.

On the following day, the same pattern was repeated at Park City High School with more than 800 students. They were attentive and respectful and thoughtful and appreciative under the guidance of their principal, Hillary Hayes. And finally, Martha Bundy, principal at Trailside Elementary, gathered more than 400 students who sat on the floor in rapt attention, due to the fact that part of their assembly was in a language that was foreign even to their teachers. Those children asked thoughtful, appropriate questions of their visitors, and I got a little teary. Yes, there are so many skills yet to be learned but it is pretty apparent a lot of somebodys are doing a damn good job teaching the skill of empathy.

3) Big news is often the little things. When a major news organization told me this week that the outreach program we were offering in the Park City School District with the Children of Agape from South Africa didn’t constitute a "real news story, but rather a form of cheerleading," I hung up the phone saddened. No less than Bono and Bill Gates have said, the pandemic of AIDS in Africa is the single most important issue of our time. An issue they say, our generation will be judged by, not unlike past generations and the Holocaust. And when our children and our children’s children ask, what did you do to stop it? How did you help? We all will have to fashion our own answers.

Here’s what I know happened this week in Park City. South African children, orphaned by AIDS, saw great kindness from more than 2,000 of our children. And our children saw and heard what the face of AIDS victims look like. All the questions about pizza and sports and homework, back and forth between the children, reminded us all, children the world over just want to be children. Safe from harm.

Agape is a Greek word that, roughly translated, means unconditional love. It gives one hope for the planet to see children who have been so carefully taught that, without understanding the word, they display its meaning. The schools here are doing an amazing job of teaching by example the answer to my favorite age-old question posed by the Grateful Dead "but are you kind?"

I think that’s a pretty good story any day to tell, even this very Sunday, in the Park


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