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Courage Is Contagious: Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things to Change the Face of America


A modern-day Profiles in Courage about twenty people who are doing heroic things to improve the lives of their fellow Americans.

Now available in trade paperback, Courage Is Contagious is a remarkable document about everyday people helping to reshape America. Written by Congressman John Kasich, the book profiles twenty men and women from across the country who have, through their own courage, determination, and generous hearts, attempted to improve the lot of their fellow ...

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A modern-day Profiles in Courage about twenty people who are doing heroic things to improve the lives of their fellow Americans.

Now available in trade paperback, Courage Is Contagious is a remarkable document about everyday people helping to reshape America. Written by Congressman John Kasich, the book profiles twenty men and women from across the country who have, through their own courage, determination, and generous hearts, attempted to improve the lot of their fellow citizens. The values they exhibit, Congressman Kasich argues, are the very values we as a society need to encourage and support if we are to end our nation's divisiveness and fulfill its glorious promise. Among the people Kasich writes about are Cheryl Krueger, who started a successful cookie business that puts people ahead of profits by employing women who often wouldn't be given a chance by other companies; and Dr. Jack McConnell, who, shocked by the poverty outside his neighborhood, organized over one hundred retired doctors, nurses, and dentists to create a free medical clinic that now serves over ten thousand people in the Hilton Head area of South Carolina and has inspired similar volunteer programs nationwide.

A heartfelt and optomistic message in a world grown increasingly distrustful, Courage Is Contagious offers hope and inspiration to all who read it.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Full of thundering passion...[an] inspirational testimony to any reader." --USA Today
Kirkus Reviews
Stories of some plain folks who get mad as hell about some injustice or other and, rather than simply complain, decide to do something about it. While Kasich has perhaps been genuinely influenced by the 20 small-town 'heroes' he describes here, only the most naive observer would forget that he's also an unusually motivated Ohio congressman with his eye on the White House for 2000. That cynical observation aside, the people in Kasich's book do seem worthy of note on their own terms. And so does the author's main point: that we all could make this a better country by just volunteering one hour of our time weekly to a worthy cause. Those who are profiled here, are just 'regular' people whose volunteer efforts are often made at a considerable sacrifice. Loretta Nagle, for instance, worried about what would become of a fellow nurse's developmentally disabled daughter once she and her husband, now approaching their 60s, were no longer able to care for her. As a result, she began creating homes within her Michigan community where such adults could live under supervision. Mentally retarded shoeshine man Albert Lexie, meanwhile, seems to be a living testimony to the adage that every little bit helps: for year,s he's been donating to Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh the tips he makes shining doctors' and administrators' shoes at that same institution. His total: $40,000, and still shining. Although the overall effect of these true-life stories and meliorist philosophies can be a little cloying, we could do worse than be inspired by them.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385491488
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/1/1999
  • Edition description: 1 MAIN ST
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 1,439,255
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Now in his ninth term representing central Ohio's Twelfth Congressional District, House Budget Committee Chairman and presidential hopeful John Kasich has become a nationally recognized leader of the Republican Party. Chief negotiator for the House of Representatives as Congress and President Clinton reached agreement on a plan to balance the budget by 2002, he also chaired the House-Senate committee that wrote the final version of the Welfare Reform Law in 1996. Newsweek named him one of its "100 People for the Next Century" in April 1998.
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Read an Excerpt

The Happy Helpers: Amber Coffman

"What can one person do?" I hear people ask.  "The problems of society are so vast!" The answer is that one person can do a lot.  Every great movement starts with one person and moves forward because of individuals.  Today, as we confront homelessness in America, it's easy to say, "There's nothing I can do." In fact, a great many people are doing something to help the homeless, in churches and volunteer programs all across the land.  One of these heroes is a fifteen-year-old girl I met in a small town in Maryland.

When Mother Teresa came to Washington early in June 1997 to receive a gold medal from Congress, Speaker Newt Gingrich invited several colleagues to his office to meet her.  Impatiently, we went out to the hallway and waited for her with a group of nuns.  All of us, politicians and nuns alike, stood in reverent silence.  When the elevator door opened, a small, seemingly fragile woman exited by wheelchair, smiling and lifting her hand to her lips in a prayerful act of humility.  Back in Newt's office, Senators and Representatives lined up to greet her; Mother Teresa's love, humility and inner strength filled the room.

For decades, her spiritual energy reached out to countless lives, all around the world.  On a visit to Glen Burnie, Maryland, a few weeks after I met Mother Teresa in Washington, I saw a dramatic example of the impact she had on the lives of others.

I had driven to Glen Burnie to meet fifteen-year-old Amber Coffman.  Two months earlier, at the President's Summit for America's Future, in Philadelphia, I had heard that Amber had done a remarkable job of feeding the homeless and I wanted to see for myself.

Amber's mother, Bobbi Coffman, a gentle woman in her thirties, met me in the parking lot in front of her small, drab apartment complex.  It was clear that working families lived here, many of whom were probably struggling financially.  Bobbi took me to meet Amber and her volunteers.  Inside the apartment, almost filling the small living room, was a table surrounded by kids making bologna and cheese sandwiches.  I knew immediately which one was Amber.  A slender, pretty girl with long, dark hair, she had the quiet aura of a born leader.

Working with her around the table were boys and girls, white and black, ranging from tiny six-year-olds to strapping sixteen-year-olds.  They wore sneakers, T-shirts, jeans and cutoffs like any group of American kids, but they were different.  On a Saturday morning when they might have been sleeping or hanging out at the mall or playing soccer, they had gathered to help others.  Amber calls her program Happy Helpers for the Homeless, and these young people, and others like them, have met in the Coffman living room every Saturday morning since February 1993 to serve the homeless people of Glen Burnie and Baltimore.

Bobbi and Amber's apartment is a part-time kitchen for serving hungry homeless people.  The worn couch in the living room was stacked with hundreds of buns for the sandwiches.  The cramped kitchen was filled with cartons of juice.  Big yellow mustard jars were scattered around the dining room.  The young volunteers filled the rest of the apartment with their energy and laughter as they slapped together sandwiches with assembly-line efficiency.  Their innocence and generosity, as they carried out this labor of kindness and love, brought tears to my eyes.  Too often, growing up hardens our hearts and blocks our "childlike" instincts to help others.

That afternoon, Amber and her mother told me how the Happy Helpers came to be.  Mother and daughter are very close.  Amber's father deserted Bobbi before Amber was born.  Bobbi served in the army for fifteen years, as a teacher, rising to the rank of staff sergeant.  But when the army wanted to send her to a hardship post, where she didn't think eight-year-old Amber would be happy, she resigned and moved to Glen Burnie.  In the army, she hadn't had time for volunteer work, but in her new life she wanted to work "with the poorest of the poor."

Bobbi wanted to volunteer at Sarah's House, a homeless shelter located on the Fort Meade army base, but she would only volunteer if her daughter would go with her.

"I was hesitant," Amber recalls.  "I didn't know what to expect.  But once we got there I really liked it."

Amber looked after homeless children while their parents took training courses.  Both the children and their parents told Amber their stories.  "They broke her heart," Bobbi recalls.  "Driving home, she would tell me about their lives and we would both cry."

A year later, Amber read four books on Mother Teresa for a book report.  "I was inspired," she recalls.  "I wanted to start my own programs, to provide meals to people who aren't in shelters.  Mother Teresa had dedicated her life to others--I wanted to be like her."

"I told her it was a wonderful idea," Bobbi recalls.  "But I told her we'd have to wait until I got another job and saved enough money for us to get started.  That took a year.  We started the program in February 1993."

Amber had just turned eleven.

It's not unusual for a girl that age to take someone like Mother Teresa for her hero.  In fact, Bobbi recalled that, when Amber was only four, her preschool teacher sent home a report that said, "Amber is a leader, and everyone else wants to follow." What is unusual is for someone so young to have the determination, the imagination and the organizational skills to start a program that would reach out to thousands of people in need.

"I knew I couldn't put a roof over their heads," Amber says.  "But I wanted to do what I could.  I was sure other kids would volunteer if they had a chance.  I knew from the first that I wanted to provide meals.  And I knew that giving them food wasn't as important as giving them love."

Over the years, Amber had attracted a total of six hundred volunteers.  When I met her in 1997, she had about forty "active" volunteers, and each Saturday morning about ten of them would come to the apartment and make six hundred sandwiches.  That translates into six hundred slices of cheese, six hundred hamburger buns, and forty-two pounds of bologna, plus the soft drinks, pastries and hot chocolate they serve in the winter.  (Sometimes they make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but that takes longer.) On Saturday afternoon they distribute sandwiches to the handful of homeless people in Glen Burnie, and on Sunday they drive to Baltimore and give the rest of the sandwiches, along with juice, doughnuts, clothes and blankets, and toiletries such as soap and toothpaste, to several hundred homeless people who line up outside City Hall.

Amber estimates that Happy Helpers for the Homeless has fed more than 25,000 people since 1993, and her work has attracted national attention.  When she appeared on the CBS Morning News, people across the country wrote to say they wanted to start Happy Helpers programs in their cities, and several are now under way.  Thus, in a mysterious and wonderful way, the spark of goodness has passed from Mother Teresa to Amber, and from her to others all across the land.

Bobbi and Amber's motivation is in large part religious.  Scriptural quotations are posted on their refrigerator door.  Every Sunday, before they drive to Baltimore to feed the poor, they attend early services at the Heritage Church of God.  Today Bobbi has two jobs, during the day as a licensed child care provider and as an employee at the Greenway Bowling Center at night.  Bobbi gives all the credit for the Happy Helpers to Amber--"It's not me, it's her," she insists--but it is clear that she is the rock that enabled her remarkable daughter to flourish.

The volunteers are remarkable too.  When I asked them why they were there, working for others when they could be out having fun, they made it clear that this was fun.

"It helps people--it makes me feel good," said Jeff Mentzer, a sixteen-year-old from Severna Park, Maryland.

Jesse Pittman, who's seven, said, "I jumped up and down when I heard about Amber's program.  My mom said it was a little far away but she'd take me." Her mother, Karen Pittman, explained that they are Quakers and live on a farm near Davidsonville, a half hour's drive away.  When Jesse was five, she said, she began noticing homeless people when they went to town.  "She just saw them as people," Karen says of her daughter.  "She asked why they were on the street.  I told her they didn't have homes and we started making sandwiches for them whenever we were going to town.  She would give them a sandwich and talk with them and they were so happy to have a child talk to them.  Then we heard about Amber's program and she knew she had to participate."

Most of the kids said they'd read about the Happy Helpers in the newspaper and called Amber to volunteer.  Who says that kids don't read?

Amber not only directs the weekend sandwich making and distribution, but during the week seeks out businesses and restaurants and grocery stores that will donate food and other necessities to the homeless.  Increasingly she is a sought-after public speaker.  She doesn't ask for a fee, but when people offer money, it goes to buy more cheese and bologna.

When Amber started the Happy Helpers, she made a list of the things she needed.  First of all she needed sources of food.  "I drove her to the stores," her mother recalls, "but I always waited in the car while she went in to ask for donations.  I knew a child would reach them.  She got a lot of yeses." Their apartment building is next door to a 7-Eleven, which lets them store their sandwiches overnight in its freezer.

One of their biggest donors is Glenn Kikuchi, who owns a McDonald's in nearby Millersville, Maryland.  When Amber went to see him a few years ago, he quizzed her for an hour before he agreed to support her.  Bobbi estimates that in 1996 he donated 48,000 slices of cheese and 24,000 hamburger rolls.

The National Center for Pastoral Leadership has raised several thousand dollars that is used to buy food and other necessities.  Another family donates twelve pounds of cheese each week.  When Amber was at the Philadelphia conference on volunteerism, officials from B.J.'s Wholesale Club sought her out and asked how they could help.  Now they send several hundred doughnuts and sweet rolls each week.

At the outset, Amber and her mother talked to homeless people and found that they were most in need of food on weekends, so they decided to distribute sandwiches in Glen Burnie on Saturdays, then in Baltimore, where the need is much greater, on Sundays.  Bobbi says they haven't missed a weekend in more than four years.  To them, showing up with the sandwiches is a moral imperative--they know the people will be there, counting on them, and they won't let them down.

When they first started the Happy Helpers, they distributed the sandwiches in downtown Glen Burnie, until the homeless people asked them to come closer to the woods where many of them live.  So they began meeting outside a public library where many of them spend part of their time.  They did that for several years until one day a security guard told them they were loitering and they couldn't pass out sandwiches there anymore.  Amber doesn't know why the library changed its policy.  Fortunately, it didn't matter, because Bobbi and Amber just moved their operation next door to the Harundale Presbyterian Church.

The Saturday I was there, a father and son, Joe Knight Sr.  and Jr., came by for sandwiches and fruit juice, as they do most Saturdays.  Both were down on their luck.  The father said he receives Social Security and is living in a shelter while he waits to get into public housing.  His son, a dark-haired man with a ponytail, said he had worked for many years as a furniture mover but now has a bad back and has been waiting for six months for his Social Security benefits to begin.  Both men spoke affectionately of Amber and her mother: "They do a wonderful job," the father said.  "We really look forward to seeing them every Saturday."

Amber insists that homeless people "are just like everybody else, just like you and me.  A lot of them work.  Some just have lost their jobs or had bad luck.  We try to help them with their self-esteem." Her mother adds that some of the people they work with have drug or alcohol problems.  Amber recalls one man who said that he would have starved without her help, but later found a job and got his life back together.

In addition to the weekend sandwich distribution, Amber holds a series of special events each year.  On her birthday, instead of having a party for herself she gives a party for the homeless.  Last Easter she and her volunteers gave out three hundred Easter baskets.  Last Christmas she persuaded schools, churches and businesses to donate 1300 gifts for the homeless, which she and her friends wrapped and distributed.  In October, on National Make a Difference Day, the Happy Helpers bring busloads of Baltimore's homeless to spend a day with Glen Burnie's homeless.  The volunteers serve breakfast and lunch, wash the homeless people's clothes, have a barber to cut hair and a dentist who pulls teeth on the spot.  Whenever they can, they give the homeless sneakers, wristwatches and sleeping bags.

"We have the largest family in the world," Amber says.  She has plans to start a mentoring program, in which older teenagers and adults will work with homeless and at-risk children, with an emphasis on "homework and love."

Amber has begun to think about her future.  When we met, she was a sophomore at Severn College Preparatory School.  Although her grades are only average--she doesn't always have time to focus on her homework--I suspect that any college in America would love to have her a few years from now.  After college, she has two goals.

The first is to create her own, family-oriented homeless shelter, where she and her mother would live with about ten people at a time.  The other dream is to be a broadcast journalist.

Amber Coffman, as her preschool teacher realized, has a gift for leadership--leadership and love.  To meet Amber and her friends is to have one's faith in America's youth restored.  Too often, we only hear about the kids who go wrong.  When good kids do good works it's just not news.  But these young people--and there are tens of thousands like them, all over America--have the idealism and dedication to make a difference in a world that often their elders have made a mess of.  They are without guile or cynicism.  Amber and her friends haven't just shaken their heads and said how terrible social problems are--they have acted.  They have done everything they can to help those in need.  Just as Mother Teresa inspired Amber, Amber and her mother and her friends should be an inspiration to us all.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 11
The Definition of Courage 21
The Happy Helpers 33
The Best Medicine 45
A Lump in the Throat 55
You Don't Know How Much I Hate Drugs 67
A Sandwich for Millie 81
A Warrior for Peace 95
Welcome to The Spot 111
I Want to Save the World 129
Demanding Excellence 141
Angels' Place 157
The Cookie Lady 171
Something Had to Be Done 185
Schools on Wheels 195
A Whisper from Above 209
One Pair of Shoes at a Time 231
A Sacred Space 241
Conclusion 259
Addresses 267
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First Chapter

Chapter One

The Definition
of Courage

Bobby and Eric Krenzke

It was through the Special Wish Foundation that I met Eric and Bobby Krenzke. Ramona Fickle started the foundation in 1982 to grant the "special wishes" of dying children. "People ask if I had a child die," Ramona says. "No, that wasn't it. My husband and I have six wonderful children. I guess I felt like I had to pay some dues. I was working as the executive secretary to a college president and I decided to volunteer at a hospice. I wanted to work with dying children but they had no special program for children. I saw that while dying was awful for the adults it was even more awful for the children. Sometimes they would want things, and if their families couldn't afford them it would break your heart. So I decided to start Special Wish. Often, I've wondered how the parents of dying children carry on, day after day. I guess the answer is, they have to."

    Ramona estimates that by now the foundation, which is based in Columbus, Ohio, has granted more than three thousand wishes for young people. Two of them were for Bobby and Eric Krenzke. Eric had wished for a trip to Disney World, which is what many children want. But Bobby, the older and more bookish of the brothers, had a different plan. He wanted to come to Washington and meet President Clinton and see Congress, the Supreme Court, the FBI and the Hard Rock Cafe. Bobby was all of nine then, but he loved to read about history and politics and he knew that our government has three branches and he decided he wanted to see all three for himself.

    For some reason, when they arrived in Washington in September 1994, the Krenzke family had trouble getting tickets for a tour of the Capitol, and they called my office for help. When I heard about the family, I invited them to lunch. They were from Hilliard, Ohio, just a short drive from where I live.

    The first time we met, Bobby was sitting in a wheelchair in the Capitol, wearing a bicycle helmet and red, white and blue pants. Eric, who was five, was also in a wheelchair and wearing a helmet. They were in wheelchairs because they were too weak to walk; the helmets were to protect them if they fell. Even though I knew the boys were sick, it was a shock to see them like that.

    Bobby and Eric and their parents, Pam and Lind Krenzke, met me for lunch in the House dining room. We were all a little stiff at first. Then Eric dropped his grilled cheese sandwich onto the floor, and when his family razzed him about it we loosened up. The Krenzkes had long since learned to use laughter as a way of dealing with the reality they faced--the four of them did a lot of razzing.

    During lunch I teased the boys a little by asking how they'd gotten to be so smart--for they were clearly unusually bright, well-informed, articulate kids. They had their answer ready: "Because our parents read to us!" They were blessed with wondeful parents. Lind, a big, bearded man, is a computer systems analyst. Pam is in charge of adult literacy training for the Columbus public schools.

    After lunch I took the boys onto the floor of the House of Representatives, where Congressmen crowded around to meet them. Bobby had deliberately chosen to wear his red, white and blue pants with stars and stripes on them so no one would miss him. Bobby never minded attention--he was right at home among all those politicians. There was a vote in progress and I told Bobby to keep his eye on the board that recorded votes, because when it got to 218 my side would have won. But Congressmen kept coming to meet him, obscuring his view. He finally said, "Could you get out of the way, please, I can't see the vote count!"

    At the end of the vote he informed me, "By the way, John, your side just lost!"

    That day was the beginning of our friendship. At first I was closer to Bobby, but over time I grew close to Eric as well. Both boys suffered from dystonia, a rare, genetic neurological disorder. With dystonia, the brain can't get all of its messages to the muscles. That means that some people with the disease can't eat. Some can't walk or talk. Sometimes their hearts beat too fast. Barring a miracle, it is almost always fatal.

    Eric was diagnosed with dystonia in 1990, when he was eighteen months old; he responded well to treatment and the disease went into remission. Bobby showed no symptoms at first. The doctors told the Krenzkes that if a child reaches seven with no sign of the disease there is a good chance he won't develop it. Sadly, in February 1994, when Bobby was eight, he was diagnosed with the disease. For both boys to be victims of the disease, as Pam once told me, was a parent's worst nightmare.

    Bobby was a skinny kid with an impish face and a disposition to match. Before his illness he was a normal boy, a Cub Scout who loved to run and ride his bike and roller-skate. Soon he had lost a great deal of his physical energy--although never his mental energy--as well as thirty-five pounds, and much of the use of his hands and digestive system.

    I go home to Columbus almost every weekend, to see the people who elected me to Congress and to see Karen Waldbillig, who is now my wife. Karen and I started visiting Bobby on the weekends. I took him to a Power Rangers rock concert, and to a museum, and we watched his favorite TV shows, "The Little Rascals" and "The Simpsons." We both loved the Simpsons: there was a lot of Bart in Bobby and, to my chagrin, he insisted there was a lot of Homer in me. During the week I would call him frequently from Washington. It didn't matter how late I called. Because Bobby didn't sleep much, he kept very unusual hours.

    Seeing Bobby was never a matter of sympathy or doing him a favor. It was one of friendship. If any favors were done, in fact, he did them for me. In Washington, I inhabit a world of compromise; back home, Bobby reminded me what real courage is.

    We never had any trouble relating. Bobby once told his mother, "Mom, John's just a kid in a Congressman's body." We made a lot of dumb jokes back and forth, and when I made one he would roll his eyes comically. He had a great sense of humor, even though it hurt him physically to laugh. Sometimes he would ask Karen for a kiss, and once he confessed to her he was trying to make me jealous. Jealous? I admired his good taste.

    Bobby was nine going on forty. He knew he was going to die, but he never complained, never whined, never cried. Bobby was the definition of courage. "Bobby, you're doing so well, let's make a deal," I once kidded him. "When I'm dying, will you promise to come help me ?" He grinned and said, "Shake on it, John!"

    He was always reading, always watching educational shows on TV, always trying to learn. He was studying the dictionary to learn new words right up to the end. Sometimes we would spend an hour going over the capitals of all the countries in the world. He just wanted to make sure he had them right. If he had lived, I think Bobby would have been a scholar or teacher; he had a first-rate mind and a true thirst for knowledge.

    I think one reason I became friends with Bobby was that I had lost my parents so suddenly. One night in August 1987 they were leaving a restaurant in McKees Rocks when a car driven by a drunk driver crashed into their car. My father died instantly and my mother died a few hours later. There was no chance to say goodbye; these two hardworking, God-fearing, decent people, who had sacrificed so much for me, were just suddenly gone. A tragedy like that can destroy you, or it can be an opportunity to grow. God blessed me and I grew. It caused a rebirth of my religious faith. Their deaths made me more sensitive to others, and made me want to help people deal with their tragedies when I could. Many people helped me through my own difficult time, with only the expectation that I in turn would help others when I could. When I met Bobby and Eric and their parents, I wanted to help. At the very least I could be their friend and when the end came I could say a decent goodbye.

    By November 1994, just two months after we met, Bobby had become so weak that he was placed in a hospice. It was clear that he didn't have long to live. In February he wrote me a letter:

    Dear John: This is important. This next part is kind of a secret. I usually talk to my stuffed animals. If I die, mostly I want you to say something at my funeral. I might not die at this age. I'm still myself, but I'm weaker than myself. But if I die, you can tell everybody how nice a kid I am, that I'm smart, and that I'm funny. I love when you come to visit me. It was fun watching the movie with you. You look very tired. Are you taking care of yourself? I hope you are. That's all I have to say this time. Love, Bobby.

    That letter was typical of Bobby: optimistic, realistic and caring, all at the same time. He was worried about me. Nonetheless, I gave him a hard time about the letter. I told him that I'd speak at his funeral, but I didn't need him to tell me what to say. He quickly shot back the observation that I probably could use a little help.

    We talked about religion some, although once he told me, "John, don't start the God thing, it's squared away. It's all worked out. Don't worry about it." He understood that God was going to take him home.

    My forty-third birthday took place on May 13. Bobby knew it was my birthday and asked me to come see him. When I entered his room he was waiting in bed with a package in his arms. He was very thin and weak. He said, "This is for you, John." The package contained his most prized possession, the football that Ohio State's legendary tailback Archie Griffin had given him; he wanted me to have it. No one ever received a more precious gift.

    Bobby died two days later, just eight months after I first met him. As he had requested, I spoke at his funeral at the Atonement Lutheran Church in Columbus. When they were making up the program, Pam asked me if I should be listed as a eulogist. That title seemed too fancy--I could imagine what Bobby would have said about that. I told her, "Just say I was a buddy." So that's how I was listed: John Kasich, Buddy.

    The point I tried to make at Bobby's funeral was not just that he was bright and funny and brave, and that he loved his parents and his brother very much. All that was true, but my real message was that nothing that any of us did for Bobby was as important as what he did for us. God gave him to us and he inspired us--his family, his friends, his classmates--and gave us courage and hope. Then one day God said, "I can't heal you, Bobby, I need to bring you home." We didn't have to mourn him, because his pain was over. He was happy, he was with God, and yet he'd left a piece of himself behind in all of us.

    When Pam and Lind adopted their daughter Betsy in February 1996, Karen and I were among her godparents. In December 1996 Karen and I accompanied Pam, Lind, Eric and Betsy to a Special Wish Foundation Christmas party. Most of the children there were terminally ill, yet it was an evening filled with happiness. The Krenzkes and other families with sick or dying children will tell you there's nothing you can do to take away their pain. You use your time and money and energy trying to make the child get better. When getting better is no longer an option, you just try to be brave. For these families, being together gave them strength and comfort. Eating pizza, drinking soda pop and playing pinball and video games brought at least a temporary healing. That night Eric beat me at pinball two times out of three--he loved that.

    Early in 1997 Eric went into a decline. His heart grew weaker and he spent most of the time sleeping. A friend and I visited the Krenzkes on a Sunday afternoon in mid-July. He'd been honored at Hilliard's Fourth of July parade a week before, but since then he'd been sleeping almost around the clock. When we arrived, Eric was on the sofa, under a color photograph of himself and Bobby, with an oxygen tube in his nose. Mike Duffey, a college student and family friend, sat beside him, and Pam and Lind were close by. Eighteen-month-old Betsy was toddling about.

    Eric perked up when I arrived and--over his parents' protests--insisted on demonstrating a ninja kick he'd mastered. He spoke in a whisper but he had a lot to say. He announced that he had a girlfriend named Kate who came to see him, but added, "No, John, I haven't kissed her yet." He showed my friend some animals he'd sculpted out of clay and some of his watercolors. One of them was his vision of heaven, with stars representing friends of his who were already there. He was thinking a lot about heaven in those final months. Once he told me he hoped there were trees in heaven, because his illness had kept him from climbing all the trees he wanted to climb on earth.

    When my friend complimented the drawnings, he insisted on giving him a Beanie Baby, one of dozens that people had given to Eric. He even sang for us, the theme song from the "Mr. Rogers" TV show. After a while Pam became concerned that Eric was wearing himself out and tried to get him back onto the sofa. When he protested, Betsy began to cry--anything that hurt Eric hurt her too. Finally, Eric settled down and we said our goodbyes. "He's lived his life to the fullest," Pam said as we parted.

    Karen and I went to see Eric twice more that summer. Each time he was weaker and it was clear that the end was near. On August 31, Pam called to tell me that Eric was dead.

    On September 6, I returned to the Atonement Lutheran Church, this time for a celebration of Eric's life. I was one of the pallbearers. The music on the program included not only "Amazing Grace" and "Love Lifted Me," but "The Scooby Doo Theme" and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

    The program reproduced this handwritten note:

    "Gone to see Bobby. See you soon. Love, Eric."

    I found that Eric's death hit me even harder than Bobby's had. I guess it was the finality of knowing that they both were gone.

    I once asked Pam how she and Lind were able to keep on in the face of such an ordeal. She said, "We recognize the value of the children. We recognize that they are gifts that we've been given. We take each day as it comes. We have no other choice. Are we sad sometimes? Yes. Are there days we want to scream? Yes. Do we look for answers and not always find them? Yes. We take what we've been given and try to make the best of it. We pray a lot, too."

    Pam and Lind were fortunate that, unlike a lot of people who must cope with catastrophic illnesses, they had good health insurance. Still, it didn't cover everything. There were deductibles to be paid and many expenses that weren't covered. They paid $5000 for a wheelchair for Bobby, and later when it was rebuilt for Eric it wound up costing close to $15,000. They couldn't have afforded Eric's trip to Disney World, or Bobby's to Washington, if the Special Wish Foundation hadn't been there to help.

    It was for people like the Krenzkes that Ramona Fickle founded A Special Wish. Today, A Special Wish has grown to twenty-one chapters, twenty in this country and one in Moscow. A Special Wish is not the only or even the largest wish-granting organization in the United States. The Make a Wish Foundation is the largest and there are several others. They all deserve our praise and support, but Ramona is proud that A Special Wish is the one that covers the largest time span in children's lives: it grants wishes from birth through age nineteen.

    The wishes take many forms. The first wish granted, back in 1982, was to a six-year-old girl with cancer who wanted to go to Disney World. A boy of seventeen, with an incurable form of leukemia, wanted to meet golfer Payne Stewart, and after he did Stewart gave him the trophy he won in the 1993 Pro-Am tournament. When a ten-year-old boy with a rare form of cancer wanted a telescope, volunteers at Ohio State University's observatory bought him one and taught him to use it. The mother of a dying two-month-old child was given a special, adjustable chair that let her sleep with her baby in her arms.

    The average cost of granting a wish is $2800. Ramona is proud that almost everyone who works for the foundation is a volunteer, that the foundation never uses professional fund raisers or solicits by phone, and the majority of their funds come from individual contributions.

    A Special Wish and the other wish-granting organiations bring happiness to thousands of children who bear a terrible burden, and to their families, and they have changed many lives. They changed mine when they introduced me to the Krenzkes. I loved those boys. They were so different in their personalities: Bobby, the elder statesman, and Eric, the firecracker. Yet they shared the same open heart and dazzling smile, the same wanderlust eyes that glowed with lionlike fearlessness. I will never forget them. If I think about them hard, I cry at their loss. When I see two bright stars twinkling side by side on an impossibly clear night, I see Bobby and Eric.

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  • Posted January 18, 2012


    haven't read it yet

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2001

    Read this book!

    Kasich has crafted a book which should serve as an inspiration to us all to be better human beings by motivating ourselves to assist others in need. If more people acted in the manner described in Kasich's book, we would all benefit by less government involvement in our daily lives. I strongly recommend that everyone read this great piece of work!

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