|"Thank you for your nomination...."
On February 6, 2009, I received an email from Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (EMHE): "Thank you for your nomination. I have a few questions...".
EMHE was moved by ErieAlityTV's story on Clara Ward.
So began an official nomination to the EMHE casting team leading up to the announcement last week, and all the activity this week-- the tremendous outpouring of good will from this community that will touch the lives and hearts of thousands for years to come.
When EMHE is long gone there are many stories that will continue to be told. For those who really know Clara, that's only fitting. Her life was never about her; it was always about the capacity for others to be touched, and to love without counting the cost. What follows is simply my story, my little role in how it came to be, and an expression of hope for our great community of Erie.
Rewind to May 25, 2008. It was a sunny, Sunday afternoon. My wife was at a baby shower, so I got to spend some dedicated time with our six children, specifically, helping my four-year-old, Grace, ride her bike. When she was able to go a little distance on her own, we moved to the more level back yard. There I noticed a tree with some higher branches in need of trimming. Positioning the ladder on not-so-level ground, and balancing myself on the top "do-not-stand" step, I took the long cutter firmly in both of my hands.... The next thing I remember I was on the ground unable to move, barely able to breath, with pain exploding from my side and a mangled wrist.
With five cracked ribs and a titanium plate holding my wrist together, the doctor told me I needed to inform my employer: "You won't be working for at least another six months!" Unfortunately, that employer was me. It was my busiest filming/production season, and I had no means to sustain our family without that work. My mind went to an inspirational quote my Dad posted on their kitchen cabinet: "Sometimes God knocks us off balance so we will take a step." I couldn't help but inquire, "Couldn't you pick a better place?" Pardon the pun, but I get more bent out of shape by small things than I do big things. I'm OK if I get maimed, but give me a toddler using the toilet as a jacuzzi, or turning a newly-painted wall into an art project.... It was too unbelievable, too far beyond any control, for there not to be some deeper purpose. That naturally led to the next question, "Ok, so what's the next step?"
Community: The Mission. I suspect if most of us are honest, we are genuinely uncomfortable with needing others. We do everything we can so we're not a burden. Up to that point, community was merely a great environment to raise our family, but not something we technically "needed." My income was predominantly from work with major-media projects, with Disney, Walden, Warner Brothers, A&E and others. We could have lived anywhere. While we chose Erie, it wasn't out of necessity.
Often it takes traumatic circumstances to open our eyes to the value of something. My accident opened my eyes to the deeper value of community. The word literally means "with unity." The heart of community is that each of us have both needs and gifts, the combination of which is how we are all connected to each other, how we literally are one. "With unity" occurs precisely when we are conscious of this common mission- to bring these needs and gifts together in a way that makes us fit together, that makes us all better.
My accident left me (and us as a family) completely dependent on the generosity and benevolence of so many. We experienced such an outpouring of prayers and support that, beyond words, pronounced quite emphatically: You need community, and Erie is your community. This is where you belong. Somewhere in there my business plan evaporated, and a simple belief emerged: "Make community your mission. Do the good you are able to do, without counting the cost! Inspire others to do the same!"
Celebrate Erie 2008 - Do Good... Not quite knowing what this meant, or where to begin, a natural first step led me down to our defining, community celebration: Celebrate Erie (2008). While there, looking through the camera lens, I was simply moved by the presence of so many different people. I was moved by the thought that each of these people was an undiscovered treasure, and that our lives would be enriched by collectively discovering that treasure. The mission became more precise. I was meant to use my passion for video story-telling to open the treasure of Erie's reality. Thus, ErieAlityTV.com was born.
Now I've had a million good ideas and intentions in my life, but have acted on only a few. The real measure of value is how much we are willing to sacrifice for it. As I thought about my family, it became clear that this is the community they will inherit long after I'm gone. It deserves the best and most I have to give. In short, if I was going to do this it had to be total. I couldn't do it half way. That meant turning down other compensable work. It meant trusting entirely on our community, even more, making myself dependent upon this community. It meant not counting the cost....
Good Friends. If life has taught me anything it's that if you're going to venture, you better have the support of good friends. Friends are people who keep you honest, real and focused. They are your compass. They tell you what you need to hear, whether you want to hear it or not. They're motivated by you becomming the best you.
Besides my wife, Stephanie, this story would be very incomplete without particularly acknowledging the Pat and Linda Kemper Family. They are more than among our closest friends, they introduced me to Clara Ward a few years ago when my kids were inspired to give up their "good stuff" for Clara's Christmas giveaway. Matt Filippi of WICU has also been a great friend, particularly orienting me to the shape of this community, and sharing a belief in the possibilities. Add to them, Paul Lorei, Gary Loncki, Greg Luce, Mike Brown, Tim O'Neill (business partner and friend from Minnesota, The Piano Brothers), many people from the Erie Small Business Alliance.... Suffice it to say that E-TV dramatically expanded my horizon of friends. If I endeavored to mention them all it would take pages, and most certainly I'd still miss someone.
The Journey Begins. Fueled by an inspiring vision shared by supportive friends, my course was set. I would follow three people for six weeks, and showcase weekly episodes at ErieAlityTV.com. It was exhilerating. Through them I was given the treasure, and delighted in providing a powerful means for others to share in this treasure.
In Season I we journeyed with Roy Hollis, Jr., through his brother Charles' battle with cancer and untimely death. Roy's life demonstrated the power of love to overcome racial hatred. We also experienced the vulnerability and strength of family through the contrasting examples of EJ McMillin and Paul Lorei. To date, EJ continues to strive for success beyond his broken childhood, particularly with his gift of music and in relationships (I read on Facebook that he's engaged - not to Tiffany). In addition to being an accomplished photographer, and father of some very successful kids, Paul is well on his way to completing what will surely be regarded as a classic children's novel, on a par with some of the greats (I really believe that- stay tuned!)
The Peaks and the Valleys. With every new episode word began to spread, and visiting numbers began to grow, not simply in Erie, but beyond. Many media and community personalities expressed their enthusiasm, but typically with an added, community-deprecation: "I wonder if folks in Erie will get this... you might need to go to LA or NYC." One privately joked that someone might need to die a violent death for it to gain local media attention. (WSEE was the only local media outlet who covered us.)
To keep it completely real-- we have six children. This new endeavor was taking 90 hours a week with no promise of sustainable income. I had tried numerous ways to seek corporate and/or business sponsorship, but with little luck. I had to ask, Where is this thing going? I can't keep it up! Into Season II, my human side kept nagging at me: "You've spent your last cent. For what? What real good is this accomplishing? What now?" I constantly chewed on a C.S. Lewis idea; Lewis noted a common theme from studying biographies, that the peaks are defined by the valleys. My take? Some people will never experience the highest peaks because they're not willing to go very deep into the valleys.
Clara Ward... "It will happen!" (An Icon for Our City). In the midst of this season it seemed like a dark cloud was lingering over our city. Economic forcasts were gloomy. Erie-bashing seemed fashionable. On the personal front, in addition to growing worry over dwindling savings going toward E-TV, we discovered that my six-year old niece was dying of cancer. Yet in Clara I found light. While everyone was getting bent out of shape by economic challenges, here was a woman who has not known a day without economic challenge. Here is a woman who has risen above a very traumatic childhood and a major disability. And what does she do? She finds a way to rally a community to give gifts and feed needy kids.
I still remember the first shoot at the hospital. Linda Kemper brought me. It was just before Clara's big gift-giving season. With much to do, she was stuck here. There Clara proclaimed, with the little energy that she had, of our need to have faith, to trust in God's timing, that we're given suffering for a purpose. Later she would say how her children would constantly challenge her: "We have no money. We only have one week. How are you going to do this? Why do you keep doing this, Momma?" But she would calmly reassure them, "It will happen... it will happen." Sure enough, often it would come down to the last day, but it would happen. Clara has lived this far longer than I, which gave me tremendous strength to perservere with E-TV.
Season II: Anatomy of a Dream Fulfilled. In addition to Clara's amazing witness, and her dream of providing a safe place for children who fall through the cracks, with E-TV's Season II we had two other unique women, each pursuing their unique dreams. We showcased Lindsay Vendetti aspiring to record a hit single. Pamela McCormick is a mother of six striving to be the best wife, mother and athlete she can be. The concluding episode of Season II suggested itself: "Anatomy of a Dream Fulfilled." Their lives proclaimed the importance of knowing what you're about, persevering in adversity, surrounding yourself with good people, stepping out of your comfort zone....
Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Erie Nonprofits. Toward the end of that Season, a good friend, Deb Thompson (Strategy Solutions), told me that I really needed to connect with Bob Wooler of The Nonprofit Partnership. We immediately discovered a common mission - to help organizations tell their stories to the community. I conducted a seminar on the theme for 70 community leaders, and was immediately engaged in producing story-videos for a number of organizations. It wasn't much, but it allowed us to put some PB&J on the table.
Around the same time someone local contacted me and said EMHE is looking for a worthy family in the Erie-area. I shot Extreme Makeover folks an email, sharing with them our E-TV coverage of Clara. They thanked me for the nomination, and requested the formal application. It made sense for Linda Kemper and her family to drive the application.
It Gets Serious. As you might imagine, the mere potentiality of Clara as a candidate was exciting. Perhaps the entire purpose for E-TV was to showcase Clara's mission, to make it possible for fulfillment? Not to mention the tremendous boost to the whole community, engaging them in a common mission of "doing the good they're able to do, without counting the cost!"
By the end of that first week of February Linda Kemper and Family took up the application in earnest, filling out all the related information, acquiring requested pictures and video. We circled back at my house to review, refine, and get the requested materials to EMHE with due haste. In the months that followed production teams were in Erie a few times, honing the potential Erie-area stories. With close family and friends gathered around, we were told she is merely one of a few candidates. They again emphasized the importance of secrecy.
In my life I have worked on some major media projects. I don't blame anyone for doing what they do to make a buck, but I have to say from the top down these EMHE folks are the real deal. They are mission driven. They are singularly motivated by the capacity to change lives.
This is perhaps best illustrated by EMHE's Executive Producer Conrad Rickett's words at the June 19th Pep Rally. Rickett shared that EMHE began with an unlikely encounter with a broken down home. He saw a lady with a paint brush and an eight year old girl, and asked about the condition of the house. She replied that for four years they had been battling leukemia, and every dime was going to save her life. He knew at that moment that this was the soul of the television show.
The Announcement. Excitement grew as Maleno Builders was selected, and details were offered of the build-week at their dedicated EMHE site. We hoped that Clara was a top candidate. Unfortunately, we would be on our long-anticipated family vacation on the announcement week, but I couldn't help but anticipate the announcement date: Thursday, June 25.
Then the news came-- my phone was flooded with a barrage of text and voice messages. Linda's in particular came in at 1:02 p.m., simply saying: "They picked Clara. Ty is coming with the bus. Anna [her daughter] is on the bus."
It was quite surreal, and difficult not to be able to be there. I felt an inexpressible joy for Clara, and absolute wonder at all that transpired. How could I have known that my accident, and origination of E-TV, could contribute in a small way to so much? Going to the Maleno site, I'm overwhelmed by the outpouring of support by so many. This house, this story, Clara... are a metaphor for what our community is all about. As Rickett intimated, this doesn't require a television program. EMHE merely set the stage for many people to do the good they're able to do, without counting the cost!
E-TV Season III: MvP Edition... ! Before leaving on vacation, before knowing that Clara was selected, I knew E-TV was meant to continue. For Season III we're wanting to use the McDowell v. Prep rivalry to showcase the best in our community. The short trailer (and other clip) were captured at the Bob Sanders camp, where both coaches were united in helping young men discover the core values of the right vision, discipline and hard work.
The programs will lead up to the September 4 game (with the finale following three weeks later), with all episodes airing exclusively on the local NBC (WICU) site, with a reach to 300,000 every month. So here I am again, expressing need... to join us in doing what you're able to do without counting the cost. As of this writing, we have some real interest by a major, corporate sponsor, but we need you to help us. Please go here for more details, and stay tuned in.
So that's my little story, and the hope for its continuation. Please join us.
Everyone's life says something. Don't miss it!
Creator/Producer - www.ErieAlityTV.com
Tune in to the City. You'll get hooked!