Our Lives

Our lives: The transformative effect of gratitude

CorrespondentAugust 24, 2013 

Diane Morris

JLEONARD@NEWSOBSERVER.COM — JULI LEONARD

When my sons were young, gratitude was not something I felt often.

Yes, I could appreciate the efforts of family and friends who lent a hand and countless professionals who helped us deal with the issues that accompanied our sons’ autism. But my husband and I were stressed, often upset, and surrounded by people with normally developing children. I was too angry about the unfairness of it all and frustrated by the seemingly endless challenges to consider the possibility that heartfelt gratitude for my life and the people in it was called for.

This past year has been a revelation for me. When I first sent out an email last fall asking if anyone wanted to explore starting a charter school for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, I didn’t know what kind of response I would get. I saw a need – my sons’ special-education teachers were amazing, but they were restrained by a lack of resources and curriculum requirements that didn’t always make sense for my boys or other students with disabilities – and I had numerous friends who felt the same. But I wasn’t sure I could find others who would put in the time and effort necessary to get this school off the ground.

Since then, I have talked to dozens of parents who have children who would benefit from this school. I’ve met with teachers and therapists who are excited by the possibility of teaching in a place that empowers them to go as far outside the box as they need to to help students succeed. Many have jumped into the effort with both feet, and I am grateful for their work and support.

Even more astonishing to me have been all of the people who don’t have or work with special-needs children who are helping. Many of them know my husband and me and recognize the power and potential of this dream. Their generosity with their time, energy and money blows me away.

I find it nearly impossible to hold on to negative feelings when I am working side by side with people full of love, excitement and hope. It is my gratitude for them that motivates me and pushes me forward when I am overwhelmed.

Starting a charter school is pretty darn overwhelming. Charter schools are independent from school districts, so my fellow board members and I must figure out everything for ourselves. We have to find a facility, develop curricula, determine employment policies, and shop for and purchase insurance, financial services, furniture, materials… the list goes on.

In addition, our school faces financial challenges that others don’t. Because the Dynamic Community Charter School will serve students who require smaller class sizes and more supplemental services than the typical school population, the government funding the school will receive won’t be enough. Fundraising in every conceivable form tops our to-do list.

All of these tasks run through my brain each morning, and sometimes I don’t want to get out of bed. Then I reach for my iPhone and check my email, and I have messages from board members and others updating me on the work they’re doing, as well as parents who just heard about it and want more information or to find out how to help.

Every day, my partners in this effort remind me that while there is much to do, there is no chance of failure when a community surrounds and supports you. My gratitude for this community envelops me, uplifts me and frees me from my tendencies to stress and panic.

I once heard a pastor say that when we feel gratitude, we focus on the good in our lives and accept our past, including the pain and challenges. Gratitude can free us from resentment and help us heal from loss. Instead of dwelling on the negative, we consider all of the gifts we have received – a helping hand, a second chance, or just a smile on a bad day – that made our lives better and our successes possible. That, the pastor said, then translates to generosity, as we stop trying to hold on to what’s ours and instead look for ways to pass that gratitude into the future.

It turns out gratitude can also make a person braver and stronger. It can heal a heart and open a soul. It can turn hope into determination and a hard-working group with a common goal into a community.

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