Emily Michael passed away on October 19, 2008 at the age of nine. She was in the fourth grade. This sweet child from Centreville, V.A. suffered from "heart disease," yet ironically, it was the strength of her heart that would become her greatest legacy.
Laura Senturia, Emily's fourth grade teacher at Colin Powell Elementary School, is personally invested in all of her students' lives. Not only was Emily's passing an emotional blow for Laura, but she had the unenviable task of delivering the news to Emily's classmates. How does anyone find meaning in the death of a child? How do you explain it to other kids? How do you move forward productively and with hope? Laura's approach can be found in one of her favorite sayings by novelist Vivien Greene: "Life isn't about waiting for the storms to pass. It's about learning to dance in the rain."
In 2010, Laura's school was participating in a community service program to help raise funds for and rehab a schoolhouse in Lilongwe, Malawi (Africa). Laura was able to obtain the necessary approvals so that the schoolhouse would be renamed in Emily's loving memory. The effort galvanized an outpouring of funds and volunteerism, but it also galvanized something inside Laura. She wondered why this one effort half a world away should be the only living memorial to a girl whose sole purpose in life was to make other children feel better? Laura was now on a personal mission.
In 2011, Laura spearheaded the formation of Emily's Hope, an organization dedicated to fulfilling the promise of Emily Michael, by making the lives of children better in small and large ways. This was uncharted territory for Laura. With no prior experience in the nonprofit sector, she was acting on instinct, compelled to find personal meaning by perpetuating the memory of another. On December 6, 2012, Laura had this to say on Facebook: "I have never been so happy to get a letter from the IRS. Emily's Hope is officially a tax exempt, tax deductible donation charity!!!"
It's now February of 2014 and Laura continues to push this endeavor forward with determination and grit as President of the organization. It's not easy. Still a full time teacher, she seeks mentoring, marketing assistance and all of the resources that will allow her to continue honoring the legacy of her former student. Earlier, I asked how one moves forward productively and with hope in the wake of an unthinkable loss? This is how. Laura is teaching her students -- and all of us -- an important lesson.
Thank you Laura, for telling us more ...
1. IN JUST ONE SENTENCE, WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE IN LIFE? To make the world a more meaningful place for others, and help others live life to the fullest.
2. HOW HAS THIS WORK CHANGED YOU? It has opened my eyes to how little it takes to make a difference for others, from the recognition that they are worth something to those around them, to the larger acts of rebuilding school buildings at an underfunded orphanage or funding school libraries where the money has run out. All people simply want to matter to others. Starting Emily's Hope has brought that point home to me.
3. WHAT DO YOU GET FROM GIVING? A true sense that I am part of a larger community, and that any act of kindness can truly make a difference.
4. WHO IS A LIVING HERO, AND WHAT WOULD YOU ASK THEM IF GIVEN THE CHANCE? Children are my heroes, especially those who are living with scant resources and/or through difficult situations. Children are remarkably resilient and aware, and they know what they need in order to thrive. That's what I want to ask: What do you, as a child, need in order to live a meaningful and joy-filled life?
5. WHAT EVERYDAY RESOURCES COULD HELP YOU ACHIEVE YOUR PHILANTHROPIC GOALS? The most important resource we are in need of to achieve our goals is time. Time to help us spread the word about what we are doing, time to help us set up creative fundraisers, time to find new projects that need our help. Definitely, time!
6. WHAT IS A BURNING QUESTION YOU HAVE FOR THIS COMMUNITY? Since we are a small and relatively new organization, I would ask others in this community what advice they would give to philanthropists that are just starting out. What makes the greatest impact? What messages speak most loudly and clearly to you?
7. WHAT WOULD THE TITLE OF YOUR BOOK BE? Live With A Smile On Your Face. While a challenge to pull off at times, everything really is better when you smile and laugh your way through. I try to really love life, and live it with a smile on my face and the faces of those around me. Of course there are times to be sad, and mad, and so many other emotions. But if you have smiled every day, and laughed every day, and made others smile and laugh with you, then that is an accomplishment!
8. TELL US SOMETHING YOU RARELY SHARE IN PUBLIC. I want to see the St. Louis Cardinals play in every stadium in Major League Baseball, and I'm almost half of the way there. As a child in St. Louis, we went to many games as a family. Baseball became important to all of us as a source of joy, entertainment and shared history. After my mother died when I was 16, I held on to baseball as one of the gifts she gave me. As our family has changed over the years, baseball is our constant. My brother and father will be at a game in St. Louis that I'll be watching on my computer in Virginia, while on the phone with my sister in New York, all of us smiling. Walking in to a stadium to see my hometown team makes me as excited as I was as a child, and I know my mom is cheering with me at every game.
9. WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR OTHERS WHO ASPIRE TO BE CITIZEN-PHILANTHROPISTS? There will always be obstacles, but if it means something to you, if it inspires you, DO IT! You can make a difference for others, but not if you stop yourself from trying or talk yourself out of it.
10. WHAT QUESTION DO YOU WISH I HAD ASKED, AND WHAT IS THE ANSWER? QUESTION: Who is your inspiration? ANSWER: My inspiration is the namesake of our organization, Emily Michael. Despite spending her all too short life fighting a heart condition, there was not a day that I saw her -- hospital included -- without a smile on her face, and she was always doing acts of kindness for others. Emily really and truly lived every day, and lived it in the fullest sense of the word. The optimism, kindness and joy with which she lived each day is what I want to share with the world.