The people of this town never cease to amaze me, but I couldn't have realized it more than I did last week.
I have heard the stories of exceptional generosity. I have donated money, spare change in canisters, purchased tickets to fundraisers I knew I could not attend. Along with the rest of the town, I stood in line years ago and donated blood when it was needed, and later with many of those same people I was tested to donate my bone marrow.
I donate what I can without hesitation simply because I grew up in this town and witnessed the town’s generosity; the way people give anything they can without question or consequence when someone is in need. It is a part of who I am because since I was six years old, I watched people give selflessly and rally together. A trickle-down effect of giving and supporting one another that is the essence and the best part of Norwood, formed over the years, long before I was born.
I stopped by the Friend’s of St. Nick luncheon last week and while I listened to Senator John Rogers speak of the town that came together for one of the largest blood drives in the history of the region in 1990 for Kevin McNulty, my eyes filled with tears, remembering clearly standing in line at the Callahan School with thousands of people, multiple times even, hoping our actions would save a little four-year-old who instantly felt like family to all of us.
When Rogers spoke of “our beautiful Michelle Kennedy” I could not even look at my friend Lee, again my eyes filled with tears as I remembered the night the town gathered in the gym at the Civic Center to show Michelle our support, never realizing she would more than “pay it forward.”
One selfless wish during the scariest time of her life. One quiet conversation between a mother and daughter after a powerful and emotional evening has changed the lives of so many people, many of whom were likely in the room the evening we gathered for Michelle or are directly connected to someone who was impacted by her wish and her mother's work.
Michelle's request to hold a fundraiser and put the money in the bank “because someone always needs help, they just don’t always want to ask" has far exceeded anything she could have possibly dreamed.
I wish I could tell Michelle, “In thirteen years you have eased more burdens than you ever imagined, you have provided much needed restful nights because you had a conversation with your amazing mother who listened. Look at this!”
I can’t say it to Michelle, but I can say it to Lee.
The Circle of Hope, formed and driven by a mother’s love, has given out $250,000 to date. I looked over at Lee on Friday and thought - you and Michelle, a quarter of a million dollars AND the circle is still growing, people are still giving and not only because this is Norwood, but because of an angel on Earth and an angel in Heaven.
I give to the Circle of Hope. I tell you stories about the Circle of Hope. I love writing about Michelle and Lee and all the wonderful things they do for the people of Norwood, but I had never participated in a Circle of Hope event, never given of myself. Handing over money, donating blood, being tested to be a bone marrow donor is important but to take part in something, especially a cause that is close to your heart... let me tell you there is no feeling in the world quite like it.
To witness the generosity and love this amazing town still has for a woman I care so deeply for and a young girl whose memory I hold close to my heart was nothing short of life-changing. I now hold this town in even higher regard.
I decided I was going to help with Luminary Night on Saturday, from beginning to end no matter what Lee said. Lee has a very giving personality, she always has, and obviously Michelle inherited that trait from her mother - it is one of many piece of the Circle of Hope that I have come to realize are actually pieces of Michelle and Lee. Never wanting to put anyone out and always giving to others, it is hard for Lee to accept help. She constantly put others first. When I left the luncheon on Friday, I gave Lee a hug and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow at 3:30." To see her smile and say "OK, sounds good," well, I smiled like a kid on Christmas morning.
On behalf of the Circle of Hope, please allow me to say thank you to everyone who donated to Luminary Night. My breath was taken away when I arrived at the Common Saturday afternoon. Boxes upon boxes were stacked full of luminaries, a pile of order forms that came in that morning that needed to be filled sat on a nearby table. Lee talked about how her phone just kept ringing and ringing all morning: “One call came in and before I hung up, another came in. I’m not complaining but I felt like I needed a secretary,” she said with a big smile.
I was speechless, but so happy.
To see even just the unopened boxes and the lumanaries already lining the walkways, I was overwhelmed with emotion. Just days earlier there was concern the Common might not be fully aglow - the word might not get out.
I can not put into words the feeling that washed over me when I saw how a town rallied so fast for two people I care about so much. I can’t put into words what it was like to witness my friend so happy, so full of energy. I witnessed firsthand what drives the Circle of Hope, not just Lee but the close group of people by her side, all feeding off her. If she is down, they stand up and when she is up, they are even more upbeat. It is absolutely the most amazing group of people I have ever had the pleasure of getting to know.
Joey was with me but instantly gravitated to Lee, and did not leave her side. The excitement in the air, the happiness and the pure, simple life was contagious. There were no tears, though there was a feeling of sadness at times looking at some of the names while we set up, but as I was told later, "There are no tears in The Circle of Hope."
I could see why this is Lee’s favorite night of the year.
I was reminded of Michelle, of Kevin, of loved ones I lost, but I was not sad. I was happy each time we filled another walkway, each time I looked around and saw the children helping or running around the Common, dancing through years of memories.
When the time came to light the luminaries, the same team effort that keeps the circle alive was quickly underway.
Children lifted the wicks off the tea light candles while adults followed behind lighting the hundreds of luminaries lining the Common.
Joey was especially moved when we lit the luminary he wrote for my friend Maureen. He said to me yesterday, "I wish they could leave the luminaries up until Christmas. It was the best thing I have ever helped with. I just loved it."
Norwood Police, local reporters and a few people who happened to show up early all helped light the individual luminaries.
I took a step back looking at the center of the town that was as radiant as the young woman the town came together to support what seems, not too long ago. It was nothing short of breathless.
Michelle Kennedy and her mother Lee are very much alike; they can both be very outgoing but also very private. They do not like to take, they love to give and help. The town of Norwood stepped up, as it always does, but particularly this week and they did so for the Circle of Hope. Lee if you ever doubted how much you and Michelle are loved, what The Circle of Hope means to this town, think no further than Saturday night.
We thank you, I thank you, two beautiful women for a beautiful, unforgettable evening.