Sunday, January 18, 2015

“Beep. Beep. Poopy Butts. Get outta my way!”



May is a special month.  It starts with May Day, which I appreciate more now after having lived in Europe, and the beginning of spring.  It is also the month my daughter was born which is reason enough to call it special.  May is also a month of good byes. 

I recall vividly one May about a year and a half ago.  I was on Facebook when I saw a prayer request from a friend for a friend of theirs who had just lost their toddler Ethiopian daughter in an accident.  My heart stopped!  My worst nightmare became a reality for this family.  I felt anguished and helpless.  I reached out to learn more. I don’t know why.  For some unexplainable reason, I was compelled to find out who and how and more importantly why.  But the last, I already knew in my heart of hearts, there was no answer. 

I learned the little girl had been hit by a car in parking lot waiting for her brothers’ sports practice to end - -something very familiar in our house.  I couldn’t get this toddler and her family out of my thoughts.  I saw her pictures and she reminded me so much of my daughter at that age.  She had a similar spunk and light.  Her family openly shared their pain as well as the support they were receiving.  They set an example I am not at all sure I could in their shoes.

After some weeks, I send a note to both parents offering our family’s condolences and connected via Facebook.  I checked in as often as I could and tried to provide what support was possible being a virtual stranger who lived abroad.  Everything I could do seemed wholly inadequate.  But still I truly felt I needed to try my best; for myself and my little girl, as well as for this amazing family and theirs. 

My middle son and daughter were drawn in too -- seeing what I did -- our family mirrored in many respects.  I recall sitting watching a tribute video and my son started watching over my shoulder.  I was pulled out of my own experience by the sound of jagged sobs.  I turned to see unbearable pain spread across his sweet face.  He then just buried his face into Leyla as he hugged her tight.  I could feel a bit of the anguish Marra Freh's brothers must feel as I watched my son in that moment.

Amy, Sten, Mihret, Jenna, Leyla and me in Washington DC at a awesome chance get together

These two and I talk of Marra Freh often.  Damian sees his sister in her, himself in her older brother and me in her mother.  He is so grateful to have his sister still with him but wanted to help the grieving family who lost theirs.  One of his gifts is poetry.  He wrote one about Marra Freh for her mother Amy (shown above) and also mentioned the garden her brother had planted as a memorial.  Amy Olsson sent him a note, picture and special treat which he treasures. 
Damian with his special treats from Amy
Damian and Amy get to meet in person

Leyla laughs at the stories she hears and videos and pictures the Olssons’ shared – including the quote on this shirt.  One day she was telling me some things she was going to teach Marra Freh when she met her.  I gently asked her if she remembered that Marra Freh had died.  She replied quickly as if I was the slow one, "I am going to teach her when I meet her in heaven." and then smiled at the thought.  Her answer reminded me I too can choose to focus on the beautiful, the funny and what is possible, rather than what is lost.
Marra Freh
Leyla at three
Marrah Freh with a perfect t-shirt
Leyla at three


The Olssons are an amazing family – this was so crystal clear even though I got to know them when their world was rocked by grief.  We were lucky enough to meet in person recently and it was so sweet. 

I want to thank Marra Freh for the amazing gifts she gave so many in her two and half beautiful years on this planet.  What gifts could a toddler give people far distances away who never met her?    

She gave me the chance to celebrate an amazing life.  Her life was brief but its impact was the kind I hope for at the end of mine.  Her gifts were abundant, open and enthusiastic love; laughter with utter abandon and an exuberant zest for life.  It leaps out from each picture and video.  She touched so many by just being her amazingly unique and authentic self. 

She also showed me so beautifully that death is not the end.  Her family keeps her memory alive in so many impactful and creative ways, giving people who loved her in life and those who came to love her after, the chance to celebrate and rejoice in her spirit.

Marra Freh also reminded me that life is unpredictable and fragile.  I need to grab and hold on to those fleeting moments like the precious hug or the bright smile or the potty humor of a toddler.  She gave me this priceless reminder to slow down.  

When I think of her, I found myself consciously remembering to enjoy more special "every day" moments with my kids.  When my little girl asks me to lie with her as she goes to sleep, I say yes most times where before I might have thought I was too busy.  I go out of my way to make sure I hug my teenage boys even when it is less than enthusiastically returned.  I consciously listen to their music, watch what catches their attention, take long walks to talk, or just be together. These treasures of moments are so easy to miss. Marra Freh has made sure our family has more of them.

She gave me the example of how to live life to the fullest when you are here and that your legacy is rooted in the love and memories of those you touched .  Marra Freh's legacy is huge.  Random kindness done and races run -- in her name.  Many, many lives touched and enriched because of her.

I desperately wish I could have known Marra Freh in life.  I wish even more I didn’t meet her family through the tragedy of her death.  But I am glad I know her now.  I am glad I can love her too and help keep me memory alive.  I am glad I got to know her family who inspire me with their strength, courage, vulnerability and openness. 

Thank you angel Marra Freh for sharing your family and your life with us.  I, like Leyla, can’t wait to meet you in heaven.  
Sten Olsson with 2 Angelidis and two Olsson kids
Leyla enjoying time with Marra Freh's sisters

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Power of Facing Down Fear and Having Faith in Our Global Community


Our "Letter from the Chairs" from this Open Hearts Big Dreams 2014

Every year we come together as a group of volunteers and donors and supporters from around the  globe to make this event a reality. Over a 100,000 kids’ big dreams depend on these open hearts. 

Where did this journey start?  For us, it started with a little girl born in Ethiopia 6 and half years ago.  Michael and I had so many fears and questions about the journey we were embarking on to expand our family with a daughter who would not share our biology but would be 100% our family.  But a belief that this was our path and that we would find answers along the way compelled us forward.

We traveled to Ethiopia that first time with so many trepidations.  They were answered  beautifully by a wide eyed baby girl who stole our hearts.  She reserved her first smile for her new dad and he has been hers completely since.

In thinking about how to connect our daughter to our country and help equalize opportunity there, again the objective seemed so big and so unfamiliar.  Doubts about what could we do rose up constantly but the power of collaboration and an enduring belief, in what was possible when people come together, propelled us forward.  And we are constantly amazed and humbled by what we accomplished together these last three years.

Each time we set the goals and aspirations higher because the kids we serve deserve that, the questions return; is this too big? can we sustain it? how we will achieve this new milestone?  The global community always comes back with an affirmative answer in so many beautiful and surprising ways. 

Going back to see the kids and communities this effort supports this summer also provided many joyous answers to any lingering doubts.  Kids enjoying a school in the countryside where before there was none.  Runners becoming tutors and leaders and discovering their confidence and dreams in the process. Our daughter walking home with new friends and enjoying books together. Knowing she had a part in their smiles and joy and they in hers is priceless. 

When we again visited the original library we planted (with lots of help) in our daughter’s birth town, the school administrator and kids exuberantly thanked her.  She beamed from ear to ear and has since recounted how awesome it is there is a library where she was born because of people from where she lives now; a wonderful circle completed.  

Thank you all for the amazing support and faith you put each year into what we do together there.  It is truly awe-inspiring.  

Happy Holidays!