From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

He Taught Us to Love

It’s not what you do for your children, but what you have taught them to do for themselves that will make them successful human beings.

Ann Landers

Proudly I watched Russ, with his characteristic boyish grin, leave his seat to speak to a gathering of nearly two hundred people. Bursting with joy and triumph, a tear trickled softly down my cheek.

Russ was a lovable kid with a myriad of communication challenges—a speech impediment, dyslexia, auditory and large motor problems, mixed dominance and poor coordination to boot. But that day he was walking confidently, standing tall to make an acceptance speech for having been chosen one of the “Outstanding Young Citizens” in Ocean County, New Jersey, because of his phenomenal volunteer service in the tightly-knit town of Toms River.

As I listened, I closed my eyes. A few seconds later, I could hear his voice as a youth saying, “You know what I mean,” when he couldn’t pronounce a word. He struggled valiantly to learn what those words meant. I closed my eyes even tighter, remembering a cheerful fourth-grader telling me how he had to make a speech about his science project and how the very thought of it made his heart beat “really fast.”

I found myself recalling other memorable moments. Like the days when I used to help out with Meals on Wheels. I’d run in and make the delivery while my volunteer partner stayed with Russ in the car. Or the times I directed a children’s chorus and he’d be right there tugging on my leg. My mind was a blur of warm images of Russ as a loving, caring youth, a gentle soul, accepting his challenges. And now, as he stood at the lectern, I knew his heart must be racing.

As Russ continued his speech, I thought about the fateful day he was diagnosed with all those impairments and how proud his tutors would be if they could see him today. Here he was at twenty-nine, being honored for ten years of service as a volunteer fireman. Russ was responsible for organizing clothing drives for the homeless, teaching preschool children about fire safety, and for playing a sensitive Santa Claus for terminally ill children by driving up in a fire truck.

At the end of his speech, Russ thanked his parents for giving him a good life—for instilling him with self-esteem and for teaching him about morals and integrity. Then, pausing for a few seconds, he looked intently at his audience. He took us by surprise by touching lovingly on the loss of his nephew, Austin Lee Hanning. Austin was just three years old when he died from a rare and incurable disease.

At that moment, I had to close my eyes again before I unleashed a different set of tears. A hush fell over the room as Russ dedicated his volunteer award to Austin’s memory. He concluded his speech by lifting the audience up with the compassionate warmth of these words, “Austin taught me how to love.”

I was in awe as I saw this young man come full circle— from dreading the thought of learning and speaking words, to holding an audience spellbound by his inspired speech.

What made the occasion even more special was the fact that Russ, who never made it as the star of the football team, and who had never been voted “most likely to succeed,” had risen to be a true “star” in his community.

Russ became a man of strong character by his unselfish dedication and service to others. Labeled perceptually impaired, Russ now sees and acts clearly with his heart.

His words and deeds inspire everyone who knows him. It is Russ, our son, who “has taught us how to love.”

This time, my heart was beating “really fast.”

Arline McGraw Oberst

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