Winter was closing in on State College. Those perfect fall days were giving way to the encroaching frost, the trees reluctantly loosening their grips on their colorful blankets of leaves. I was sad to see my favorite season come to an end, but I knew there was a lot to look forward to in the coming weeks –warm winter sweaters, Thanksgiving break, snow. Plus, it would finally be appropriate to watch one of my favorite holiday flicks about an over sized elf who travels to New York City to reconnect with his biological father. Yes, I’m talking about “Elf”. No matter what my mood (or my age), that movie always makes me smile. Maybe it’s the ridiculous premise of the whole thing. Maybe it’s Will Ferrell’s goofy portrayal of Buddy the Elf, a grown man who, with all the innocence of a child, plasters on a huge, cheesy grin and declares, “I just like to smile, smiling’s my favorite”. Who knows. What I do know is that, like Buddy the Elf, I, too, believe in the power of a smile. And, to me, there’s nothing more powerful than the smile of a child.
Early on one of those winter-ish Sunday mornings during my junior year at Penn State, me and four of my fellow sorority sisters piled into a car, Hershey-bound for the day. Now, people seem to have trouble picturing me as a “sorority girl”, but they are much less surprised when they learn that it was a community service sorority. Anyway, through this group, I not only met some of my best friends but I also had the opportunity to get involved with Penn State’s Dance MaraTHON, an annual event (and year-round mindset, really) benefiting a pediatric cancer foundation. When I joined, my sorority had already adopted two “THON families” – families who were dealing with the devastating realities of childhood cancer. When I met them in 2006, both families were celebrating the happy news that their children were in remission. Out of the woods.
But that Sunday, as we made our way to the “Sweetest Place on Earth”, a tense silence filled our 1.5-hour drive. For we were heading not toward Chocolate World but toward Hershey Medical Center, temporary home to one of our “THON kids” whose leukemia had returned with a vengeance. We were nervous about our visit, unsure of how to act around him. As we all filed in to Artie’s room, the five of us took a collective deep breath. We each took turns hugging his exhausted mother, who’d bravely been keeping vigil by his side. And then we greeted a pale, puffy-looking version of the child we’d come to know and love as Artie. It was hard for us to see him confined to a bed, cocooned in wires, when just a few months back he’d been chasing us down with a water gun. Despite our uneasiness, however, the 8-year-old boy seemed to know just what to do. He simply smiled. Although clearly in pain, the dark circles under his eyes gave way to that classic Artie grin as he asked, “So who wants to play Uno?”. I will never forget that brave smile, the one that instantly melted the tension we’d brought into that room with us, and made it ok to laugh with him. Hours later, we left an exhausted little boy smiling contentedly in his hospital bed. Later that evening, we got a call from Artie’s mom, thanking us for lifting her little boy’s spirits with our visit. I don’t think she realized just how much he had lifted our spirits that day.
With Artie (who is now a happy, healthy 14-yr-old boy) as my inspiration, I challenge myself not to underestimate the gift of a smile. Not just now that the “season of giving” is officially underway but all year round. Even when I’m feeling overwhelmed or scared or tired or annoyed. After all, what’s better than a gift that makes you look as good as you feel when you give it? Oh, and not to mention it’s free.
MAKE SMILING YOUR FAVORITE!
Education & Training Manager