Although these may seem like three simple words, the conversation that followed that simple question will forever leave an impact on my life. As Dean of Junior Counselors at ALA Girls Nation, this is my third year of participation in not only Girls Nation, but also the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Picnic. However, Monday night was unlike any other picnic I have ever attended.
As a staff member, my purpose at GN is to enhance and stimulate the experience of each senator. While at Walter Reed, this meant keeping an eye on the senators and allowing each one of them to interact with a wounded warrior. I saw a young man walking by the courtyard, whose eyes gazed to the sea of red polos that engulfed the area. When our eyes locked, I asked him, “Are you hungry?” Similar to most males, he quickly replied, “Of course, I’m always hungry for good barbeque.” As he walked closer, he asked if I would join him for dinner, so I complied. When we had made our way through the food line, we found two empty seats near the doors of the medical facility across the cobblestone road. As we ate dinner and discussed hobbies, interests, family, and school, I finally felt comfortable enough with the young man to ask him his age. When he replied with the age of 19, I was in absolute shock. There I sat, a twenty-year-old young woman feeling like I was in the prime of my life, and there was Patrick. Patrick was not only a young man, but he was a patriot who has dedicated his life to defending the very freedom I enjoy every single day of my life. He had a spirit that could ignite a light within anyone’s soul.
When the senators began their performance of the Armed Forces Medley, the conversation fell silent between Patrick and I while they sang. After the song had ended, I looked to Patrick and I saw the strong young warrior was filled with pride, seriousness and emotion. He proceeded to ask if our group would be returning the following day, and when I told him no, he seemed to be disappointed. After the senators sang, he asked me all types of questions about the week, my experience at GN, but perhaps most intriguing, Patrick asked me why I continue to return to Girls Nation. Although the young man asked this question out of genuine curiosity, he will never realize the impact his question made on my life.
When I think about the reasoning behind leaving my home state of Oklahoma for 10 days, hopping on a plane (only to get stranded at the airport), spending a week sleep deprived, and worrying about the safety of 98 girls, I know that I (and all other staff members) sound just a bit crazy. However, when Patrick asked me this question, I was forced to dig deep and look for the real answer. I realized that I return to ALA Girls Nation because of the senators. As a Junior Counselor, I have the unique opportunity to watch each girl grow and mature into an empowered young woman in just seven short days. I have the chance to interact with each and every senator that comes to ALA Girls Nation, and watch their lives be changed by the American Legion Auxiliary.
Patrick will never realize the impact he had on my life during our 30-minute conversation, but he left footprints on my heart. He taught me to live each day to the fullest, to never forget where I came from, laugh everyday, and always live with a smile on your face and love in your heart.
Jessie Heidlage (OK), Dean of Junior Counselors