The power of taking “No” and making it work (advice during the week of the Children’s Congress letters)
It was mid-winter and we were waiting. And waiting. For the letter. My daughter had applied before for JDRF’s Children’s Congress and been rejected. Each time, I’d watched with joy as a few other children from our chapter went off to Washington to represent us. Lauren had been interested in politics and advocacy since she was a small child. She’d done (with my guidance; she was little) every Promise to Remember Me visit since the program had begun. We had one of our region’s largest and most successful walk teams. I’d served as Chapter President. I’d chaired the gala. We were major donors. Lauren had done many, many talks and media appearances for our chapter and for JDRF nationally. On paper, it seemed to look good.
Then the letter came. She ripped it open, read it, and looked at me. “No again,” she said. “Two more years until I try again, right?”
I’m happy to say that two years later, on her third try, Lauren did get the chance to go to Children’s Congress. But I have to say: had we never been able to attend, I like to think our passion for a cure and for JDRF advocacy would not have wavered.
I bring this up because today – and all this week – thousands of kids like Lauren will be ripping open letters across the country. About 150 of them will jump up and down and scream with joy. But a vast majority of them – more than 90 percent of those who applied – will read the letter and feel let down. Because the plain truth is this: thousands of kids with Type 1 Diabetes apply. Of them, 99.9 percent absolutely deserve to go. And yet, there’s only room for 150.
And that decision is heartbreaking. I know. I’ve not only seen the “no” letter with my child’s name on it, I’ve also sat at that table and helped choose a slate of delegates. It’s important for anyone feeling left out to understand that the process has less to do with what you’ve done for JDRF and diabetes in general and more to do with what congressional districts are “in play.” Building the slate of delegates is like putting together an intricate puzzle. Sometimes a really cool looking piece just does not fit. And since we are blessed with thousands and thousands of kids – and families – who step up big time, Children’s Congress simply cannot serve as a “reward.” There are too many of us who totally deserve rewarding.
I’ve sat at that table and had to turn down kids who I know with all my heart would be rock stars there. Because we have so many rock stars in this life. I promise you, the committee actually cries. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done as a volunteer. But in the end, the challenge we parents have as our kids get their letters is helping them use this to empower themselves.
Because while Children’s Congress is awesome and amazing and will be all the buzz in the early summer, it’s not the only way a child can truly make a difference, and learn about advocacy and empowerment.
So here is our challenge this week:
*If your letter says yes, this is your chance to be gracious, thankful and humble. Here is your chance to reach out to the other families in your chapter who did not get in and ask them to be “on your team” as you serve. Find ways to involve them. Update them and share what you are doing and learning. And when you get back from Children’s Congress, consider it not an ending but a beginning. Volunteer to set up Promise meetings with the elected officials you met in DC, and invite the families who did not get to go to DC. Recreate the magic on a local level. Share it, use it and help everyone feel a part of it.
Also consider suggesting some other great kids you know who did not get a “yes” when you are asked to do other things. Like speaking at a walk kick off. Why not suggest to your chapter that another child take the spotlight here and there as well? After all, your child will be a superstar throughout the CC process.
*If your letter says no, shake off your disappointment and remind your child that they applied for a reason: to make a difference. Then call your local chapter and say “Okay – since we are not going to DC we have all that time and energy to help right here at home. What can we do?” And then do it. Show your child how to take disappointment and turn it into opportunity.
The year after the second time Lauren was rejected from Children’s Congress was the year she set up and attended a local meeting with the great, late Senator Ted Kennedy; the meeting that evolved into the friendship that evolved into a partnership that truly helped the entire world of Type 1 diabetes. Lauren – and I – looked at creating that meeting as our way to use our passion and energy at home while others were in DC. And in the end, it mattered so much.
I am also thankful she was rejected. Let me explain: Back when we first applied (and then applied again) Lauren was interested, but she was young. I really feel like when she finally went, it was right in her wheelhouse. Sure it would have been wonderful back then and I’m so thankful for the younger kids who go, but for my daughter, she was rejected when she should have been, and chosen at a great time. The fact that two years later we served as the Chair Family (one of JDRF’s most amazing and unique honors. I’m still stunned they asked us), shows that strong, smart kids are rejected a few times.
And what if she had been rejected again and had “aged out,” (the term we use for a kid who applies and does not get in and is going to be too old from then on)? I give you Lindsay, a lovely young woman who applied many times, never got in and eventually aged out.
Lindsay would have been one of my top choices, had I been able to “cheat” and just let a kid in back when I was in charge. She’s smart, outgoing, active and brave. She’s eloquent and was always, always willing to step up for JDRF. But things did not work out for her. Each time, something got in the way, like a Congressional need that did not line up with where she lived. So when that last “no” letter was going out to her, I called her and told her myself. I braced myself for anger, maybe even tears. But here’s what I got:
“Mrs. Stanford, you are so nice to call me. It’s fine. It wasn’t meant to be. Please call me for anything else JDRF ever needs. And thank you so much for caring and reading my application.”
Just wow. A year later, Lindsay asked me to write her a college recommendation letter. I wrote one about disappointment and how a strong person handles it, and how Lindsay impressed me with her actions despite disappointment. She got into every college she applied to. And today, she’s still one of the diabetes community’s most active volunteers.
There are thousands of folks this week who won’t get the news they want. I challenge them to channel their inner “Lindsay.”
Here’s hoping your letter says yes. But here’s to knowing that even if it says “no,” your child – and you – can still use all your passion and power and voice and leadership to change the world. DC trip or not, we all will be known as the team who cured Type 1 Diabetes. And if you cannot find a way, ask me here. I’ll help.