By Alex Cohen
When I think about what just transpired I cannot believe we actually went through with it, and it was more successful than we could have ever imagined. Before we left, I had nightmares of us flailing through the states without much direction, or sitting on the side of the road with a broken down tour bus in the middle of nowhere. None were farther from the truth.
Before I begin to explain how this trip inspired me, I first need to thank those who made it possible.
First I want to thank my team leader, Jeanne, who was the most resistant to this idea. She was not fond of living on a bus, driving for thousands of miles and she was not sure she would have enough to eat (she is a grazer).
Then to Jake, our resident outdoorsman, who could not have been happier to put this whole trip together, from the tour bus, to the wrapping on it, to the organizations we planned to see and the ones that we came up with along the way – not to mention the crazy good eateries he found.
To Molly who met us in Chicago and decided to cancel her flight so she could spend the night on the bus with us and experience the open road and the next day of visits.
To Melanie for being in constant communication with the office and the organizations before, during and after, making sure everything went off without a hitch.
For Alyssa, who held down the fort in CT and did not go into labor while we were away.
For Chris, who just started with us over a month ago and was brave enough to venture out with us the last few days of the trip. He and Melanie read and edited all my daily journals, even with the terrible service we had on the bus, and were able to do it, get it out and keep track of all social media.
To our two bus drivers, Ellis and Darryl, who got us everywhere safely and on time, even though they had to drive this huge bus through two snow storms, two rain storms and some bad hail, and one very long deep windy road along the way.
To Carl and Brian, our faithful security drivers who rode behind us the whole way in a Suburban, taking turns sleeping in the car so we would be safe and have a way to get around when not on the bus.
Last but not least, to Josh, my oldest and only son, who we asked to come along and document the entire trip. He is a filmmaker by trade and I would not have entrusted that job to anyone but him. Josh has always been so giving and so generous of spirit, so he was perfect for the job. It just so happened to be “bring your son to work day” while we were on the road. I was glad he got to see what I did for a living up close and very personal. To spend this quality time with him meant the world to me. He, Jake and Melanie also bonded on this trip so he came away with great mommy time and a few new good friends.
Now, to what this trip meant to me. First, let me begin by saying that I did not just become a generous person on this trip. Those who know me, know that I was born this way. As a child, I worried about the neighbor who was too old to go out and get groceries. I worried about the homeless in the cold, I feared for women who walked the street alone. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to help these people. I would ask the neighbor if she needed anything, I would ask my mother to give the homeless person a dollar, and pray for the woman walking alone that she get home safely. I worked in the rummage sale store with my mother after school and made sure everything was clean and tidy for those coming in to buy things. They deserved respect as much as anyone else.
I did not come from money. My dad started out as a handy man/superintendent in the Harlem projects where I was born, then got a better job in the post office. We moved to Washington Heights shortly after. My mother was a stay at home mom who babysat many kids for a living, sometimes up to 10 at a time. Some lived with us for months depending on their parents’ situation and their parents paid what they could.
This trip was the culmination of my lifelong desire to cross the country in a vehicle, to see what I have been missing while flying, and to inspire people to be more generous of spirit. We can all bring joy or a momentary respite to those in need; it could be with a smile, a kind word, a monetary gesture, etc.
I had no idea what to expect on this trip but something amazing happened. At every stop we made, a weight was added to my heart because of the suffering I was seeing. At the same time that weight turned into a fullness, a satisfaction that there were people already addressing these issues and doing a damn good job at it with very little resources. As a result of their passion and dedication, these people and organizations are making a real difference in the lives of those they are helping. I felt such gratitude to meet these new givers who devote their lives to doing what I set out to do for a week on the road; they are the real heroes of this journey.
We live in a world of excess, of entitled children who only see what they don’t have; children whose whole word revolves around social media, instant gratification and “likes.” Imagine if every one of these kids was tasked to take on a buddy, someone in need, and live in their shoes for a month, a week or even a day. How resilient do you think they would be, how long would they survive? After hearing some of the stories on our trip, I realized that these people are some of the strongest and most resilient in our country, because they have to be. We need to take our lessons from them. Not only have they survived but many have flourished and succeeded through adversity, God bless them. They are the ones, like myself, that remember what it was like not to have, not to have enough of anything, but they allow the past to give them the strength to forge ahead and make things better for themselves and others.
Words I live by from my mother: “no matter how poor you think you are there is always someone with less. And, no matter how rich you think you are there is always someone with more.”
I walked away from this journey with a new found love for many things: America, as a country and as a people. For the Native Americans, who have been displaced, who suffer and have been forgotten but who continue to hold on to their pride, their language and way of life with respect. For the caretakers I met who have made it their mission to help those in need. For teens who have suffered unthinkably, only to get out of a spiral of despair to come back to the place that gave them a chance, and give back by becoming mentors to the younger generation and, finally, to the young children whose future will be better because of these amazing givers.
My eyes are open wide and my heart overflowing with gratitude, for my own life, my generous husband, my amazing children and my humble upbringing. All of this has made me who I am today.
I leave you with a song that sums up my journey in life:
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my Shield and Portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.