Hope
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Volume V Issue XXXVII

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SHONDA SCHILLING: CHOICES OF THE HEART
by MARKREIMAN

shonda4-head shot.jpg (10761 bytes)This is the story of a woman who has given her heart and soul to a cause and a group of people.

It is not the caring, compassion and generosity of spirit that defines or captures the essence of her incredibleness, although these are exemplary qualities. It is not the fact that she engages in countless acts of human kindness toward those who are less fortunate.

It is very difficult to become emotionally invested in people’s lives, become their friends, to know and love their spouses and children, when those friends continually die from a disease whose cure, even an effective therapy, remains a mystery. Especially when you don’t have to. Especially when you have the ability, the opportunity, and resources to be somewhere else -- to be involved with something that isn’t so damn hard.

The reason Shonda Schilling is incredible is because she continually chooses to love, give, listen, organize, travel, advocate, walk, bicycle, make phone calls, inspire, educate, raise money, ad nauseum…and for no better reason than because she cares…because she wants to.

Schilling cries now and then because there is something she wants but can’t have, at least not yet.

More accurately it is something she wants to fix but cannot, although for nine years she has devoted to the effort a tremendous amount of time, energy, and money. She is very determined and passionate about what she wants, so don’t expect her to stop doing everything in her power to get it.

What Schilling wants is a cure for A.L.S. (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease).

Many people become active in disease-related activities because they or a family member is diagnosed with it. Schilling doesn’t have ALS, nor does her husband or anyone in her family. Still she has chosen to direct her time, talent, energy, and "celebrity" to raising awareness and money for this as-yet unstoppable, degenerative, muscle wasting, and eventually fatal disease which affects an estimated 30,000 Americans and claims another 5,000 every year.

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Shonda already had a big smile to go with her big heart.

She grew up Shonda Brewer in a working class neighborhood outside of Baltimore. She loved sports and being an athlete kept her off the streets as well as involved and achieving in school. As a standout high school athlete, she captained the school’s field hocky, basketball, and fastpitch softball teams and was named Female Athlete of the Year. She describes herself as a kid from the "tough part of town", but someone with loving, caring parents. The Brewer house was the one in the neighborhood that the kids whose parents weren’t home were drawn to. Mrs. Brewer was a stay-at-home mom who, as Shonda remembers, "…was always in the middle of stuff to make sure that, not only I was headed in the right direction, but that the others had someone look after them, too."

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Female Athlete of the Year

Still, Shonda didn’t have the material advantages of many of her classmates. Unspoken but understood is the deep hurt experienced when people are openly ridiculed or silently looked down upon by others because they don’t have stylish clothes or come from the wrong part of town. Shonda decided early on that she would accept people for who they are on the inside, not the color of their skin, not the clothes they wear, or the amount of money they have.

She also found at an early age that going to church and her faith in God was very important to her. "There was a church across the street," she recalls, "and from 2nd grade on I walked myself to church." Shonda credits an older gentleman at the church, known as "Uncle Tommy", a kind of mentor to many of the younger kids, for being a strong and special influence in her life. "Church challenged me morally to do the right things, and I really wanted to earn and keep (Uncle Tommy’s) respect."

After high school graduation few, if any, of her neighborhood classmates went on to college. "I knew I had to go to college," she says. "My brother and I both went. We had a good home base, we knew how to make those choices…and we both knew without anything being said that’s what we needed to do."

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Shonda on her wedding day with Uncle Tommy

Four years later, with a university communications degree in hand, Shonda took a job with a sports television station in Baltimore. Months later in a Baltimore shopping mall she ran into Curt Schilling, a handsome, young baseball pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles she had met briefly before. He invited her out for dinner. Four months later he was traded to Houston and Shonda decided to follow. After the 1991 major league season ended, Curt was traded again, this time to the Philadelphia Phillies. Shortly thereafter, in early 1992, Curt Schilling and Shonda Brewer were married. They had no way of knowing that, before long, a man in a wheelchair they had never met before, and the brutal disease affecting his life, would dramatically change their own hearts and lives forever.

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The Phillies’ primary charitable focus is ALS, and players new to the organization are provided with information about the illness. For the newly married Schillings, that information included meeting a pALS (person w/ALS) by the name of Dick Bergeron. That meeting so deeply touched their hearts and souls that almost immediately they both decided to use Curt’s time in the major leagues as an opportunity to raise awareness about ALS and raise money to help find a cure.

Curt called Ellyn Phillips, the Executive Director and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the ALS Association, with two things to say. I want to help was number one. Shonda wants to help - put her to work was number two.

Shonda wanted to be with Curt and support him through the ups and downs that are an inevitable part of a career in baseball. But that had also meant leaving her own career in television, including her professional identity, behind. "Curt realized that it was very important for me to have an identity separate from his own," Shonda explained. They certainly have developed strong separate identities, but both share a burning desire to help make a difference for ALS.

Working with the Phillies and the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of ALSA, Curt established Curt’s Pitch for ALS. Beginning in 1992 Curt has donated $100 per strikeout and $1,000 per win during each baseball season. Phillies’ fans and supporters of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter are encouraged to join in and make pledges as well. Phillips estimates that Curt’s Pitch and the annual Curt Schilling Golf Outing have raised more than $1.7 million since 1992, with a significant percentage of that coming directly from Curt and Shonda.

"A lot of people work hard (for causes) and (many professional) athletes have a lot of money, but they don’t necessarily give it," Phillips shares. "Curt and Shonda have done both, and to such a degree that no one could have expected it."

Phillips recounts that when Shonda gave birth to her third child (Grant, now two years old) three weeks early, she had some complications that kept her in the hospital. Grant’s birth had come just five days before that year’s Golf Outing, an annual fund raising event that includes golf, dinner, and an auction, all of which raise significant funds for ALS. "Shonda, from her hospital bed, single-handely called around and arranged for all the auction and raffle items. Then she basically defied doctors orders, got out of the hospital and came to the golf tournament…to work! When Shonda says she’ll be there to help, she will!"

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Shonda, Peggy Morandini, and Tracy Pratt make life a little better for their pALS, John

"You will not find a friend that is more caring, generous, and fun to be around than Shonda Schilling," says Peg Morandini whose husband, Mickey, was a Philadelphia teammate of Curt’s. "Shonda was definitely the single reason that the Phillies Wives have been so giving of their time and efforts. It was just as important to Shonda that the (Phillies) Wives visit the (ALS) clinic in Philadelphia, meet the patients, and understand ALS as it was to get them to donate their time (for fundraising events)."

Morandini continues, "I can’t remember anything in Philadelphia that Shonda was ever asked to take part in that she didn’t accept. Yes, ALS was probably the most prominent of her activities, but by far not the only one. Each year she encouraged other wives to join her in "adopting" a family at a women’s shelter, she actively participated in events to raise money for breast cancer, and she has traveled to Washington D.C. several times to personally lobby legislators for ALS research funding."

"Perhaps though, the single reason why myself and so many others are continually amazed by Shonda is because all her actions are driven by her huge heart. Her ability to make each and every person she meets feel important and loved is a (rare) gift. When Curt was traded to Arizona (during the 2000 season), I knew the pALS in that area would feel as though an angel had been dropped into their lives."

Prior to the start of the 2001 season, Curt Schilling signed a new contract to pitch for the Arizona Diamondbacks. At that time, he and Shonda pledged a combined total of $1 million to the Philadelphia and Arizona ALS chapters and the United Way. That’s called putting your money where your mouth is.

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ALS is also commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, taking its name from the famous New York Yankee Hall of Fame slugger, nicknamed The Iron Horse, the man longtime sportswriter Jim Murray described as "Gibralter in cleats". Gehrig’s fabulous 16 year baseball career was cut tragically short in 1939 when he was diagnosed with ALS. Gehrig died in 1941 at the age of 37, nearly two years to the day after his last major league game.

In 1995 Shonda Schilling gave birth to her and Curt’s first child, a boy, who they named Gehrig.

Now six years old, when people mistakenly call him Gary, he loves to explain that he is named after Lou Gehrig. That’s called putting your life publically and permanently where you say your values are. They all hope that one day soon, his name will be associated only with a great ballplayer rather than with a brutal disease that has no cure.

"Is the glass half empty or half full?" I ask Shonda.

"Half empty," she replies. I am surprised, even a little stunned by her unexpected answer. She is so utterly positive, determined, and optimistic. In answer to my unspoken follow up question she explains, "I still haven’t told enough people (about ALS), I still haven’t raised enough money. If I had, we wouldn’t be having this discussion."

When she was young and growing up on the tough side of Baltimore, she wasn’t, "…someone who wanted to grow up and have lots of money," Schilling says. "I wanted to be someone who made a difference." Often times in our society those two things are mutually exclusive. But not here, not now.

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The Schillings, from l to r, Grant, Shonda, Gabriella, Curt, and Gehrig

Life has brought Schilling to a place where she is a happily married mother of three and her husband is a very successful major league baseball player. Still, she remains utterly determined to not let her husband’s celebrity or income change her rock-solid values, or separate her from others less fortunate - in her own mind or theirs.

Shonda Schilling could be pals and hang out with the so-called beautiful people of society if she chose to. She is charming, extremely bright, strikingly beautiful, and has the resources to live in a world of comfort and opportunity. Instead she has chosen to spend a great deal of time "hanging out" with people in wheelchairs, some who can’t speak, some who are fed through a tube in their stomach, some who drool. She loves and is devoted to each one. These are her pALS. It is that amazing, beautiful, ongoing choice that makes her truly incredible.

 

mark.gif (4144 bytes)Mark Reiman is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Incredible People Magazine.  He would love to hear your feedback at Mark@IncrediblePeople.com. Or visit our staff page at http://www.incrediblepeople.com/staff.htm

  

Hope      Courage     Determination      Compassion
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