I was watching a “Pawn Stars” marathon last week, and one of the items that was brought in to sell was an old 1988 Apple II GS computer. This was the device that changed the way people think about computers, and it took them from being these difficult to use, oversized calculators for businesses and universities to user-friendly, affordable machines for personal use. This was the first computer I ever owned, and it is what spawned my interest in technology, computing, and programming that I have had ever since. At the time that this device came out, my family was a one income household with a disabled child, and we could not afford to buy something like a personal computer. Fortunately for me though, I had someone who wanted to change a life cross my path, and their selfless kindness opened up a whole new world for me that I have been fascinated with for years.
When I was 4 years old, my mom got a call from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. This is a non-profit dedicated to granting the wishes of children diagnosed with severe, life-threatening diseases. This amazing organization has been changing lives for over 30 years, and they grant a wish for a sick child on average every 38 minutes. I was lucky enough to be selected, and one day 2 elderly women with gray hair and orthopedic shoes came to my home to speak with me. They asked me about what I liked to do, how I spent my time, and what I wished I could do. As only a child could, I told them 2 very different wishes. First, I told them that I wanted to be a cowboy. I don’t know if it was because the kick ass movie, “Young Guns,” was sweeping the nation or what, but as a youngster I was really into the Old West and cowboys. Second, I had been introduced to computers at the preschool for the handicapped that I went to, and even with that very brief exposure at the young age of 4 I was fascinated by these machines. I told them that I wished I could have a computer in my house, because at the preschool I only got to use it maybe once a week. After conversing for a while more, the kind ladies left, and I thought that was it. I had no idea that I would be seeing these women again, and that their selfless act of philanthropy would change my life forever.
A few weeks later, once again the 2 gray haired women who looked like they should be playing bridge with my grandmother showed up at my house. This time though, they had brought some big boxes with them. They sat down in my living room with my mother and I, and they told me that they had thought about our discussion from last time and had a
couple surprises for me. The next thing I know, one of them reaches into one of the large boxes and pulls out a complete, child’s cowboy outfit, complete with chaps, belt, vest, hat, and a pair of six guns. I was overjoyed and admiring these garments when the same woman said, “And you can’t be a cowboy without a trusty steed,” as she pulled out a hobby horse. The other woman, beaming with happiness at seeing how excited I was, said, “Now you can be a cowboy just like you wanted.” I said “Thank you,” as I was petting my new stallion, and the women said that they had one more surprise for me. They opened up the other enormous box they had with them and pulled out an Apple II GS computer. I was speechless, which for me is an extremely rare occurrence, as I gazed at this beautiful machine. They said, “You can play and learn on the computer as much as you want now.” I think my face was sore for a week from smiling so much that afternoon. They had granted my wishes and given me something that I never would have been able to experience without their help. Not only had these 2 amazing, kind ladies made the life of a sick child much happier that day, but they also, without even knowing it, changed the trajectory my life would take.
Having the opportunity to get accustomed to and start learning about computers at such a young age has played a large role in my life. Inside of a computer, and today on the internet, I am no longer seen as disabled. In cyberspace I am just another IP address sending and receiving packets of zeroes and ones. This is an arena where I am on a level playing field with everyone else, which for someone who has spent their entire life fighting an uphill battle is a really big deal. Thanks to all of the exposure and familiarity I gained from the time I spent on that first Apple II, as I got older and computers evolved, I was very comfortable just poking around the insides of these devices and figuring them out. I eventually realized that these machines had the ability to open up so many doors for me, if I could just learn how to get them to do what I wanted. This potential to broaden my world, coupled with my natural love of technology, is what drove me to learn as much about computers as I could. Today, to give you an idea as to how far this fascination has gone, I have 11 devices (computers, tablets, etc.) on my WiFi at home, have built or upgraded several machines (I have an array of old, spare parts scattered around my office), and can fluently program in 3 computing languages (I can read and debug about half a dozen more). All of this was started by 2 little, old ladies with gray hair and enormous hearts, that just wanted to bring a little happiness to a child who was sick. They not only brought me happiness that day, but they also opened my eyes to a whole, new world of opportunities that have changed my life.
When I think about the amazing gifts that I was given by the Make-A-Wish Foundation that afternoon, and I remember the look of pure joy and love that was plastered on the faces of those 2 women, I am reminded of how great it feels to know you have changed someone’s life in a really profound way. I have been lucky enough to experience this euphoria on a couple of occasions after people have heard me interviewed on television or seen me speak. The feeling you get when someone says to you, “Thank you so much. You have been such an inspiration to me, and you have changed my life.” is probably the most powerful sensation I have ever felt. It is this overwhelming combination of elation, pride, and connectedness that washes over you in a way that is beyond words, and you will never forget. As great as it felt to have my wishes granted, I would much rather be the genie than Aladdin. Even though it doesn’t happen often, my goal with every Roll Models talk I give is to impact someone’s life in this profound way.
I’m certain that my world would be much different if not for the serendipitous way that this machine entered my life and the kindness of 2 elderly ladies. They brought happiness to a disabled child, and without even trying to opened up a world of opportunities for me that have been a large part of the happy, successful life I have created. Even more importantly though, they showed me how important it is to get the experience of changing a life. Whether it be by building a home with Habitat For Humanity, buying Christmas gifts for a family that can’t afford them, or rolling on stage and telling your story to inspire others, everyone should work to experience what it feels like to look at someone and know that you have changed their life forever. I promise you, this feeling is like a potato chip, once you taste it once you will have to have more. What can you do to change a life? Think about a cause you are passionate about or a special skill you have (like being a good storyteller), and find a way to turn that into a tool to help others. Not only is it important to help your fellow man, but the incredible feeling you get when you change a life is an experience no one should miss out on. As much happiness and joy that you will bring to the recipient of your kindness, you will bring even more to your own life as you feel the blissful sensation of changing a life forever. In the end, you will find that you not only changed their life, but that you have changed your own as well.