A Woman's Wheels

BY: Cathy Conheim

A story from Courage Does Not Always Roar.

"There is no education like adversity."

-Disraeli

Chris Timmins is an amazing woman. Twenty-six years ago, she and her husband were preparing to leave San Diego and move to Oregon. On a bright, sunny morning, while they were finishing up last-minute details, Chris was feeling nostalgic and decided to take one last spin around Fiesta Island in her beloved little BMW convertible. What happened to her on that drive is still a bit of a mystery. Was it the hot sun? Was it fatigue? What was it that caused her to black out while driving? She could feel herself losing consciousness, and tried to pull over to the side of the road. But she lost control and crashed into a cement road divider. When she regained consciousness in the hospital, she was a quadriplegic. Her whole life was turned upside down.

Chris's husband left her about four years later. She lost her job as a school teacher and had to fight for the next year to get it back. She also spent the next two years battling with the State of California to get them to pay for a handicap van that would allow her to drive. Such a van cost $75,000 in those days - an impossible amount for a woman who had just lost her life as she had known it.

Her health challenges weren't over, either. Thirteen years later, Chris was struck with breast cancer.

She not only rose to meet each of these personal and professional crises, she triumphed over them. Chris was finally able to convince the San Diego School District that her presence in the classroom would greatly enrich the education of her students. Her message to the kids: "It's not the events of your life that determine the kind of future you'll have. It's how you respond to those events that gives you quality in your life." Chris was, and is, the living embodiment of that message.

Chris was able to get her special van from the State - her Freedom Van, which gave her the ability to go to work every day, to be out and about like millions of other mobile southern Californians. And she found a physician, Dr. Donna, who would see to Chris' unique medical needs over the years.

I've been friends with Chris for more than 20 years. I've always been impressed with her pluck and optimism, in the face of tragedies, struggles, and losses that would have done in a lesser woman.

Last year, Chris hit a final roadblock, and this one she just didn't know how to overcome. Her van was now 20 years old and just about worn out. The state program only provides one van per person in their lifetime. And today, a specially equipped van for a person who has to drive with her head costs $115,000. How could a single woman, on a school teacher's salary, afford such an expensive vehicle? If she could no longer drive, she would have to quit her job just seven years short of retirement. Chris had no idea what to do. For the first time, it seemed that this breaking-down hunk of metal was going to be the last straw.

One day Chris and I were talking about her predicament. It seemed like such a dumb problem. After all she'd been through, this ancient van was going to stop her? I just couldn't accept that. "This is ridiculous," I told her. "We're just gonna get you a new van."

"But how?" Chris asked.

"Never mind how," I told her. "We're just going to go buy the van tomorrow and we'll figure out how to pay for it later!"

And so we did. We did some research and found that the van she needed had to be a 2003 model, because the 2004 model had a gas tank in it that would prohibit it from being modified for a handicapped-accessible vehicle. We found that there were only seven such vans left in the entire state. So we found a dealer who had one, and we bought it. Our small private foundation, of which I am a trustee, put up $40,000 for a deposit on the van. Normally we give just small cash grants of $500 to $1000 to people in emergencies, but this case seemed to merit more. Chris had done so much in her life to help herself, but this time she needed help from others.

That was Labor Day, and by Christmas we had raised the rest of the money all by e-mail! Here's how we did it: We sent out 50 emails to people we knew, people who trusted us. We explained the situation and told them, "We promise you that every cent you send us will go to pay for the van. Not a penny will go to administration, not even postage!" We also asked them to go one step further: "Send this email to ten people you know who trust you. Make the same promise to them that we made to you, and request that they pass along the request to ten more people who trust them." We were building a community of trust. There are so many fund-raising scams out there; we needed for people to trust us and to trust one another.

We kept our promise and they kept theirs. For the first two weeks, we received checks from people we knew. But by the third week, we were starting to get money from people whose names we didn't recognize. The network was working, and our community of trust was doing its job.

What made this feat all the more remarkable is that it happened at a time when the San Diego area was ravaged by the worst wild fires in our history. It was a terrible time to try to be raising money. People were feeling helpless and hopeless in the face of such a community disaster. This is a common problem-people get so overwhelmed in the face of others' needs, that they often do nothing. They think, "What can I do? I'm just one person." It's the same reason many people don't vote. They don't think that one person can make a difference or that what they have to offer counts.

Our story is bigger than just getting a new Freedom Van for Chris. It's the story of showing people that they can make a difference, even if it's just sending in $1, or $5 or $10. We got a lot of small contributions in those months. We didn't need a big important wealthy donor -we just needed lots of individuals, regular folks, to give what they could. Our project had the same message of Chris' entire life: We are NOT paralyzed as people - there is always something we can do, no matter how big the problem. By taking action, any action, people can overcome their own personal sense of paralysis.

We didn't need one person to give us $70,000 - we would have been happier to get 70,000 people to give just $1 each. People are glad to be part of something that makes a difference. If everybody picked just one other person to help, the world would be transformed.

Our next project is transforming that dumb law that says each disabled person can only have one state-sponsored van in their lifetime. Anyone want to join us in making a difference with that?

(For further information, contact Cathy Conheim at www.realwomen.org)

"Be strong and courageous!

Don't be afraid or discouraged . . . for there is a power far greater on our side!

We have the Lord our God to help us and to fight our battles for us!"

    II Chronicles 32:7-8 (NLT)



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