Keith and I are on a flight home from North Carolina as I write this post. It’s been a tiring few days, and I couldn’t be happier or more grateful for my tiredness. We have just finished our first boots-on-the-ground Sparkjoy Foundation event, Racing For Warriors. We partnered with our dear friend Cheryl Herrick, the head of Pony Tail Racing. It was an event focused on veterans. There were 60 participants, veterans and caretakers, 6 racecars, and a bunch of volunteers.
Racing for Warriors is Cheryl’s brainchild. She is from a military family, and she wanted to simply say thanks to our veterans. It started out as a simple ride for a vet and turned out to be so much more than that. It took this man out of his head for a minute, well more like 52 seconds, Cheryl drives pretty fast, and let him feel a joy he had not felt for some time. What she didn’t know when she drove that first circuit was how much this event would affect not only the vets but all of the people who participated in it.
Each participant took their turn, put a helmet on, got belted securely into a car with a highly skilled racer and off they went around the track. The first trip around the course was what Cheryl referred to as slow speed. I can tell you from where I was standing it didn’t look slow to me. The drivers wanted to make sure that every rider was comfortable, felt safe and still had fun. The second trip around was when the drivers got a little more serious. The engines revved, the tires squealed, and all I could hear as the cars shot by was the laughter of the participants. More often then not the riders would flash thumbs up and be wearing a huge grin that the helmets couldn’t hide. The cars ranged from a white Porsche to Cheryl’s golden Chevy Nova, muscle-bound and fast as lightning. I saw quickly that looks were deceiving. Don’t make the mistake of judging the book from the cover. There was a little red Miata that looked pedestrian and was as fast as the wind.
Many veterans suffer from trauma. PTSD, physical disabilities, and loneliness is a common thread that weaves these people together. When people needed it, I shuttled people between the track and the bathroom in a golf cart. I was the slow speed part of the event. We had time to chat. Person after person told me a tiny piece of their stories. One gentleman sat in my cart and said to me that he sometimes drives down the center of a street if trees are overhanging the road. He said he always drives too fast on these roads.
Because during his tour, grenades were sometimes hung in the high branches of overhanging trees and if you drove too slow maybe a live grande could get dropped from the branches above into your vehicle as quickly as a pinecone gets dumped onto a jeep on a mountain road. As he described his memory, I thought of Victoria Avenue in Riverside, one of my favorite streets. It has sections of soaring palm trees, orange groves and lots of shady trees. I go out of my way to drive down that road. It gives me joy to see the light and shadows dance across my windshield. It feels so hometown American to me. I realized this peace I have on that road has been forever lost to this man that sat in my golf cart.
I heard story after story in the same vein.
PTSD is an insidious problem. We speak about it, many acknowledge it, but not everyone understands or can move through it. This is how someone once explained it to me. Think if it like this. Imagine a gazelle hanging out on the plains of Africa. She’s just chewing some grass looking around alert but calm. Then suddenly a lion leaps out of the bush and starts running after her. The gazelle takes off full speed ahead, everything is about getting away and staying alive. The adrenaline is flowing, and everything in the gazelle’s body is working together to get her out of harm’s way. It works, and she escapes. She gets herself safe, and her system calms down. The trauma of the attack is dispersed. While the memory is loaded into her brain, her body doesn’t keep the fear.
We as humans can do the same thing. The problem we have is that sometimes we don’t close the process. We get activated and scared, but we don’t allow our systems to calm down like our friend the gazelle. It’s this lack of completing the cycle that causes us traumas and difficulties. We get stuck in the fear. The fear you have can be held in your body. It can cause physical illnesses. Your brain doesn’t know that the trauma happened years ago. It acts like it happened recently. It has not had the chance to go through the cycle like our friend the gazelle. The trauma is a current event to our brain and replays over and over.
These rides gave people a momentary break. I have a term for it now. Recreation therapy. I might have seen some initial hesitation from a few, but also the adrenaline rush, the joy, and the happiness. It was a remarkable day. These people came together and for a few hours and became a community. They started out as groups of individuals, each group separated. As the day wore on it became harder and harder to visually separate the groups as they meshed together. They cheered each other on, encouraged and laughed together.
At the end of the day, I walked around to chat with the drivers. One of them told me that this was not just about the vets. This event made him feel good. It gave him great joy to have these people in his car and share this experience with them. He connected with them on a very human level.
It was a beautiful thing, and I want more of it.
I’ll keep you posted.