With messages including “your scars are your superpower” and “you have the power to create a legacy,” stirring inspirational stories greeted students at Odyssey Preparatory Middle School. The speakers included a major league baseball player and New York City firefighter, who both selflessly ended retirements to serve others.
Shelly Kostic, a leadership teacher at Odyssey Preparatory, won a grant for $5,000 – raising even more through fundraising – through Donors Choose. She used the grant to host four inspirational speakers for an Oct. 24 event at the Buckeye school.
Kostic said the grant winners often use the money for school supplies or other materials; she was more interested in giving the hundreds of students lining the gym floor at the school an experience to go along with their class material.
“I wanted to give kids a memory that they can have for their whole lives, something where they can think back to when they’re looking for what to do in a leadership role,” she said.
The first speaker was J.D. Due, the director of scholarships and programs for the Pat Tillman Foundation. Tillman was a former Arizona State University and Arizona Cardinals star. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he walked away from a multi-million dollar football contract to enlist in the U.S. Army. Tillman died in Afghanistan in 2004.
His memory is honored by the foundation, which hosts an annual charity run and several other events and fundraising projects each year.
Despite Tillman’s all-too-early death, Due told the students that they have the chance to make a difference in the world regardless of age. He said people have a chance to impact others no matter how long they live.
“Everyone is a leader, and by the actions that you take, you have the power to create a legacy. And that legacy, when done right, and when done in an inspirational way, will absolutely outlive every one of us in this room. And that’s remarkable,” Due said.
Also taking the stage was Ryan Powell, a former baseball player for the Baltimore Orioles. Powell retired from the sport and was working in the media before his mother was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer. Her wish was to see him play one more baseball game.
He un-retired, played in front of her and she miraculously made a full recovery from her disease at a later date. Their story, “One More Game for You, Mom,” appeared on ESPN and was featured in the Baseball Film Festival in Cooperstown in September 2017.
Powell asked each of the students to think about their dreams. He even asked several exactly what they want to be when they grow up. His ending message to the students was to look at his story as an example of what can be done if they follow their goals in life.
“There are millions and millions of stars, but during the normal night with electricity, you can’t see many of those stars. Those are like dreams, just because not everyone can see it, doesn’t mean you can’t either. Go pick your dream or your constellation, and make it happen,” he said.
Elly Brown, a Las Vegas singer, was the next speaker. She said she always wanted to be recognized in public for her talent and perform for large audiences.
She was diagnosed with oral cancer a few years into her career. Doctors, she said, had to remove a large tumor from her tongue and reconstruct her mouth and chin area, leaving her with a noticeable scar.
Brown continued singing, even posting videos to YouTube with her scar predominantly placed on camera. Several of her videos went viral and had millions of viewers in a short time. She became part of a community, she realized, that needed her as much as she needed them to lift each other up. She was more recognizable from the videos than she ever had been as a “normal” performer.
Having overcome her own struggles, she told the students that there were three big factors to her own success.
“You can find that motivation, that responsibility and that resilience. And no matter what, remember that your scars are your superpower,” Brown said.
The final speaker was Clarence Singleton, a veteran who served in Vietnam and was awarded the Purple Heart after being injured on duty. He served for decades as a firefighter in New York City before his retirement. On 9/11, Singleton grabbed his gear, briefly unretired and went to offer his services on the scene of the World Trade Center.
Following the terrorist attacks, Singleton said he faced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. He said he doubted himself, despite being revered by many. He said that sticking to one’s morals and trusting intuitions are a way to overcome the doubts and issues people face along the way.
“I have learned to just listen to my inner voice. And usually my best thoughts are my first ones, those are the ones from God,” he said.
Kostic said many of the students were in awe and developed some personal connections to the speakers in the time they spent researching and writing them letters before the event. She hopes to be able to host projects like this day of speakers in the future, in order to give the students somebody to look up to.
“I love the kids, and I think they need to see some real examples of what a hero looks like in the modern-day,” she said.