Photos by the very talented Brady Dillsworth (George Eastman House photographer)
I don't know that there are a lot of times in life where you take a deep breath in and think that you are dreaming. Wednesday I was having one of those nights. I won an award given by some of the people I respect most in this city.
Roc City Rising is an event that invites established community leaders and groups of young professionals to the world famous George Eastman House for a night of networking and energizing. Young people with fresh ideas and perspective can mix with the likes of the mayor, the county executive and other elected officials and notable Rochesterians.
When Maria Fisher (then Thomas) first approached me about attending this event three years ago, in its first year, I was more than a little intimidated. She secured me a table for I'm Too Young For This almost immediately. It was something about her ease and encouragement that settled my panic. It was not only her willingness, but utter determination to help connect me to this opportunity that made me forget all of the misgivings I might have had.
You might ask why I was intimidated. I felt that those in the room I would inhabit would be different from me--successful and on their stride. After years of struggling to peak my head out from a curtain of illness that covered everything else in my identity I felt like this was a place I did not belong---yet. I was happily so very wrong. And despite my trepidation got the very distinct feeling that amidst the crowd of suits and the tinkling of wine glasses, there were people attending that just like me wanted to make a difference in their community.
Nicole Brown joined me from that first year and we were able to take turns moving outside of the boundaries of the table into the crowded room. Our table was all the buzz. People stopped and noticed a sign that said "stupid cancer" and sometimes would have to ask. Many of them probably had not even seen the word 'stupid' printed brazenly in large letters at such an event. What surprised us both was the amount of YPs that told us they knew a friend their age who was struggling with cancer. One young woman even quietly glanced side to side, as though checking over her shoulder for eavesdroppers, as she whispered--"I had cancer too".
This event ended up being the biggest and most powerful way to get the word out to our demographic about what we were doing with the then newly formed chapter of I'm Too Young For This...and it didn't stop there. Maria would play an integral role in getting the word out to the masses of the young professional community--in a way that reverberated over the next few years to come.
This high profile opportunity- to tell people why cancer is something to talk
about for the very generation the event was meant for - became an annual tradition.
This Wednesday night when Maria began to read the speech she had written to introduce me as the first recipient of the Emerging Leader Award presented by the Eastman Young Professionals and the Roc City Coalition I felt the tears coming.
Since Day One-- Maria had not only become aware of the profound impact of cancer on young adults, but had grappled herself with the echo of cancer strongly within a smaller local circle. Her very real and profound connection to cancer came with the loss of a dear friend. Maria got it.
She got why this was different- and she got why this was a message others needed to hear. The fact that it was her who presented me with the award was more meaningful than I can ever describe...and the fact that she had managed to still surprise me made me an absolute "puddle".
Just mere moments before I stepped near the podium to prepare to be called up to it, I had seen my parents arrive and my sister and brother in law--so it was only then that I knew the 'nomination' that Maria had told me would be announced...was not truly a nomination--it was the real deal.
A hug from Maria. I think the emotion is pretty evident from this picture.
Words have failed to really describe it...so all I can say is wow.
What a long road it has been these few years. Don't get me wrong I haven't really changed.
I still am the same ol' Leah. I'm the girl who trips over her own feet, feels victorious when she eats dessert before the main course... and is still very often caught by a stranger at a stoplight in the car next to me singing heart and soul out (usually to something Tom Petty).
I haven't changed all that much. It's just funny how things appear to have changed around me.