By Megan Johnson
I have watched movies my whole life; some were interesting enough that I actually remembered them; some were not. However, none compared to the video I watched one day that changed my life forever. In a matter of a few minutes, my views of the world and my life were set on a different course.
It was the summer of 2001: I was 10 years old, depressed, and hated myself. I had suffered two years of harassment from some bullies at school because of my facial disorder, hemifacial dysplasia. The disease caused the bones in my face to grow at different rates. It also left me with a severe cleft lip and palate, and blind in one eye. I also had a syndrome that resulted in the left side of my body larger than my right.
Still I tried so hard for kids to like me. I just wanted someone to talk to me and sit with me at lunch, but the bullies made sure this never happened. They would threaten anyone who tried to be my friend. They were determined to make my life miserable: I was in a school with no friends, and I was teased every day. Two things made my situation even more difficult: I didn’t tell my parents what I was going through at school, and a group of girls at school decided to start an “Anti-Special Needs Club.”
I became a quiet and withdrawn person. I seldom laughed, and I never cried. I could not change the way I looked, and I thought the kids hated me for that. It seemed I spent most of my time and energy just trying to survive another day. My problems seemed so overwhelming; I could not imagine that others could be suffering as much as me. But then I learned about another very real kind of suffering.
A life-changing “meeting”
I was at vacation Bible school, and we kids were sitting on the floor of our missions’ class preparing to watch a video. I was actually thinking about snack time, because my stomach was growling, and food seemed much more important to me than some boring movie.
After the class quieted down, the video started, and it was about the life of some homeless people. I saw men and women living on the streets, making every effort just to stay alive. Then I saw a man sleeping in a cardboard box. The camera zoomed in, and he opened his eyes to look out from under his filthy blankets. Our eyes met.
My life suddenly shifted into slow motion, and there was no one else in the room except me and that man. I was staring into a pair of eyes so deeply that I felt as if I could see his soul. And he was looking directly at me. His mouth never moved, but I heard him say, “Please help me.”
I looked around to see if the other kids heard this, because his voice was so clear. But they were looking at their watches and getting antsy for their snacks. I, suddenly, had lost my appetite. I could not possibly think about eating a snack when I just saw people going through garbage cans looking for a meal.
Instead of racing out of the room when our class was over, I stayed and talked to the teacher about this video — and to get some facts about homelessness. I could not forget those eyes that seemed to be a deep pool of emptiness. In a split second, I saw past my pain and saw the pain others were enduring.
A “good prescription”
When I went home, I told my mom about the video and how I planned to help the homeless. I explained how I could smell the garbage they were eating and hear their cries for help. My problems, all of the sudden, seemed much less important. I was learning that putting others first was a good prescription for my depression.
As I was putting together a plan on ways I could help, I quickly learned I would need financing. I made flyers and passed them out to all my neighbors and friends, explaining the needs of the homeless and how I wanted to make blankets as a street ministry.
The money started coming in. In one week, I had enough money to make 50 blankets! My attitude was changing. I could feel it. It felt as if I was finally beginning to feel the sun after a long period of rain.
I am not sure what I expected to find that first day I went to the streets, but what I found were many friends — homeless people, now my friends — who could see the real me, not just the way I look. They taught me to be thankful for my life and to see people from the inside out.
I also learned that I have a compassion for others, and that has kept me working with the homeless now for nine years.
A growing list of projects
Because that long-ago video helped me understand how to feel other people’s pain, I have devoted my life to trying to make a difference. I realized how much I have to give, and I went from being depressed to being driven. I have started several different projects designed to help others. One I call "Kids Helping Kids." For it, I have collected over 3,000 videos and DVDs and distributed them to local children’s hospitals. Over the years, I have had more than 26 surgeries to fix my facial deformities, so I understand how sometimes the worst part about being in the hospital is the boredom. But before this life-changing video, I would never have thought my experiences could help someone.
My newest project is called “Giving Back.” I am working with the inmates at a prison in Washington state. They are making sock hats and other supplies that I can take to the streets to help the homeless or give to needy children. I have been encouraged by the inmates’ enthusiasm and their willingness to help others. I felt this project gives the prisoners the opportunity to give back to society and make a difference while being behind bars. I wanted to try and reach people that others may view as undesirable; I know how it feels to be considered undesirable.
As my number of projects grows, I knew I would need more creative ways to raise money, so I started writing and illustrating children’s books. My first book in the Don’t Mess With Meggie series has generated money that I donate to a children’s hospital that will perform surgeries at no cost to the patients or their families. This book also helps kids not be so afraid of doctors and hospitals. I know what that is like.
My second book in this series is to show girls they can be anything they want to be … even a queen! Money from this book has also been donated. My third book is about “growing up different.” I hope it will help children be more understanding of kids with differences. Writing these books has boosted my confidence. They have shown me that I can do anything I put my mind to.
This brings me to my largest project: “Megan’s Mission.” Through this project, I help the homeless, babies born with drug addictions, and women and children affected by domestic violence. I raise over $10,000 a year through my hot-cider stand, selling my silicone wristbands, and public speaking engagements.
I have made more than 1,000 blankets to distribute, in addition to buying socks, hats, and other items to take to the streets. I am blessed with about 50 volunteers who are eager to help.
I now raise enough money every year to get at least one family off the streets and into their own home. I also donate $300 every month to agencies that help homeless people and drug-addicted babies. Until I started working with the homeless, I never knew how many babies were born already addicted to drugs. So I started making baby blankets for these little ones, and of course, I continue to go to the streets looking for someone who could use a hug and a warm blanket with a card attached saying, “Remember … Someone Cares!” I think so many of the homeless feel forgotten or invisible, and I understand that feeling so well.
Almost 10 years ago, I was at the right place at the right time. I could have continued down that road of depression and self-pity. I could have wasted my life feeling sorry for myself and blaming my problems on some schoolyard bullies. Now, I feel sorry for those kids. I understand that a person must be really insecure if they feel the need to hurt others. But thanks to that video, my life is so much better. I am a strong, confident, independent young adult. I don’t let others decide who I am or how I will feel about myself, and I try hard to ignore unkind words. I love helping others and knowing that I can make a difference in another person’s life. Now when I look into the mirror, I see a person I like.
I am sure I will never meet the man I saw in the video. I have no way of knowing if he is still alive, but for the rest of my life, I will remember the lost and hopeless look in his eyes. I will remember how, for a split second, there were just the two of us in that room staring at each other, with a connection so strong I can still feel his pain.
I don’t ever want to forget how I felt that hot July day because that man, who had nothing, gave me a purpose in life that changed me forever.
Megan Johnson is a high school senior in the Running Start college program. She plans to continue Megan's Mission and writing children's books in the Don't Mess With Meggie series. She has earned her Girl Scout Gold Award, a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and travels as Shriners Hospital national ambassador. Her dream is to become a pediatric nurse and have her hospital experience help other children. Megan says that if she could tell kids one thing, it would be to never let others determine how you feel about yourself.
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