Almost 4 years ago, Katie and I took an overnight journey from Ashland to the North Carolina Zoo where we attended the North Carolina Children and Nature Coalition (NCCAN) annual conference. At that time, Katie and I were exploring the possibility of starting a nature-based program for children in NC and thought the conference would be a great way to network with key NC nature and education advocates. I really believed that's what we were doing there. Turns out, the real reason we attended was far different and better than any I could have imagined.
We did meet a lot of wonderful and helpful people at the conference, but in the end our program idea turned out to be unrealistic. The trip was hardly wasted, though. I know that more clearly today than ever.
The keynote speaker that day wasn't someone from North Carolina. It was Juan Martinez, a young man from South Central Los Angeles. Juan told his story about growing up in the midst of the growing LA gang culture. He was sure the gangs were his ticket to protecting and supporting his family. Until one day when one of his teachers helped him plant a pack of jalepeno pepper seeds in the school garden. Juan became obsessed with growing the biggest and best peppers he could. He was determined to produce something to take home to his parents, something they would be proud of.
If you listen to Juan, he'll convince you those turned out to be world record peppers. He'll also claim that teacher tricked him into growing peppers to convince him his life was worth too much to turn it over to a gang. That teacher was at Juan's presentation at the zoo that day. When he introduced her I had tears in my eyes. Probably because you could feel his gratitude, his sincerity, when he acknowledged that the interest one person took in his life - likely saved it.
I was moved by Juan's presentation that day, but to be honest, I thought little of it in the years to come. Then several weeks ago my boss at the Prince Georges County Parks and Recreation department in Maryland, where I do contract work, was discussing with me her search for a keynote speaker for an upcoming all-staff meeting. Then and there, for the first time in years, Juan popped into my mind. I told her he needed to be the speaker at this event.
I love this particular boss. She has a knack for turning one person's good idea into a good experience for many.
That's exactly what happened this week when Juan delivered the keynote address at the meeting. His words were even more inspiring than before, but this time in front of several hundred more people than the last time I was in his audience. More importantly, his words touched the hearts of hundreds of adults who will have the opportunity to be a miracle in a Maryland child's life that might end up looking an awful lot like a Los Angeles miracle.
While I was talking to Juan before the event, I couldn't help but marvel at how a chance encounter many years before had led to a wonderful opportunity for many people years later. It was one of the many times in my life when I've felt God give me a nudge and direct me to look at my past with newfound clarity. I'll hear him say, "Pretty cool the way that worked out isn't it?" To which I respond, "Yes it is. And thank you."
You can read a nice background on Juan Martinez here.