Monday, March 30, 2015

Donations and Delivery

Once I had decided on what I wanted and collect and donate, the next question became "how"?  I knew I could use my position as a teacher and a coach to do something in school.  I contacted the head swim coach Rachel Banes, as well as my principal, Dr. Mark Murrell.  Both consented, so I had that avenue, but I wanted to reach a wider audience.

My first thought was Facebook.  I started with the Virtual Yardsale group for my subdivision.  Within minutes of posting, I had people offering to donate what they had.  It seemed that every one that responded had a bag of the small hotel soaps, shampoos and what not that they had taken from various hotels while traveling with the idea that they would use them some day, but never did.  What they had was gathering dust, and they were happy to donate.  Emboldened by my early success, I decided to try other local Facebook groups of the same sort, and the results were amazing.  People would drop off the donation on my doorstep, and there were amny days that I can home to several bags/boxes of donations.  Once I went back to work, I had people drop off donations at the school and the district natatorium.

 My first large donation came to me courtesy of Coach Kevin Murphy of Southlake Carroll High School.  I knew they would be traveling down to the Woodlands for a swim meet.  I took a chance, and sent him

Because of the success I had on social media, I next approached local media with the hope of getting a small blurb.  I emailed every member of the staff listed at the Conroe Courier.  My email was received right around the time of the AFSP's Out of the Darkness Walk here in the Woodlands.  I was put in contact with a Kimberly Sutton, a reporter for the paper.  She was writing an article about the walk, and had wanted to speak with a Survivor.  Because most suicides are not reported, it had been difficult for her to find one, and the ones she had found seemed unwilling to speak.  I wanted to be very open and honest and bring to light what had ahppened to Peyton.  My emotions were still raw, but I knew the pain I was feeling was crippling, and I wanted to prevent any one from ever going through that again.  I spoke at length with Kimberly about Peyton, and the ARTICLE she wrote was very well done.  the article ran on Sunday, Novmber 1, 2014.  I had expected some response to the article, but what I received was an unexpected blassing.

Because I am a teacher, my work email is public domain, and my inbox began to fill.  Not only with people wanting to donate, but with emails from people who were also Survivors who expressed their condolences, invited me to Survivors groups, and thanked me for speaking out.

I am lucky to work with one of the greatest faculties in the history of public education.  In order to support me, many teachers at my school offered their students extra credit for bringing in donations.  What I had expected to be a slow trickle became a deluge.  Every day, donations were being dropped off at the school and brought to my classroom.  My room began to fill (and smell better) with everything from soap to deodorant, to sewing kits, shaving cream, razors, tooth paste, tooth brushes and on and on and on.  I found myself having to load up carts and take it down to the swim team storage cage on a regular basis.  The scene would repeat itself at the natatorium and my garage.

In addition, I set up a donation table at the Conroe ISD Natatorium.  It seemed like every day, more and more was being dropped off.  The president of the swim team booster club posted the article from the paper above it, and in addition to the donations, there were condolence cards and notes of encouragement.

On November 2o, 2104, I spoke to the students at Wunderlich Intermediate School.  Their librarian, Bradley Noble, had read Peyton's story in the paper and she asked Coach Matt Maudlin to contact me.  It seems that every year the school adopts a cause and collects donations, and this year it was Products for Peyton.  Before I spoke, they showed me everything that had been collected.  There were boxes upon boxes that they would later take to the House.

On November 21, 2014, College Park High School was to host the Texas Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association (TISCA) Meet.  It is one of the largest invitational high school swim meets in Texas.  I came up with this idea of asking the other coaches to help out with donations.  I asked the host of the Texas Swimming Blog to post the information as well, and he was more than gracious about it.  The response was incredible.  By the end of the meet, the table was filled, and more donations were left underneath.

Other schools through out the area took up the call as well.  From people that I hadn't seen in years to total strangers, donations kept coming in.    It was hard to keep up with all the sorting.  I recruited the entire swim team, and progress was made, but I did the majority of it myself.  It was my way of staying connected to Peyton.  As I sorted, I would talk to him, tell him about all the strangers that had heard about him and wanted to help.  There were times where, all alone in the swim cage, I would sit and cry at the kindness of strangers, and how much Peyton's story had touched them.  I came across hand written notes from students tell me about their own experiences, and how they felt connected to Peyton.  I lost count at 20 as to how many different schools had collected and donated products.

One of the largest donations caught me completely off guard.  I was in my room with a class when I received an email from Dr. Murrell asking me to come to his office.  I explained that I was with a class, and that I had to leave immediately after class to take the swimmers to the pool.  He said I needed to get some one to cover my class.  After finding an available teacher and explaining why I needed coverage, I went down and meekly stuck my head into Dr. Murrell's office.  He handed me an envelope with a letter from Nicholas Tawse, an College Park alum, and a student at my alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin.  It seems that while he was home for a visit, he saw another ARTICLE that had appeared in the Woodlands Villager.  He was touched by the story, and noticed the picture of Peyton and I at a UT football game.  He and his fellow Braves at the Tejas Club at UT held a collection for Products for Peyton.  in addition to the letter was a check for $200 for the House, as well as several large boxes of donations.

As the semester came to an end, I decided that it was time to start making donations.  The first one was made on December 19th.  Lisa and I went to Galveston for our 5th anniversary.  Knowing that there was a House there on the island, we loaded our SUV with our clothes for the weekend, and as many boxes as we could carry.  It was a cold, wet weekend, but our spirits were lifted knowing that all of our hard work was about to pay off.  Because it was a Saturday, the House had a skeleton staff, but the lady that let us in was amazed at the donations.  I knew this was just the beginning, but it felt good.

The stage was then set for the big donation.  A former athlete of mine, Michael Janousek offered to let us use his trailer and drive down to the House in the Houston medical center.  The week before, I began to email and message every local news reporter I could think of in the Houston area.  I was contacted by Tom Abrhams of KTRK, Channel 13.  He agreed to meet us at the House.  I met Michaeland head track coach Mike Gibson at the school and we loaded the trailer.  We then headed over to the Natatorium where swimmers and parents, as well as Lisa, Emmy and my Dad helped us load out the rest.  We drove to the House with not only the donations, but also Peyton and Ian's old bikes.  We had been wondering what to do with them, as we had decided long before October to get both of the boys new bikes for Christmas.  Now we knew exactly where they would best be put to use.

When we arrived, we were greeted by Mikki Donnelly of the House, and Mogie, the official House dog.  As soon at Tom and his cameraman arrived, we began to unload, and unload, and unload.  More than 120 boxes were donated that day.  As the last box was unloaded, the emotional impact washed over me, and I embraced Lisa and let loose with my emotions.  The STORY ran that night, but the most important delivery had yet to be made.

Toward the end of December, Lisa and I made plans to view the Gone with the Wind exhibit at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin and to take in the Texas State History Museum as well, but the most important stop to me would be returning to the House in austin to begin paying them back for all the kindness We lest on a cool cloudy morning, but as we got closer to Austin, the clouds began to break, and the sun came out to warm the day.  The last time we had made this trip, it had been a cold wet night, and my state of mind was one of confusion and fear.  when we got closer to Austin, we turned on the directions, and slowly wound our way through the streets.  When we arrived at the familiar gate, We pulled into the parking lot, and my eyes immediately went to the balcony of the room we had stayed in.  I remember that October date.  I stood on the balcony to check the weather before I walked over to the hospital to say a final goodbye to Peyton.

We were met in the parking lot by my friend Jeff Phillips and his wife Trudy.  We walked up to the door, each of us carrying a box or bag.  The lady who greeted us was gracious and welcoming.  she thanked us for the donations, but I had to tell her we weren't done.  Two more trips with a cart, and all the boxes, 15 in total were unloaded.  Once again, it didn't look like enough, and unfortunately, it never will.

We have been back to the  House in Austin twice since then.  In February, when the College Park Swim Team members headed to the state meet, I made sure to load a box for each of the girls attending.  The girls were amazed by the House, and were even treated to a tour.  While they were on their tour, I ventured out to the garden to see Peyton's rock.  At the House in Austin, a local craftsman engraves the name of every child that passes while their family stays at the House.  It was the first time I was able to see the rock, and the tears flowed freely.  Once again, I had a long talk with Peyton before heading off.

In March, we made another trip there.  We had gone to Round Rock to attend a tree planting ceremony at Peyton's old school. We took another load of donations, and Ian, Emmy and Lisa were able to see Peyton's stone as well.

That load cleaned out the supply of donations that I had left in the garage.  However, a few days later, I came home to several boxes that had been delivered that day, and the collection began again.  In April, we will be attending a tree planting ceremony in San Antonio honoring organ donors.  I know there is a Ronald McDonald House there, so if you live in San Antonio, let them know we are coming, and donations are coming with us.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Why Products for Peyton?

At the time I got the call that Peyton had hung himself, I had just left work.  It had been a long day, and it seemed like what ever could go wrong did.  A passage that had been handed out in class that day that contained an "F-Bomb".  I had to report this to an Associate Principal, and as a result, had to write a letter of apology that would be sent home with every Junior English student.  I had another associate principal do a short observation during class, and despite the fact that I received praise, was still nerve racking. After school, I spent an hour and a half working on a powerpoint that ended up crashing.  I finally went and worked out and then got in my truck to leave.  It was then that I received that call.

By the time Lisa, Emmy and I arrived at Dell Children's Medical Center in Austin, it was after 10:00, and I was not leaving Peyton's side.  We slept sporadically on the pull out chairs they had in his room, but it was fitfull sleep, and not at all comfortable.  We knew we would have to find a short term solution to the problem, especially with a toddler along .  Unfortunately, we arrived in Austin the same weekend as the Austin City Limits Music Festival.  Hotel rooms were outrageously high and hard to find.  Worst of all,  there seemed to be no rooms close to the hospital, and we wanted to be close.  Friends in the area offered to put us up, but they lived in the outer suburbs of Austin, and would put us 30-45 minutes away, and that was without Austin's daily traffic nightmares.

Finally, a socail worker at the hospital asked if we would like her to get us into Ronald McDonald House.  I had seen many ads on TV for the Ronald McDonald House, but truly didn't know much about it.  I thought that you had to qualify financially, but I was wrong.  The House is open to the family of any patient at the hospital that traveled more than 25 miles to be there.  Once a room opened up, we traveled across the parking lot to check in.  I was amazed by what I saw.  The grounds of the House were well kept with a play ground, picnic tables, grilling area, even a putting green. The inside was beautiful with sitting areas, a large kitchen and dining area, laundry room, game room, and exercise room.  When we met with the representative (I apologize, but I forgot her name), we were told that the cost was $10 per night. In addition, they had volunteer groups that came in and prepared lunch and dinner most days.  They showed us to our room.  I half expected a traditional hotel room set up, but once again, I was mistaken.  The room was a small apartment.  There was a living room with a desk, computer, couch and flat screen TV.  A full bath, and a bedroom with a queen sized bed, and complimentary stuffed animal for the kids.  As I began to unpack, I realzied that I had left most of my toiletries at home.  In fact, all I had brought was medication and my toothbrush.  It was then that our representative from the House arrived back at the door with a baggie each for my wife and me.  Inside each of the baggies were little bottles of shampoo, conditioner, tiny bars of soap,  and a dentist office give away tooth paste and tooth brush.  At the time, I really thought nothing of it other than we wouldn't have to find a drug store or supermarket now.  It was one less thing that we needed to worry about.

The next morning I discovered why this place is so magical.  I sat eating pancakes and bacon, and watched Emmy play in their little play room.  She got out toys and puzzles and was able to be a two year old again.  As I st there watching her, I felt some of the stress of the past few days melt away.  I felt guilty for enjoying myself while Peyton lay in a coma just across the parking lot, but for just a few moments, normalcy came back into my life.  Over the course of the next few days, the House was nothing more than a place to sleep, shower, and occasionally eat.  I would sit in the main room with a cup of coffee watching the people come and go and wondering what brought them here.  How long had they been here?  Was their child okay?  Would their life ever be normal again?  Even worse was seeing a familiar car in the parking lot no longer there.  Were they out running an errand?  Was their child well enough to go home?  Were they going home with an empty space in the back seat?

Three days later, after Peyton had passed away, we packed up and left the House.  I went down stairs to pay for our nights there.  I handed over $50.  the first $40 was for our stay.  The other $10 was for the House.  I wanted to give them more, to be able to pick up the tab for the next family that drove through the night in the pouring rain to be at the bedside of their child.  I promised myself that some how, some way, I would pay them back.  I would do something in Peyton's name to help out a family in a time of crisis.

After we left the House, we had to make stops at the church to meet with the pastor and arrange for Peyton's memorial service, and at the funeral home to see about arranging for his body to be picked up from the coroner and to be prepared for the memorial service and later, his cremation.  Once those tasks had been accomplished, it was time to head back home.

The drive from Austin to Conroe is about three hours. The majority of the trip is on Highway 290, a mostly rural road that runs through a series of smaller towns.  It was a clear cool October day. The three hour drive gave me plenty of time to think about what had transpired over the past few days. As I drove, I would look at Lisa sitting beside me, driting in and out of sleep after so many restless nights, and in the rearview mirror, I would steal glances of Emmy sleeping soundly in her car seat.  About half way through the trip, we passed through the tiny town of Carmine.  This was where Jacki, Peyton's mother, and I would meet in order to perofrm the ritual known to so many divorced couples, the child exchange.  As we passed the parking lot where we would meet, I began to think of Peyton and had to swallow a lump in my throat.  I made myself think of anything that might bring me comfort, and the promise I made myself to help others came to mind.

I began to think of how I could fulfill my promise to help others in a time of crisis.   How could I repay the kindness and magic of the House?  Money was the obvious answer, but I wanted something more.  I wanted a grand gesture.   I wanted something would leave a lasting impression, and most of all, would remind people of Peyton.  I stated to think back to our stay at the House, and what would benefit the most people.  I immediately thought of food.  They had a common pantry and refrigerator that guest could access at any time, but there were already so many food drives in our area, and with Thanksgiving just around the corner, I didn't want to take away from others.  I thought about stuffed animals like the little on they put in our room for Emmy.  I know that it would be great for kids, but I also wanted to help the parents.  I then thought back to the little baggie of toiletries we had received upon arrival.  I thought about how something so small and simple could help some one.  I thought about some of how Peyton had been life flighted there.  How many other people had jumped into a helicopter with their critically injure child with nothing more than the clothes on their back.  How great would it be to that person to not have to worry about having to head to the store, or find the money to do so.  I had found my answer.  On that drive home, some where between Brenham and Hempstead, Products for Peyton had been born.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Every Story Has A Beginning

I have tried several times over the past few months to begin this blog, but they were unsuccessful.  I would either break down at the retelling of Peyton's story, or write several profane and angered filled entries that I never felt comfortable sharing.  I think today is the day that I begin with something simple.  

The following article appeared in the Woodlands College Park High School  student news paper
The Paladin.  I want to thank the sponsor, Dawna Brawner; Principal,  Dr. Mark Murrell; and editor, Meaghan Noack, for allowing me to tell my story.  

Coach James speaks out about son’s tragic death 
On October 8, 2014, my son Peyton, a 13-year-old 8th grader at Forbes Middle School in Georgetown, came home from school, went into his room, took out belt and hung himself from the ceiling fan. By the time his mother found him, he wasn’t breathing and he had no heart beat. She called 911 and began CPR. As emergency responders arrived, they continued the CPR, and after 25 minutes, were able to restore his heart beat. Unfortunately, he was still not breathing on his own. He was taken to Seton Medical Center Williamson in Round Rock where a breathing tube was inserted.

It was at this point that I became aware of the situation. I was sitting in my truck in the parking lot. I had just gotten off the phone with my wife Lisa, Peyton’s step- mother. I had told her I had to gas
up my truck and pick up our daughter Emmalee, and then I would be home. When my phone rang again, I saw itwas Jacki, my ex-wife and Peyton’s mother. It had been a bad day, was
starting to storm, and a big part of me didn’t want to talk to her, but I took the call. She immediately handed the phone to a police officer who told me what had happened. Disbelief overwhelmed me. My primary concern was Peyton’s condition, and he told me. I was then handed off to one of the EMT’s that had responded. She reiterated what the officer had already told me, and added that I needed to get there as soon as possible, as time was of the essence. I clicked off the call and sat there briefly dumbfounded before losing control. I screamed; I yelled; I cried. I composed myself enough to call my wife and told her what had happened. She told me not to move and that she was on her way to get me. I sat and cried; begged and pleaded with  God to take me instead; and most of all wondered "why?"

Peyton was a good kid. Not an angel, but a good kid. He had endured a lot in his short life. He was two months premature and spent the first 40 days of his life in the hospital. His grandmother died when he was four; and shortly there after, his mother and I divorced. I remarried when he was eight, and now he had to share his father with a new wife and his step brother, Ian. Less than a month after the wed- ding, he lost his beloved Papa. That summer, he and his mother moved to Austin, and my time with him was limited to every other weekend, and six weeks in the summer.

It was also around this time that he began to have issues. He was always smaller than his peers, had red hair, glasses and a very sensitive nature. It immediately made him the target of ridicule. He became frustrated with other students picking on him, made friends selectively and was loyal to them. In addition, he was severely ADHD, so despite his love of learning, school became a struggle for him. Although he had a coach for a father, he never had much interest in athletics. Instead, he preferred reading, Pokemon, anime, Dr. Who and video games.

When he started middle school, we tried to channel his creativity into drama, but he still felt like an outcast. He had a strange sense of humor that didn’t resonate with his peers. He didn’t have any friends, but he was loyal and protective of those that he did have and was constantly seeking justice against those that he felt had wronged him or his friends.

He also began to make statements such as, “I should just kill myself,” or “You would be better off without me,” when he was angry or frustrated. We all assumed it was just his way of trying to deflect our attention from the trouble he had just gotten in. After making the same statement to his mother one night, she called his bluff and took him to one of the local mental health recovery centers. Although he wasn’t admitted, he was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. His mother got him into counseling, he began to take medication to help with the depression, and even had a girlfriend for a while.

Before he started eighth grade, his mother got a new job teaching in Georgetown, and they moved there. He was excited about going to a smaller school, taking more electives and being an eighth grader. The year seemed to be going well. He tried to make new friends, which as the “new kid” is always difficult, but he seemed to be okay. However, things were going on at school that neither his mother and I were aware of. The last weekend he was with me, he confided in Ian that he was being picked on by other kids. The day he chose to take his own life, he had called the kid chat hot line at his school and reported another student for bullying him.

Almost five hours after receiving the call, and fighting traffic and weather, Lisa, Emmy and I arrived at the Dell Children’s Medical Center. We made our way to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU). We were admitted, and found his room. What I saw when I walked in hit me like a punch to the gut. There was my son, usu- ally a bundle of energy and enthusiasm, lying unconscious on a bed. He had a cervi- cal collar on his neck (this hid the ligature marks), tubes and wires running every where, probes on his head monitoring brain activity, and worst of all was a machine rhythmically breathing for him. When I grabbed his hand, it was limp and cold. He was unresponsive, and I just cried.

A doctor took Lisa and I into a small room and spoke to us about his prognosis, and it wasn’t good. When he hung himself, he had deprived his brain and other vital organs of oxygen. The CPR may have caused damage to his heart, and they were worried about possible damage to his neck as well. The next 72 hours would be critical.

We kept a vigil by his for two days, and dur- ing that time, there was no change. In the ICU, no change can be a good thing because it meant he wasn’t getting worse. It was also bad because he wasn’t getting better. But we did see him try and open his eyes on his own, and he moved his hand for us as well.

One thing I learned quickly. In the ICU, optimism is short lived. That afternoon, a neurologist came by to talk to us. His assessment of Peyton’s brain activity led him to believe that even IF he lived, he would not be able to function. There was a good chance that he would never be able to take care of himself again.

The bad news continued about 5:00 that afternoon. While the nurse was performing his hourly exam, he noticed that one of Peyton’s pupils did not react to light. He called in the resident, who in turn, called in the doctor. We were told that this was a sign of increased swelling in the brain, and could be a sign of brain death. At CAT scan was ordered, and the results confirmed what the doctor had thought. Peyton was on the verge of brain death. He showed us the images from the CAT scan. The top part of his brain, the part that contained everything that made Peyton who he was had died. The bottom part that controls the body would soon follow. It was not a question of it Peyton would die, but when. Saturday and Sunday were spent waiting for Peyton’s brain to die. The doctors would conduct a series of tests to determine if his brain had died. Each time his response became less and less as more of his brain shut down. Finally, Sunday night, they conducted the test one final time. He reacted to one of the tests, so a blood flow test was ordered. He was taken to imaging where after an hour, the results confirmed what the doctor believed. At 12:02 AM on Monday, October 13, 2014, Peyton James, my first born child, and the only son I will ever have was officially declared dead. I leaned over, kissed his forehead and told him the same thing I told him the day he was born, and every night I had seen him since, “Goodnight Boo. Daddy loves you very much.”

On Sunday, October 19th, a memorial service was held for Peyton in Round Rock.
Almost three hundred people showed up to say good bye to Peyton and support his family.

I lost my son, and every day for me is a struggle. There is a huge void that will never be filled. Every where I look, every where I go, everything I do some how brings back memories for me and leaves me in tears. I never want any one to go through what I am right now. The pain never leaves.