Did I Make a Difference?

Community service - USS Frank Cable Sailors

By Judy Berman

Some people make our lives richer just by crossing our path.

For parents, they might not know what influence they’ve had until their child’s nearly grown.

As a teacher, I often wonder: Did I make a difference? I don’t mean in test scores. I’m looking for a deeper impact.

Are my students thinking more critically when given conflicting points of view? Have any of our class discussions led them to think more about what they can do to forge stronger, positive relationships? Or how to make the world a better place?

That’s when I think about a story I was assigned to report on when I worked for Florida Today.

There are certain people we’re meant to meet in life. For me, Irene Summerford was one of them.

Volunteers were out in her Melbourne neighborhood painting houses, cleaning yards, and emptying lots of debris and brush.

A deacon told me about a woman who lived around the corner. He said Irene, a widow, spent what little money she had to help those who were hungry and hurting.

When the volunteers took a lunch break, I decided to go meet her.

Irene, who had been helping the volunteers paint her home, was sitting outside on a bench. A huge cross was on her front lawn.

She said she wished people would do something to make a difference every day, that a special day should not be needed to do so.

“Life is about reaching out thru love. It doesn’t take a rich person. All it takes is a willing heart to reach out,” Irene told me.

Irene admitted that sometimes she knows she can’t help and leaves it in God’s hands. Other times, if they need something to eat, she’ll offer a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Or, maybe what they need is “just a smile and a hug.”

Irene wondered if she’d always be on the outside looking in. I understood as I’ve felt like an outsider, too. But, she said, she learned a lot by being on the outside.

I was touched and humbled by her strong belief. We talked about half an hour. Her positive outlook prompted me to re-examine my own goals.

About 1 ½ years later, I left the paper and sought ways to help children through teaching. Irene’s passion to improve the lives of children in her neighborhood led her in another direction.

She “was the driving force behind the creation …for a drop-in center for kids in the community, a program that began life in a public housing apartment in 2004,” according to an article in “Florida Today.”

Irene died of cancer in 2006, at age 60, a year before a new building was completed to meet the growing demand for an after-school program at the community center.

Gandhi said: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Irene lived that and made life better for those around her.

Our lives intersected briefly, but Irene left a lasting impression on me.

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Judy Berman and earthrider, 2011-15. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to (Judy Berman) and (earthrider, earth-rider.com, or earthriderdotcom) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Video: Conner and Cayden Long – SportsKids of the Year – An excellent example of brotherly love and sportsmanship – Conner’s brother, Cayden, has cerebral palsy, and they compete in triathlons together.   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_Lax4zFFoA 

Main Photo: Community Service – USS Frank Cable Sailors – Gunner’s Mate 1st Class, Sierra Clemons, playing a game with a child at the Child Protection and Development Center in Hua Yai, Thailand – photo taken Feb. 23, 2012 http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/fa/USS_Frank_Cable_Sailors_participate_in_a_community_service_event._%2813453432314%29.jpg/640px-USS_Frank_Cable_Sailors_participate_in_a_community_service_event._%2813453432314%29.jpg


  1. I will venture to say that there is a generation of young people who are glad that you walked over to dear Irene’s house, listened, and found your new path, Judy. Great story.

  2. I sometimes find myself recalling those who made a difference in my life. They’re mostly gone on to a different plane now, but my life is better for having met them. Of course, none of them gave me money or material things. What they gave to me was themselves.

  3. There are definitely some people who helped guide my life and my values. I always like the teacher that no one else liked. The one who was more demanding. I vividly remember my algebra teacher. Kids were terrified of him but I found that when I was stuck, he was always in his classroom early and very willing to help. When I worked, I always learned the most from colleagues who accepted me as equals (despite the fact that I was female — it was a different era) and were willing to ruthlessly mentor me rather than be one of my friends who thought everything I did was wonderful. Challenge comes in different packages. You can’t be put off by the wrappings.

    1. I also was lucky to have some teachers and mentors that challenged me to let my reach exceed my grasp. You’re right, Kate, “you can’t be put off by wrappings.” You never know who or what will inspire you and help shape you in a positive way.

  4. I’ve always felt life would be meaningless if I didn’t contribute to making other people’s lives better. Sometimes I got too grandiose about my “mission,” but I suppose that’s always the error of youth. These days, I’m conscious of the fact that it’s possible to make a big difference by doing small things. Yesterday, a bus driver drove that point home.

    My husband and I decided to take the bus to the beach (just a short ride from our house) to take a walk there. By the time we had gotten to the beach (the end of the bus route, where it turns around and heads back to the city), everyone else had stepped off and we, seated near the back, were the only two passengers left. My husband said something to the driver, thanking him for driving our huge limousine for us. The driver laughed.

    Then, when he stopped the bus, while we were walking up the aisle, he jumped out of his seat and said, “Hold it a second.” He jumped out of the bus and stood at the door like a footman, then took each of our hands to “help” us down the step. Made us all laugh, of course. And made our day.

    We’ve noticed that driver is always pleasant to everyone, brightens everyone’s day in some small way. The world needs more people like him.

    1. Oh, Tracy, you made me laugh and cry at the same time. That is so sweet. That bus driver really knows how to make a difference and brighten people’s day. I hope someone does the same for him. 😉

      Years ago, a man at a restaurant in Watkins Glen surprised my husband and me with cake and a song when he learned it was our anniversary. Everyone there joined in. That small, sweet gesture has stuck with me all these years.

  5. Your post is a keeper, Judy, a reminder that there are differences being made by others all around us…and asking us how we’re making a difference, too. Tracy’s comment, and your response, were perfect examples of the little acts of kindness that carry a big wallop! Big thanks to both of you…for making such a difference for all the readers today.

    1. Thank you, Marilyn. Tracy’s comment reminded me of that thoughtful staffer at the restaurant. I wrote about it some time ago. It always makes me smile. I’m glad you liked my post.

  6. Heart-warming post, Judy. Irene lives on in your life and good deeds and I’m sure in all those she touched. “Earth-angel” comes to mind.

  7. Your beautiful story is a message that we should all be aware of the plight of others and to actively look for those who need us. I do believe there are angels among us and I too have had the enormous pleasure of meeting a few. They inspired me to go on when the going got tough and to continue to grow. Thanks for reminding me to “pay it forward” 🙂

    1. Angels do walk among us. Paying it forward is an excellent way to share that experience. Maybe it will inspire others to pass the baton as well. 😉 Thank you, Dor (may I call you that? Or is it Dorann?)

  8. What goes around comes around. I firmly believe that and it’s why I’m sure you made a difference in your student’s lives as well as in the lives of all who know you, Judy. You are a gifted storyteller and that talent is a rare one, reserved for those who can see and feel below the surface of things. Thanks so much for sharing how Irene inspired you to become an inspiration for others.

    1. Your thoughtful comments mean a lot, timethief. If I feel a little low, I’m going to pull out your post and re-read it. It will make me smile. It works. I’m smiling right now. Thank you. 😆

    1. Irene was a delightful lady. I’m glad we met. Some of my students have let me know that I have made a positive difference in their lives. They have in mine as well. Thank you, Amy.

  9. Judy, I have no doubt you’ve made a huge and positive impact on the lives of many students. I hope a few of them let you know just how much you’ve affected them. Great post.

    1. There have been days when I’ve wondered about that, Charles. Then, I might see one of my former students when I’m out shopping and they’ll tell me about a book they read in my class that they loved … or something we did or talked about. Or, a guidance counselor or sibling will tell me a positive comment made by a former student. That always lifts my spirits … just as your comments do. 😉

  10. That’s a really lovely story Judy! 🙂 I do believe we are somehow steered in a direction that causes us to meet people that change our thinking and often the direction of our lives. And it nearly always happens just when our minds are tired of where we are or where we are heading – we need that change. That’s so good to hear she inspired you to change your career – that must have been a big decision to change direction like that! There is something very life-giving about changing a career to a completely different one. A lot of people could do with a big change like that but never dare or never get the chance to accomplish it. And you didn’t pick the easiest career either, so well done for taking that daring step! 🙂

    The inspiring woman you mentioned sounded like she was a human angel in her neighbourhood – we could all do with a few more of those!! 🙂 Your story of her life and work reminded me of woman my parents met in the late 90’s in a neighbourhood they moved into when they moved to be closer to me and my brother. They accepted a council house in an area they wouldn’t normally because they wanted to move quickly, it was a rough neighbourhood compared to what they were used to – a real eye opener for them! There was a woman there who was so like the woman you described that you met, running a drop in centre for teenagers. She was absolutely loved by all the kids in the neighbourhood, they learnt art and cooking, and were encouraged to save money in a bank account, instead of spending all their pocket money on little or nothing. She really taught them what their parents didn’t seem capable of teaching them. The really sad thing about that story was the local council didn’t like what she was doing, and even though she run the centre following every guide line and rule and regulation she had to comply with, ‘they’ still managed to find fault, and eventually made sure it was closed. And the reason? They’d opened an official drop in centre for young people in the area some months earlier, and none of the kids liked it! The stupid thing is, even when they shut that woman’s centre, the kids still refused to go to the new drop in centre, because they said it was boring – the council obviously didn’t see that coming! Sad though, certain people got their way and completely destroyed something very good. That’s the trouble with doing something remarkable, there will always someone who’s not going to like what they see. 😐

    I love the story you’ve shared here (video) that’s so inspiring and quite emotional to watch. What a lovely brother to have, one who will take him wherever he goes! I might share that video to my Tumblr blog later today, it’s worthy of sharing – thank you for drawing attention to it Judy, it’s an excellent story! 🙂

    1. A few things happened along the way to that decision, Suzy. I did question the path I was on. To meet Irene was inspiring and motivated me to examine what I was doing. I knew there was a lot more I wanted to accomplish.

      The council’s decision sounds like it was based on ego rather than the needs of the children. Very short sighted and it hurt the very population they claim they wanted to help. They should have worked with that woman like Melbourne did with Irene.

      The video of Conner and Cayden Long is just heartwarming. I’m glad you liked it. Hope your Tumblr fans enjoy it, too. I saw it on Facebook and just was choked with emotion as I watched. Beautiful brotherly love and terrific sportsmanship. 😉

  11. Beautiful and inspiring post Judy! I can’t think of leaving behind a better legacy that to have made a difference in even one person’s life. Irene’s are ideals to live up to. Thank you for sharing her story and the equally inspiring video.

    comment from earthrider to Madhu:
    Irene was a beautiful and inspiring woman. I also loved that video of the two brothers. These generous and loving souls give us all hope on how we can do more to make this life a great one.

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