June 2006 Newsletter

Barbaro broke his leg…and millions mourned.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you Barbaro is a race horse.  I can’t imagine how anyone could not know this story by now.  On the first Saturday in May, he waltzed to victory by a healthy margin in the Kentucky Derby, and immediately was touted as the soon-to-be-next Triple Crown winner.  The Triple Crown is the pinnacle of achievement in horse racing.  Winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont—separated by mere days—in one racing season is something few three-year-old thoroughbreds have accomplished throughout the entire history of horse racing. 

Barbaro’s thrashing of the rest of the Derby field seemed to signal his likelihood of being the first Triple Crown winner in 28 years.  But on May 20, only seventy-five yards out of the starting gate, one accidental misstep broke three bones around Barbaro’s ankle in his right hind leg, ending his run for the Preakness gold, the Triple Crown hopes, his racing career, and possibly even his life.

The reaction that followed was mind boggling.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love horses.  I grew up with them.  From as far back as I can remember I had a pony, which graduated to my own horses when I was twelve-years-old.  My dad was an avid trainer and rider, and from the time I was able to crawl up on the back of a horse until I went off to college, I spent a large majority of my days with the horses…feeding, grooming, training, and riding.

My dad was partial to what is referred to as “gaited” or “saddle” horses—those bred for pure pleasure riding.  Daddy always used to say it was like sitting in a comfortable rocking chair.  But I, on the other hand, always loved quarter horses.  I only wanted to run.  The feeling of that burst of power at the start of a race, the determination of the animal to win, the agility and athleticism with which they flawlessly navigated twists and turns, and the grace of galloping at full speed…that for me was the closest thing to heaven on earth.  I felt like I was floating on air.  It was the only time this gangly, awkward country girl actually felt graceful.  If thoroughbreds had been more popular in my neck of the woods, I’m sure I would have gravitated in that direction.

My point is I understand the addictive attachment that develops in owners for their horses.  At one time as an adult I owned four mares, a filly, a gelding, and a two-year-old stud, all at once, not to mention all the others that cycled through from time to time for temporary boarding.  It truly has been one thing in my life with which I can say I was obsessed.  And I don’t seem to be alone in that.  Everyone who’s ever had a horse loves it; and everyone else has dreamed about it.  It’s a widespread fascination—this love of horses—which I truly understand.

But give me a break!  I am stunned by the reaction I’ve witnessed since Barbaro’s injury.  I couldn’t turn on the TV news without seeing an update bulletin.  Every time the radio news played, the Barbaro update dominated the air waves.  The newspapers as well as online news sources were plastered with press releases and updates.  Even the morning radio disc jockeys were all talking about it…theorizing about what happened, why it happened, what would happen now, etc., etc.  They lamented the end of the 2006 Triple Crown dream, despite the fact that they probably can’t even name one or more previous winners.  I mean, really, would any of our lives be permanently impacted one way or the other if there was a Triple Crown winner or not?  It was beginning to drive me a little crazy.  I didn’t seem to be the only one losing my mental balance either, for the stories I was hearing were filled with illogical details.

After being transported from Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland, where the Preakness is held, to George D. Widner Hospital at the New Bolton Center of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, Barbaro was greeted by flowers, cards and notes already delivered prior to his pre-dawn arrival.  The hospital continued to be inundated with flowers, cards, notes, emails, carrots and apples, which were spread all over the hospital, lobby, and ICU where Barbaro was being kept.  Finally, the vet school created a dedicated web page called “The Barbaro Buzz” where those who somehow were not getting enough news through the regular media outlets (imagine that) could go for more.  Through this page, well-wishers could also send their own personal message of encouragement to Barbaro…limited, of course, to a minimum of 250 characters of text.  I guess a horse’s attention span begins to wane if he reads more than 250 characters at once.  Or maybe Barbaro had to cut back on his reading while he was so sedated.

Yes, I’m being sarcastic.  I’m more than sarcastic.  I’m indignant.  My disgust finally reached a pinnacle in, of all places, the spa where I was having a manicure.  I’d been sitting across the table from my manicurist for several minutes when a new customer arrived for a similar appointment.  Her manicurist’s work station sat in front of me and to my left.  So I could not only hear but I could also see their conversation.  The young, glamorous spa worker had no more than begun the manicure when I heard her exclaim breathlessly, “Did you hear about Barbaro?!”  The expression on her face communicated total devastation.

I know my mouth fell open uncontrollably.  I was shocked this was to her the worst thing that was happening in our world at this time…perhaps the worst thing that had ever happened.  I was stunned that it was the most pressing topic on her mind to talk about.  But surely what struck me most was that just above the spot where this conversation was underway…just above her head on the wall…I swear, I’m not making this up…was a plaque about “Community Action.”

For the next several minutes I sat there in stunned amazement listening to her go on and on about that horse, as I stared at that plaque. 

What has happened in our society, I wondered, to bring us to a point where our hearts are broken when an animal is injured, but it doesn’t bother us one bit for human beings to be homeless, starving, suffering abuse, living in sub-standard housing, slaving for poverty-level wages, and lacking basic medical care to simply survive from one day to the next?  I’m sure most humans will never receive the care, concern and attention that horse is receiving.

Where is our outrage over that?  Where are the heartbreak, concern, and outpouring of support and encouragement?  Where, oh where, is the Community Action?!

The reason I needed a manicure on this day was because for two weeks I’d been engaged in a little Community Action myself.  I’d been working on the Habitat for Humanity Women’s Build in Knoxville.  As a result, my hands were cut, scraped, and chapped, my cuticles ripped, and my nails rubbed and broken down to nubs with paint and caulk permanently encrusted underneath.  So a friend had given me a spa gift certificate to have something done about them.  But, on that day, my pathetic hands were my badge of honor.

Copyright Notice Barry Seaton

Habitat for Humanity’s Women Build program is an international initiative to empower women to take action against poverty housing conditions.  With women and single mothers being the fastest growing segment of the homeless population, the Habitat for Humanity Women Build initiative brings women together from all walks of life to address the housing crisis facing millions of women and children across the globe.  Nearly 800 Habitat houses have been built by all-women crews around the world.  Each year 150 or more houses are added as donors, sponsors, and local affiliates, such as our Knoxville Habitat for Humanity organization, discover the impact of women volunteers and their resources.

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Over a span of a mere twelve days, beginning on May 13, over 300 women joined in Knoxville to build a home from the ground up for a very hard-working, deserving, and humble family.  Beginning the project on Mother’s Day weekend, the crew included mothers and their daughters, local professional women and holders of public office, Knoxville Habitat staff and seasoned volunteers—some of whom had traveled from other states to participate—as well as first time volunteers who in some cases had never even held a hammer. 

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Before it was over the project had benefited from the toil of notables such as Tennessee’s first lady, Andrea Conte, UT’s first lady Carol Peterson, UT Lady Vol head basketball coach, Pat Summitt who was accompanied by some of her players, UT Women’s Athletic Director, Joan Cronan, Vicky Fulmer, wife of UT Football Coach, Phillip Fulmer, Kim Pearl, wife of UT Men’s basketball head coach, Bruce Pearl, Elizabeth Hamilton, wife of UT Men’s Athletic Director, Mike Hamilton, Lori Tucker, Channel 6 News Anchor, Kelle Schultz, Knoxville Habitat for Humanity Executive Director, Kathleen Finch, DIY Network General Manager, Stephanie Hall, Knox County Health Department Deputy Director, Dee Haslam, President of Rivr Media, Mintha Roach, KUB President and CEO, Jan Wade, WATE-TV General Manager, Carol Evans, Marketing Director for HGTVPro.com, and the list goes on and on and on.

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Every woman who participated in the build also raised a minimum of $250, with many contributing more, to help fund the $66,000 material cost of the modest home ($15,000 of which was donated by Lowe’s Home Improvement, and $51,000 of which had to be raised through the Women Build initiative.)  It was a great joy, pleasure, and honor for me to have the opportunity to be a small part of this initiative.


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During the twelve days that the home was being built, I listened to the continuing Barbaro drama with awe.  News conferences with the horse’s doctors occurred almost daily.  Reporters dug desperately for some great human interest nugget.  While doctors attempted to stick to the medical details of his treatment, they were asked repeatedly to confirm that there was something really special about Barbaro, like his heart or his will or his attitude.  Barbaro’s owner, Roy Jackson, was asked why he thought this horse had captured the imagination of so many people, a fact proven when Barbaro’s story in the Sunday and Monday editions of the New York Times was read twice as much as any other.

Jackson didn’t know.  I don’t know either.  But I do know this.  If you want a real human interest nugget…if you want a story about special heart, will, and attitude...you need look no further than Jennie Clemmons, the new homeowner of the Women Build Habitat home.

Jennie had experienced seven of the most difficult years of her life due to personal family issues.  She was praying for a change when she was officially accepted into Knoxville Habitat’s homeowner program in 2004.  That’s when Jennie began to work to fulfill Habitat’s homeowner requirements.

All who are accepted into Habitat’s program, through a detailed evaluation process, must then invest a minimum of 500 hours of “sweat equity.”  Those 500 hours consist of attendance in mandatory classes, on such topics as budgeting, construction, urban gardening, and home maintenance, as well as hours working alongside volunteers as they do everything from raising walls of the new home to painting them.  In addition to holding down her full time job, Jennie never missed a day of the build…and she never stopped working…she never stopped smiling.

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“Knowing I’m making a good investment for my family and their future keeps me smiling,” Jennie said. “My grandson is my number one priority, and I want the best for him.  I want him to know that he can achieve anything if he works hard enough for it.” 

Jennie also said, “If there’s anything I’ve learned in this life, it’s that you can do or be anything if you’re willing to work for it.  We all make mistakes, but it’s in refusing to give up that we learn who we really are.  I’m going to be a homeowner.  And every nail in my house will be driven by a strong woman with love in her heart.”

Didn't I tell you Jennie is special?  How’s that for heart, will, and attitude?

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On May 25, right on schedule, Jennie’s new home was dedicated and she received her keys.  She and her daughter, Trenkeeva, and her grandson, Jamarius, are now the proud owners of a home built by their sweat and volunteer’s love.  It’s just one more success story for Knoxville Habitat for Humanity, an independent, nonprofit, Christian housing ministry that has partnered with people of all beliefs to provide safe, decent, affordable homes in Knox County for 25 years.  Knoxville Habitat will build its 300th home in Knox County this year, all of which are sold to qualified homeowners through interest-free mortgages.

Copyright Notice Barry Seaton

According to “The Barbaro Buss,” a large, anonymous donor awarded a very generous gift, shortly after Barbaro’s arrival at the New Bolton Center, to launch the Barbaro Fund, not for his care but for support of Widener Veterinary Hospital.  I’m sure Kelle Shultz, Executive Director of Knoxville Habitat for Humanity, hopes her phone will ring tomorrow for the same reason.  Unfortunately, it probably won’t.  And that’s a shame and disgrace.

I think maybe it’s easier for people to grieve over Barbaro than it is to be bothered by the needs in our own community, because in reality the Barbaro situation is so far removed from us that we’re actually not really expected to do anything.  We can give it lip service and appear to be compassionate…while actually doing nothing.

Why is it that our hearts will break for a shattered animal but not for a shattered human life?  Why is it that we believe a horse, which we will never see in person and will soon forget, deserves our money, flowers, cards, and outpouring of support more than the struggling single mother we see on our street every day on our way to and from work?  Why is it that we can be outraged about violence, crime, and the homeless people roaming the streets downtown and want something done about it, yet do nothing ourselves?

In my books and training, I use the metaphor of mountain climbing to illustrate why we must not only care about what’s happening to those less fortunate in our community (not just locally but globally too) we must also do something.

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In climbing, all the climbers are roped together.  The strongest climber takes the lead ahead of the others to whom he or she is roped.  Despite being tied to one another, the strong climber is not pulling the weaker climbers up the mountain.  They must all make their own climb.  However, unless the weaker climbers can complete the ascent to the top, neither can the strongest climber.  If he or she cannot help all those with him or her climb to the top, he or she will be held back by them.  Even if the strong climber really doesn’t care about the weaker climbers...even if all he or she cares about is getting to the mountaintop…the only way for the strong climber to achieve that objective is to help all the others.

That illustration perfectly depicts our human existence.  We are all here on this third rock from the Sun together…roped together, if you will.  We are all trying to climb to the pinnacle of our human existence.   But it’s all or none, folks.  Even the most successful among us is only a so-called tragedy away from ruin…only one slight misstep away from a great fall.  So it’s incumbent upon all of us, especially the strongest among us, to mentor the weaker climbers, take them to the climbing wall, so to speak, and teach them new techniques, mentor them through their learning, and nurture their growth process until they can climb on their own…and, yes, sometimes, catch them when they fall.  If the stronger climber will do that, the next time he or she goes to the mountain with the group, they will all climb together to the summit.

“If it’s to be, it’s up to me.”  That’s the motto I try to instill in my students.  And along those same lines, I have an idea.  Why don’t we all take some Community Action out of those cute, politically correct plaques, and down off the spa wall, and put it into practice?  How about we open our eyes and adjust our attitudes?  How about a little less talk and a lot more action?  I have a feeling if we would all do a little more of that, we would make the world a truly better place for all of us.

Habitat for Humanity is about much more than building houses.  Habitat is about building hope…building lives…building community.  Now that’s what I call Community Action.  That’s what I call love.

Barbaro may be a beautiful, strong, majestic animal.  But, trust me; you won't find a creature more beautiful, strong, or majestic than Jennie Clemmons.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve.  You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.  You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve.  You only need a heart full of grace.  A soul generated by love.”

You can find information on how you can get involved in Habitat for Humanity through any of the following means:

        Visit www.knoxvillehabitatforhumanity.com

        Contact Trudy Akers at vol4hab@khfh.com

        Call (865) 523-3539

        Stop by the Knoxville Habitat office at 1501 Washington Ave.

        Email me through the contact page of my website, and I will help you get connected.

You’ll find a broad range of volunteer opportunities from participating in the actual builds to teaching classes, tutoring, serving on committees, or helping out in the Thrift Store.  Volunteering with Habitat for Humanity is such a small personal commitment with an immeasurable personal reward.  You may go into it with the desire to transform the situation of others.  But you will find it will be your own life transformed by the experience.


All the photos in this article are courtesy of photographer Barry Seaton, who masterfully documented the twelve days of the Women’s Build and produced the amazing portrait of Jennie and her family.  For more information about Barry and Sarah Lynn Seaton’s photography and portraiture services, visit www.seatonart.com  and www.seatonshoots.com