It has been about almost eight months since I received a scholarship from the Mark Garwood Share Foundation. Returning to school to finish my bachelor’s degree has been a dream of mine since I first got sober. There were times when I thought it would only be that – just a dream. Last year, with the push of a couple good friends I decided to go for it. I wrote an essay and submitted it, full of anxiety. Some months went by and I was asked to go for an interview with the Garwoods and a couple other members of the board. To say I was nervous is an understatement. Storm clouds were overhead as I drove up to this giant pink building overlooking the ocean in Martin County. I sat on a stone bench staring out into the grey sky with a mixture of anticipation and fear swirling in my stomach. I was put at ease when I saw Erica Garwood walking up the steps towards me under her black umbrella. She smiled and said, “You must be Chris.”

After the interview I remember thinking I blew it – and that was okay. I got to meet people who were actually doing something in the fight against the opioid epidemic which was awesome in itself. They believed in what they were doing and were working hard to help it come to fruition. The Garwoods believe that recovery + education = success, and over the years they have helped many in the recovery community pursue higher education.

The big day came; January 31, 2018 – Mark’s birthday. Every year, in order to honor their son Mark, the Garwoods throw a big picnic in Bryant Park on his birthday. It is a celebration of his life, and the lives touched by his memory. I remember sitting at a picnic table thinking about Mark, a man I have never met, and the impact his life has had on the smiling faces of everyone around me. Mark’s father John got up to the microphone and told stories of his son. I watched as tears formed in everyone’s eyes, accompanied by their smiles – hearts touched in a way that words don’t do justice to describe. It is an incredible thing to witness – connection and love.

I was one of five people to receive the scholarship that day. To say I was grateful seems limiting. I have not come across the word yet that fully captures the experience. I have often wondered about Erica and John Garwood over the past year. A couple weeks ago I got the opportunity to sit down with them over breakfast in order to hear their story, their truth.  I wanted to know more about the people who have had an incredible impact on my life and why they do what they do.

They described their son as an outgoing and gregarious boy who was captain of the football team – the all American kid. One night several years ago, Mark was jumped and sucker punched by a group of guys in a parking lot outside a basketball game. Mark was taken to the hospital where he had to have his jaw wired shut. This is where he was first introduced the drug oxycodone and as John described it, “He was off to the races from there.”

Mark had been through a number of different halfway houses and treatment centers since that basketball game. He was able to get six months sober at a halfway house called Living Right in Lake Worth. Then he got his dream job at a local TV station. The time had come when Mark and a couple friends decided to move out on their own. Erica described it, “Mark was burning the candle at both ends,” because he was trying to take on too much at one time. Mark was also a type 1 diabetic. Then the unimaginable happened; Mark relapsed after moving out of his halfway house. Mark had type 1 diabetes and he had mistaken his body’s need for insulin as being a need for more drugs. He went into a diabetic coma which lead to cardiac arrest.

Some parents can’t get out of bed after the death of a child. The Garwood’s talked about fighting the overwhelming feeling of wanted to isolate. Erica said, “If you lose a spouse you’re a widow or widower.  If you lose your parents you’re an orphan. But there is no word for losing a child because it is so unnatural.”

Erica talked about the letters she wrote to God every day for months. “I was very angry at God. They were not the nicest letters,” she said. But eventually she got the anger out, and one day didn’t feel the need to write anymore.  Erica said she kept receiving the message ‘say yes to everything.’  She admits some of the things she said yes to were weird, but a lot of it was helpful.

The Garwoods also spoke to me about The Compassionate Friends, which is an organization that supports families after a child has passed away. The vision statement of The Compassionate Friends is, “Everyone who needs us will find us and everyone who finds us will be helped.” Both John and Erica talked highly of the support and community they received through Compassionate friends.

The Mark Garwood Share Foundation was started in October 2014. The batman logo was designed by their daughter. They explained the significance of the logo to me and said, “Batman is the only Super Hero that doesn’t have super powers.  Batman turned darkness into light using the tools he acquired, and he was Mark’s favorite super hero.”

In their words, “Everything we do is God driven.” The Bridge Scholarship House is a sober home that they work with to help people with no insurance, no money, and no place to stay. The Garwoods sponsor one of the beds there. They also put together Clean Start backpacks that are given free to those in early recovery. These bags include the basics necessities such as deodorant and shampoo, along with gift cards to Walmart. Both Erica  and John started working with Phoenix House; a place for women on their journey in recovery. They have meals with the women there, and share their story with them. They wanted Phoenix House to feel more like a home which is why they’re so involved.

Erica said, “The best thing anyone did was to sit with me in my sadness – to hold space.”  John talked about his sponsor who just put an arm around him and did not say a word. “We talked about miracles,” Erica  said.  “Why couldn’t there be a miracle?” With tears in her eyes and a hopeful smile on her face she said, “The miracle was he got to go home.” She talked about the miracle of her marriage, “A lot of marriages don’t survive something like this. We played the ‘what if’ game but never went to the ‘it’s your fault’ stage.” At the end of breakfast, John looked at me and said, “We don’t know what we don’t know. I wake up and put one foot in front the other.”

Here I am, so grateful for this scholarship, this foundation, and for the people who has given me this opportunity. After listening to John and Erica tell me their story, their truth – the real gratitude comes from being able to know two incredible human beings. Who, through surviving the unimaginable, have given me something worth more than the scholarship; they have given me hope.

“We were put on this earth to serve,” Erica said, smiling. “You all are so grateful to get the scholarship, but trust me – we got the better end of this.”

For more information on the Mark Garwood Share Foundation, please visit their website at http://www.markgarwoodsharefoundation.org/

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