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Empathy: A Secret Ingredient

by Mary Hally, P’23, P’25

Do you sometimes wonder, “What do my children experience during a Country School I.D.E.A. Day presentation?” After attending a recent I.D.E.A. Parent/Teacher Alliance Committee meeting, I became more curious of what I.D.E.A. Day is like.  Feeling welcomed to share my own ideas of incorporating Inclusion, Diversity, Empathy, and Action within the school, as well as inspired by the energy and respect of fellow parents, faculty and staff within the meeting – I decided to observe the morning of this year’s I.D.E.A. Day.  

Guest speaker, Elizabeth “Liz” Peri, shared her story of living with Cystic Fibrosis (CF) for this year’s presentation.  I sat in a chair behind the students as I observed Liz’s confident, gentle, and welcoming nature. To look at Liz, you see a beautiful, healthy woman who does not appear to be carrying an inner, life-threatening-challenge. All eyes and ears were attentive to Liz’s vulnerability as she began by sharing that she was diagnosed with CF at the age of 7.  How her life expectancy was originally to reach 12. Then, as medications evolved and improved, her life expectancy began to expand to the early 20s, then early 30s to present time at the age of 43. She shared her hope that she will be able to experience life for another 43 years as she continues to embrace her challenges within each moment. As I noticed the age range of students, I wondered if they were relating to Liz’s memories at the age of 7 – some not quite there, others currently 7, and perhaps the older students remembering that age.  An invitation for empathy was evident as Liz shared her fears and loneliness within each stage while embracing hope. There was a gentle gasp within the crowd as Liz shared her process of having to depend upon the 30+ medications she takes each day, her use of a loud, vibrating vest that helps her break up the mucus and bad bacteria within her lungs, and a mask through which she inhales breathing treatments that she must commit to up to 3-6 hours within each day. 

Liz repeated throughout her presentation, how empathy has been her “secret ingredient” for conquering her illness.  Her friendships supporting her through laughter, connection in different forms, and a hope for Liz to continue to thrive and fight through her challenges of living each day with CF were several examples of an underlying empathy.  An example of support was shared about how one of Liz’s greatest life-long friends and Country School mom, Nicole Burke, was inspired by Liz’s story since childhood leading her to begin a group, “OutRUN38”, several years ago. The goal of OutRUN38 is to raise awareness for Cystic Fibrosis, promote healthy living, and give strength to CF sufferers. I appreciated how Liz and Nicole shared with students how their friendship, as well as Nicole’s own vulnerable moments of questioning Liz’s journey strengthened their relationship. This mutual commitment sparked a community of friends and world-wide connections that continue to embrace and share support to Liz and others living with this condition today. 

One of the several questions that was asked of Liz was, “What have you learned from your experiences with CF?” Liz took her time and a deep breath as she responded, “To be grateful for each day.” She continued, “I wake up each day with gratitude like it’s my birthday!”  As a mother to two children at Country School, I mirrored an inner gratitude for the time of Liz to share her experiences with each of us – all in community that clearly embraced and reflected upon Liz Peri’s story with an I.D.E.A. connection: How inclusion of those who are battling health struggles have a diversified way of inviting humanity into moments of empathy and responding through supportive and kind actions.  

Thank you, Country School and Liz Peri, for providing a moment for me to gain an understanding of a Country School I.D.E.A. experience. It will continue to be a memory that I will expand through my own expressions of empathy within challenging moments. I am confident that the young hearts and minds of the student community will also be impacted for years to come.

To learn more about OutRUN38, please watch this video that was shared on I.D.E.A. Day.