Real recovery

The Kingfisher Project: a life of our own

Posted 3/18/20

Sometimes you choose a project. Other times, projects choose you. My involvement with The Kingfisher Project is very much the latter.

Years ago. I came up with an assignment for my high school …

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Real recovery

The Kingfisher Project: a life of our own


Sometimes you choose a project. Other times, projects choose you. My involvement with The Kingfisher Project is very much the latter.

Years ago. I came up with an assignment for my high school seniors taking Participation in Government. Before talking about different philosophies of government, I would have them write about their own personal philosophy in 500 words. Then we’d compare their essays with the ideas of some of the great thinkers in our country and beyond.

I’ve kept hundreds of their essays over the years. Students are natural philosophers. Someday when I retire, I’ll need to get rid of lots of stuff. But not those essays.

Cut to a beautiful, June evening back in 2014. My wife, Kristin, and I were watching the channel 16 news from Scranton. There was a story about a young woman, Rebecca Pisall, who lost her life in a shooting over a $20 bag of heroin. My immediate reaction was not believing the person on the news could be the same Rebecca Pisall I knew as a shy, creative 12th grader who took my government class just a few years before. It couldn’t be.

The next morning, a couple of teachers confirmed that, yes, it was our Rebecca. I was stunned. I went home that night and Kristin immediately remembered that Rebecca had written a wonderful essay for the class philosophy project. It was the story of how she had saved an injured Kingfisher bird. Since she was a little girl, Rebecca had loved every animal—no matter what.

I got to school early the next morning long before anyone else. My classroom has a wall of file cabinets with troves of papers, including folders full of student work. Many years ago, I’d actually been given a sort of ultimatum by the powers in charge back then that I had better stop accumulating file cabinets and papers to fill them. If I had a copy of Rebecca’s Kingfisher essay, it was probably the only one in existence. Would it still be there?

Thank God I ignored the ultimatum. Because I found Rebecca’s essay that morning and it set off a chain of events that took on a life of its own.

I decided to send Rebecca’s mom, Julie, a copy of the essay. Julie soon after asked me if I would read it at Rebecca’s service. It was an honor. I recognized lots of other people from our school community, including Sullivan West teacher Dan Parisi who played guitar for the service. We were discovering the impact Rebecca had on all of us, even though she had been such a quiet presence in our lives.

About a week later, Julie Pisall, Kevin and Babara Gref invited me to read Rebeccas’s essay on WJFF. That program led to the creation of the Kingfisher Project, broadcasting every Monday evening on the station. Since 2015, there have been hundreds of episodes. The producers, Julie, Kevin and Barbara, have brought together everyone and anyone they can get their hands on who is concerned about the addiction crisis and people in recovery. One key goal has been to help reduce the stigma associated with addiction.

All are welcome: the powerful and especially the powerless. (And, how often we discover that people who are perceived as being powerful have been knocked down by this crisis, too. Of course, addiction knows no boundaries.)

I’ve met some amazing people since 2014. Julie Pisall, in particular, is an incredible woman who has taken the tragic loss of her daughter’s life and turned it around to help more people than she’ll ever know.

I often read Rebecca’s original essay about saving that injured Kingfisher. I use it when I can in my classes with all sorts of assignments. One key aim is to show students that there are many positive alternatives to substance abuse. The kids have done some great, creative work with the Kingfisher Project.

For a teacher who has spent decades in front of a classroom talking, the fact is that one of my most important legacies will be helping conserve and share one student’s words.

Rebeca Pisall’s essay: “My Philosophy”

When I was first asked to do this assignment, I had absolutely no idea what to write about. I mean, I’ve never really thought much about my philosophical views of the world, and I definitely have never had to incorporate them into a somewhat “freestyle” essay. Because I have always been a strong English student, I assumed that something like this would be easy for me. Interestingly enough, though, this essay differs from all the other ones I have written in English class, because this essay is something the requires my opinions, not just something where I can write down facts or tell the reader the same information in a different way. Anyway, my views eventually boiled down into two very different yet seemingly similar questions: is all life equal? And, what is the value of a single human life? I decided to go with the former because it’s easier to explain my reasoning, and it has a more interesting story.

 A couple years ago, my sister was (and still is) on the Sullivan West soccer team for the Sullivan West Elementary School. And every Sunday, she would have a soccer game against one of the other school districts. If the game was in Fremont Center, my brother and I would usually go to it. On one such Sunday, my brother and I (whilst walking under the bridge next to the center) found an injured, male King Fisher. Now, at the time neither of us knew what kind of bird he was. But (after a quick examination) we realized that he had one wing that was broken and that the other was bloody beyond recognition. To this day I don’t know what happened to him. After my brother and I found the bird, a couple of other kids came along and started throwing stones at him. I got very upset, took the bird out from under the bridge and brought the poor, frightened creature to my mother, who was watching the soccer game. I then asked her what I should do with him. She gave me a baffled look and told me to put him back. I did, and people once again stated throwing rocks at him. So, again I took him out from under the bridge, but this time I went to the refreshments stand and got a box to put him in. Then, I grabbed an old blanket from in my car and put that in the box. After I had stuck him in the box, I just sat there for a while, not knowing exactly what I was going to do with him. I looked at him with pity and remorse because I knew that he would probably never fly again, and what is the point of living for a bird if he can’t fly? I got up, taking the bird with me, and asked the onlookers at the game what I should do with him. The general response was a lack of response. The only other thing I did hear was said by Korin and her mother, Jodi. They both said I should “put him out of his misery”. Well, that definitely wasn’t an option, so I just sighed and went back to the car with him, wondering once again what I was going to do. And then, for the first time, I actually looked at him. I don’t mean I hadn’t looked at him before. I mean this was the first time I felt like I actually saw him. When I looked at him, I could almost feel what he was going through, and I understood all the fear he was experiencing. I then knew exactly what I had to do with him.

 I went back over to my mom and told her that I had figured out what to do. When she asked what, I told her I was going to rehabilitate him. She looked at me like I was nuts. “We can’t do that!” she exclaimed. Jodi and Korin also seemed to think there was something severely wrong with me. Well, although I didn’t get to rehabilitate him, we did end up taking him home that night, much to the distress of my mother. After we got there, my mom had to make about 18 phone calls before she could find any wildlife center that would take care of him. We then had to drive an hour away in order to find a woman who worked for the wildlife center and would rehabilitate him. After we brought him over there, I told Kingfisher, who I’d come to like, goodbye. It was 11 o’clock before I got home, and I had to miss school the next day, on account that I wasn’t planning on doing my homework until after I got back from the game, and I was exhausted by the time we came home from the detour. The woman, Sharron, occasionally gave me updates on how my Fisher was doing and, about a year ago, he was released back into the wild. I was, and still am, very happy for him.

 When I was sitting there in the car with the bird wondering what to do, I (as I’ve said) truly saw him for the first time. When I looked in his face, I could see everything that he was experiencing, and at that moment I knew exactly how he felt. This experience left me with the belief that all creatures are equal with each other. No matter what kind of organism you are, you still age, live, breathe, eat, grow and die. We all want nothing more but to survive in this world and, in my opinion, every creature has the right to do that. Although humans may treat others cruelly because they are bigger, and feel that the lives of other organisms are more minuscule and unimportant, to the proud lion and the timeless Komodo dragon, human lives are just as disposable as that of the Kingfisher I saved. This belief of equality has motivated me to be as environmentally friendly as I can, and to help animals, especially when humans try to harm them. If only people realized that they were not the most important creatures living on the Earth, I think the world would be a much better place.

kingfisher project, recovery, addiction


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