July 29, 2015

From “why” to “why not?”

By Bill Cirone

“This is a book about the most admirable of human virtues — courage,” then-Senator John F. Kennedy wrote in the opening of his Profiles in Courage, published in 1955 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1957. In the book, Kennedy examines acts of political courageousness undertaken by eight different U.S. Senators during the 19th and 20th centuries. If integrity is informally defined as doing the right thing when no one is looking, courage, at least as Kennedy saw it for the purposes of his book, was doing the right thing when the world is watching, and when it could potentially come at extraordinary personal and professional cost.

It goes without saying, of course, that you don’t need to be an elected official or undertake life-altering risks to demonstrate courage. And you certainly don’t have to belong to a specific age group. Today I would like to profile a local young woman whose steadfastness and determination is making a difference in the lives of people in her community. Her name is Sydney Hunt, a 2015 graduate of Santa Ynez Valley Union High School who will be attending UCSB on a Regents Scholarship in the fall. She was also a winner of the Youth in Service Award, presented by the Santa Ynez Valley Foundation last spring.

I had the privilege of talking at length with Sydney last month, and I find her story — and her focus and energy — to be a source of inspiration and encouragement. Sydney, with a little help from her parents, grew a feel-good, solitary junior high volunteer effort at an assisted living facility into a high school club activity, and eventually into an incorporated non-profit entity replete with a charter, by-laws, and a board of directors.

“In my sophomore year of high school,” Sydney told me, “my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I wanted to learn everything I could about this neurological disease,” she continued. “But as I watched my grandmother’s condition worsen, I also felt the need to do something.”

She began simply by visiting a handful of residents at the nearby Solvang Friendship House, which provides personalized care to meet the needs of those suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia. Those visits would typically start with a conversation, but as her comfort level grew, she began participating in different activities, such as crafts, baking, and making floral arrangements. And creating playlists.

“Studies show that music can be therapeutic for Alzheimer’s patients, and there are indications that listening to music can slow the advancement of the disease. It sounds very simple,” Sydney says, “but building customized playlists for the residents of the Friendship House can make a big difference in their day. And perhaps their well-being.”

Despite the heartwarming vibe of “Pirates with Hearts,” the official club she started in Santa Ynez High after she began sharing the value of her volunteer work with her classmates and peers, it would be incorrect to characterize it as an overnight success. The group created a Facebook page, and Sydney and her friends would email high school administrators around the state touting some of their notable, but still very local, successes. It wasn’t until the Anacapa School in Santa Barbara responded enthusiastically and started their own club that Sydney caught the non-profit bug.

“I was trying to create a wider reach, but didn’t quite know how,” she says. “To incorporate and become a non-profit was my dad’s idea, and I think in doing so, we can take it to the next level.” Their non-profit, Students with Hearts, has already established an unofficial partnership with Tennessee-based Brookdale Senior Living Solutions. The partnership enables Students with Hearts the ability to begin a program in any one of Brookdale’s senior communities. The first chapter will begin this fall in Santa Rosa. Sydney will also be involved in forming a volunteer group at UCSB this fall.

Sydney is fond of quoting Gandhi: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” She certainly walks that talk. But when I think about Sydney, I think of the quote Edward Kennedy used as he concluded his moving eulogy to his late brother Robert. “Some men see things as they are and say ‘Why?’” Kennedy said. “I dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’”

I am grateful to the Sydney Hunts of the world — women and men of all ages and abilities whose dreams consist of “Why nots?” They make our community and our world a better place.