The end of an old year and the beginning of a new one is often a time for reflection. We pause and think about people and events that have affected us over the past twelve months, and we consider what the New Year may hold. We wonder what lies ahead, and we pin our hopes on that New Year, thinking it will perhaps bring us our hopes and dreams. But if course the year isn't what brings those to us - it is people who bring hopes and dreams into our lives. For me 2012 was a very special year, and 2013 promises to be even better - because this past year a very special young man brought his hopes and dreams into my life, and they are ones that are just beginning to fully be realized.
The young man I speak of is named Nathaniel Crossley. Nathaniel has become pretty well known here in Fort McMurray, despite his tender age of eleven years. He is not known as the next Justin Bieber, though, or the next Sidney Crosby. No, Nathaniel is not a music superstar or a star athlete. Nathaniel is an 11-year old powerhouse of philanthropy, and a shining example for people several times his age. Nathaniel is determined to change the world - but more than that I think he is changing everyone around him, too.
When Nathaniel was only eight years old one of his musical heroes, Bono of U2, injured his back. Nathaniel, desperate to make his idol feel better, started a Facebook page called "Bono I've Got Your Back", and he quickly attracted people to it. He didn't do it for any personal gain, but just to tell Bono that he cared - and, some time later, he got to meet Bono and tell him that in person, too. I guess that might have been his very first taste of the power of doing good for others, even if that other is one of those musical superstars who happen to be touched by the kindness of a very young boy.
This past year Nathaniel became concerned about something else. You see his dad has been on the other side of the world, Africa in fact, doing humanitarian work, and he told Nathaniel some of what he had seen there. Poverty, disease, and despair figured prominently - but so too did the concept that others can effect change by helping the residents of Africa help themselves, giving them a hand up, not a hand out. And young Nathaniel internalized these lessons, and then he devised a plan. He wanted to give that hand up to those in a country so far away, and so he began to raise money to help build water wells in Africa.
Now philanthropy at the age of ten is a tricky business. You have to operate it around your school hours, and there are those pesky bedtimes. But Nathaniel is a persistent young man. When I met him he hoped to raise $2000, enough to help build one well, but I told him I thought he would raise far more. Why did I say this? Because I saw the gleam in his eye, and I knew he would never stop at that amount. I knew this was a young man with tenacity, and that he would just keep going. And through a wishing well filled with coins and selling t-shirts and generous donations from a public enthralled by a ten-year old philanthropist Nathaniel single-handedly raised over $9000, enough to help build four wells. He became a fixture at local recreation centres, a young man with a signboard explaining his goal and the cause, and a replica well. He became, in fact, a local hero.
Local media jumped on the story, and when they asked what he planned to do next he had an answer ready. Nathaniel wants to go to Africa to climb Mount Kilimanjaro - and to see his wells. And so his next adventure has begun, a trading scheme to take a Lego man he made and turn it into two plane tickets to Africa, and the funds he will need to realize this current dream. Just as with his wells I know he will succeed, because he has that gleam in his eye again (I suspect one day his parents will view that gleam with both extreme pride and terror, because they too know exactly what it means).
There is something else about Nathaniel that is remarkable, though, and it isn't his generous spirit and his tenacity. It is his eleven-year old humility, his modest and shy demeanour about all he has already accomplished, far more than many people three times his age have done in terms of changing the world for the better. That modesty and humility is so amazing in a world where we have come to expect a medal for dropping a five-dollar bill into a donation bucket. The funny thing though is that Nathaniel IS getting a medal. In January young Nathaniel Crossley, elementary school student, Lego fan, philanthropist, and my hero, will receive the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, an honour being awarded to only 60,000 Canadians. Nathaniel is being recognized for all that he has done in those short years since his birth, and for working to improve our world. But in my eyes he is being recognized for something so much more. Nathaniel is being recognized for being one of those people who brings his hopes and dreams to us, and who allows us to follow his adventures while we borrow some of his courage to follow our own. As I said at the beginning it isn't a new year that brings us hopes and dreams - it is individuals like Nathaniel, who at the age of eleven is a shining beacon for all of us as we learn from him what hopes and dreams really are, and how to have the courage to make them come true.
You can follow Nathaniel's current adventure at http://www.lego4africa.ca