A Communal Dream Achieved

Before embarking on a climb of Mount Everest in March 2010, Jeffrey Gottfurcht tucked a special gift into his baggage. It was a flag from the United Nations International School (UNIS) of New York. The students at the school had sent it to him as a gesture of friendship and support in his quest to be the first person with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), an incurable autoimmune disease, to climb Mount Everest, and as a testament to their special bond.

A few months earlier, in November 2009, Karen Ager, a teacher at UNIS, had been corresponding with Jeffrey about her book: Enemy Within: A Memoir of Strength, Determination and Acceptance. Like Jeffrey, Karen has RA, and she had kept her illness hidden from her students for several years and did not tell them why her body sometimes hurt her and limited her movement until 2008. When Karen and Jeffrey connected online, Jeffrey was about to launch the Jeffrey Gottfurcht Children's Arthritis Foundation (JGCAF) as a wish-granting organization for children battling RA. Inspired by Jeffrey and the JGCAF's mission of helping children with RA to achieve their dreams, Karen Ager brought the theme of holding on to your dreams to her school and students.

During the week of March 15, 2010, elementary school students ages five to ten wrote a paragraph about their dreams on paper balloons; these dream balloons were mounted on the walls of the main staircase at UNIS between the ground floor and the second floor. NamedThe Dream Wall, it features a backdrop of Mount Everest and more than 400 dreams; here, students read their dreams and those of their friends every time they went up and down the stairs, and imagined how those dreams might be fulfilled.

On Friday, March 19, 2010, the students celebrated the second annual PJ Day for Painful Joints. By paying $1, students, teachers and staff earned the right to wear their PJs or pajamas to school. All the funds collected were donated to the JGCAF as selected by the Student Council in support of its child-centered mission.

Jeffrey kept in close contact with the students at UNIS via email; encouraging and inspirational messages were exchanged both ways, across thousands of miles through cyberspace. The students monitored his progress on the climb and held on to their own dreams. Finally, the UNIS students met their hero on June 11, at a special school assembly. Jeffrey received an overwhelming ovation when he was introduced to his young friends. He gave the United Nations flag he had taken to Mount Everest back to them, along with an ice axe, for safekeeping until he resumes his climb. Many students spoke with him and shared their dreams of wanting to be an athlete, a teacher, a doctor and a champion M&Ms eater. It was an electric moment and one that marked the culmination of a new communal dream: dreaming as a community.

Ms. Ager plans to create a curriculum kit, including readings and a balloon template, that can be used to build Dream Walls in other schools in New York City and elsewhere. The theme of dreams and working to fulfill a dream is readily incorporated into many pedagogical settings. In addition, there may be a climbing event, perhaps using the stairs of a very tall building, in New York and Los Angeles.

Karen Ager is now a member of the Dream Board of the JGCAF, advising on how children with RA may dream and see their dreams achieved.

In a mutual and fulfilling connection, as much as Jeffrey may have inspired the young students, they are an inspiration to him as well. "To see students care about someone they barely know, yet feel tied to because of their bond with a teacher who shares the same challenges, is truly amazing and it spurs me on to fulfill my dream, for them," he said.

 


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