(Photo of Toby courtesy of A. Wells Photography)
I've always been fascinated by the way in which a brief moment, a chance meeting, or one person can completely alter the course of a life.
For example, what could make an exceptionally shy young child grow up to become a professional speaker and expert in leadership who tours a continent for months with the sole purpose of initiating one million acts of kindness?
For Charmaine Hammond, it began with seeds of kindness that were carefully sown by her parents. "I grew up in a family where kindness and volunteering and community spirit were really part of [our] values," she explains. "I remember fund-raising with my mum, participating in community events...while I was learning this amazing skill of community service and kindness."
It wasn't until Grade 9 when a teacher the kids called "Ms Ertsy" truly coaxed Hammond out of her shell. Every week, the students had to pick a topic and debate it. "That's where it started to change for me," says Hammond. "It was okay to have an opinion that I could share outwardly. It didn't matter if it was right or wrong. That's where my confidence really started to build."
In high school, Hammond knew that she wanted a job that would allow her to help people and that would be exciting. Thanks to her newfound confidence, Hammond ended up working in the correctional system. It was her gift of kindness that allowed the petite young woman to command respect from the inmates - and that ultimately kept her safe, too. "I learned very quickly that it was a system lacking in kindness and certainly not a lot of inmates had experienced [any of it in their lives]," she offers. "But when I [was] completely accepting and respectful and kind toward the inmates, it actually created a safer environment for me as a professional."
How ironic it is that as a tiny woman she should be completely safe in such a job. Yet a perfectly lovely afternoon sailing on a 23-mile-long lake with her husband, Chris Alcock would become life-threatening.
"We flipped the boat and swam for our lives for four hours," recalls Hammond. Soon after finding themselves in the water, they ended up separated with Hammond being dragged a mile away by the boat. Rather than attempt to swim to shore for help, Alcock followed her cries and swam to her, risking his own life in the process "...so that [they] could get through this together."
A Northern Alberta lake in August is awfully cold. Life jackets kept the two afloat but it wouldn't take long for them to be in trouble. After a few hours, Alcock was cramping and hypothermic. "He was in and out of consciousness. We had to pull each other. When he was lucid, he'd swim with one hand and pull me, and we took turns with this until he said, 'Char, you have to leave me and get help.' It was our only chance for survival."
(Photo of Charmaine Hammond courtesy of Ealanta Photography)
Hammond swam for about half an hour, not making much progress on the four-mile journey to shore when suddenly, without a sound, a boat appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. "It was a young kid and his dad that we'd talked to on the beach," Hammond explains. Alcock wasn't conscious when they picked him up; certainly, he and Hammond would have died if not for the kindness of these two souls who had heard their cries for help.
Even a dog can change a life - or the lives of many. But when they adopted Toby, neither Hammond nor Alcock could have imagined that he would do just that.
"He was a maniac, destroying our house, wrecking furniture, hiding things...the house looked like a crime scene. We got a behaviourist who said, 'This dog is a dog who needs a purpose.' And it was so ironic because I was on a journey at that time trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life," Hammond acknowledges. "So he and I went on this journey together. My purpose was about speaking and writing and his was being a therapy dog."
And off they went to a psychiatric hospital every Wednesday to volunteer. As soon as they began, his "...outrageous behaviour stopped."
On a school visit with Toby during Hammond's book launch, one fidgety Grade 3 boy got hauled out of class three times for being disruptive. The third time he was brought back in, Toby tugged on his leash and insisted on going right to the boy.
Says Hammond, "They had this moment together and the boy hugged Toby and said, 'Oh, Toby loves me just the way I am!' And I started crying...We're here talking about kindness and being a good friend, he's been removed now three times and what he takes away from that is this dog loves him for who he is. No judgement."
This started Hammond wondering, "How do I teach that more?" because as she says, "It's an important message."
It is, indeed. And that's how Hammond, Alcock, and Toby ended up driving around North America in a motor home on the Team Toby One Million Acts of Kindness Tour. The mission is "...to PAWsitively improve lives by teaching kindness, acceptance and respect," says Hammond. "Team Toby accomplishes the mission through professional speaking and corporate training, presentations to schools and organizations...and numerous philanthropic efforts."
(Photo of courtesy of Paul Canella)
Hammond has been brought to tears by countless inspiring moments on this tour. For example, when asking a group of 9-year-olds what they're doing to make a difference, one girl said she always gets picked first for teams so now she doesn't allow that to happen so others can have that chance.
Not only is Hammond living her life demonstrating the kindness that she was taught so early on, she and Team Toby are encouraged to see that millions more are doing the same.
And along with that inspiring kindness comes renewed hope in a brighter future for all.
To learn more about the Tour and Team Toby, click here.
For more from this author, visit www.libertyforrest.com