Teri Bordenave, MHSA, founder and principal of The Thalia Group LLC, is an organizational development consultant to the nonprofit sector. She served as CEO of Girls Incorporated, a youth development organization, for more than twenty years. She lives in northern NH and on Kent Island.
Today, my heart is broken for the families, friends, classmates and companions of Kaylin Gillis and Ralph Yarl. Two young lives — one ended far too prematurely and the other forever changed from the trauma and scars of multiple gunshot wounds — taken by men with guns. I wonder how their mothers are getting through the day.
Both of these losses are tragic examples of what can happen with the too-many-guns in the hands of too-many-people situation in our country today. Both of these tragedies were in response to a simple mistake — one that so many of us, maybe even all of us have made. Kaylin and Ralph wound up at the wrong door, the wrong driveway. Both of these situations could have ended so differently, had there not been guns in the hands of Andrew Lester and Kevin Monahan.
I was blessed to spend the summer of 1999 in Umbria Italy with my then 16-year-old daughter. The “green heart” of Italy, as it is known. We knew no Italian beyond a few well-practiced phrases to help us navigate through those months. Basta cosi. Per favore. Mille grazie. Enough to get by, but not enough to keep us from making some mistakes, from saying the wrong thing, or being in the wrong place.
One particularly beautiful morning, we headed with our knapsacks packed with water, lunch, and painting supplies to a castle we’d seen in a book about the region. Stumbling through the Italian descriptions, we had mapped out our travel plans. The dusty dirt road we walked took us through green landscapes and hay fields dotted with rolled bales drying in the sun. We soon encountered a group of locals on their morning constitutional. Waving enthusiastically, they shouted “Buongiorno!” when we were close enough to hear them. “Buongiorno!” we called in return, sharing smiles as we continued on our respective walks, passing each other going in our opposite directions. We looked for a sign pointing the way to what we thought was a visitor attraction, but there were no signs. Thinking we must have missed the long cypress-lined drive we saw in the book, we turned around and headed back down the hill. It was then that the driveway we sought popped into view. From this other perspective, it looked just like it did on the page.
We walked down the broad, gently curving drive and came upon the 15th century castle. There was a large sign hanging on the wall, telling us — as best we could make out — that this was private property and we were not welcome. Our hopes to picnic and paint on the grounds were dashed, having obviously misunderstood what we’d read in the book. We were so disappointed. What happened next was a delightful surprise. We heard the voices of two women approaching us, speaking in both Italian and in English. One of them seemed to be in her eighties and her companion was quite a bit younger. They were as surprised to see us as we were to see them. We explained our situation — in English. Ursula Corning, one of the the two women, was the founder of an artists residency program held there. Instead of turning us away, Ursula invited us in, introduced us to someone who had just come out to see what was going on, and turned us over to him for a tour. She invited us to meet her afterward under a favorite olive tree where she liked to play Scrabble in the afternoons. We met the cook, the foundation director, and one of the trustees who had happened to be there, before joining Ursula again. She welcomed us to stay, picnic, and paint!
I reflect on this experience often and feel especially fortunate that we encountered such warmth and generosity of spirit that day, knowing that it could have gone very differently. The same innocent mistakes made by both Ralph Yarl and Kaylin Gillis took one life and changed the other’s forever. How might our lives that beautiful Umbrian day have changed had we been met with someone wielding a gun rather than kindness and understanding? Had I lost my daughter due to this innocent error, I don’t know how I could ever have faced the start of a day without her in it.
Today I think about the time many elected officials waste on banning books like Charlotte’s Web, Where the Sidewalk Ends and Where the Wild Things Are, filing bills in more than thirty states targeting drag performances, and deciding that transgender kids cannot play on certain school sports teams. All under the guise of keeping our children safe. Where were these same legislators when Ralph Yarl and Kayla Gillis — along with all the other young victims of gun violence — were shot or killed by a firearm? This is where they should be spending their time. This type of senseless tragedy needs to end.
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