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Americans have an endless capacity to love, give to others

Watching the political circus unfold on television can really get a person thinking. As I listen to the Republican front runners speak about how America is failing us, I can't help but compare their observations to what I see in my own life. Yes, I do see problems that need to be addressed. But when I think about Americans — the people who make up America — I have so much hope. Despite the news of drugs, shootings and other crimes that we see on television, there is so much more good than bad.

I've been writing for the Carroll County Times for more than 25 years and during that time I've met a lot of good people. I've learned about programs I didn't even know existed. I've seen volunteers from all walks of life and all income levels give willingly from their hearts with nothing to gain except to see someone else succeed.

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Just last weekend I visited the Finksburg branch of the Carroll County Public Library to meet with ladies from Everybody's Quilt Guild for my upcoming Central Carroll Neighborhoods column. When you think about a quilt guild, you imagine ladies making quilts for their families, but there is so much more. These ladies were making Quilts of Valor in red, white and blue to go to Loch Raven Veteran's Hospital to servicemen and women in hospice care. Every stitch is sewn with love and care just so they can warm the body and heart of someone who served our country.

The week before that I was at the Humane Society of Carroll County visiting a group called CatKnits. CatKnits members come together on a regular basis to do their needlework in a large room where a dozen or so cats roam free. It sounds simple, but they are doing much more than knitting or crocheting. They're socializing older cats who may not be used to people, who may not find a life beyond the shelter without this valuable intervention. Everyone there said they bring needlework of low importance. They know the cats will be chasing yarn and jumping in their laps as they work, so most of the time they make kitty blankets and cat toys to donate to the shelter. On the very day I visited, an older cat was adopted from the room. Each knitter spoke of how they would miss that cat, but they also celebrated his new life.

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Last month I spoke to volunteers with Let's Dress the Girls in Sykesville. The group — started by Patricia Mattoon — followed the lead of June Renner, of Hampstead, whose charity, Chance to Dance Princess Pillowcase Project, is a nonprofit that makes dresses for needy children in developing countries. Mattoon and her group have sent more than 1,000 dresses to needy girls since May, with underwear in the pockets. They go to girls who have few if any clothes. A simple dress is a huge windfall for them. These volunteers give material, time and their hearts, packing dresses into suitcases to be delivered by missionaries — making a difference.

I remember teaching my kids the importance of volunteering when they were young, even before the school system required service hours. We volunteered for various activities, taking our French Lop rabbits to visit seniors in nursing homes and volunteering for the Carroll County 4-H Therapeutic Riding Program. They learned that Americans we don't yet know are family, too. They are our American family and they may need support from time to time. They learned how others deal with disability and aging. They learned important lessons about what it is to be an American.

During those years, a cancer patient cemented the lesson of giving to others when she gifted my kids with a Chincoteague pony. Now, I watch volunteers within the Feather Fund — the charity formed to honor that cancer patient, Carollynn Suplee — as they give back, working to fund the purchase of ponies for other children. That pony taught my kids about love, respect and hard work. Shoveling a path to the barn in the winter, breaking ice buckets, feeding and shoveling manure is hard work. It's about giving of yourself for someone or something you love — an important life lesson.

The people I've met over the years who do good things for others are too numerous to mention. Betty Colson with Saving Grace Animal Rescue of Maryland and Laura Shenk with Animal Advocates of Carroll County work tirelessly for animals in need. Sandi Schneider and her group Hugs and Stitches have made and donated more than 2,000 hats, scarves and afghans to charitable organizations annually for more than a decade now. Police officers help needy families purchase gifts each year with their Shop with a Cop program. Rick Elyar and the Central Region chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association of Maryland recycle oyster shells, building oyster reefs to help save our Chesapeake Bay. Many groups within our county are doing amazing things for others. There's not enough space to name them all, but you get the point. Goodness and light surround us, even in the worst of times.

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Over the years I've covered many stories on cancer patients whose friends and families spearheaded fundraisers to help them foot high dollar bills that arrive during the worst days of their lives. I remember speaking with Leah Offutt, mother of Winters Mill High School student Jake Offutt, about a fundraiser being held for him while he fought cancer. There was an outpouring of love from the community and this story will stick with me forever. I cried when I read that Jake had made the journey to heaven.

But Jake's parents didn't give in to anger. Instead, they started The Jake Offutt Foundation to provide financial support for academic and athletic-related opportunities. They now work to provide college scholarships for Tristar Martial Arts students, because Jake loved karate. They support Jake's high school football team by providing them with athletic equipment, and they have plans to purchase Xbox 360 games for kids at Johns Hopkins Hospital's oncology unit.

The foundation website states, "This support will allow Jake's love of martial arts, education and helping others to spread throughout the community to others so that they may learn to embrace the warrior within."

We all have a warrior within us and it is up to us to use it for the good in life. It's so easy to get buried in the bad news we see on television, but good stories are all around us. It's up to us to embrace them and to believe in the power and good in America. Maybe then we can turn things around.

Lois Szymanski is a Carroll County resident and can be reached at loisszymanski@hotmail.com

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