Wednesday, August 19, 2009

10 Years with the Freedom Writers!

Has it really been ten years since I met Erin Gruwell? It is very hard for me to believe that ten years ago a wide-eyed 23 year-old teacher attended a class at Cal State Long Beach and met Erin. Little did I know on the first day of class how this relationship would shape my life for the next ten years! Erin and I became good friends during the semester that she taught my young adult literature class. I began as a volunteer for her inaugural political run and was soon put on the payroll and met people that I am still in contact with to this day. Of course, we lost that race, but soon regrouped to form the Freedom Writer Foundation. I have been working with Erin as a consultant for over nine years and have traveled with her to over twenty states! With the Freedom Writer Foundation I have been to Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, Pennsylvania, Montana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Michigan, Indiana, New York, Utah, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, North Carolina, Illinois, Minnesota New Jersey. We have spoken everywhere from juvenile halls to the Bacara resort in Santa Barbara. Along the way I have met Bruce Brown, Dan Rathar, Wing Lam (founder of Garrett's favorite restaurant: Wahoo's) Hillary Swank, Patrick Dempsy, Reene Firestone (Holocaust survivor) and the current Sec. of Ed. I was able to be on the set for five days of shooting the "Freedom Writers" movie and I am actually in the film! (for half a second) Amina and I attended the premiere in Westwood where she got to meet Patrick Dempsy. (one of the highlights of her life!) During this time the Freedom Writers Diary has sold over a million copies, I helped to ghost write and edit Erin's memoir and the Freedom Writers Teachers Guide, racked up over one hundred thousand frequent flier miles, and enjoyed the good life of free drinks in private airport lounges across the country. I now also have the honor of serving on the Freedom Writers Board of Directors. (But my Dad refuses to call me the Chairman of the Board at work) The above picture was taken yesterday at the Skirball center as Erin launched her fourth book: Teaching Hope! On Saturday we celebrated Erin's 40th birthday at the Hotel Maya in Long Beach. Next Friday I will be attending the premiere of the Freedom Writer Documentary, Voices Unbound, at the Lido theater in Newport Beach. Erin has been a great friend to me over the years and to think that I picked her class without having any idea of whom my professor would be. It's just like my main man Forrest said, "life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get."

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Stealing Life

"For it is the ultimate wisdom of the mountains that a man is never more a man than when he is striving for what is beyond his grasp, and that there is no conquest worth winning save that over his own weakness and fear."
-James Ullman

How many of our days are spent in an endless cycle where minutes seem to pass us by in seconds as we sit slack jawed in front of a television or computer screen? How many mornings do we wake up with no excitement in our lives? How many hours are spent in the office with the small drudgery of going from task to task all the while secretly knowing you are accomplishing nothing of importance? How often do we avoid challenges, steer clear from fear, and live our lives as if the sole purpose is to remain as comfortable as possible at all times?
On the morning before our Mt. Whitney ascent Nicole and I got up early to watch the sunrise over Crystal Lake. As we were hiking the trail in darkness we both were reflecting on all the people who were comfortably sleeping in their beds and would not be up for hours. As we watched the sunrise Nicole turned to me and said, "Matt, it's like we are stealing life."
On August 4th, 2009 the following six people decided to rise at 2 in the morning and steal a little bit from this life. Here are a few of the stories from this day as I salute this cast of characters:

Garrett Riley AKA "Billygoat" AKA "Big Goot"
This lean and mean version pushed his Nikes to the limit as he set a consistently fast pace and did not want to stop for breaks. He wore his socks as mittens, got the nickname "deuce-deuce" and made it to the top with no trouble at all. He was able to marvel at God's creation in his own special way as we stood atop trail crest and looked down at Kings Canyon. On the decent he was hurting but he did not complain once and just dealt with the pain.

Nicole Santiago AKA "White Lightning" AKA "Champ" AKA "Mini-punk"
What can I say about this amazing athlete? I think my brother said it best when he said Nicole could climb Whitney and than go run a 10K. She was always smiling, always encouraging people and setting a fast pace to the top. At trail camp it was bitterly cold and as we tried to eat Nicole looked at me in the freezing wind and said, "isn't this awesome?" Her smile was just as big after 22 miles as it was at the beginning of the hike. I can't wait for all of our adventures to come.

Tasha Riley AKA "Sweaty" AKA "Jabbermouth"
Tasha is really a great athlete, but she will never tell you about it, you have to join her on an adventure. Tasha took to the mountain with ease and kept me going on the way down with her constant jibber jabber. It is great to be able to run, hike and cross-country ski with my sister-in-law. She is in for Mt. Whitney next year and I look forward to it.

Denise Riley AKA "Squeakers" AKA "AARP"
Denise did a great job getting to the summit. She really trained hard, took every bit of advice very seriously, and was the first of our group to make the top. Denise seemed to almost be in a trance on top of Mt. Whitney but I think she was reflecting on her accomplishment. Denise and my Dad have set the bar very high as I will have to summit again in my late 50's. It was fun to go on training hikes with Denise and spend time in the mountains.

Tina AKA "little black bear"
Tina was an unknown to me but she did great. She kept a very cool head after some large rat dog chewed up her water bladder. We did not discover this until mile 4 of the hike but Tina played it cool. She was a great asset to the team and I hope she comes back with us next year.

Matt Riley AKA "Rolling Thunder" AKA "Moot"
This time around I enjoyed myself so much more on the hike. I was able to really focus on the views and scenery and I hope we can all do it again next year! I want to thank my great team for being such a positive and optimistic group. See you all next year!