March Forth  ➳ Marley's Mission's Blue Ribbon Gala

Where do I even begin? I have so many emotions running through me. Picture perfection and joy. That's what this weekend was. 

Many months ago I got a phone call from my great friend, Gene. He asked me if I would be the Honorary Chairperson for this year's Blue Ribbon Gala for Marley's Mission.  After processing what he just asked me, without a doubt I said yes. I know it's redundant, but it was an absolute honor to be asked. I was about to follow in the footsteps of some pretty big shoes. 

That wasn't it. Gene had more wonderful news to share. Each year the gala has a theme, one of hope and inspiration. It was decided that the theme of this year's gala would be March Forth. Instant tears. Anyone who knows me knows the significance. March forth has become my motto in life. Zachary's birthday is March 4th. It wasn't revealed to me until after he passed away that this day was the only day out of the year that is a command, a message to keep moving. These two words mean so much to me that it became my latest tattoo added under my arrow, back in May 2016.  ➳ Like an arrow, life pulls us back before we're launched forward. Together these two symbols are a constant reminder to me that when I feel like things are getting difficult, I have strength inside of me to keep pressing on. To have these words and the symbolism of an arrow to be connected to the Gala was such a gift. It made me feel like people are really listening when I share my heart and talk about Zachary. Here I was, an ordinary momma being given yet another tremendous gift. 

Created by Jonathan Cimini

Created by Jonathan Cimini

As the Gala approached I got to stay connected to the planning of the evening even though I live four hours away in Virginia. The co-chairs, Val, Maggie, and Tami, and the planning committee outdid themselves.  I watched ideas of the decor start to bloom, and I got to see the amazing invitation that was created. Featured, was a silhouette of a little boy holding a balloon. Since I've been faced with celebrating Zachary's birthday without him, we have made it a tradition to release balloons for him every year since his second birthday. Zachary's 10th birthday was celebrated in the biggest way at Marley's Mission. All who loved him gathered to release balloons with me and to have a special party. It was clear as day to me when I saw the invite. I could see him in so many thoughtful details. I can't fully express what that meant to me. 

As the date got closer Marley's Mission started to think about recipients for the Remembering Zachary Award. Each year I have the joy of presenting the award to very deserving individuals. I learned about these four officers, Dan Schaufler, Scott Benzeleski, Eric Lindsay and Anthony Shields. All of these officers were there the night of the tragedy that led to the loss of Officer John Wilding, in which the summer camp at Marley's Mission has been renamed. These officers in the video (created by TwentyFiveEight Studios), including Kyle Kemp, volunteered their time to the summer camp. They were camp counselors who spent the week connecting to children who have experienced trauma or abuse. At the end of camp, you'll hear them reveal their profession to the kiddos and their families. I get tears and chills each time I watch. What a special moment to deepen their connection to the kids. Through the children's interactions with the officers, they know and believe that officers are kind and caring people who are there to protect them. Considering the circumstances that brought these children to the Mission, they may have had a different perspective. Beyond the kids, I believe that these gentlemen experienced a little healing of their own. You can't walk onto the Marley's Mission campus, be surrounded by the love of others and not be inspired and moved yourself. There's a saying I love that is perfectly fitting. 

"We rise by lifting others" ~ R. Ingersoll

My arrow ➳

My arrow ➳

All of this, and the night hadn't even arrived yet! It continues to get better. 

I was a ball nerves. Just about every emotion was coursing its way through me. The truth is I shed a lot of tears. I was anxious to confront my feelings and actually sit down and write a short speech to deliver at the Gala. Would my words be enough to convey meaning? Would people understand just how important Marley's Mission has been to me? Would I do Zachary justice? Could I deliver it right and not cry through the whole thing?! After sorting that out it was time to sit down to finally decorate my arrow. It was supposed to be personal and represent me. Again, I tearfully looked through my photos of Zachary and printed a ton of them to decoupage on my arrow. Just like everything else I procrastinate about doing, It felt good to have it completed. It's really about picking the evening that you're going to say, "Tonight's the night I'm going to sit down and cry like a baby." 

With my words written and practiced, my arrow finished, my dress ready and my family finally in Pennsylvania, I was excited for the night to begin

One of the very first things that I wanted to do was to meet the officers. Dan, wasn't able to attend the night of the Gala, but I was fortunate to meet him the night before. It was important for me to convey to each of them how much I appreciated what they did and how proud I was that they would be this year's recipients of Zachary's award. It's not just any award, it's one that holds my little angel's name. I hope with that comes a little bit of extra pride. <3 

After meeting Dan, Scott, Eric and Tony I took several deep breaths and got ready to speak. Stacy Lange, the emcee for the evening, introduced me. Her words were kind. Thinking back over the past 12 years it's hard to comprehend that she was talking about me. It has been such a journey. The tears started to come. It's not in my nature to stand in front of a room and ask people to listen to me. It's not in my nature to ask people to do a project in memory of Zachary, or to advocate to change the law. Everything I do and the strength I have to do it, comes from being a mother. I HAVE to be Zachary's voice. If I wasn't, what kind of a mother would I be? In these moments, I would absolutely give up any material possession to have him back. I pushed back the tears, stood at the podium and shared my words to a room of 400 people. I felt the love and support of so many, each of them unknowingly holding me up. The room was silent. It felt like everyone was listening. When I was finished, I thanked everyone and went to return to my seat. The audience applauded and then they started to stand for me. Liam, my youngest, ran up to me and embraced me with the biggest hug. It's these moments that I am humbled by. I am so grateful for every clap, every kind word, and every ounce of support that was given. I am lucky.

Finally, before the dancing and laughter were to begin, was the moment I wait every year for. Gene and April invited my children and I to present the Remembering Zachary Award. Presenting the award this year was different. We all got to watch the video first to see who these men were and why they were chosen. It made it real and powerful. When the officers came up to receive the award, everyone rose again. It was special to be a part of and I'm happy that my children were there to witness and be inspired. You never know how you're influencing others or what moments wind up changing your path. With role models like these officers for my children, they are bound to want to be great too. 

Tony Shields, Chrissy McLaughlin, Eric Lindsay, Scott Benzeleski (Not pictured, Dan Schaufler)

Tony Shields, Chrissy McLaughlin, Eric Lindsay, Scott Benzeleski (Not pictured, Dan Schaufler)

In the end, it was an evening I will not soon forget. It's filed away as one of my most memorable evenings. I was fortunate to have my family and friends there to support me and celebrate. What more can I ask for?

My Words

I’d like to first thank my family and friends for being here to support me tonight. They’ve traveled from NY, DE and VA to be here. I also want to thank my husband, Bill. This man has held me up through some of the longest and most difficult years of my life.
It is a privilege to be here on my 7th year, as the Honorary Chairperson. I stand here this evening, not as Chrissy McLaughlin the teacher, or Chrissy McLaughlin a friend, but as Chrissy McLaughlin, a mother.  I have three beautiful children. McKenzy, my vibrant 14 year old. Liam, my big hearted 9 year old and Zachary, my forever 14 month old angel. My little Meatball was violently taken from my life at the hands of a child abuser, in 2005. He would be turning 13, on March fourth.
After Zachary’s death, a fire burned inside of me for justice. Once I had that, I didn’t know where I’d focus my energy next. It was my angel’s birthday that gave me the answer. March, fourth. I decided to hold my head up the best I could and keep moving one foot in front of another.
It wasn’t until Gene introduced me to April that I started to find my voice. Her vision and passion to accomplish what seemed like the impossible inspired me. There’s a saying that like an arrow, life can pull us back before we are launched forward. Together, with both Gene and April joining my march, I began to launch forward into extraordinary things. We accomplished the passage of Zachary’s Law, stiffening sentences for child murderer’s in Pennsylvania. They brought me into the devoted community of Marley’s Mission and showed me what it was like to have the love and support of so many people who didn’t know me or had ever met Zachary. They gave me the distinct joy of being able to present the Remembering Zachary Award each year here at the the Gala. They gave a bereaved mother, Zachary’s Way, a place at Marley’s Mission where I can sit in the most serene setting and feel my baby’s soul with me. Marley’s Mission has enveloped me with their support and helped me to become the strong and proud mother of three that I am today.
They have helped to give me the strength to stand and Zachary has given me the determination to do what I can to make a difference in this world in honor of him.
I’ve learned a few things though my grief over these past 12 years. I can’t hide from it. I can’t leave it behind. All I can do is continue to march forth.