finding purpose through disaster

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
human interest story of one woman's battle with cancer, earthquakes, and rising above life's challenges.

Submitted: July 13, 2017

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Submitted: July 13, 2017



Title: Finding Purpose Through Disaster

Deck: The Real-Life Inspirational Adventures of Michele Averill

On October 17, 1989, a disaster struck California. The 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta Earthquake killed 63 people and collapsed a section of the upper deck of the Oakland freeway. The earthquake caused millions of dollars in damages, of which the effects are still being felt in the San Francisco Bay Area.

On that same day, 19-year-old dental assistant Michele Harris was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The diagnosis felt as earth shaking as the 6.9 magnitude earthquake. Michele felt her life was over.

Reeling from the devastating effects of the earthquake centered so close to Michele’s home in Corralitos, her life felt as shattered as the infrastructures around her. Luckily, the strong support of her family and the vital resources of the UCSF Medical Center, including one of the world’s most prominent brain surgeons, were readily available to provide comfort and healing to her in the midst of chaos.

New Purpose

This became a pivotal time in Michele’s life. She not only survived the surgery, but her brain tumor was successfully removed, and she was well on her way to living a normal teenage life. Michele began to take a new look both in and outward toward the next steps of her life. Feeling the sheer joy of living, sparks flew, her spirit barely contained. She left the dental field and pursued a new career in healthcare that would provide a purposeful path forward. Using both the triumph over the earthquake and tumor as metaphors, they gave Michele’s life a new purpose. She let neither the Loma Prieta Earthquake nor her brain tumor get the best of her.

The most compelling and inspirational sights she witnessed during those tent-city days of post-Prieta were the unflinching works of the Red Cross and other social service organizations that mobilized to feed the hungry, provide shelter and basic needs for families, and countless other silent and selfless acts of generosity and humanity. Simple acts by men and women of all races, creeds, and ages gave a glimmer of hope and belief that maybe tomorrow will be a better day. Seeing the tremendous efforts exerted by volunteers, who gave their all for others, with nothing asked in return, Michele resolved to become the best person she could, no matter the challenges.

Giving Back

Michele’s work gave her several opportunities to give back to the community in a way that brought people together. Michele’s love for gardening naturally drew her to the Master Gardeners of Silicon Valley and their excellent work. Michele worked through St. Louise to give these Master Gardeners land for a healing garden. Together they worked on irrigation to make the gardens prosper and brought in the community to enjoy it - from the homeless to those who were recovering from an illness. The food grown in the garden was also donated to a local family center. Michele notes, "When you have all the right people, you can achieve."

The Blessing of Mentoring

Seven years into her new career in healthcare, she became very familiar with the Board of Directors. Mr. George Chiala Sr., in particular, became a pillar of Michele’s life. Chiala and his family were innovators in the ever-growing farming and agrarian industry in the area. Chiala was both a philanthropist and a force for positive change in people’s lives within the community. Mayor Steve Tate of Morgan Hill called George Chiala a “perfect gentleman,” and his philanthropy style as “hands on.” Tate states, “When he set his mind on something he wanted to accomplish, he never let go of it.” Ms. Averill and Mr. Chiala became fast friends and, more importantly, Chiala took Averill under his mentorship wings.

Michele had survived the earthquake, the brain tumor, and under Mr. Chiala’s tutelage, she would have the strength of character to grow while always helping other people. Mr. Chiala would become one of the most important people in her life and a person that Michele could call to share with him about her successes or her setbacks. They both shared the same passion for becoming a catalyst for positive and good changes in other people’s lives. George Chiala provided Michele a source of support, guidance, and wisdom. “We can do so much if we all work together,” was one of George’s favorite sayings, Michele recalls.

Expanding Opportunities to Serve

George and Michele’s friendship and mentoring relationship continued even after Michele left healthcare and moved to her current position with the Red Cross. Michele saw the unselfish efforts of the volunteers of all stripes, colors, and ages in her new work. She loved to share with George stories of how the amazing cadre of volunteers performed selfless acts for others. It was contagious. Michele described one instance when a volunteer noticed how the unforgiving sunlight in her office made it hard to see her computer screen. When she arrived the next day to her office, her space had blinds, shades, and curtains installed by some of those volunteers, the little angel elves as Michele described them. They saw a need and met it.

Michele often wrestled with a question about their volunteers: “What makes the first responders, such as the police, fire, or EMT, run into burning buildings and put their lives at risk? What makes a person volunteer day in and day out for the sake of giving others the hope? The spirit that a better day is coming. Their reckless abandon was inspirational. In fact, 96% of the Red Cross heroes are volunteers.

Michele loves hosting events to bring the community together. With an amazing group of chefs donating time and resources to the event, Michele helped organize a farm-to-table event at Carmel Valley Ranch. The goal was to help people learn about the Red Cross and their services available while having a phenomenal mea and getting to meet first responders. The event helps build relationships and connect people together.

Overcoming Adversity to Serve Others

The mentorship skills that George Chiala nurtured and grew within Michele gave her the ability not to limit herself, to constantly improve upon her learned abilities, and to prove to herself that the struggles she had experienced only made her stronger. The mentorship gave Michele that chance to impart a legacy of her own, about making a difference in other people’s lives. George would often tell Michele never to accept no for an answer but instead to ask, “Why not?”

George’s mentorship offered a bright, shiny vision of hope at a time in Michele’s life that she needed a change in her way of thinking. The skills he nurtured in Michele along the way proved invaluable.

Sadly, George Chiala died on January 2, 2017, but Michele benefitted greatly from the legacy of making a difference together and has taken to heart George’s belief, “We can do so much if we all work together.”

Michele works every day at the Red Cross. That cooperation goes beyond what most people think — of bringing disaster relief — and extends to so much more helping families of those dislocated and relocating, such as families of the armed forces.

"It's an honor and privilege to help the Red Cross provide support to so many community members within our three counties," Michele says. "Having the opportunity to do this kind of work with such a tremendous corps of volunteers makes it especially rewarding."

Michele adds that the many individuals, businesses, and corporate partners providing financial support to the Red Cross also play an absolutely essential role in the organization's success. "Other than funds that support our work with members of our military and their families, we don't receive monetary assistance from the federal government," she says. "The financial resources we are able to provide to people during their periods of greatest need only happen because of the generosity of our donors. We couldn't do our work successfully without first building effective partnerships with the local agencies that that are responsible for emergency response and follow-up social services."

Michele’s legacy is one of bringing home, restoring families, and disaster relief — a legacy she learned through surviving her own health battle. It is a legacy of inspiration and heart, which George would be proud and would want others to be inspired to serve as well.

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James E. Sullivan is a master’s candidate in military history with Norwich University and the editor of At Ease Soldier.


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