G.W. Bailey’s Greatest Epiphany in Life, As Told to Elise Ballard

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When one life changes, many lives are changed. —G.W. Bailey

BEHIND THE SCENES OF THE INTERVIEW

G.W. and I met doing the play in Austin that sparked the epiphany for me that led to my book and this project. When it all started taking off, I called him right away. He is a consummate storyteller and I knew he’d have an amazing account for me. I was right. I open the book with this story because he summarizes a through-line about epiphanies that I noticed and am talking and writing about now – The Ripple Effect.

G.W. BAILEY’S EPIPHANY

I think about an epiphany as something that happens, say, as you are coming around a corner and suddenly an event takes place that changes your life—it is completely unexpected and unanticipated.

Consequently, it also changes the lives of many others because we are all connected. That moment for me happened to take place in Breckenridge, Colorado, about twenty-five years ago.

My goddaughter, Brandy, was diagnosed with cancer at age twelve. I was very close to her and to her little sister and parents, whom I’ve known since college. When she was diagnosed we were all, of course, devastated by it. Brandy had a very difficult first year fighting the disease because she was homebound and isolated, which is terrible for anyone, especially a teenager.

Through a series of circumstances, after this first year of battling cancer Brandy was invited on a ski trip with a group of kids—all of whom had cancer—with an organization called Sunshine Kids that was about three years old at the time. On this ski trip, something amazing happened for her. The experience completely changed her approach to her disease. For the first time, she was around a lot of other kids who were just like her. Nobody cared about whether you were bald or not; nobody cared about scars or amputations or central lines; and they were able to share a lot of stories and common experiences. Suddenly she wasn’t isolated in her experience anymore, and it was wonderful. She was so excited when she got back and told me all about it.

That summer, Sunshine Kids had another trip, but this time it was a family trip. So Brandy and her family went to Breckenridge, Colorado, with families of kids from all over the country for a week of activities. On the first day of this trip, Brandy called me and wanted me to come join them. I’m an actor by profession, and at the time (in the 1980s) I was doing a series of movies that were enormously popular with teenagers called Police Academy. I’d also done a couple of other light, silly movies that kids had liked, so my career was going very well in the feature business, and she wanted me to come up because I was her B-movie star, quasi-celebrity godfather. I told her I was so sorry but I couldn’t come, I was just too busy. She kept on and on, and I told her again that it wasn’t possible but as soon as she got back I’d have her come to Los Angeles and make it up to her, but I just couldn’t come to Colorado right now. So we hung up, and about five minutes later she called back. And very slowly and determinedly she said, “You are my godfather, and I want you here.” Pause. She meant it. I sighed and kidded her about manipulating me and told her I’d just get to come for a day, that it was going to be an ordeal getting there and would cost a lot, and she replied in typi- cal teenage Brandy fashion, “Whatever.” So of course I laughed and begrudgingly said I’d come—I couldn’t deny her anything. I got there the next day.

Brandy had given me their activity schedule, so I knew they’d be at the volunteer fire department when I arrived. They were having a battle with the water hoses, and the kids were all dressed up in fireman outfits and hats and all that stuff. When I got to the fire station, you could hear all the commotion of the kids playing outside in the back, so I walked toward the noise of the children, went out the back door, and rounded a corner. And what I saw forever changed my life.

I had seen one child with cancer. I had seen a couple of children with cancer. But I had never seen thirty children with cancer all together in the same place. They were all laughing—all having this exuberant celebration of their lives. I had this overwhelming emotional response I still can’t describe properly. It was all these kids—all ages, all sizes—and it was just like . . . what is this?

No one had seen me yet, so I turned around and went back out to my rental car, and I sat in it for ten or fifteen minutes. And I cried. I cried for her. I cried for all of them.

I ended up staying the entire week in Breckenridge, and then flew straight to Houston to meet with Rhoda, the founder of Sunshine Kids. I knew I had to be involved and be a part of this organization that helped these kids to celebrate their lives in spite of their illness. That was twenty-five years ago. I started as a volunteer at events, filling coolers, blowing up balloons, and also helped put events together and raised money. Eventually I became the executive director of the Sunshine Kids Foundation, which I still am today.

When I started, we only had the ski trip in the winter and the family trip in the summer, so we were only reaching forty to fifty kids a year. Sunshine Kids now has twelve national events and hundreds of regional and local events impacting thousands of kids and their families a year. Hundreds of volunteers and our staff work to help give a little bit of these kids’ childhoods back to them that’s been somewhat taken away because of their battle with their disease.

Through this epiphany, I have gained a great appreciation of time. I realized how important and precious our time here is. We lost Brandy when she was seventeen, and though many children that have been Sunshine Kids are now doctors and nurses and countless other professions as they’ve grown up and beaten their disease, I’ve also had to bury too many children over the years— though even one is too many. If there’s anything to be learned out of all of this, it’s that life goes on…it has to. And you have to celebrate life while you’re here, and celebrate our children—all children everywhere.

Rounding that corner that day in Breckenridge, Colorado, changed my life. It’s changed my family’s life. This idea of epiphanies is fascinating to me because one human being’s experience can have such an impact on so many people. And it’s not that they’re trying to have an impact. I’m not talking about Paul on the road to Damascus and the angel comes to visit him, and he feels compelled to change the world. That’s not at all what I’m talking about. It’s just that when one life changes, many lives are changed because all of the people connected to that one life are affected.

You can watch G.W. tell his story below and to read more about him, you can go here.

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