Sunday, August 9, 2009

Sea shells out lessons

Telegram Staff Writer

Debbie Potts of Temple watched Luke, her seizure-prone son, suffer through brain surgery after brain surgery.
He was afraid, but she saw him face the challenge and overcome it. So she wrote a story about hope.
Connie Weeks of Austin is the mother of Elliott, a marine who's served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
She spent more nights than she cares to remember in tears, praying he'd come home safe. Though bullets fired all around him, his only word to his mother was that he was proud to be serving his country. So she painted a sea at battle in a storm and at peace in the sun.
Each mother created a survivor - and together they created 'Ocean Surprises,' a children's book that teaches the merits of courage.

The story
'Ocean Surprises' tells the story of a young seahorse who sees his first storm. It's windy, and the clouds are dark. He doesn't like it, so he seeks the protection of his grandfather.
But Grandpa's wise and wants to teach the young one that he can't hide from what happens. So Grandpa tells his grandson to observe the plight of the seashells, how they endure the rough wind and remain beautiful.
'The shells mimic us - people,' Mrs. Potts said. 'A seashell can go through a storm, get pooped on by a dog, get buried in the trash and then reappear as a decoration on a sandcastle or mermaid.'
Likewise, a person can get sick, lose his job, lose his friends and gain weight, but he can endure it and become something brilliant, like a treasured friend and successful artist.
'It just depends,' Mrs. Potts said, a counselor by trade. 'You can't control other people, and you can't control situations or circumstances, but you can control how you react.'
She learned that lesson from her son Luke.
'When he woke up from his last brain surgery, he couldn't read,' Mrs. Potts said. 'It was right after he had finished his first year of graduate school.'
Luke was seeking a master's degree in health administration at the Texas A&M Health and Science Center.
'He didn't whine or give up,' Mrs. Potts said. 'He taught himself how to read again, one word, one day at a time.'
Luke said the process took him about a year to accomplish.
'The next year, I went back to school and graduated with honors,' he said.
Now the director of the marrow donor program at Scott & White Hospital, Luke's reading skills are as good as new.
'I was just amazed at how he reacted,' Mrs. Potts said. 'He kept on saying there were other people who had it worse, and that he was doing what any team player would do, not give up.'

The pictures
'I painted several kinds of storms until I got the perfect one,' Mrs. Weeks said. 'The look of it had to be universal, one that everyone could understand.'
The storm couldn't apply just to her situation of being a military mom.
'It had to be a storm that a pre-kindergartner could relate to,' she said. 'A storm of bullies at school or a scary dog.'
So she experimented with dozens of colors and brush strokes until she was pleased.
Light is good, dark is bad and grandpas can help.
'Simplicity is best when dealing with complex themes, she said.
Her inspiration for the images came while her son was overseas.
'I did a lot of staring at the beach and crying,' Mrs. Weeks said.
In the midst of their turmoil, she and Mrs. Potts would visit a mutual friend who owned a condo at South Padre Island.
'And I would sketch things that came to mind,' Mrs. Weeks said.
Doing so isn't unusual for her. She's a trained art teacher who has worked for the Austin and Round Rock school districts.
'On the beach, there would be a seashell or a man with an umbrella,' Mrs. Weeks said. 'So I put it on paper, sometimes a napkin.'
Mrs. Potts scoffed.
'Connie would say the pictures were nothing,' Mrs. Potts said. 'But they were beautiful.'
One of Mrs. Weeks's seashell pictures triggered the idea for Mrs. Potts's story.
'It reminded me of a program I used when I was a counselor for the Belton schools,' Mrs. Potts said. 'It was the Survivor Shells.'
At the beginning of every term, Mrs. Potts would give her students a seashell and say, 'There is going to be hurt and disappointment this year, but I will still have my shell.'
The shell was a metaphor for the spirit and inner beauty.
'And the kids loved the program,' Mrs. Potts said. 'I knew I had something good when the kids came in to ask for shells for friends who were in the middle of a struggle.'
So as Mrs. Potts developed the basis for her tale, Mrs. Weeks saw a sea storm brew in her head.
But Mrs. Weeks couldn't start the painting until her son returned home.
'I had the ideas, but I couldn't pick up the brush and get to work on the book until I knew he was safe,' Mrs. Weeks said.
And that was OK.
'Once I started, the energy was almost super-human,' Mrs. Weeks said. 'There was so much passion for the cause.'
And there was a great deal of pride for Elliott, the honorably discharged Corporal.
He was nominated fro the Navy Marine Corp Medal for saving lives during a fatal helicopter crash in Iraq.

To get a copy Published by Seahorse Publishing in Austin, 'Ocean Surprises' is available online at for $14.95. It will be on bookshelves at department stores later this summer.
Local musician Brian Gowan was inspired by the book and wrote a song he also calls 'Ocean Surprises.' It will be released on a CD later this year.
Portions of all proceeds will benefit The Children's Miracle Network in honor of Luke and Wounded Warriors in honor of Elliott.
The Children's Miracle Network is a non-profit organization that raises money for children with long-term illness and cancer, and Wounded Warriors is a help group for injured soldiers and marines coming home from war.

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