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Offered by Willy Strohmeier – Colorado Karate Club

It was a cool Saturday morning in March 1989, life in Lima, the capital of Peru, was strained. The economy was in shambles, with food, water, and fuel shortages. Crime was rampant everywhere, especially home break-ins. In our neighborhood, there used to be a young man probably in his early 20’s, that would simply hang around without much to do. Naturally, my mom was distrustful of such a character and would call him “El Vago”, which translated means the bum, or the vagrant. She used to warn us about “el vago”, “he is up to no good”, she used to tell us. So that’s how we knew him, and we indeed kept an eye out for him.

That day, my mom, my two brothers and I were home while my dad was at work. One of my brothers noticed from the backyard a pile of smoke coming out of a second floor window. We all ran up to find flames bursting out of a closet, and in the blink of an eye the entire second floor was enveloped in a thick black smoke. We called the fire department, and my mom ran out the door yelling for help.
A host of neighbors ran in, and assembled a makeshift fire fighting brigade. Also, running in, but stopping by the door, “el vago” put his hand on my mom’s shoulder and said to her: “ Señora, no se preocupe, yo le voy a salvar su casa” (Ma’am don’t you worry, I will save your house). He ran in with the rest of the volunteers, strapped his wetted t-shirt around his face and climbed the ladder set outside the second floor window, bucket in hand.

Without water pressure, it was bucket after bucket, hand to hand, up the ladder and dumped blindly into the smoke through the bedroom window. After about three hours of water buckets, the flames subsided, the smoke slowly lifted, and the folks left without fanfare but with our deepest thanks and gratitude.

Fortunately our home was made of brick and concrete, so the structure held, although everything on the second floor was a complete loss. It was a tragic day, one of our dogs died from smoke inhalation and we had no insurance, so our financial losses were substantial. But the one thing I remember was this young man we didn’t really know – and had derided for so long – coming in and helping us in our hour of need.

I think about this event quite often, and what stays with me is not the loss, but the lesson. Realizing how many people we can summarily dismiss either because of our own preconceptions or for some apparent personality flaw of theirs; and then, coming to understand that most folks need only the right mentor, an opportunity, and self-confidence in order to shine.

Through this experience, and many years as a Martial Arts instructor, I have learned to look beyond the surface, to help realize a student’s – sometimes hidden – potential. In fact, the most difficult task can be having them see, the same potential I find in them. My job, I figure, is simply to allow them to flourish, to allow them to believe in themselves, as I believe in them. To be the one who sees them beyond their own expectations.

So I ask the same of you, is there someone you could mentor, someone who just needs you to believe in them? To give them an opportunity? Can you look beyond the obvious? Go ahead, take the chance. More often than not, you will be amazed at what you find. I sure hope that, unlike with me, it doesn’t take a fire to have them prove you wrong.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the fire truck did arrive… (in Peruvian time) three and a half hours late.

Colorado Karate Club

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