By Elizabeth Haas, Contributing Writer
“Life is not a task; it’s an experience.”
“Have a healthy disregard for the impossible.”
“Be happy, never satisfied.” Students and staff at the University of New Hampshire wrote messages to the world as part of Robert Fogarty’s Dear World project.
Over 200 UNH students gathered in the Granite State Room of the Memorial Union Building Wednesday night to hear Fogarty’s keynote address. The presentation began at 7 p.m. and centered on the theme of stories.
Fogarty began the Dear World project in 2009 when he asked the people of New Orleans to give their “love notes to the city.”
He photographed participants with their messages written on their skin in black marker.
The project expanded after Fogarty met Ralph Serpas. Earlier that day, Serpas’ doctor had called him to say he was in remission from cancer. Serpas chose to write “Cancer Free” on his chest in place of a note to New Orleans. Fogarty saw the opportunity to open the project to everyone wanting to share a message to the world.
Stories are important to Fogarty.
“Our voices are our strongest currency,” he said to students. “Storytelling and your voice are things you should invest in.”
Fogarty shared the stories of individuals he has photographed from that of an 11- year-old Syrian refugee who wanted her life back to former New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason who now suffers from ALS.
Fogarty gave a lesson with every story he told. He explained that we all have things in our lives that we need to confront when he gave Celeste Gagnon-Corcoran’s story.
Gagnon-Corcoran lost both her legs in the Boston Marathon bombings. For the next ten months, she look a longer route to work to avoid visiting the finish line.
She walked on prosthetic legs back to the line for the first time to have Fogarty take her picture. She bore the message “still standing.”
Dave Fortier was nearing the finish line when the bomb exploded, severely damaging his hearing. He ran 26.19 miles that day. His message is “keep running.” He has completed five marathons since.
“We have an opportunity to do incredible things,” Fogarty said. “But [we] can’t do those things without help.”
After sharing others’ stories, Fogarty asked four students who had participated in the UNH photo shoot earlier in the day to share their messages with the audience.
“Silence can be the loudest scream” was written on sophomore Matthew Clarkson’s arms.
No one at UNH would describe Clarkson as quiet, but he did not always have a voice.
“Some people are screaming on the inside, and you have no idea,” he said to the the audience.
In kindergarten, Clarkson “married” two girls two days apart from each other and didn’t tell either of them. In third grade, he was thrown into a trash can. In fifth grade, he was called gay for the first time. In eighth grade, he began using substances and made other choices he doesn’t like to remember.
Clarkson left Catholic school after eighth grade. There were 2,000 students in his new high school. He knew no one. He ate lunch alone for his first two years. Luckily, he met “an amazing friend.”
“She harshly told me to grow a pair, find a voice for myself and branch out,” he said. “I realized that I maybe took it a bit overboard. People think I’m a bit loud, but it means that I have a voice.”
Now, Clarkson strives to help others find their voices. He is a resident assistant and knows he is fortunate that some of his early decisions did not end his life.
Kea Rief encouraged students to “be fearless” in her speech about overcoming the challenge of being the first person in her family to attend college.
“I spent the first night of college alone crying in my room,” she said.
The love and pride in her mother’s eyes in a picture taken after Rief graduated high school gave her courage that night.
“It doesn’t matter if your leap of faith is over a canyon or over a puddle,” she said. “You have to be fearless.”
Senior Lena Khawatmi told audience members how lucky they are to be able to spend Christmas with their families. Her family lives in Syria. Her only contact with them is through Facebook and other forms on social media.
“Save my family” is her message.
Khawatmi’s aunt commented on her Dear World photo on Facebook, saying that she loved Lena and that they will survive.
Sean Mitchell, a junior political science major, attended the photo shoot and keynote address.
His arms read, “Add 2 the net value of the Universe.”
“So much awful stuff happens every day; it would be wrong to not leave the world in a better place than you were born in,” Mitchell said.
For him, success is helping make others’ lives better.
“I hope you make beautiful stories,” was Fogarty’s closing wish. “Be ready for stories. Be ready for stories you don’t wish for, too; they are part of our experience.”