Why I Wrote It: A New Journey

"I called my mom and told her I wasn't coming home," said Anna Stehle. She shared with me one of the great paradigm shifts of her life. Anna, a student at the University of Washington, wanted more time immersed in Argentina to improve her Spanish skills. So instead of returning to the United States, she postponed her flight for five months, moved out of her host family's home, rented an apartment with a couple of students from Buenos Aires and washed dishes at a local café to pay rent. Eventually she picked up a second job teaching English to locals.

When I heard her describe that moment - that once-in-a-lifetime recognition, that no-going-back place - I felt a shift of my own.  I was working a bad 9-5 job, but hearing her describe that moment with her mom - not asking permission, not feeling guilty, and full-tilt going for what she wanted - made me realize I needed to do the same. Life is short, do what you need to do for yourself right now, even if that means washing dishes and sounding crazy.

That's what Anna taught me.


Anna was somewhat of a chosen one at the Noble Foundation. I heard about her before I was ever assigned her personal profile for Legacy magazine. She was a star, they said. Interviewing her allowed me to hear all about her academic accomplishments and personal life - rising out of a national scholarship selection process, being chosen as a Scholar in Agriculture, generally kicking all kinds of ass. In the end, the thing that impressed me most about her was that phone call she made as an undergrad. She was so unapologetic about it. Imagine calling your parents and not asking permission to continue your stay in a foreign country. Not "can I stay, mom?" but instead "I'll see ya in five months."

The best part? Her bravest moments weren't anything special to her. She didn't think twice about it all. She recalled her journey as surely as if she was explaining the color of the sky, or a scientific certainty.

Right after our conversation, she left to spend a year in Brazil with other Noble employees.

I think about Anna often, and her brave phone call. She was sharp, no doubt, but I think it was her bravery that separated her from everyone else.



Read Anna's personal profile.

Other posts in the Why I Wrote It series:

Why I Wrote It: Second Chances

Why I Wrote It: Sweeney's Secret

Why I Wrote It: Sweeney's Secret

jwillingham-how-i-wrote-it2 Why I Wrote It is a behind-the-scenes series about feature writing. Feature writing is hard - from the initial interviews to the blinking bar in a blank Word document. These are stories about stories - how they started, where they took me, the people I met and why they matter.

"Eh, just wait a few. We should have one coming in any minute now," said the pre-med student. He was pacifying me, completely uninterested in whatever it was I wanted. After all, he saw this kind of thing every day. So I waited and watched through the medical station window.

The little girl came scrambling out of the lake and onto the boat dock, water flicking off her life vest and onto a nearby group of sunbathing teens. She ran/waddled - in the way baby girls do -  from the lake to the medical station door.

The medical station we stood in was a small hut, enough room for a few adults and a couple wee-sized campers. She was dripping water everywhere and it started to pool on the floor around her, soaking through my office-appropriate flats.

The pre-med student opened a mini fridge and began crafting a buffet of medical supplies - syringes, vials, antiseptic wipes, bandages. He assembled a tray, and set it on the counter. Baby girl stepped up, taking her place in a very silent ritual that I had never witnessed before. She proceed to prick, prod, and inject herself. Then she slapped a waterproof princess bandaid on a bleeding finger, made a final notation onto her designated medical chart and she was out the door again.


I grew up dreaming of going to summer camp. My fantasy was a  little less Parent Trap and a little more Heavy Weights - ditching arts and crafts in lieu of starting a cafeteria food fight or stringing a camp counselor's underwear on the flag pole. But these kids weren’t at Camp Sweeney to find a long lost identical twin or even to lose a few pounds - they came to claim their lives back from juvenile diabetes.

My day at the camp was saturated with information about carb counts, insulin, midnight medical checks and the many other nuances of managing diabetes. I could barely remember to put my clothes on right side out at six years old, let alone what my carb allowance was.

The babies told me about their craft projects, the teens dished on summer romances. They all got real with me about the financial toll their condition took on their families - big brothers not being able to join the traveling soccer league, little girls who couldn't afford to take ballet and their insulin. These campers felt like burdens to everyone, and in every situation, aside from the magic of Camp Sweeney. In every other environment, they were the constant object of adult worry and attention. Here, they were empowered to make their own positive decisions about their health.

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 6.30.39 PM

Many campers attended Sweeney with supplemented money from grants and scholarships. I got into a an interesting, very impassioned discussion about Medicaid and the national healthcare system with a 12-year-old blonde boy with a Justin Bieber haircut. I was standing on the edge of the basketball court, listening to him rant while he simultaneously passed a ball between his legs.

“Do you think I could be here if all I had was my parents health insurance?” He snorted in disgust before answering his own question. No.

“I wouldn't have a clue about how to manage my diabetes if it wasn't for this camp, and if it weren’t for scholarship money and Medicaid, I wouldn’t be here.”

I left the camp that day and wrote one of my best features to date. Every time I turn on the the news to watch grown ups argue about healthcare, I think about those kids. Are they taking their doses? Can they afford to come back to camp next year?

Political undertones are always present in my feature subjects. Writing these features is not about writing around the politics, but through the politics. Juveniles with diabetes aren't a platform, a barb for Fox News debates or a warm-and-fuzzy for donating foundations - they are real kids who needed our attention, our support, and our cold hard cash. I needed to make them as real to readers as they were to me on that hot summer day, pushing each other off the docks and into the water.

I think about them all the time.




Read the feature article on Camp Sweeney.

Feel like donating? You can help a kid go to camp.

Like the Why I Wrote It series? Check out the last one.