It was 7:15 a.m., but you wouldn’t have guessed it was that early from looking at the two girls prancing about in the parking lot across from . Dressed in springy blue-and-white skirts, the gleeful duo were like rays of sunshine popping out of a very grey morning.
Marisa Burnett, 13, and her confidant, Helen Fischer, 11, clutched typed pages in their hands and giggled with pure joy and enthusiasm as they skipped their way through the front doors of The Community House.
Burnett, of Troy, and Fischer, who lives in Bloomfield Township, were two of 18 youths who delivered heartfelt speeches Wednesday at a Birmingham Optimist Club "Friend of Youth," breakfast.
Families and members of the Optimists listened intently — many pulling out tissues to wipe away tears — to the words and messages that filled the air. As it was the 20th annual Larry Raymond Oratorical Program, the gathering was extra special. Each student spoke for about two or three minutes.
The children hailed from schools throughout the area, from and , to Brother Rice and the .
The day's theme was “My future is bright because …,” a subject the kids knew well, considering they’ve all savored bright days that have undoubtedly followed several dark ones — each of the kids has some type of speech or hearing impairment, some with language and reading issues, others completely deaf.
But those challenges have not stopped these brave speakers from overcoming huge childhood issues. Some talked about being teased, while others recalled classroom focus problems and not-so-great grades. One spoke of “falling down” and being picked up once again by his parents. Grandparents also were honored by some of the children, including Lauren Daniels of Eton Academy, who noted she wouldn’t have gotten where she was today without her grandma and grandpa.
The program was recently named the Larry Raymond Oratorical, following the death of Raymond, a hardworking Optimist Club member who died last November. It was the Bloomfield Hills man’s idea, in fact, to start this program for children two decades ago.
"It’s very uplifting, isn’t it?” asked Raymond’s wife, Hope Raymond, following the speeches.
What began 20 years ago with just two children today has grown to some 300 overall who have spoken at the event. Thanks to the dedication and commitment of event organizer, Rose Falberg of Bloomfield Township, this is a favorite program for the Optimists.
“It’s the highlight of the year,” said Optimist Bob Parker of Birmingham. Parker worked with fellow Optimist John Marsh at the event’s check-in table.
“It gives the students a chance to speak in a non-judgmental environment,” explained Falberg, who works for Fidelity Bank. “Everyone’s a winner,” added the organizer, whose recently graduated daughter (from high school), Hannah, helped her mother with the event.
The aforementioned Fischer talked about her dyslexia issues. An Eton Academy student, Fischer said her future is bright because of her teachers. She hopes to be a professional pianist and singer.
“My dyslexia is getting better,” she shared, just before high-fiving her pal, Marisa Burnett, who then spoke about wanting to someday work with children with disabilities, “and go to cooking school,” she said with an ear-to-ear smile.
Birmingham's Tabitha Geiger, a student at Eton Academy, told the story of how she was diagnosed with language problems at the age of 2.
“My parents found Eton Academy and I started there in first grade,” the middle-schooler told the audience, “and now I’m reading nearly at grade level.” The grinning Geiger told attendees that she has received the gift of music and singing. “When I sing, my language problems disappear.”
Lauren Elias, also of Eton Academy, shared that her future will be bright as she plans to become a doctor.
Ethan Perlman of Eton Academy spoke next and inspired a lot of head-nodding around the audience. “A lot of what happens to me," he said, "depends on me.”
Oksana Malec of Eton Academy shared happy dreams of working with animals someday. She also quoted poet Robert Frost: “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.”
A few laughs peppered the morning program. Joseph Ciemniecki said his future is bright because of baseball, among other things. “And the Tigers, even if they lose.”
A pensive thought came from Tiffany Ross of Pierce Elementary. “I believe I have a bright future, because I believe,” she said.
Many thanked their teachers, which included dedicated speech pathologist Cindy Longhway, who works for the .
When Joe Samona took the podium, the room grew very quiet. Samona, a junior at Brother Rice High School, is deaf.
“Whenever I fell, my family lifted me up,” he said. “I now have a 3.75 grade-point average with three honors classes. I want to be a pediatrician.” His strength comes from an A-1 attitude, attendees learned, as he shared his most heartfelt thought. “I’m optimistic. Nothing will break me down.”