I originally planned to focus this week's column on anonymous political flyers and robocalls and the general unseemly nature of local politics and election campaigns.
Thankfully, I had an experience over the weekend that altered my focus and perspective.
On Saturday, I took part in a day-long retreat at Long Point Camp on the beautiful shores of Lake Seneca and, boy, did I ever need it.
For about 12 hours or so, I got away from all the campaign rhetoric and negativity of Niagara Falls and Niagara County and went to a place where dozens of people from across the state gathered to discuss a simple yet not so easy thing: Ways to improve the way they helped people in need.
Saturday’s seminar, titled "Vision and Vitality," was coordinated by the Empire Division of the Salvation Army. As Divisional Commander Major Ivan Rock noted in the program guide, it was designed as a day-long "conversation" involving Salvation Army officers and people like me who serve on the advisory board for the Salvation Army in their community.
At various points, I was, in fact, moved to tears.
Throughout the day, the coordinators of the event played videos where the narrator described the life of someone who had been touched by the faithful works of the Salvation Army faithful.
There was one about a young orphan girl from the Falls who found her "forever" mom and dad and whose ties to the Salvation Army helped guide her through the rough waters of her father’s cancer diagnosis and her parents’ divorce.
There was another about a woman whose drug addiction got so bad that she blacked out and, when she came to, found herself in a hospital where someone from the Salvation Army started the process of bringing her back to the light. Those conversations led her to a renewal, which eventually resulted in her becoming a commander of a own Salvation Army Corps of her own.
The story that really got me showed a picture of a young man who grew up without parents and without money and with all the baggage and hard feelings that come with being the kid who navigated the difficult teenage years while never having the cool clothes, the right pair of shoes or much of anything in terms of material belongings or even the love of parents and family.
When that "kid," now an adult man with a loving family of his own, stepped forward in his Salvation Army uniform to explain how his involvement in the organization changed the trajectory of his life and put him on the path that led to his position as an army corps commander there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
“Transforming lives” and “Doing The Most Good” are not just slogans for these people and this organization.
It is a way of life and I'm proud to say I play a small part in it.
Sitting in the audience, I couldn’t help but think about the stark contrast between the energy and the focus of this group and the lack of energy and the lack of focus back home.
Imagine a discussion about “Vision and Vitality” at a meeting of the Niagara Falls City Council. How often have you stopped to consider your local, state or even federal government as a selfless entity, the kind that focuses on the good of the whole instead of the gains of the few, the politically connected or the wealthy campaign donors?
You'd be hard-pressed to find messages about helping others or changing lives on any of those campaign flyers stuffed into our mailboxes or in the nasty robocall messages left our on our telephones in recent weeks.
Is it any wonder why our real problems persist?
As Corrine Hayes, office coordinator for the Niagara Falls Salvation Army noted, sitting in a room full of people whose singular mission involves helping others reminds you of an important thing: “Hope still exists in the world.”
This was not a place like the Facebooks where the naysayers and the name callers and the know-it-all spew venom.
This was a place where thoughtful people discussed ways to tackle real problems - people suffering from addiction, veterans who lost their way, seniors experiencing loneliness, parents lacking the necessary resources to take proper care of their children and young people caught up things like crime and drugs instead of planning for college or careers.
This was a room full of workers, inspirational leaders and believers.
Coming from a place like Niagara Falls, it felt amazing to just be around them, listen to them talk about how, time and again, they saw a need in their community and they developed a program or a service in an effort to address it.
Major Rock closed Saturday's session with a passage from the Bible that called on the faithful to "expand their tents." The idea is that even when things look bad or are not going the right way, it's still important to think bigger, plan for growth, prepare for greater prosperity.
He also added four simple words: "Do not be afraid."
I sincerely hope, as we head into another election and as we prepare for another new year, our community and its leaders get away from all the talk about budget cutting and doing less with more and attempting to, once again, shrink our way to prosperity.
This is Niagara County, home to Niagara Falls.
We should have one of the biggest tents in the state, in the nation even.
We should not be afraid to fail and we should all understand that it is possible, whenever like-minded people with the right attitudes and the willingness to put in the work, to transform lives and do a lot of good.
Contact Regional News Director Mark Scheer at 282-2311, ext. 2250.