Michael’s Connecting Hearts Abroad Experience

Tanessa Noll is a Communications Ambassador for A Fresh Chapter, a member of the 2016 Peru Odyssey Tribe, and a Melissa Carroll Legacy Fund recipient. She lives in Shelton, Washington with her husband and two sons.

Written by Tanessa Noll | November 13, 2017

Michael Polkowitz, from Marlboro, New Jersey, travelled to Peru in October 2016. He volunteered through Eli Lilly and Company’s Connecting Hearts Abroad program, which partnered with A Fresh Chapter. He said he was inspired by the volunteering experience at Casa Hogar and the impact it had on him as a cancer survivor and an employee of Lilly.

Healing wounds of cancer

Michael Polkowitz sees the impact of cancer both in his work and personal life. In 1995, he took a job in New York City, working in sales at Eli Lilly and Company. As the years followed, a number of his family members faced cancer—a grandmother with colon cancer, then an uncle with prostate cancer. Michael’s twin brother went through cancer treatment, followed by his mother. His wife lost her father to brain cancer.

In 2013, Michael was diagnosed with a rare form of skin cancer as well as other skin cancers in 2014 and 2015.  He successfully went through treatments. He knew he needed A Fresh Chapter and the opportunity to give back. It took a couple days to acclimate to the program in Lima and feel safe opening up. Michael felt unsure about volunteering. His team volunteered at Casa Hogar, a cancer home for children and their families. There, the volunteers helped prepare and serve meals, knitted hats and provided hope and inspiration to patients and their families. “I don’t know how you would do that alone,” he said.

Cancer in Peru

One of the local volunteers Michael met gave him an unforgettable glimpse of the cancer experience in Peru. The volunteer’s mom had cancer. He walked Michael to the nearby hospitalwhere she was being treated, and gave him a tour. “The number of people there was tremendous,” he said. Michael described walking through many corridors, seeing lines of people waiting to meet with an oncologist. He observed the sadness on their faces. “I’ll never forget that.”

Michael also shared a story about meeting a mother with two young children, one who had cancer. After completion of treatment, the family prepared to return to their home in the mountains. They stopped to say goodbye to Michael and the other volunteers. Marisol Martinez, also a Lilly employee, adorned the family with hats made by the volunteers. Everyone exchanged hugs. “The mother showed pure happiness her son was better,” Michael said.

Sharing his story

When he returned home, Michael shared his experience with colleagues. People see the experience impacted him emotionally. They say, “I wish I could go to Peru. I wish I could help others.” The biggest fear people express is having to go abroad. Michael tells them there are plenty of places they can go to make a difference. “You can help in your own community.”

His son, Bradley, currently a high school junior, became inspired by his father’s experience. This spring, Bradley will spend 10-12 days in three different cities in Ecuador, working on water sustainability and building a school room with his classmates through the Free the Children organization. Michael’s volunteer experience taught him how fortunate he is. He believes his son will appreciate what his family provides, compared to what he will see. He expects Bradley to connect with people, like he did, and be inspired give back to those in need.

Continuing the impact

Since returning from Peru, Michael says he probably reflects more, particularly about adversity. “I also think about if there are other ways I can give on a local level.” Michael wants to volunteer in Little Lima, a community in Patterson, New Jersey. The area looks like Peru, he said. The stores advertise travel to Peru or adventures to Machu Picchu.  He hopes to find the right opportunity to be of service. The people of Peru inspired Michael with their spirit. “No matter the situation, they are so proud of their country and culture. I am not sure in the United States we can always say that.”

Michael also volunteers for A Fresh Chapter as a program mentor. He helps new participants prepare for their first trip, answering questions and easing concerns. Volunteering helped Michael honor his instinct to help others in need. Even though he gives back, he realized we can all give back even more. “There are people out there who need it. We all can and need to do more.”

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