Unspeakable acts scarred the childhood of Julio Ayala.
But standing before more than 400 people at the Spring of Tampa Bay's recent Gift of Peace Luncheon, Ayala found a way to speak about them.
To help the Spring, a domestic violence shelter, Ayala told of the constant abuse his stepfather inflicted on his mother, the torturous chapters of Ayala's own upbringing and how it eventually led to his lifelong battle with substance abuse.
It wasn't an easy story to tell, and it wasn't an easy story to listen to.
Ayala, 50, succeeded in fighting back his own tears while other audience members gave in to the impact of the unvarnished emotions he so freely offered. He shared how he's persevered through the trials while persevering through the presentation.
And I admired the speech he delivered almost as much as the man he has become.
My appreciation never ceases for people willing to bare their souls in a public forum. It takes a special brand of fortitude for someone to share those most personal feelings, those debilitating hardships, those lowest moments.
How do they do it? Why do they do it? For Ayala, a Riverview resident and sales manager for Ferman Motors, the speech represented not only an opportunity to raise awareness of domestic violence and make a difference, but it also signaled his freedom. He learned through his substance abuse counseling — he's been clean and sober for nine years — that a sense of liberation comes when you unburden your problems.
"The more transparent you become, the more courage, the more freedom you have," Ayala explained. "Once you've gotten freedom, you can give it away freely. You can do for someone else what's been done for you.
"God says, 'Go out and tell the world. I'll protect you. I'll carry you. You'll be fine.' "
A similar strength resides in the six Florida military veterans and one military spouse who told their personal stories of service in a dramatic stage performance. Veterans — The Telling Project, a new WEDU/Florida Humanities Council documentary, will be screened at the Tampa Theatre at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
The film captures how cast members turned their military stories into theatrical presentations, a feat that's difficult to comprehend. Most folks require a certain degree of chutzpah to overcome their fears and portray a character on stage. These veterans found a way to transform their own difficult stories into scripts.
Along the way, they tapped into another reason testimonials can be so powerful.
"I started this project with hopes that I would be able to reach someone and help them," said Jessica McVay, a Palmetto resident who served five years in the Marines. "When in fact, I've actually come full circle and actually helped myself."
Ultimately, the testimonial can be cathartic for the storytellers, a valued part of their healing and a motivation for them to carry on. Taylor Urruela, another participant in the Telling Project, served 6½ years (2004-2011) as an Army infantryman, including service in Iraq, where he was wounded by two roadside bombs, resulting in the loss of a leg below the knee.
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Urruela pushes himself to take on challenges that make him feel uncomfortable to deal with his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Being in the play was part of that, but participation produced an added benefit.
"By being on stage and using my own story as a script, I was able to share my story in this entirely new and unique manner, which allowed me personal growth to an even greater extent," Urruela wrote in an email. "I believe fully in pushing oneself beyond comfort into a world of uncertainty. It keeps me invigorated and always fighting for that next challenge."
Clients for the Emergency Care Help Organization displayed the same willingness to take on the challenge this week at a fundraising breakfast for the nonprofit. In a video presentation, they explained how ECHO lifted them up in a difficult time, so much so they now volunteer for the nonprofit.
The sense of inspiration is inescapable, especially if we're facing our own hardships. Sometimes the testimonials give us the strength to tackle our challenges. Sometimes they help minimize our problems with a fresh perspective.
One of the many inspiring signs posted in the ECHO offices states, "Give yourself back to the world each day."
Anyone willing to detail their hardships does just that, gives of themselves in a selfless manner. The best way we can thank them for these selfless acts is not only to listen and applaud, but to act.
That's all I'm saying.