Starting a business amidst a life-altering illness has simultaneously been one of the most rewarding and challenging aspects of my life. There have been so many times I have wanted to give up, yet it’s been in those moments I’ve found the greatest inspiration to give back. Taking the focus off myself and my own struggles to give back to others has always revitalized my spirit and renewed my motivation to continue onward in the pursuit of my dreams.

For those of you who don’t know my story, I am 28 and nearly 4.5 years ago, in the midst of a blossoming finance career, I contracted a debilitating case of Lyme disease that even to this day, has left me unable to hold a traditional job.

The first couple of years were really tough. I was near bedridden, crippled by whole body fatigue, weakness, and pain. A multitude of neurological symptoms also plagued my body and I experienced episodes of cognitive incoherence that could make spelling even basic words near impossible.

Then, one day, at one of my numerous doctor’s appointments, the assistant asked me to sign some paperwork and replied nonchalantly, “I’m a lefty too!” Unknowingly, I had signed with my left hand, yet for the 23 years prior, I had only ever been right-handed.

Of all the symptoms surfacing in my body and mind, writing left-handed certainly wasn’t bad, just extremely odd. I decided to explore it a little more. I kept a notebook by my bedside and whenever I felt up to it, I would write with my left hand about whatever thoughts came to mind. To my surprise, it was mostly children’s rhyme and silly sketches that surfaced.¬†Maybe not so much of a surprise was that the rhymes and sketches were inspired by my lovable rescue cat and best friend, Oliver.

At this time, my mother was still coming over every day to take care of me. Of course, she eventually asked what I was up to. It also just so happened that she mentioned a desire to get back into painting. Well, you can probably imagine where this is going…she’s now a mother, retired teacher, AND a children’s illustrator.

If you thought the story was going to be a smooth go from here, though, get ready for a few more bumps…

It’s another year later and we’re finally about 80% of the way through the illustrations for our first children’s book, Oliver Poons and the Bright Yellow Hat. At this point, my health is better, but definitely nowhere near normal. I’m still severely underweight, barely weighing in at 90lbs some days, and I’m having flare-ups multiple times per week, still needing hours of help from my mother just to perform daily activities. Then, early one morning, the phone rings. It’s an all-too calm call from my mother. “Lauryn, I think I broke my ankle.”

Let me intervene to say that my mental image of a broken ankle prior to this moment was something of a cute pink cast for six weeks or so and some crutches. Boy, was I off base.

As it turns out, she had fallen down half a flight of basement stairs onto cement. She did not have the cute pink cast kind of broken ankle. She had the 3 surgeries, 2 plates, 17 screws, and 2 years to heal kind of break. It was just two short weeks ago that she finally got the official stamp of approval from the surgeon that the bone is 100% healed.

So, to set the stage, it was an episode of the sick leading the injured or the injured leading the sick on any given day. And, in all reality, this is just the tip of the iceberg of hardship we’ve both experienced these last 4+ years. While I could quite easily write a book filled with all the dramatic and frustrating twists and turns that occurred along the way, I’d like to turn my attention back to the original title: Don’t Give Up, Give Back.

At some point in this journey of illness, injury, and self-discovery, I had to make the conscious decision to look beyond my immediate circumstances. I had to find a point of focus that would motivate and encourage me to persevere against the odds. I discovered my point of focus in the act of helping others.

I founded the Oliver Poons Children’s Company around my original self-published children’s book, Oliver Poons and the Bright Yellow Hat. I discovered that the more I established the company as a means to help others, the more determination I found in myself to make it a success. Some of those closest to me knew of my financial struggles throughout this journey, and many of them countered my desires to give back with the remark, “You need all you can get for yourself.” While their perspective is entirely valid and many would say even realistic, I don’t think I would have gotten this far without a vision larger than myself.

Tough days are not yet behind me. There are still days I feel helpless and want to give up. Yet, it is on those very days that it’s because I’m giving back that I am resolute in moving forward. My vision encompasses helping children in need through book sponsorships and donations; providing aid to our participating animal rescue groups through the Oliver Poons Children’s Company’s #YellowHatsforCats campaign; and creating a network to harness the power of local community with LocalStrong.org.

I believe we can all choose between a life of service to ourselves or a life of service to others. No matter how difficult our personal lives may seem at times, I think we all have something to give back. It can be as simple as sharing a smile or a providing a caring, listening ear. When we all make an effort to give back, I wholeheartedly believe that as a people, we move forward in greater compassion, kindness, and prosperity.

For all those who feel the odds are stacked against them, for all those who feel helpless and alone, for all those who see no way out, and for all those struggling with battles both seen and unseen, pause for a moment and please remember: Don’t Give Up, Give Back.

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