Editor’s note: On Saturday, July 21, people voluntarily rappelled down the side of the Durant building in downtown Flint during an event called Over the Edge. Together, they raised more than $30,000 for The Disability Network, an organization working to reduce barriers for people with disabilities and make the Flint community more accessible and inclusive. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan was happy to sponsor two youth rappellers that day – this is their story as told by Brett Smith, TDN’s Ambassador of Buzz, also known as the communications guy. Standing on top of a nine-story building peering reluctantly over its edge was not how I usually spend my Saturday afternoons, but there I was. As the communications guy for The Disability Network (TDN), it’s my responsibility to help tell our story, and Over the Edge Flint had quickly become a significant part of this year’s TDN story. While our Over the Edge event allowed community members to willingly rappel down the side of the Durant building in downtown Flint, some of us were more excited by the prospect than others. Brendan Biazza and Riley Letterman were among the thrill seekers who comprised the ‘excited’ group. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions as to which group I fell into. Brendan and Riley submitted winning entries in our Over the Edge youth sponsorship and their experience was sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. By the time Brendan and Riley arrived on the roof, I had already been up there for half the day and was a little less dizzy and able to speak more than when the day began. Brendan, a sophomore at Davison High School, was beaming as he stepped through the safety gate and on to our small platform braced on the edge of the roof. In his essay, he let us know that he had “never rappelled before and [he was] kind of scared about it.” If he was scared, I couldn’t tell.
Once rigged in, the next part is usually the toughest: putting your feet on the edge of the building and leaning back. Brendan took a deep breath, planted his feet and straightened his legs. I asked him if he was okay or something to that effect and he replied, “oh yeah!” “Arms out, big thumbs up,” Jeremy, the rappelling volunteer smiled to Brendan. This was the classic Over the Edge shot that you’ll often see from event photos. Letting go, facing any fears and trusting the system are all part of the experience, and that picture embodies that. Brendan gave me a thumbs up as I snapped the photo. “Both hands,” Jeremy said, demonstrating the pose. Brendan slowly released his right hand from the rope and struck the pose, a smile spreading across his face. Any last fear of the moment gone. After a couple of other Edgers, Riley appeared on the roof, clad in her rappelling gear and sparkling fairy wings. The opening of Riley’s essay immediately caught our attention: “My name is Riley Letterman and I'm 11 years old and I'm totally blind. I would go over the edge to feel free like a bird. I may even sing a little on the way down.” I was really looking forward to her singing and admittedly jealous of her wings. As she stepped onto the platform, she announced, “guys, I’m starting to rethink this whole flying like a bird thing.” While her voice was a little shaky, I couldn’t help but note the slight sarcasm in her tone and stifled a chuckle. Even though she was letting us know that she was nervous throughout the hooking in, she never gave a full stop. Once she was dangling out over the edge, she gave me the thumbs up before beginning her rappel. I watched through my camera lens as she slowly made her way down to the cheering crowd below. I continued to watch after I stopped taking photos and realized I was leaning farther over the edge than at any point that day. Had I not, I would’ve missed the quote of the day: “by the way guys, this is nuts!” (said about two-thirds of the way down with a smile on her face). We all overcame barriers that day, both on our own and together. You can call it interdependence, leaving your comfort zone or supporting your community, but that day, we called it going over the edge. Like this post? Read these:
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Brett Smith is the Ambassador of Buzz (AKA the communications guy) at The Disability Network (TDN). As a graduate of the University of Michigan-Flint, he’s been telling the stories of people and nonprofits through a variety of mediums for almost two decades. Photos courtesy of The Disability Network Flint.