Life is a Gift

Chuck Gutman & Arman

By Rosemary Heilemann

It all started with a short email message:  “We have an assignment for you, should you choose to accept it.”

What was I about to get into?  They wanted me to write an article for the Tenth Dems newsletter about a Waukegan High School counselor, Chuck Gutman, who had already been the subject of a newsletter article just a year ago.  That article, “On Citizenship: Chuck Gutman Helps Reinvigorate the American Dream for Waukegan Students”, highlighted Chuck’s creation of Envision Scholars, an organization that helped deserving students find their way to a college education.  Chuck and Envision Scholars (which recently merged with Waukegan 2 College, an organization with similar goals) helped scores of Waukegan students realize their college dreams.

As readers of last year’s article learned, Chuck was suffering from kidney failure.  His survival depended on his obtaining a kidney transplant.

It was the story of that kidney transplant that I was asked to write.

Why is such a story appropriate for the Tenth News?  Because Chuck’s life-saving kidney was donated to him by Arman Sheffey who, like Chuck, believes in doing whatever he can to make other people’s lives better. Arman may not identify with a political party, but that’s a value that we, as Democrats, share with him and Chuck.  As Arman’s aunt and godmother, Linda Patterson, pointed out, one person may not be able to change the world, but one person can change the world for one person.

Arman Sheffey is a minister who is sometimes known as “Pastor Fury.” I watched him preach one of his sermons (on You Tube) about “how to deal with disappointment” and found him to be dynamic, humble, sympathetic, and encouraging.  And young!

When we talked on the phone, Arman told me he had been given a chance to work with a youth group over the summer.  This was a good fit because he had been a teacher and his current daytime job was with a private educational organization.  His goal was to tie the concepts he preached to a variety of actual experiences, such as bringing the students to work at the “Feed My Starving Children” workplace in Libertyville.

Back when Arman saw a Facebook posting about Chuck’s need for a healthy kidney, he wanted to help.  He underwent testing to find out whether he was a genetic match.  Once he learned that he was, indeed, a match, he didn’t hesitate.

Although genetically compatible and sharing an interest in the education of young people, Arman Sheffey and Chuck Gutman do not appear to the casual observer to be at all alike.  Chuck is white and Jewish; Arman is African American and Christian.  But these men are brothers in the most meaningful way—both are dedicated to making the world a better place.
And once I sat down with both men, I discovered that Chuck and Arman had even more similarities in their lives.  Both had experienced difficult times.  Both had made conscious decisions to try to help others and believe that this is what gave their lives meaning.  Each has his favorite quotes and ways of spreading ideas for empowering others, especially youth.  They both live this every day of their lives.  Surprisingly, in separate interviews with me, both of them quoted from Oprah Winfrey’s commencement address to the Harvard University class of 2013.  “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs.  Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” (Oprah was quoting theologian Howard Thurman.)

Sometimes you catch a lucky break.  Accepting this assignment not only led to meeting two extraordinary men, it also netted me an invitation to a celebration.  A Waukegan friend told me that Chuck was hosting a party to honor Arman, so I asked if I could come.  It was held at the Jane Addams Center at Bowen Park on a beautiful Sunday evening.  The park was filled with so many groups of people enjoying the perfect summer weather and the beautiful park facilities.  Happiness and community were in the air.  Chuck and his helpers had set up the Addams Center with long tables, folding chairs, and a groaning buffet table.  There were also pledge sheets for the “Gift of Life” college scholarship fund being set up in Arman Sheffey’s honor.

The place was packed.  Most of the attendees were Chuck’s friends, family, and students who made the time to come and thank Arman for giving life to this man they love.  There were speeches and tears of gratitude and inspiration.  Chuck and Arman’s story had inspired a friend,

David Carpenter, so much that he was donating his kidney anonymously the following week.  Chuck’s sister spoke of her gratitude and love.  Chuck’s friend Claudia Clavey pointed out all the love there was in the room.  Kaream Williams got a laugh when he described his befuddlement when Mr. Gutman stopped him in the school hallway during his first few weeks of high school and asked where he planned to go to college.  One of Chuck’s Envision Scholars, Kaream has now just completed his freshman year of college.  Arman’s mother, Carolyn Sheffey, shared her motherly fears when she heard what her son was planning, but she understood and supported his decision.

This was the perfect lead-in as Pastor Arman took the microphone.  He told about his own dark days.  He said that “accepting Jesus’ sacrificial gift of life,” along with the steadfast and unconditional love of his wife Lariza, “had taught him the way to live.”  He asked the question, “How far does love go?”  When he saw the Facebook posting asking for a kidney donor for Chuck, a man he had been acquainted with in the past, he and Lariza decided to take one more step for love.  Arman went on to tell us that, even though we might not give a kidney, we can go one more step for love in other ways.   We can say hello to a lonely co-worker, help out a neighbor, or lend a hand to others.  All are ways of giving love that rebound back to us.

Chuck finished up the speeches by reminding all of us to find our life’s mission and live it.  It was all very wonderful and inspiring.

Before and after the speeches, I went from person to person with my notebook and pen, just like Lois Lane.  Waukegan High School colleagues Marsha Weinstein and Rose Kattezhan praised Chuck’s love of learning and willingness to help anyone.  Waukegan High School graduate Brandon Ewing told me enthusiastically about the group Chuck formed named “Men of Vision” to help young men “think, look, act, and be successful.”  Gilberto Colin, in his third year at DePaul, credited Chuck with helping him get scholarships and motivating him to help others.  Waukegan attorney Jackie Herrera Giron spoke glowingly of Chuck’s work with the Coalition for Refugee Rights and of his community organizing to support the Dream Act.  He educated his students about civic action and their responsibility to help improve their community.

I was able to speak with Linda Patterson who related that Arman truly is humble and doesn’t seek attention like the evening’s party, but came for Chuck’s sake and for the scholarship fund.  She and his mother agreed that he had always been a kind person and that they were not surprised by his decision to donate his kidney.  Carolyn Sheffey said that Arman never doubted that decision.

Lariza was busy chasing little Matteo and reminded me I was coming to their home if I still wanted to come.  Yes, but I wasn’t sure what else I was going to ask.

So, two nights later, Chuck and I were warmly greeted at Arman and Lariza’s home.  We sat around the dining room table to talk while Leila and Matteo quietly played and I learned more about Arman’s life. As the evening passed, there developed this warm feeling of intimacy and understanding among Chuck, Arman, and Lariza as they learned more and more about each other.  The drama of the giving and receiving of a kidney gradually faded as the three of them found their similarities and differences and began talking like close friends.  It’s hard to keep an emotional distance from someone who has given or received your or your husband’s kidney.  You let down your guard and just let the ideas flow.  The conversation becomes natural and easy.  You go on to planning other projects, like the “Gift of Life” college scholarship fund for needy students.  (see  You talk about your plans and hopes and future.

Life is beautiful.

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