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Standing on the track 30 minutes before the start of the 100th Running of the Indy 500.

Let’s agree on an uncomfortable fact about being a Hoosier: Not every Hoosier is born loving Indiana. The weather can be tiresome. Surprising, scary, grueling, and tiresome.  The lack of diversity is blinding; literally blinding…our German skin is so pale, it glows in the dark. Actually, when I think about it, the only thing diverse about Indiana is the weather. Therefore, the result of surviving puberty in a small, Midwestern town is the lingering belief that “other places do it better”. NYC has giant skyscrapers. And crime! San Francisco has trolleys on hills, and that interesting bridge and…a San Francisco treat! The West Coast has turned rice into a TREAT. How did they do that?! (My apologies, as my only exposure to life outside of Cowan, Indiana circa 1978 arrived on 3 television channels. I was in Middle School before I discovered I couldn’t marry Luke Duke because Dukes of Hazzard was fictional. Whenever I hear him referred to as “Tom”, I still throw up in my mouth a little bit.) Certainly around the high school-esque mark, some of us felt as if the cornfields were choking us, because kids in Chicago didn’t suffer the indignity of having their first traffic stop advertised in the Evening Press. Consequently I did what many Hoosier kids do upon college graduation: I got the hell out of dodge. I moved to Nantucket. I moved to Boston. Per my Indiana-Citizens agreement I moved to Florida where I completed my “zero-skin-pigment checklist”: The first winter was a sunny-heaven-like existence, followed by summer, when I raced north on I-65 screaming, “It’s HOT! It’s SO HOT!” I worked in Prague. I hiked on the Great Wall of China. I swam in Grenada waterfalls. I was determined to circle the globe and affirm what I had long suspected: “Indiana is too small a playground for this gal.”

 

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The IPL 500 Festival Parade, one of 3 nationally televised parades (and my favorite event).

But after marriage and kids (and one too many hurricanes in Cape Canaveral) these facts surfaced: Indiana is a great place to raise a family, and a fertile place to grow a career. Truth. So I came home, albeit crying all the way… and puking a little because pregnancy sucks…imagining my “life abroad” was coming to an end. I would have to be content in my “little” Indianapolis, with my children safe in the ‘burbs, making good on my debts to the Indiana Piper: “In exchange for paying $3.80 for a gallon of milk, you must call yourself a Hoosier. And occasionally dodge a tornado. Sign here.”

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500 Festival Princess Class of 2016 Takes On The State House.

I truly believed I was bigger than Indiana. Oh, sweet, sweet ego. You are such a clever, little enemy. I thought I knew some things. I thought Indiana would be a cake walk compared to working at Boston Medical, or negotiating with Medicaid decision makers in Texas. But luckily parenthood comes with unspoken gifts no matter where your home address, and simply put, kids will burn your ego to the ground. There is nothing like your 2 year old kicking you in the face at daycare pick up, IN FRONT OF YOUR BOSS, to teach you no one has adulthood in the bag. By 2007 I was career-less, raising strong-willed daughters, and married to a Washington DC city-slicker who was wildly in love with the Hoosier state. Come hell or high water (we get that weather too), I realized I was never getting out of Indiana. [Cue maudlin movie score…dealer’s choice, but probably something by Tracy Chapman or Ingrid Michaelson. I know you’re thinking the great John Mellencamp is far more apropo, but not yet. We’ll get there.]

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Princess Nilofer “helping out” at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Staying home with my little ego-killers gave me a chance to cool my worldly jets and “look about the place”. I was surprised to find Indiana is…rather pretty. Had summers always been so green? I’d forgotten sweet corn is actually…sweet…in Indiana. After 10 years here, my husband still can’t get over how friendly Hoosiers are. You move away and forget everyone talks to everyone else in the grocery store check-out line, whether or not they’ve met. I’ll never forget my in-laws getting their first sight of a tractor dealership: “WHAT IS THAT?!” I guess I assumed “big city people” knew everything about everything. Those “Facts of Life” girls seemed to know more than their fair share. As it turns out, some city-folk have never seen “a real, live cow”, and have absolutely no idea where their food is grown. I may get turned around on the DC Metro, but I know the difference between at least 8 types of squash. Was it possible there were things to be learned INSIDE Indiana? Was it possible Indiana wasn’t WORSE than other places, but just…DIFFERENT?

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Princesses Shelby, Bukhti, Sarah, and Alyssa help plant flowers on behalf of the 500 Festival.

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Princesses Bukhti and Macy enjoying the 500 Festival’s Kick-Off To May Event.

With nothing to lose, and no where else to be, I threw myself into my home state. I met fans “of Indiana”, and not just of the sports teams. I drove my kids all over this corny-corn-corn state, picking fruit, chatting up locals, and eating our weight in ice cream. I offered my skills to volunteer opportunities in Indy, and was awe-struck by the novel, brilliant people filling up its corridors. I began to suspect if there were better places to grow roots, they would have to survive without me. I was beginning to like Indiana as more than a friend.

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4790 W. 16th Street, Indianapolis, Indiana

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Taking it all in at the 500 Festival Headquarters.

So it was with both excitement and trepidation I accepted a job as the Coordinator of the 500 Festival Princess Program during the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500. At first glance it felt enormous; certainly much bigger than me, and perhaps even bigger than Indiana. “Hey you’all, let’s invite the entire world to a colossal month-long party, culminating in the largest single-day sporting event in history.” Um? Yeah…OK…I’ll bring the chips and dip. How many cups do you think we’ll need? But in all seriousness, the 500 Festival Princess Program changed my stars in 1994, and it was an honor to be given this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If Indiana was biting off more than we could chew, I wasn’t going to be the party-pooper who pointed it out.

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History section of the 500 Festival Mini-Marathon Expo was a fun walk through memory lane.

January came, and hundreds of college women descended upon Indy for interviews. I stuck my face directly onto the grindstone, and set my sights on creating a year to remember. There was anticipation of “twice” the attendance at 500 Festival events, and maybe “double” the request for Princess appearances. I stationed myself at a phone and computer, and stood poised for the “coordinating” required of 33 Princesses, who were truly the Peyton Mannings of civic engagement and achievement. Little did we know “double” was a not what Indiana had in mind. Triple? Keep going. Quadruple? You’re getting warmer, but keep going…

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Princess Brianna volunteering at Chase 500 Festival Kids Day.

Photo courtesy of the Indy Star

And just as I did not anticipate the Princesses would make over 1,500 appearances and complete over 4,000 hours of volunteerism to our great state, I certainly did not foresee how this experience would change me. My contract didn’t read, “Fall madly in love with your home state and everyone in it. Sign here.” But that’s exactly what happened.

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Princess Morgan serving breakfast at Fletcher Place Community Center.

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Princesses Briana and Shelby bringing the celebration to home-bound Hoosiers.

By late February, the Princess Class of 2016 was in full swing. They served meals to the homeless, chatting for hours with the forgotten on Indy’s streets. They impacted tens of thousands of Hoosier children by talking about their college achievements and passions, while highlighting the beautiful traditions celebrated within our unique state. Countless little girls ran up to me, telling me I was witnessing the greatest day of their lives. Someday, THEY would become 500 Festival Princesses: Intelligent, capable women, who could engage thousands in the opportunities the 500 Festival offers its citizens.

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Princesses Amber, Shelby, and Kayla serving dinner at Wheeler Mission.

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Princesses Bianca, Nilofer, and Kayla warming up runners in the Chase 500 Festival Rookie Run.

The Princesses served the blind, the deaf, and worked at a myriad of events for the disabled. They greeted, hauled trashed, refilled coffee cups, hugged, played games, cleaned floors, volunteered as patsies in pie-throwing contests, handed out water which froze over during road races in the snow, danced with kids in wheelchairs, dressed critically ill children for Prom, threw out baseballs in the rain (actually, we did almost everything in the rain…months later, I think I’m still wet), walked dogs at fundraisers to save homeless pets, gave numerous interviews about what it means to enrich the lives of Hoosiers through volunteerism, worked at book fairs, farmer’s markets, and fundraisers for charities at every corner of Indiana.

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Those One America 500 Festival Mini-Marathon cups don’t pick themselves up! Princesses do it.

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Princess Katie will tell you even when it snows, we take care of our city streets during events.

On a particularly challenging day, we had 45 minutes to transition from soaking wet to speaking in front of a thousand people in full gowns. While I could not possibly choose a zenith, there was a windy event when I desperately needed someone who could speak both Spanish and sign language. Princess Samantha stepped right up and did the job beautifully. [Mic drop.]

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Hand out thousands of tshirts in a driving rain storm? OK. Sounds good.

Princesses Nilofer, Elyse, Becky, Jessi, and Morgan bringing the sunshine.

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It’s hard to pick a favorite classroom day, because we had SO MANY.

By the opening bell of May (speaking again literally, because they rang the bell at the City Market), our state knew that an Indiana Princess doesn’t just stand and wave. They take Hoosier values of knowing thy neighbor, and bring it to life. They came to the 500 Festival with these attributes, and the Festival gave them an enormous stage, and challenged them to “experience the celebration”. They were given mentors and the means by which to do so in the form of a professional development curriculum that included classes on civic engagement, finance, negotiating, and executive presence, just to name a few. I love watching eyes open wide when people ask, “College women did ALL of this?” No. INDIANA college women did all of THIS.  [NOW you can cue John “the Coug” Mellencamp: “I can be myself here in this small town and people let me be just what I want to be.”]

 

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Princess Becky after reading to an Indiana classroom.

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Princesses Shelby, Brittany, Kayla, and Samantha at the Children’s TherAplay Horsepower 500 fundraiser.

By the time the green flag waved at the Race, the 500 Festival had impacted 500,000 Hoosiers. When the checkered flag came down on the 100th Running, the Princesses weren’t just waving good-bye to 350,000 Race fans…they were waving goodbye to one of the most refining experiences of their lives, and so was I. I had a new understanding of the sizeable spirit of Indiana, and the Hoosiers within it.

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Negotiation Panel lead by Maggie Lewis, Angela Smith-Jones, and Marsha Stone (not pictured).

Princesses Briana and Kayla benefiting from Q & A with our city’s best female leaders.

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Receiving a tour of Eskenazi Hospital. We tried to move in, we were so impressed.

Photo courtesy of the PR department of Eskenazi Hospital

We cannot unlearn what the 100th Running taught us: Indiana’s possibilities, and capabilities, are magnanimous, and we have a responsibility to our home. Not every state can host celebrations of our size with ease (for today’s purposes we’ll use the word “ease”, and pretend the 500 Festival and the 100th Running wasn’t the wildest workload ever imagined. Shh…) We can travel or move away; we can positively impact wherever we land. But we’ll always be proud to be from this colorful, wet, corn-covered state, held in place by a huge, oval thumbtack known as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

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Front Row: Alum and Chaperone Sara, Me, aka “Mama Lori”, and Princess Program Logistics Coordinator (to whom I’d give a kidney if he needed it), Steve.

Rows 2-we’re too tired to make rows after the Race: The women I dubbed “My Shine On Girls”, who are the best at being Hoosier. I am in their debt for all they taught me.

When I was buried in the work, friends would ask my thoughts on this rewarding, yet turbulent assignment. My answer remains now as I stated it then: I was challenged to be a tiny part of something truly remarkable in a state to whom I owe so much. I am eternally proud to be a Hoosier, and this work, these Princesses, and this space in time, is my love letter to Indiana. I humbly sign here, Mama Lori.

Wisdom Comes Suddenly.

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