Cheri Srour Does It All #BecauseSheCan

#BecauseSheCan
Judi Gabbay & Cheri Srour

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I walked into her home, two coffees in hand. She sat at the head of the table, perfectly manicured and hair swooped to one side. Her eyes, big, warm and brown invited me to sit next to her, and I flipped up my laptop.

“Okay.” – I nervously said. Her energy so powerful it’s hard to notice her wheelchair. We went through the basics. Cheri is 27 years old, a graduate of Brooklyn College boasting a bachelors degree in health and psychology. She used to love fashion, but now not so much. We’re the same age and live only minutes away from each other, but our lives differ so vastly. Asking what her hobbies are, I see we have similar ones. We are both fond of painting- and while I enjoy painting alone with a glass of wine, she loves planning events and painting with the elderly at the senior center: “They are so experienced … They all have a story and have learned from it. So why not listen and learn from them instead of making our own mistakes?” On Wednesdays she takes off from working at KosherMedia to package food for Aishel Shabbat, an organization providing food for those in need. It’s apparent that every activity Cheri is involved with is to benefit other people.

Just days before, I had been one of the 700 guests at the “Many Thanks” concert intently listening to her speak. Cheri and DJ Cohen, with the help of many devoted SBH volunteers, had planned this event in less than two weeks, highlighting the idea of thanking Hashem and the community for their constant love and support, choosing her favorite organization, Sephardic Bikur Holim, to benefit. The “dynamic duo” collaborated with singers and songwriters RJ2, Richie Chalmè and Joe Gindi, along with Abraham J. Franco, in creating this spectacular event. While these events take months to plan, it takes Cheri Srour just 14 days… just because #shecan.

Throughout my sit-down with Cheri, I noticed a pattern. Everything she focuses a small thought into, turns into a larger than life success. This past February, Cheri’s dream of participating in the Disney Marathon was originally denied out of safety reasons to the other runners. With her determined mind, she emailed them stating, “Isn’t Disney the place where dreams come true?” Two moxie filled emails later and a few conditions in place, she wasn’t only a part of the marathon, but she was at the head of the pack- leading 26,000 people into the race she had dreamed of running herself. Right before speaking in front of 500 people, her brother in law, Solly, pushed her through the 13.1 mile race, leaving the last half mile for Cheri to push herself through. Of course, she prevailed. Not only did she succeed, but raised over $15,000 dollars, along with her brother in law, and brought her family along with her through her fundraising: “It’s a lot like SBH. If you go to SBH and tell them you have no job, no talent, and no home, they won’t just hand you $10,000. But, they will push you in the right direction until you can push yourself.” It’s fitting, the love that she has for Disney. As Walt Disney was rejected over and over again, only to accomplish a dream that now fills other dreams. For some people being in a wheelchair may be an excuse to be held back. For Cheri, being in a wheelchair means leading the pack. It’s Cheri’s nature to flip everything from an impossible moment, to a more than possible moment with sparkles on top.

When she first decided to go to college, she felt she couldn’t do it. Thanks to the encouragement of her friend and mentor, she decided to try one class. She thought, “If he could be a father, husband, neurologist, a Rabbi, ski, climb mountains, be president of the Halachic Organ Donor Society and be in a wheelchair too, I could try a college course.” One class turned into a semester, a semester into two… and she now has her bachelor’s degree.

I ask her, “What bugs you the most about people?” Her answer. “Stupid people.” “What makes them stupid?” I ask. She replies… “Because they’re not actually stupid. It bothers me when people complain about the stupid stuff.. which is normal because it’s human nature. As long as you come back to the realization of what’s important, you’ll be fine. People forget [about the important stuff.]” It’s part of the reason she started the campaign #BecauseICan. Now a trend on Instagram, Cheri’s followers can see her inspirational posts, showcasing her capabilities and how her small actions create a ripple effect. “There is a stigma about people in wheelchairs. That we can’t do anything. Even though I’m in a wheelchair, I can do anything.” she says. “At one point, I couldn’t lift my finger. Now I can move my whole arm – and it’s all because of Hashem.” Because of her physical weakness, her vocal chords separated, leaving her speechless… only to miraculously wake up a few months later with touching chords and a strong steady voice used now to inspire others (there is no explanation for that except for Hashem). #BecauseICan being the theme of all of her speeches, she continues to use the attention for positive motives. It becomes more clear with each question and hour I spend with Cheri, that truly anything is possible.

It brought me to my next question of how she came up with the idea of the “Many Thanks” event. She explained that the community always hold events raising money for a specific cause. She wanted to just have an event, to simply say thanks – to Hashem and to everyone. It was an idea she and DJ Cohen had from the start of summer, but wouldn’t be put into action until the end of August. “I reached out to Charles [Anteby], who was away during the first week we tried to plan. He explained it would be extremely difficult, that we’d need at least 4-6 months to plan.” The idea was pushed to December, giving ample time for the team to do it correctly. Feeling down about the postponed event, Cheri put the idea on hold. A text came in from DJ a couple of days later asking her what she wanted for her birthday. She answered “For this event to happen.” DJ simply responded “K. Let’s do it.” The next day, she received a text and the first meeting was created. Everyone who came to the meeting brought a friend with them to voluntarily help and the ripple effect began. It seems, if Cheri even sneezes, magical things happen… wear a helmet if she coughs.

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700 tickets, every single souvenier, and all of the food were all sold out at the successful event just two weeks later. “If I want something, I don’t give up… how do you think I’m friends with John Stamos?” she jokes. Although laughing, the truth came through. My time with Cheri makes me realize that she is a force to be reckoned with, won’t ever take no for an answer, and will always use her power for the sake of others. Her hopes through speaking and her inspirational page are to influence people to hang in there, despite what their issues are. “Just keep swimming.” Cheri says, smiling. This is a girl who was given lemons, used the peels for Limoncello, the pulp for lemonade, and grew more lemons with the pits and started all over again. “When you ask Hashem for something, his answers are always, ‘Yes, not yet, or something better is coming’” she says.

What Cheri wants, Cheri gets. Whether it be for fundraising, planning events, or finagling her way onto a stage during a concert to sing with John Stamos, Cheri always takes the wheel.

After being moved by Cheri’s beautiful speech about appreciating the little things, I felt it needed to be published. Being outdoors on that beautiful night, I felt how enlightened the crowd was by Cheri’s words. I wanted to share a little bit about my friend Cheri to the community as a whole, as well as her speech… just #BecauseICan:

Tonight is a night that DJ and I have been talking about for a few months now. We had this idea but never actually acted on it. Then we reached out to Charles and you know how it is with Charles – let’s just say, I have a better chance getting in touch with John Stamos.

So anyway, things were left in the air and that was that. Then a few weeks ago DJ asked what I wanted for my birthday and I sincerely said that all I wanted was for this event to happen. He said ok let’s do it. And then I brushed it off. I have no idea what he did but before I knew it, I was in a room filled with many, many volunteers offering their time and devotion into making this night happen.

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I am so lucky to be part of such an amazing community and this could not have been a better birthday present – so from the bottom of my heart – to all the volunteers, the sponsors, everyone that came out tonight, SBH, DJ & RJ2, and of course, Jamie and Ricky Cohen – many thanks to all of you.

Tonight is a night to stop and just appreciate the beauty of life. A night of celebration for all that we have and all that we dont have. It’s a night to recognize how lucky we are to have each other and how precious life is.

We each have our own definition of what a “miracle” is. As I see it, we can look at life as if nothing is a miracle or we can see it as if everything is a miracle. Do we look at the glass half full or half empty? It’s a simple choice we have to make.

Take a look at your children – if you pay attention, you can notice how much they appreciate the little things – a kiss on their forehead, their first baby steps, a trip to the ice cream store. As they get older, there are more things to be thankful for, yet they begin to appreciate it less. The simple ice cream cone doesn’t seem to do the trick anymore. Their first sentence is no longer the biggest deal. If you kiss them in public, they’ll run away from you. We start to forget the little things – the ones that make the bigger things happen.

Unfortunately for me, when I turned 18 my life turned upside down and within two weeks I was basically paralyzed, unable to move and swallow, or breathe on my own. After spending many months in the hospital, I regained some strength. I started to breathe again on my own. I learned how to swallow again. I began taking steps for the first time.

People always ask me how I have such a positive outlook on life. I explain that I had a brush of death that gave me a wake up call. My eyes were open to the little things we take for granted.

I was a kid again seeing and appreciating the little things. Standing again and walking a few feet mattered more to me. Breathing on my own was a blessing. It is still a blessing. I was so grateful for regaining the ability to chew food and swallow it. Being able to smile again was a gift in itself.

Do I enjoy being in a wheelchair? Not really, except when it has its perks. Do I have to fight my body to maintain its strength? Every. Single. Day. Do I sit around and cry about it? Never. I’m thankful for my struggle because without it, I wouldn’t have stumbled across my strength.

We have to take life as it comes to us. We have to take the bad with the good and be thankful for it. Life is like a roller coaster – and its your choice to scream or enjoy the ride. Without the challenges that Hashem blesses us with, we would never appreciate what we have and recognize what we can lose. Sometimes were so ready to complain about 100 things that aren’t going our way, but what about the 10,000 things that are?

It is true that my life may be more challenging than others, but I chose to make the best of it. I figured life is a gift and I don’t intend on wasting it. So I find the things that make me happy from within. And that happiness doesn’t come because everything is good. I’m genuinely happy because I see the good in everything. I make the best of it because I want someone to look at me and say “because of you I didn’t give up”.  Once you choose to believe that the little things are just as blissful as the big ones, you’ll begin to see the miracles everywhere. I now live like every day is a miracle because for me, it is. And then when people ask me how do I see the glass half full, I stop them and say – I’m just thankful I have a cup.