I would like to pass on another report of Sean Astin’s appearance as the closing speaker at the Generations United Conference in Alexandria, Virginia on Saturday. (For those who don’t know, Generations United is the only national organization that focuses solely on promoting intergenerational strategies, programs and policies.) I was invited to be one of the chaperones to a local youth group who were graciously granted permission by the GU organizers to attend Sean’s speech.
Because it was the last day of the conference, many of the attendees had already left. That meant that the closing session would be much more intimate – approximately 150 people.
The closing session opened with the Speaker briefly summarizing what had gone on during the Conference, whose main theme was grandparents who are raising their grandchildren as well as intergenerational volunteerism. Sean was standing off to the side listening intently. The Speaker introduced a local nonprofit improv acting troop comprised of adult and Baltimore inner city youth to address social issues and generational understanding. They performed two little skits, the first about a teenager who didn’t want to visit an elderly woman with AIDS for fear of catching the disease, then realizing that the older woman was lonely and had much to share. The second skit had an inner city kid spraying graffiti on a wall. A woman comes up behind and, instead of chastising him, comments favorably on his use of color and asking what he feels when he draws. He is somewhat receptive — actually, startled by her interest. She wishes him well and says goodbye, but intentionally leaves her shopping bag behind. The kid, curious, approaches the abandoned bag. As he’s looking at the contents, Sean wanders up and looks at the “wall” with the painting. He comments on how cool it is and, hey, what’s in the bag? Inside, the kid finds colorful markers, art paper, and a flyer about a youth center that encourages the arts as an outlet. The kid decides to check it out and, as he leaves, hands the spray paint can to Sean — who shrugs and promptly begins to mime spraying the wall!
Sean was finally introduced to the audience amid much applause as he took the podium. He was very snappily dressed in a suit that he bought at Brooks Brothers. A little story went with that, about how his father had said that since he was about to meet the President to be sworn into the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation, he should really get himself a nice suit. So Sean, an avowed Democrat, mimed walking somewhat sheepishly into Brooks Brothers and essentially asking them for a suit that would make him look like a Republican! (At which point, he stepped out from behind the podium to briefly model the suit.)
Sean discussed how he had came to be a member of the President’s council. He had been asked to attend a memorial service at the Pentagon on the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and was approached by a member of the President’s staff who wanted to know how an actor had come to be at such solemn proceedings. As you may know, Sean has been a civilian liaison with the US Army for many years and explained that a friend at the Pentagon had invited him since he would be in town for a memorial event on the National Mall later that day. The woman then asked Sean if he’d be interested in a new Council promoting volunteerism that the President was organizing. Sean was definitely interested, but warned that he was a Democrat. The representative assured him that it was alright, since the Council was nonpartisan.
Sean talked about how hard it is to balance family life with his hectic schedule of work, projects, and other business that has kept him running non-stop. He spoke often of his father John Astin, with the greatest respect, and how much he admires how incredibly busy and active his father is at 73. He also discussed the difficulties and joys of his relationship with his wife’s grandfather, who passed away a few months ago. In that context, Sean said something I’ve not heard before but found truly moving. In discussing the value of older people to the young, he said that “When an old person dies, it’s like a library burns down.” How true!
There was a short Q&A period after Sean’s speech. One question asked of Sean was how he felt about tapping into the potential of fans to contribute to charitable causes and/or volunteerism. (I’m paraphrasing. The actual question was far more eloquent and well thought out than that simple statement.) Sean replied that he was very interested in how fans could turn their enthusiasm and energy to good works and volunteerism, but wasn’t exactly certain how that could be attained.
The next question wasn’t actually a question. It was a challenge from a senior citizen in the audience for Sean to make a movie like “Rain Man,” which raised public awareness about autism, but instead depicting the many facets and difficulties of grandparents raising grandchildren. “You want me to make the definitive movie?” he asked. “Will you buy a ticket?”
Throughout his speech, Sean was relaxed, sincere, passionate and quite obviously speaking from his heart rather than from a written page. It was more of a comfortable talk than a prepared speech. Afterward, GU gifted Sean with a beautiful black and white photo of a pair of hands, one old and the other very young, depicting intergenerational cooperation.
To my surprise and delight, the GU folks and Sean graciously set up a receiving line after the closing session where anyone who was interested could say hello, get an autograph or have their picture taken with Sean. It was an unexpected gesture and very appreciated! Needless to say, the teenagers we were chaperoning (all LOTR fans) were thrilled! None of them had met a celebrity before and all of them loved Sean as Sam. Each of them got to spend a few minutes one on one with Sean and have their picture taken with him. Unanimously, they were very impressed with how friendly, sincere, and approachable he was. As has been said before (and it’s true!), they all marveled at how Sean made them feel as if he were listening and truly interested; as if they were the only person in the room at that moment.
When it was my turn to say hello, I told Sean that I just wanted to say thank you for inspiring so many people to volunteer and support charities. Whether as Mikey or Rudy or Sam, he has inspired so many people with his values and his good works. He felt that there were probably more fans than he could imagine who were donating their time to charities because of him. He then thanked me for my thank you (*g*) and for being an active volunteer myself. “Keep up the good work,” he said in parting, then added, “We both will!”
I am eternally grateful to the GU organizers for being so gracious in allowing four chaperones and 8 teenagers to attend the closing session of their conference. I am especially grateful to Rev. Rachel Wangen-Hoch for inviting me to be one of the group’s chaperones. And most of all, many many thanks to Sean Astin for his generosity of spirit, inspiration, and his passion to help others.