Howard authors take those struggling with challenge on 'A Journey of Hearts'

By Janene Holzberg, The Baltimore Sun

Tammy Bowers has come close on three occasions to losing her firstborn to an incurable kidney disease.

Sarah Bowers was diagnosed seven years ago, at age 19, with loin pain hematuria syndrome, a disease so rare there are only 3,000 known cases worldwide, Tammy Bowers said. Her daughter's most recent hospitalization, in December 2013, followed a life-threatening episode that struck with unusual swiftness and severity.

"Friends often would tell me I should write about Sarah's journey, since we have been through so much together," said Bowers; she and her husband, Jeff, live with Sarah and their two sons in Ellicott City.

"But I felt that no one would want to just read my story," she said. "Everyone has a challenge to face in life."

Nevertheless, Bowers took the idea to heart.

As an entrepreneur and self-described networker, she knew a number of people who were dealing with equally difficult circumstances.

Two years ago, she conceived the idea of publishing a collection of first-person, inspirational essays.

"A Journey of Hearts: Navigating Heartfelt Life Experiences" was published in November. The 140-page softcover book features stories written by nine people who didn't necessarily consider themselves writers before tackling their chapters. Five reside in Howard County; the others live in Baltimore, Tennessee and Australia.

"These are raw, real-life experiences," Bowers said of the essays, which deal with challenges includingAlzheimer's disease, a child's sudden death and domestic violence.

"On each and every page there are glimmers of hope," she said. "If you can find that glimmer [in your own life], that's what gets you through."

The book has apparently struck a chord.

The eclectic group's first book-signing, held Feb. 12 at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Long Gate Shopping Center, was the best-selling event the Ellicott City store has held in the past seven years, according to Julie Martin, the store's community business development manager.

Seventy-five copies were sold in one day, surpassing the December book-signing by Johnny Unitas Jr., who sold 70 copies of his book about his father, the legendary Baltimore Colts quarterback, "Johnny U and Me: The Man Behind the Golden Arm."

"To be neck-and-neck with someone of that caliber was very impressive," said Martin, adding that 20 to 30 copies is the typical number of books sold at a signing, unless the author is nationally known.

Since then, 40 more copies of "A Journey of Hearts" have been sold at the store, she noted.

Bowers was interviewed recently on radio station WOLB-AM's "Parenting 411" and will appear with her co-authors at WomenFest on April 25 at the Gary J. Arthur Community Center in Cooksville. Other regional events will be sandwiched in between.

"We really want to get the book out there," said Stacey Stirmer, who contributed a chapter about her youngest child, Jake, who has autism and epilepsy.

"The book focuses on how you turn your life around, and there's something in there for everyone," said Stirmer, who lives with her husband, Lloyd, with Jake and their two other children in Fulton.

Stirmer, a stay-at-home mother and active volunteer, was the first to suspect Jake had autism.

Doctors witnessed him interacting lovingly with his mother and had initially ruled it out, since avoiding eye contact and a lack of empathy are characteristic aspects of autism.

But her observations and maternal instincts, going back to when Jake was 15 months old, raised her concerns, and the disorder was eventually diagnosed.

Jake, now 20 years old, is on the low-functioning end of the autism spectrum, Stirmer said, and only speaks a few words when pressed. He responds to sensory stimulation and is mesmerized for hours on end by activities like tossing handfuls of autumn leaves into the air and watching them fall in the family's backyard.

He attends Atholton High School, where he is enrolled in an academic life skills program. He is a gentle, happy soul, Stirmer said.

"This book was therapeutic to write and is therapeutic to read," she said. "I love Jake with every ounce of my being. So you play the cards you're dealt."

Drema Bonavitacola woke up in the middle of the night when her chapter was nearly due and completed it in two hours, she recalled.

Bonavitacola's younger son Joey died of a drug overdose on Sept. 23, 2012, at age 18. Like his older brother A.J., he graduated from Howard High School, where he played on the football team and was a good student, she said.

The cause of Joey's death is not mentioned in the book, but the omission is not because of shame, she said.

"We are very involved parents, and our children have always come first," said Bonavitacola, a paraeducator for Howard County public schools.

She and her husband, Andrew, founded the Elkridge Hurricanes flag football team in 2003, and she formed the Hurricanes Cheerleaders a couple of years later.

"Joey made a bad choice," she said, and she wants young people in particular to understand that life is all about choices, a message she delivers as a speaker for HC DrugFree.

"I do believe you're in charge of your own destiny in more ways than one," she said.

To turn their tragedy into something positive, the Bonavitacola family is working to establish a scholarship in Joey's name at Howard High, and Drema Bonavitacola is writing her own book, which will include some of the poetry she posts on social media every day.

"We're all still working through this," she said of her son's death. "Writing about it has been very therapeutic."

Bowers hopes "A Journey of Hearts" will be uplifting to all people facing a challenge, and said the thread weaving the stories together is their focus on empowerment, not grieving.

"We wrote this book to help ourselves and others find closure," she said. "These stories are real-life tragedies, but readers will learn from them."

Bowers envisions the book as the first in a series of four. She became inspired to collect more stories, in part, by a friend's observation that the book is a new "Chicken Soup for the Soul," a 1993 title that spawned a series of books aimed at targeted audiences.

"A Journey of Hearts: Navigating Heartfelt Life Experiences" is available for $15.95 at Barnes & Noble, online and in the store, and at amazon.com and inspiringhearts.net.