Monday, June 19, 2017

Sands of Hope

My former boss just passed away, and although we hadn't been close for the past few years, I'm very grateful to her for hiring me and for all that she taught me.

At her bereavement services, her daughter said that her last 4 years were spent with family and she was very happy. That was good to hear. She deserved that. After building the program from the ground up and running it for 20 years, and decades of service before that, she deserved to do whatever she wanted in her golden years. I wish her time at the program ended a little differently, but it worked out for her and for us, so it's all good. She did so much for the program and for me personally; her death, although very sad considering her relatively young age, allowed me to fully appreciate her impact.

RoseAnne taught me a lot about working in the field of social work and non-profits. She also taught me a lot about working with and advocating for poverty-stricken kids. She didn't lecture, and she certainly didn't preach, she just gave many great lessons through conversation and actions.

The most amazing, and brilliant, thing she ever taught me was the audacity of hope. The phrasing is Obama's, but she exemplified the notion through her actions and philosophy. She used hope as a tool for individual and societal improvement. One of her quotes that defines the philosophy behind the program is, "hope is a powerful motivating force."

Our program teaches comprehensive sex education, and we put a heavy focus on academics and career readiness, but without giving our kids hope, none of that would matter. If a child believes they will be stuck in the same low-paying job in the same poverty-ridden area as most of their family and friends, sex education and academic assistance probably won't change their circumstances. But combine that with hope for a better future, plus a vision to achieve that future, and any child can accomplish incredible things.

RoseAnne helped manifest hope in many ways, but one way in particular will always stay with me for its strength through subtlety.

Just telling kids "you can do anything!" is fine and all, but its too vague and their vision of "anything" is very limited. They have to be shown real yet hopeful alternatives to the lives they see around them.

On her desk in her office, she kept little containers of sand from beaches around the world. Some of the sand was from places she had visited, others were from her friends and family. She had sand from Hawaii, Bequia, South Africa and an assortment of other places. She kept them at the front of her desk, and they sparked a lot of conversation.

Students would often visit her in her office. She always offered a place to vent or just sit in peace. The students who were having the most difficult time at school or at home were the ones who visited her office most. Inside, there was no judgment or punishment or demands. There was just the opportunity to talk to a grandmotherly presence.

One of the first things most kids saw when they talked to her was the sand. Inevitably, they would reach for a container or ask what it was. She would tell them where she got each one and reminisce about her trips. After a while, some kids would come in just to look at or play with the sand.

Eventually, they would talk about wanting to go to the places RoseAnne described, places they had never even heard of. She'd assure them they could get there some day. That they would get there. Why shouldn't a young boy from New Britain visit Egypt when he got older? Why shouldn't a young girl who had never been outside of her neighborhood visit Spain? Or Hawaii?

A mustard seed can move mountains, a grain of sand can instill hope. Knowing this was her genius. So many kids don't reach their full potential because they have no idea what their potential is. They literally can not conceive of a life outside of their own immediate circumstances. They don't know anything outside of the city (oftentimes just the neighborhood) in which they were born.

But that sand, and those conversations, illuminated a whole new world for them. That simple gesture was life-changing.

Students come into our program in middle school and are soon thinking about which college they'll attend. In the neighborhoods we serve, that was not the mentality that existed when RoseAnne started the program 25 years ago. Today, 80% of our students go to college.

Recently, one of our program graduates received her Master's Degree. From the University of Hawaii.

It started with hope and a grain of sand.

Rest In Peace RoseAnne.

I Love You All...Class Dismissed.

1 comment:

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I loved this one. It has given me courage to try scarier things. I tend to steer clear of them but not anymore.
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