Yesterday I participated in an event at work as part of my women's networking group. We provided workshops, some career coaching, and a healthy dose of encouragement to women who are in homeless shelters, unemployed, and who need a hand up in life. My networking group goes by the acronym WIN (Women's Integration Network).
I had volunteered to have a 1-on-1 lunch with one of the women who were visiting our office for the day. I was paired up with a woman who had an 11 year old daughter. Married, both she and her husband have been unemployed for some time. No college education, with a goal of being a social worker. We were joined by another woman who didn't have a lunch buddy. She had an 11 year old brother she was taking care of as well as a 1 year old daughter. She lives in a homeless shelter and began taking care of her brother after her mother had a nervous break-down. The father of her child is incarcerated, out of the picture. She hasn't had work in a while either, citing affordable and hard-to-come-by childcare as a major obstacle. She wants to go to school to be a nurse. Both are 25 years old.
What was I going to say to these women? How could I relate? How could I even begin to understand how difficult it is for them to just get up out of bed in the morning?
And then one of the women, the one who wants to be a nurse, said to me "Your name tag - you're from Women in Need." (Women In Need is the community group they belong to that helps these women find jobs, get money for school, and provides emotional support.)
"No, I work here in this office building," I replied.
"But your name tag says - WIN. That stands for Women in Need."
"Oh! That's also the acronym for our internal networking group here at this company. It stands for Women's Integration Network."
And with that simple revelation, I realized these women were not very different from me at all. My mom raised by sister, brother, and I on her own, no college education. We struggled with food and housing and health insurance. We had trouble keeping the lights and the heat on. Though that was many years ago, it's still there in me. All of it. I remember being hungry and afraid and hopeless. I remember having dreams that seemed unlikely, foolish, and impossibly out of reach.
I told them about putting myself through school twice, about my mom, about the role of education in my life and the advantages it provided to me. I smiled and laughed and asked them about their kids and their daily lives. I listened to them talk about their frustrations and hopes. And all it took was time - that's all it cost it me.
Through that lunch, I realized that there is a lot I can offer in these tough times, a lot of people I can help to live happier, healthier, more successful lives. And it doesn't involve any kind of extraordinary act. All it takes is me sitting down with people who are down and out, and telling them about my life and how I made it better, how so many people helped me along the way.
It's really just a way to pay forward all the blessings I have been fortunate enough to encounter. The people who helped me (my mom, my teachers, guidance counselors, some of my bosses, friends, authors, speakers, and the list goes on) were angels, and without them I am certain that I would have failed. This current recession provides us with an incredible opportunity to give and participate. It gives us a chance to repay the kindnesses we've witnessed.