Act: #53: Find your deep gladness.
When I was 18, I moved to a small town in a state that I had never been to. Like much of the international world, the only thing I knew about Kentucky was that it made some finger-lickin' good fried chicken. Clearly, the natives wanted to keep the real delicacy, biscuits and gravy, a secret from outsiders like me. The first week I stepped foot on the picturesque campus of Berea College, I wandered a few blocks to the local fast food chain, Hardee's, and saw this sign: "All you can eat biscuits and gravy 99 cents every Sunday". One year, 52 Sundays, and 30 pounds later, I knew that I had fallen hopelessly in love with biscuits and gravy, with Kentucky, with the town of Berea, and most of all, with Berea College.
If you're not from Kentucky, you may have never even heard about Berea College. Founded in 1855, by abolitionist John Fee, Berea College was the first inter-racial and first co-educational college in the South. Please allow that to sink in. Blacks and whites were sitting side by side in classrooms and living together in dorms before the Civil War. Before desegregation. Every student receives a full-tuition scholarship. Every student works. Most students leave with an inclusive world view and a nagging conscience to be an active contributor to bettering the world. A nagging conscience that would later pluck me out of Raleigh, North Carolina, where I had been living post-graduation, and pull me right back to Berea College to head up the Alumni Relations office for 9 years.
I was 31 years old and had spent the years prior to that, doing what Berea instilled me to do - save the world, of course. I volunteered for a year in the AmeriCorps program in Pikeville, KY. I worked at a domestic violence shelter, a refugee resettlement center, and spent the bulk of the remaining years as a civil rights investigator.
Working in college advancement was quite new to me, but asking others to support such a worthy mission came surprisingly easy. I had an incredible boss who was 90% mentor and 10% supervisor, who challenged me, gave me room to make mistakes, and treated me like I was the authority of all things alumni relations. So I had no choice but to become the authority of all things alumni relations. I grew beautifully into my role, flourished as a professional, and became deeply invested in the campus and the continued legacy of future Berea College students. My boss had this extraordinary way of keeping me connected to Berea's mission - to provide education to students with great promise. So I could be planning a fancy donor party in New York City or taking out the trash after a reunion, and it didn't matter. Because I knew that my small actions were indirectly transforming the lives of thousands of untapped gems, many who would have never had the opportunity to even attend college.
For the longest time I pictured myself growing old in this campus community, maybe retiring and then finally coming back to a reunion I wouldn't have to work. And just when things were perfect and cozy, and comfortable, two life-changing events took place: 1.) My boss and mentor retired; and 2.) I attended what would be my last commencement ceremony during which author and peace activist, Parker Palmer challenged the graduating class to find that place where your deep gladness meets the world's deep needs. Suddenly I was left alone to try to convince myself that the act of appeasing a disgruntled, racist alumnus, somehow indirectly helped to transform lives of future students. It was becoming increasingly more difficult to do so. My new boss, while incredibly gifted in all things fundraising, and would have been greatly supportive in moving me through the institutional advancement ranks, had little connection to Berea's mission herself, and I was finally forced to face the truth: I never saw myself as an Alumni Director. The job was just my way to meet the world's deep needs. But it never really served my deep gladness. So at the age of 40, with the extraordinary support of my family I quit my job and almost opened a gourmet hot dog stand. Yes, I really did. I mean, I even talked to the small business development folks, started testing menu items like Caribbean Jerk Tofu dogs and Teriyaki Chicken Sausages. I had no idea what my deep gladness was, and I always wanted to own my own business. So I was going to run a weenie stand by day, and find myself by night.
The Universe would have different plans for me and my hot dog dreams would have to be put on hold until retirement. I consider myself incredibly humbled to wake up every day to serve alongside 16 world-changing women, fighting against violence, and for peace. I finally found my deep gladness. It was inside of me all along and I would have never found it if it weren't for the valuable life lessons that Berea instilled in me.
For more information on how you can help my two loves, both places of deep need, please visit www.berea.edu or www.bluegrassrapecrisis.org.