Seven years ago today I walked by this quote for the first time. While I understood the words, I didn’t understand the potential behind them.
I have walked by this quote every day since then. And with each day I appreciate more and more the power within these words; within each of us to make change happen.
Growing up I wasn’t a kid who was going to be a nurse or a police officer or a superhero. Oh no. I had my sights set high. As in high heels and power suits. No Edith Bunker here. I was going to break down the glass ceiling and be an “executive”.
I was on a path to fulfilling that dream. My career started in the private sector. I eventually moved into an industry that was predominantly run by men. The ceiling was cracking.
Around that same time I started volunteering at a community based organization. That’s when I learned what it was like to make a difference. I was hooked.
Seven years ago today I walked through the halls of United Way Ottawa for the first time. While my plan was to help change, even in the smallest way, the lives of others, it has changed mine.
If you’re anything like me, you probably live in the suburbs. You either drive or take public transit through the middle of the city to work every day; blind to what’s on the other side of the wall. You make enough to put food on the table, pay the bills and keep some sort of roof over your head.
Had I not joined United Way I’m not sure I would be where I am today. There is a good chance that I would still be walking around with my rose coloured glasses on. While I volunteered for an agency and maybe scurried past a homeless person on the streets every now and then, I certainly had no idea there was “another” Ottawa.
How could we, as the Nation’s Capital, have more than 32,000 children living in poverty? Almost 40% of these children aren’t starting school with basic skills to learn. How can you expect to break the cycle of poverty when we have already failed them at 4 or 5 years old?
Imagine cramming all of your belongings into your kid’s bedroom. Now pack your whole family in there. I give you 68 seconds before you’re at each other and someone stomps out and heads for the kitchen. Unfortunately more than 700 families in Ottawa each year are having to access homeless shelters and stay in that exact situation.
When I joined United Way these were some of the statistics I learned. Sure, I was shocked. How could you not be? But hearing these numbers was one thing; seeing the “other” Ottawa was something else.
Make Change Happen
My job is a privilege. I have worked with some of Ottawa’s most respected philanthropists to bring their vision of a stronger community to life. I have attended graduation ceremonies of young moms, kids themselves, overcome adversity and proudly walk across a stage to receive their high school diploma. In the 7 years I have been with United Way I have met some of the most incredible and inspiring people.
Five years ago I met Tom Hogan, an Ojibwa artist featured in some of Ottawa’s local cafés and art galleries. I was honoured that he allowed me to watch over his shoulder as he mixed colours with his brush and stroked them across the canvas. No words were spoken as he was lost in his art; as was I.
The room I stood in watching Tom Hogan was at the Shepherds of Good Hope. It was the room he shared with 3 other men. Although it was his dream, Tom Hogan didn’t have a room of his own. Until 2010. That’s when The Oaks opened – a permanent housing facility – and Tom was handed the keys to a small bachelor apartment.
I was there for that moment. In the background. He wouldn’t have known who I was given all we had done was exchange a handshake and a brief hello. But I cried that day. Tom’s dream had come true. And United Way played a role in helping with that dream.
I cried again this past January when I learned of Tom’s passing. As tears kissed my cheek, I reflected on why I was crying. After all, I had only shaken hands with the man. It was the fact that Tom died with dignity. While he wasn’t there long, Tom had a place he could call home.
The quote by Margaret Mead is in the main hallway at United Way Ottawa. It reminds me each and every day of why I – why we – do what we do. Every single person has the power – both individually and collectively – to make a difference. To make change happen. To change a life.6