I was raised in a town plucked straight from a Norman Rockwell painting. It was a town with no home mail delivery or trash pick up. No, for that your parents made you ride your bike to the Post Office to pick up the mail and on Saturday mornings they put you and the weeks' worth of garbage in the back of the truck and you helped them unload it at the town dump. The town still had a milkman who allowed us kids to hitch rides through town on the milk truck. (This worked out well since our town had no bus.) He was married to the sixth grade teacher. (And the school principal was married to the lady who ran the electric company.) We didn't get cable television until well into my teen yeas. My high school graduating class was 42.
It was the kind of place where everyone knew each other and had for generations. The kind of place where your mom was on the PTA and your dad coached soccer or basketball. It was small and quiet and quaint and I was raised in the bubble of protection small town life provided.
I found life in the bubble to be as boring as hell and wanted out.
In college, I was majoring in Health Science and earning a degree in Health Education. I was hoping to continue on and earn a Masters in Public Health. While I was in school, I was working part time for a YMCA After School Program with inner city kids. My "classroom" was wasn't actually a room at all. It was a pass-through hall way that connected the main part of the school with the gymnasium. My program only had twelve children in it, not because there wasn't a need for more families, but because it was all we were licensed for given the use of space we had. Since it was a common space and not our own space, the supplies I used for the program were locked in the janitor's closet at the end of each day.
I fell instantly in love with my job and with the kids.
Around the time of my graduation, I saw a posting in the YMCA Job Opportunities newsletter that caught my eye. It was for a Family Resource Director and it was a brand new position, funded through a national Drug Elimination grant. The Resource Center was in a satellite building in a part of the city that was synonymous with drugs and crime and blight. The job of the new Director was to find out the needs of the community, create programs to fit those needs, and implement them.
I was now 23 years old and I had work experience and a college degree in hand. I my sheltered & naive mind, I knew everything. I wrote my first resume and hand delivered it to the YMCA Branch President's desk.
They gave me an interview. And then a second. And a third. Then I got the letter that the job was mine. I was thrilled! I called my mom and Mr. A. I called my friends. I laughed. I cried. I celebrated.
And then, I panicked.
I couldn't decide what was more crazy....me applying for the job or the higher ups actually giving it to me. Working in a small, already established program, with inner city kids was one thing. Creating a multitude of programs and managing an entire building, staff and budget was another. Why had I not realized this before? What had I gotten myself into? (Hindsight being everything, I can say this is one of the gifts of working for the YMCA. As a non-profit, the pay is lousy, but amazing opportunities for growth and life experience are offered for someone as inexperienced and young as I was.)
I showed up for my first day on the job and was given a box of office supplies and filled out a form for my new business cards. I was taken to my 'new' office. I had bought myself a smart new outfit and briefcase, which my boss promptly suggested I get rid of.
The building my office was in was entirely mine to create programs for. The first floor had a large open room that was bright and sunny and overlooked the street through a large picture window. There were two small offices and a tiny kitchen. The upstairs had another large open room and a smaller room. There was an office and the backdoor led to a nice green space.
The building had been abandoned for the past seven years and the YMCA had leased it from the city for $1 per year. Fresh paint and new carpeting brightened the previously dark space and a brightly colored mural of children playing was painted on a large wall in the main area. The building had great bones and I saw the potential.
The neighborhood where my building was located bore the scars of a community that had fallen on rough times. Vacant properties and lots outnumbered occupied homes and buildings. The majority of the occupied homes were shabby and in disrepair. Most businesses had left the area and those that remained struggled to stay afloat. There were no playgrounds so the children explored the vacant lots and played kickball in the street.. At any hour of the day, drug dealers and prostitutes lingered on street corners, conducting business of their own, passersby pretending not to see.
Across the street was one of the few single family homes in the neighborhood. The once yellow paint was faded and like the other homes, it was badly in need of repair. There was a sofa on the front porch and milk crates provided additional makeshift seating in the small front yard. A radio placed in the open front window blasted salsa music for the young men who always seemed to be working on a car in the driveway. The front door was always open and I would see little children holding bottles of Coca Cola coming and going. On the railing of the front porch were a row of old shoes. The shoes served as planters and the flowers offered bright pops of color in an otherwise drab landscape. It was the first time I had seen such a fun and creative repurposing of old shoes, many years before the idea showed up on Pintrest.
My building was kitty-corner to an abandoned warehouse. There was a billboard on the outside that read: "WARNING! AIDS and Hepatitis B have not yet been controlled in the X neighborhood." This dire message was evidenced by the many needles one could expect to find in the vacant lots where the children played and on the street corners where local business was conducted.
This was life, exactly 5.82 miles from where I had grown up.
I sat alone in my building on that first day, unsure of what exactly I should be doing. I had put my office supplies away neatly and had put framed pictures and a plant on my desk. Now what? Where do I begin?
My boss stopped by later that afternoon to see how I was settling in. She then told me she was leaving for Paris the next day for a week and when she returned, we could discuss my plans for the Family Resource Center.
She walked out the door, the lock softly clicking behind her. I spent the remainder of the day listening to Spanish music and staring at a blank wall.