Monday, October 6, 2014

My volunteer journey

I recently had the opportunity to speak at my sorority's Founder's Day Luncheon about my experience as a volunteer and how I have chosen to give back. Here's what I had to say about all of that!

I don’t think I realized what I was getting myself into when I went out to that first rush event in college. I was actually a sophomore and looking for something to do and I ended up as an Alpha Chi Omega. I had this idea in my head of what sororities were and what they did for individuals. Not all my ideas were wrong but there were a few things I didn’t expect. The sisterhood was and still is amazing; the support on those late nights, having someone to call whenever you wanted to get food, or get off campus, or needed help with something, the fun and parties, the lifelong friendships. Those were the things I expected and received. But there was this other…thing… that didn’t have a word or phrase but AXO has decided to call it Real. Strong. Women.

In order to explain what that means to me I need to back up a bit. I was raised in a house with 3 adventurous girls, went to a progressive all girls’ high school, and as the oldest commonly is, determined to pave my own path in life. I was raised with the understanding that I can do anything the boys can (better than them sometimes), standards set by generations before me should be questioned, and that women could and should be independent thinkers and do’ers. I was also taught that giving back is the right thing to do, what if I need help someday? Using your talents to create progress is something you should strive for in your life. Even though I was raised with these ideals, it wasn’t until later in life that I started to understand what they really meant and what that meant for my future.

The first form of volunteerism I can remember doing is helping my mom cook a meal for a local shelter. We did it once a month and then would deliver it and help serve the meal. I don’t think I understood what I was doing or that I was even helping. Luckily doing things like this was a common staple in my vacation time growing up. Summers were spent helping haul boxes and stuff sacks at the local food bank, on weekends we helped out at the Special Olympics skiing and there was a giving tree at Christmas time that we always bought presents for. My middle school required regular community service hours and I remember being embarrassed by classmate who was complaining about having to do work. If my mom was there that would NOT have been allowed. You did what you were asked to help to get things done and it wasn’t about you.

Going off to college I no longer had those opportunities, or forced by my mother to find them, to give back.  I think that might have been what I was searching for when I found Alpha Chi.

My sisters in Alpha Chi not only encouraged my volunteerism but it was a requirement, and it felt good to give back. Before I joined Alpha Chi I had walked in the Susan G. Komen 3 Day Walk. In April of 2004 I received a call from my mother that devastated me, my Aunt Sue was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. She is a strong woman but there was nothing I could do for her in Ohio while I was in Florida. The next week I signed up for the 3Day walk because I needed to do something powerful for her. The 2nd year I walked I was lucky enough to be joined by a few sisters, including my Little, the daughter of an amazing survivor. Over the next 3 walks the team grew and the sisterhood strengthened. Joining Alpha Chi was, among other things, the reminder that I needed to get back to the ideals I was raised on.

After graduation I was lucky enough that the ideals that my parents taught, me and AXO reinforced, stuck with me. My commitment to the fight against breast cancer grew stronger and took on a whole new meaning. It was no longer about just doing something for my Aunt. It was about women, the many women in my life and the women I would never get the chance to meet. Over the next few years, I participated in 5 3Day walks, helped on planning committees for 2 Race for the Cures, and had the amazing opportunity to make these events a part of my career. Helping to plan, organize and execute these events was a dream come true that I would never change.  Knowing that I helped make a difference in even one life is something that can never be taken away from me.

During that time I was fortunate enough to be exposed to the world of working dogs and the quality of life they bring to individuals. My mother had a mid life crisis and brought home a service dog in training. Together, we raised little Rowena, late night walks, mid day accidents and lots of puppy exposures later, she graduated as a working dog for a woman in a wheelchair. This woman is what we would refer to as a real strong woman. After a car accident paralyzed her at the age of 16, she has gone on to follow her passion and become a teacher, be a basketball coach, and is the mother of three small children. My Rowena goes to an elementary school everyday, helps turn on lights, open drawers, pick up keys, and in general gives her new human Shannon, the dignity to do everything on her own. The puppies are cute and I couldn’t stay away. As a result I convinced my husband that we would be great puppy raisers. In June of 2012 we drove down to Southeastern Guide Dogs and picked up our first pup, Maggie Moose. This little black lab changed our lives and our hearts more that I thought possible. She went everywhere with us. She went to my 3Day meetings, my husband’s office, our dinner dates, and even on a plane to Colorado to visit my family.

While raising Maggie, we met a graduate, Lt. Col Kathy Champion. She is an Army Veteran who served multiple tours in the Middle East and has lost her vision and severe PTSD. She has a guide dog. We began spending time with her, with the idea that the dogs could play. During these puppy play dates, Kathy expressed her desire to be active and become a runner again. Somehow I ended up agreeing to serve as her guide for a local triathlon. That first run wasn’t pretty, or fast but with practice we became more comfortable with each other and developed a friendship that most don’t understand and I can’t really explain. I learned about PTSD and her experiences and she learned how to handle crowds and unknown situations. Less than 2 years later we have completed multiple triathlons and various running races.

Next came Westen, another black lab, who completely stole my heart being a complete momma’s boy and snuggle baby. When we learned that Westen was not destined to be a Guide Dog but rather a Veteran Service Dog we began learning about this country’s Veterans, more about PTSD, and how a service dog can help these heros. Learning about our country’s heroes opened a whole new world.

My most recent endeavor was raising money to support veterans and their families. Last weekend I completed a half ironman in Augusta. but that wasn’t the best part of the weekend. Meeting Veterans, who had nearly lost their lives, lost limbs, have traumatic brain injuries, and so much more was the real highlight. I had the honor to compete on a team with them, raise money for them and others like them, so that they and their families have the opportunity to heal, and then I got to shake their hand. The most ironic part about the whole thing is that a month ago one of my close friends became an amputee after a car hit him while he was running. In the wake of this I have used my experience in fundraising to help set up a fundraiser for him, we’ve raised almost $25,000 so far. And I’ve been able to call upon my network of people whom I just raced with and introduced him to other amputees. None of this was about me, or my race.

I’ve had some amazing opportunities so far in life. Many of them are a result of a connection I made while giving back. I was fortunate enough to turn my passion for giving back into a career but you don’t have to do that to lend a hand.

“It's impossible to be involved in all situations, but there's no excuse not to be involved in something, somewhere, somehow, with someone. Make an ounce of difference.” 
Richelle E. Goodrich,

You don’t have to do something for everything. I have followed my passions and taken myself on a journey through difference causes, all which have been worthy of more than I could ever give. There are so many reasons to care in this world and each of us has to choose the one that’s right for us, or maybe for that moment.

Being a member of Alpha Chi Omega I have learned many things. I have learned that sisterhood is something that can’t be explained; only experienced. I have learned that holding yourself to high standards can only lead to wonderful outcomes. I have learned that the world is much larger than just my world.

“You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.”
John Bunyan
Choose the purpose in life that drives you to do more, that drives you to do good. I promise that you will not regret it because we are all:

Real. Strong. Women