After Years of Work, Overnight Success!

After Years of Work, Overnight Success!

This quote came from a community partner at lunch today. Sitting with her, and a supervisor from El Futuro, and two MSW students, I couldn’t help but feel awed and grateful. The Nature Trail project is up and running. How did that happen?

The story began two years ago, maybe a little more when I received an email from a retiree living in a neighborhood just outside of Chapel Hill. She was reaching out because of something she’d seen on UNC’s website about some of our work and thought I’d be potentially helpful to a tutoring effort she was leading in a trailer park close to her comfortable neighborhood. The volunteer tutoring program was directed at the new immigrant kids from Latin America that lived in the trailer park – the bulk of the census of the place. Staffed by retirees many of whom have had great careers as educators, reading experts, and other educational specialists, the program works with elementary and middle school age young people. My contact , Carol, asked to have coffee to talk about the psychosocial needs of the kids and families she and her compatriots were getting to know.

For many of us, time is our most precious commodity. And the typical advice for managing time well is to say no to things that have no clear benefit to our work. I remember telling someone about that initial phone call only to hear, “Who has time for that?” Of course no one ever has time for anything but there’s always time if you care about it or if you’re just…curious. People like the woman I met, who is now a friend and colleague generate questions. What are you doing that is so compelling to you that instead of cruising the Mediterranean, as many in your circumstances might, you are choosing to do this work even after a full career of service? Why work with kids that nobody else cares about? Here’s the answer to the first question. This committed group was tutoring elementary and middle school children who were immigrants or children of immigrants from Latin America. They were raising money to replace trailers that had been decimated by fire or age. They were providing food at holidays and after school. And along the way they were becoming privy to issues they felt were out of their scope. That’s why they called; they wanted help negotiating that extra-educational terrain that makes all the difference in whether or not kids can take advantage of educational opportunities. The answer to the why question, I’ve never asked. I’m just glad they chose to do it and I’m glad I said yes to that cup of coffee.

Fast forward to now. El Futuro, a long time community partner, is now supervising two MSW students who are working primarily in this trailer park. The students, who started this summer, are doing community needs assessments, coordinating with schools and other agencies, creating programming to enhance and expand on what the tutoring program, now officially incorporated and called Learning Trail, started. All this activity in spite of the fact, that last spring, I thought I was going to have to go back to everyone and tell them the whole thing was not going to work. The puzzle we had dreamed up had so many pieces that had to come together at once and we couldn’t get more than two or three in place at anyone time. We had some financial resources but not enough. We had students that were interested in part of the plan but not all of it. My dean had put some resources toward this project. The Carolina Center for Public Service gave me a small grant and extra time to bring undergraduate service learners into the mix. El Futuro’s leadership said, “We don’t know how we’ll do this, but we’ll do it.” The Director of Field Education, for whom situations like this almost always cause some headaches, said, “Yes” and accepted the accompanying headaches with grace. All had taken a chance, said yes, and the idea of going back to them and saying we would have to shelve the effort was disheartening…and so I put off doing anything. Surely if we’d come this far…

And then barriers became breakthroughs. Two amazing students with the heart and temperament for this work came into our program. When we went back to the tutoring program and said, now we have the right students, but we need some fund raising, Learning Trail found an anonymous donor who said yes. At last the work has begun. There will be so much to figure out, so much that will challenge and frustrate all of us as we co-create this work. But for today, I’ll be thankful for the magic, the alchemy that turns ideas and possibilities into realities, the power of possibility and the power of yes.

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