Tuesday, November 2, 2010
As I packed for New Orleans and the 2010 LREDA Fall Conference, the annual gathering of Unitarian Universalist religious educators from the United States and Canada, I tucked in work gloves, ball cap, and aging athletic shoes tucked. I was eager to finally put in some work-service time post-Katrina.
When I picked up my registration packet at the conference hotel, I learned that my assignment was "Education." Our group was to help with a book drive project for "Liberation through Education," a non-profit organization that "assists educators by inspiring children to develop personal identity, strong values, and social skills."
The first morning of the conference I boarded a bus along with eighteen or so others. At our first destination, we learned that the location for our project had changed. We headed for a second address. When we got there, we were all a bit puzzled. We had stopped at the driveway of a large brick home in an upscale older neighborhood.
We had arrived at the home of the founder/director of "Liberation through Education's." Carolyn Stowe greeted us and welcomed us onto the expansive covered patio of her home. Large porch fans whirred overhead, and we could see the backyard swimming pool through the arched patio openings. A number of computers were set up at a large dining room table. Plastic bins filled with books sat on the floor nearby. Boxes were stacked along a couple of the back walls.
Carolyn graciously opened her home to us, inviting us to please make ourselves at home. She had prepared drinks and snacks, and had made pralines for us. A very warm and vibrant person, Carolyn came alive telling us about her own childhood and her mission to help at-risk children break the cycle of lack of education and poverty, as she and one of her brothers had been fortunate enough to do. She shared how, as a child, being singled out for hand-outs had made her feel shamed, but information had made her feel empowered. When she was in sixth grade, everyone in her class received dental floss and instructions in how and why to use it. Carolyn had never seen floss before, but she took it home and thus began a lifetime of good dental hygiene. In her own words, "(I) was able to overcome the social stigmas and cyclical paths I was groomed to succumb to."
I am an educator with fourteen years' experience in the public schools and many additional years as a volunteer tutor and "Big Sister." I have witnessed and worried over the vast disparity in children's home-life and therefore their opportunities. I have struggled with what more we need to do to effectively bridge this gap in our classrooms. "Liberation through Education," with their slogan "ProCURING SOCIAL skILLS," made so much sense to me.
Our band of eighteen or so, sorted books by age groups and catalogued them, in preparation for a Book Giveaway event. We stayed just a few hours with Carolyn and her family, during which we also shared conversation and lunch. We worked solidly, but I cannot say I broke a sweat or even that my hands were grimy or tired. I had a lovely time. When we left, Carolyn and her children even gave each of us a treat bag to take home!
I admit that at first I was disappointed to have had a lovely time, not to have broken a sweat or gotten my hands dirty. Upon reflection, I realized that my disappointment says much more about me than it does about the conference planning. That was my stuff....my image of what service in New Orleans OUGHT to look like....my grandiose idea of what I was there to do.
Upon reflection, I believe I had just the experience I needed. I had the good fortune to meet someone whose LifeWork addresses a societal challenge that has deeply concerned me and was instrumental in my choice of profession nearly forty years ago--offering each child a fair chance to become a contributing member of society. I was reminded rather convincingly that those who wish to be of service need to do these things: let go preconceived notions, show up, pay attention, and be willing to do the work before us, whatever it is. It makes no difference if we find ourselves in a lovely home or a run-down school or a community garden. It all needs doing.
I said that I would come back from New Orleans changed, and I have. I have eaten, digested, and taken into my being some very nutritious "humble pie" (along with some great fresh seafood.) And I am more convinced than ever that we can make a difference in this world, one small step at a time, working together, as long as we are open to doing whatever it is that needs doing.