Giving back.


When I received the invitation on behalf of Citizen Schools to speak at Aspire Lionel Wilson College Preparatory Academy in Oakland, I eagerly accepted.  Speaking in front of groups is a passion of mine. I also loved the idea of trying to provide the type of mentoring for which I have always been grateful.  I feel I benefited greatly from programs at my girls school in New Zealand that encouraged girls to follow their dreams.

As I prepared my speech, I tried to channel the type of message that was meaningful to me when I was that age. I looked forward to trying to take on a role that was special to me.  Yet when it was all finished, what the girls gave me was an amazing gift far beyond anything I expected.

Citizen Schools is a non-profit after school program providing additional education for middle school boys and girls in challenged communities. More than 90% of the children attending this school are on free/reduced lunch, and 97% are Hispanic. I was scheduled to address a classroom of 13 year old girls about leadership. A few weeks prior to my talk, the lead instructor asked each of the girls in this class if any of them viewed themselves as leaders. Not one of them said yes.

Driving from San Francisco deep into Oakland, one notices the differences immediately. Road quality deteriorates, the industrial envelopes the residential as the basic infrastructure that many take for granted is pretty dilapidated.  Still neatly laid out houses, some beautifully constructed of brick and wood stand their ground, often sealed with metal bars amid abandoned industrial lots.

Upon entering the school, I was immediately struck by the décor. While the building was modest in a working class neighborhood banners hung from the ceiling for different universities and lively teachers and counselors were everywhere thanking me for coming and engaging with students.

In the classroom, I could not help but notice on the wall in large lettering a writing assignment. The assignment was an analysis of an argument. This argument said that given the difficulty of growing up in Oakland, how could anyone hope to get ahead and accomplish anything?  Support was there for these kids, but clearly not the sugar-coating.

As I prepared my slides for the presentation the girls were corralled into their seats. Many looked nervous and seemed terribly shy. Yet as I began to tell my story, something amazing happened. They began to deeply engage in what I was saying. Clearly these girls had never had any open water experiences. They were from very different worlds than the farm I grew up on in New Zealand. They had never been told they may never walk normally again. Still, they created this connection and were taking my experiences and making them their own.

They brought electricity to the room that I have rarely seen. They speculated on what it would be like to swim in the cold, whether or not they would like to see wildlife. Girls waved their arms in the air and talked about what they would like to become when they were older. After my talk they were given an assignment to sketch out of movie of their lives and aspirations. Many who were initially quiet eagerly raised their hands and came to the front of the class to share their future accomplishments.

I felt invigorated and energized. Who would not enjoy seeing their passion and interest stimulate others? I had come to tell my story of swimming and overcoming challenge. However, I was the one who walked away with the inspiration. And for this I thank these girls for giving back.