It’s embarrassing I haven’t thought of this before…it is such an important thing to understand. United Way staff members were asked to think about and share their own story of why they “Live United.” Several folks had very compelling experiences that made them aware of how important community is when something bad happens. And it is true that what drives many of us every day to do this work is remembering how difficult life is for so many. But when asked to think about “why,” I struggled to find a good reason—it just seems that I have always wanted to be part of an effort to make the world a better place, no matter how small the part. And then I remembered.
The Same Place, Different Experiences
When I was 13 years old it was 1965. I lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana where my parents were teachers. There were some scary things happening around us then. Civil rights and the Vietnam War brought lots of disagreement as well as anger, threats and violence. My mother and father arranged for me to volunteer that summer at a Head Start program with my younger sister and some friends. The program was housed in a renegade Baptist Church (it had split from the larger Baptist Conference affiliation) and was run by a group of Catholic nuns (the name of their order long gone from my memory, if I ever even knew it). The three-, four- and five-year-olds who attended were all black, the nuns were all white, it was a white-member church, and the four volunteers were all white girls between 11 and 13 years old.
I was there every day that summer. As volunteers, we did simple tasks like play with the children, teach them colors, words, numbers, building blocks, songs, serve Kool-Aid and cookies. It was fun, the kids were sweet and eager, and they were as fascinated by us—our skin, our hair, how we talked—as we were by them.
One experience stands out so vividly through that blur of experience so many years ago. I was showing a group of children simple drawings of animals—the basic ones; cats, dogs, birds, squirrels—when we came to a picture of a cow. They did not know what that was.
Now, Baton Rouge is a city, granted, but back then it was surrounded by lots of farms and the college there, LSU, was an agricultural school with lots of pastures of animals and even rodeos. There was a bit of the cowboy life there, at least there was in 1965. I was shocked that these children did not know what a cow or a pig or even a chicken was. So the nuns arranged a field trip to LSU where they could see these creatures that lived so close to them. They were amazed and fascinated and I was proud that we could give them a new, fun experience. And I understood for the first time that people can live in very small spaces and what they know is restricted by that space. I also learned that people can live within a 20 mile radius of each other and have very different realities.
Setting Out on a Path
The summer ended and I went back to school, but I volunteered at summer Head Start programs through my 10th grade year. It set me on my work path to try to understand societies and be part of something bigger and better for people who could use a little help, a little more information.
Since those days I have worked with people who have dropped out of high school, been in prison, worked as migrant laborers, been raped, been beaten, been abandoned: All dreadful things that happen in communities. And maybe some I’ve helped and maybe some I haven’t. But I’ve been honored to know so many of these amazing survivors and I know they have taught me many lessons over the years. Yet, my first lesson, when I was in middle school, was that the size of people’s own worlds can limit or expand their understanding of the greater world around them. If we can know each other and take the big risk of learning something new, we really can find ways to work together to make the kind of world we want to live in. We can find a way to LIVE UNITED.
So, my middle school years’ experience set me on this road to service to others. It was big, pivotal, deep and long-lasting. Middle school years are a focus of United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County. They can make all the difference. I know that because I now remember what it did for me.
How You Can Live United
- Learn about the Holiday Gift Drive for Middle School Students
- Find Volunteer Opportunities
- Sign up for our newsletter