“Are you ready?”
“No.” I gave my brother a quick hug before walking past the sign labeled, “only ticketed passengers beyond this point” in big, black letters at the Indianapolis Airport. About twenty feet later I looked back to see he had already gone, suddenly realizing for at least the next five hours I would be utterly alone, surrounded only by traveling wanderers like myself. Thinking about the summer ahead, I felt entirely unprepared walking through security, and in fact, I was.
Skip forward one week and I am sitting on my bed, sobbing because of the mistreatment of one of my members. And it wasn’t one of those quiet, beautiful images of a girl crying, her head held high with dignified tears of a broken heart. No, it was an ugly cry, sobbing in the presence of injustice, with red, puffy eyes, gasping for breath, snot coming out of your nose, convulsively sobbing because you can’t protect people from pain and you feel utterly powerless.
Two days later, I went to church for the first time in four years.
Compassion hurts. I have never dealt with anything more difficult than the compassion my soul felt this summer. From a young age, I was taught to help people whenever possible, but to be wary of the evil of the world and to protect myself, which I mainly did by sealing my heart off from the outside. CEF challenges that. As a full-time advocate, it asked for more than my help. It asked that I put myself in situations I’ve never been in, to feel emotions I’ve heard about, but never truly felt, and to solve problems I’ve never faced before. In short, it asked for honest and unfettered compassion for others and it hurt more than I could imagine. It required me to be emotionally raw and available to people in order to build trust and friendship, yet to be empty enough to maintain productive value in the face of some of the world’s prettiest and ugliest moments in order to accomplish the goals set in front of me and to be helpful to others. It’s a balance I still haven’t quite managed to strike.
Two weeks later, I received a phone call in the office from a member who wanted to thank me specifically for helping him find a job after eight months of being unemployed. I was overjoyed.
Community Empowerment Fund is the first organization I’ve worked with that I actually, truly believe is changing the world and making progress towards eradicating poverty. I saw it happen every day.
A few days later a friend rushed in to tell me good news about a person we had been working with and gave me a huge, spontaneous hug. For the first time, I felt like an established and contributing member of the CEF community. Later that week, I went to lunch with a member and friend, knowing I had been accepted as part of her individual community as well.
I knew I would grow this summer. That’s what everyone told me when I shared my summer plans; that’s why I wanted to come down here in the first place. Growth was a fact. Even so, it took me by surprise. Because I haven’t grown up. I haven’t grown out. I don’t feel more mature or more competent. If anything, I am more aware of the fact that there’s a whole lot out there in the world that I don’t understand, but am hungry to experience. Still, I grew.
I grew in. I grew through. I wove myself into the fabric of CEF. I grew, or rather am still growing, independently of my home, separately from my former situations. I can feel myself changing from, “Katelyn, the Lend for America Intern” to “Katelyn”, no qualifier needed. The whole time I thought I was absorbing my surroundings, then one day I woke up, realizing my surroundings had absorbed me. And it is the most beautiful feeling in the world.
The next week a new member I was working with stormed out of a meeting after only twenty minutes because the system was different than she expected and I couldn’t help her as quickly as she wanted. I sat there stunned and guilty, helpless in the face of her adversity.
CEF has taught me that humans are not easily broken. In fact, they’re remarkably resilient and adaptable. It takes quite a lot to break the human spirit. The same cannot be said about life; life is so very fragile. It can be twisted and manipulated by outside pressures and by the people living it. Year after year of a burned life can diminish the human form to pain and reduce the human spirit to anxiety and instinct. But CEF has shown me it doesn’t take much to elevate the human spirit. A kind word, attentiveness, willingness to help. An infusion of optimism. It brings people back to the present moment. The real trouble lies in improving quality of life. I don’t yet know what to make of that, aside from the very obvious conclusion that people deserve your kindness and help whenever you are able (which is always) and whenever they are willing (which, unfortunately, isn’t).
Ten days later, someone I had been working with all summer told me she trusted me and I couldn’t understand why.
CEF pushed me to be ready for any and all situations- ordinary, bizarre, and brilliant alike.
And now I’m approaching my last week here at CEF, having my heart broken multiple times (in a good way) by more than one person who has told me I need to transfer to UNC and to relocate to Chapel Hill so I can stay with CEF longer. Instead, I find myself saying goodbye to my friends, people who I have come to love and admire more fervently than I thought possible in eight short weeks. I find myself in the difficult situation of having roots grown in two completely different parts of the country, and being thankful, so very thankful, to have had experienced something wonderful enough to make leaving this hard.
This isn’t a “goodbye”, Chapel Hill. It’s a “see you later”.
Until next time,