When I share with people that my 22-year professional journey has unfolded at one company, they’re quick to remark how unusual that is, especially today when workers hop from job to job. When they hear that the company is a non-profit whose mission is to end hunger and poverty, they often wonder why I chose to dedicate my life to a cause that can seem so unattainable.
Since I was a child, I knew I wanted to make a difference in the world. Following in the footsteps of my mother who travelled to El Salvador as a young nursing student to give back, and guided by the stories of my Irish grandparents who talked of the “great hunger” in Ireland, I didn’t think twice about applying for an entry-level job as the receptionist for WhyHunger. I knew I wanted to start a career that was grounded in social justice, and had applied for dozens of positions upon graduating with a political science degree during the economic downturn of the early ’90s.
With 33 rejection letters pinned to my refrigerator, I sent in an application for the position at WhyHunger, an organization focused on social justice and founded by the late musician Harry Chapin. Championing the idea that access to nutritious food was a human right, its mission blended together the ideas of grassroots power, policy change and music as a powerful force for good – I was hooked. WhyHunger appeared to be the perfect place to start my career. After getting the position, I went home and lit a bonfire in the back yard burning all 33 letters.
Many years later, the organization that gave me my start remains the perfect place to grow my passion for justice. My work at WhyHunger has been one continuous adventure, and I learned a long time ago that what I put into it is more than matched by what I get out of it. I create my own path.
That’s always been true since the day I started at the front desk and worked my way up to Managing Director. I spent many days in the mid to late ’90s sitting around the table in DC with policy makers and government officials, working to find ways to improve access to nutritious food for working families struggling to get by, single mothers who had to choose between medical bills and groceries, and school children who couldn’t afford to by lunch.
In the early 2000s, I worked with dozens of community leaders and organizations to identify resources and share innovative local programs, learning first hand about the power of investing in communities. A few years later I was inspired by artists like Yoko Ono Lennon and Joss Stone, who I worked with to raise funds and awareness through the power of music.
My journey has been marked by resilience and I’ve learned a lot along the way from women who’ve inspired me including artists, community leaders, working mothers, and successful professionals. The most powerful of those women all have experienced great adversity or even tragedy and have come out on the other side stronger and more vibrant. Resilience springs from difficult circumstances.
I was a 29-year-old working mother with three daughters under the age of four when my husband’s addiction began to slowly chip away at the foundation of our family. Family was my number one priority, so holding it together for my children while creating my own success in the workplace drove me to push through personal challenges. Feeling successful at work and supported by the organization meant the world to me, so I in turn gave more of my creativity and commitment in order to further feed my soul.
My pathway to resilience was marked by working through my personal pain while building a stronger, vibrant, smarter me at work. I looked to these incredible community leaders, mothers, activists and artists that I partnered with everyday in the fight to end hunger for inspiration and strength in my personal life. Running that parallel track was incredibly important to coming out the other side. My marriage was ultimately shattered by the insidious effects of the crippling disease of addiction, but I was adamant about keeping my family intact — just in a different way as a single working mom. I was determined to remain committed to my work and operating with grace in all that I do.
The intention alone was not good enough it had to be coupled with action. Isn’t that always the case? Intentions alone get you nowhere. Most of us have the power to move our thoughts and intentions into action so that we can create the outcomes we desire. How we do that is important.
I set out with a clear intention to raise my children to be grounded, spiritual, and responsible. Those are wonderful thoughts, but incomplete without action. It’s in our everyday conversations and practices in our home and community that those intentions can be realized. I’ve come to understand that my children weathered our storm and achieved resilience because we practiced love, faith, honesty, respect, and transparency with grace and calmness so they felt secure enough to know everything would be alright.
Practicing those same virtues is what has allowed me to grow at WhyHunger. Now, as senior management, I look back at those early years and see how resilience is a defining characteristic that moves each of us forward in our growth as people, professionals, and community members.
WhyHunger has been a constant in my life. A force for good and a pathway to my own personal and professional growth. I have traveled the world and met many women who have built their own resilience and operated with such grace in spite of poverty, hunger and oppression. I’ve met young women in India who were banished by their communities because of leprosy, where all they wanted was an education and a safe place to sleep and eat so they could be vibrant members of society. They achieved that with palpable joy. I’ve met older women hiking the steep mountains of Nicaragua to gather food for their families and communities all with a smile, pride, and determination. I’ve met mothers working to build a better food system in the U.S. so nutritious food is a right we all share.
Resilience, intention and grace in motion will ultimately change us for the better and with WhyHunger as my life’s work I’ve seen firsthand the promise and power of women who will change the world.