A few years ago, it became clear to me that higher education was no longer the path I wanted, and I started to consider what change I needed to make professionally to find myself fulfilled personally. I had this list of things I knew I wanted in my work life. I wanted autonomy, not micromanagement. I needed flexibility and creativity, not a static 8 hours in front of a computer screen and something that used more than my editing skills. Most of all, I needed to feel as though I was contributing to a much bigger world every day.
As an educator, I loved working with my students; however, I did not find the content I taught in the least bit fulfilling. Rather, I honestly had no vested interest in thesis statements and sentence structure. What I loved about my job was the human interaction and the role I got to play in some of my students’ lives. I cherished the times I could walk away, knowing I’d done or said something that had a positive impact on them, regardless of how small. For me, that was the core of what I so desperately needed in my work life.
The natural fit was the nonprofit world, but I was nervous about making the jump. Notoriously poor pay (been there), conflicting principles (yup, there too), and inefficiencies (have mercy, there too) all made me cautious. Going to work every day and feeling confident that what I did would not only serve my community and people in general but that I would also be able to sustain myself as a person—financially and emotionally—was nonnegotiable.
Armed with my list of must haves and hell nos, I started to search. Terrified that I had no marketable skills in the nonprofit world, I put faith in my ability to craft a narrative and started shooting out resumes.
Then, I found it. I spent days considering the required skills, my abilities, and—truth be told—my personal belief that I would even be a viable option for the position. Three interviews later, and here I was moving into a completely new profession, one that was simultaneously unfamiliar and energizing to me.
When I started at the Alzheimer’s Association, I didn’t have a direct connection to the disease. It is simply something that my family and close friends haven’t had to confront in our personal histories. I knew about it, and I had spent time casually researching neurocognitive disorders and research in the past—mostly because I will always be a science nerd at heart. Yet, I don’t think I could have named one person who I knew to be affected.
I quickly learned that having that connection didn’t matter. What did was showing compassion when a caregiver described the exhaustion he or she felt every single day. The patience to listen—one more time—as someone repeated the details of their story to me. The fortitude to get up instead of give in when I was tired or beaten down or overwhelmed. The hugs. The heart. The humanity. In truth, this job required the very same things I’d loved so deeply about my teaching career.
The last few months, I’ve thrown myself into my job. I can’t help but feel I am at a deficit of knowledge when I sit in meetings with my insanely passionate team of women and men who have far more years of experience than me. I struggle to balance the time I need to be a person in my own life and a person in the lives of those in my community who is there as a resource and as a support system—a gap that far too many of them have experienced for far too long.
There have been times when I have wondered if I will make it, if I will feel even an ounce of success in a landscape of disease that is so big and so daunting. And then there was the recent three-week stretch that nearly killed me, and it included a bizarre allergic reaction and subsequent steroid shot, a bout of food poisoning, and a head cold. I’ve watched my diet and exercise routine vanish because my colleagues believe that every meal should consist of only sugar and carbs, and even though I’ve tried, workouts in hotels are just not the same as at home.
Two weeks ago, I spent all weekend on a small island off the coast of the Panhandle with a group of volunteers, working a community event. My colleague and I represented the organization, chatting with people, giving out literature, and just being a presence there to remind the countless individuals who shared their stories that they are not alone.
Midway into the day, a man stopped by, talking to us about his father and the advancement of the disease he’d been watching from a distance. He wrapped up his thoughts, saying to us how in the world we live in today, a world where everything is so polarized, that disease does not care who you voted for. I’ve thought a lot about that statement in the weeks since, and every morning I wake up with a reinforced commitment to what I do, but more importantly, each day provides me with evidence of why I do it.
I’ve always believed that we are each morally bound to leave this world better than we found it. I know that my small contributions are mere drops in the big ocean of giving that occurs every day around the world. And I’m still working on that confidence. But for today, I’m content knowing that I have a job that I love where I am surrounded by people I value doing something that may one day lead to a life that is a little bit better for someone else.
And that, for me, is everything.