Thursday, January 22, 2015

Leadership Exchange in Memphis, Tennessee

"Average leaders raise the bar on themselves; good leaders raise the bar for others; great leaders inspire others to raise their own bar." Orrin Woodward
I am firm in my belief that I am naturally shy and socially awkward by nature, and this is why I'm a writer. I speak at the wrong times, say things that aren't always funny, but people laugh anyway (with me, of course), and I stutter when I do so. But, I love people and I love helping them.

Here at the University of Tampa, we have amazing opportunities to volunteer through the P.E.A.C.E center. Although I have good intentions of going to these trips, I always tend to cancel, because I'm too scared to go. Just a few months ago, fate gave me the kick in the ass that I needed to step out of my comfort zone.

I was going to Memphis, Tennessee for a leadership exchange program to volunteer to help the homeless.

There was no way I was backing out of this one. I signed up alone, not knowing who would be on the trip, but I wasn't going to let that stop me. I thought to myself worst case scenario, if I didn't end up talking to anyone on this trip, at least I'd be in Tennessee, and how bad could that really be?

4 A.M. wake up call. That was ugly. Somehow, I was up at 3:15 making coffee. When we all met to leave, it was anything but awkward. I only knew two people on the trip, but we quickly bonded as a group.

When we landed in Memphis, the students from the University of Memphis participating in the leadership exchange were waiting for us at the airport. We would waste no time heading to our first stop. We were planning to help serve lunch at a local homeless shelter.

The first thing I noticed were how many people were at the shelter. Seeing so many people grateful for the chance to have a hot lunch in front of them slowed me down. So often I feel like eating is done on the go. I don't often sit down and enjoy a meal, and think about what I am eating. I am picky as hell, and I shouldn't be. I noticed the attitudes of the people whom we served. They were so grateful, so hopeful. Although it may have seemed like they had nothing, they acted as if they had everything. They had their faith, and that would suffice for the time being. The workers, too were so cheery. It made me smile to see people genuinely happy to do nice things for other people, and not expect anything in return. It is so easy to get caught up in the routine of daily life, and forget about helping other people. No matter how well off you may be, there will always be someone who could use your help. We need people to raise their voices for the voiceless and make a difference. No matter how small that difference may be, one small difference can initiate a snowball effect of improvement in the community.

One of our favorite visits was to Lifeline to Success, an organization that helps ex-convicts reenter society, and change society's perception about them. To do so, members of the 'blight patrol' work to beautify the community. We worked alongside them to clean up around the community. It was cool for us to be able to talk to members of the Blight Patrol. What we learned here is that this community writes off no one. Instead, various organizations work together to boost the community as a whole. We're all people, and people make mistakes, and that doesn't make us any different from one another. The people in Lifeline to Success are not bad people. They are people who faced bad circumstances, which should not define them forever. I am grateful to the members of Lifeline to Success for sharing their stories and their struggles with us, and opening their hearts and trusting us enough to let us into their hearts.

You can read more about our work with Lifeline to Success and University of Memphis here.

Something that is so important to me is ensuring our veterans have proper care when they return home from serving our country. I was thrilled to learn that Memphis has taken action to help our veterans readjust to society, and help them find housing, work, and provide them with the resources they need to adjust happily and comfortably. This organization is Alpha Omega. It was shocking to me to learn that 10% of our population is made up of homeless veterans. When returning home, those that serve for our country are never the same. It is our duty to ensure they have the safest, healthiest, and happiest transition back into society that they can. Alpha Omega ensures veterans will have a home, and counseling when they return.

You can learn more about their mission here.  They are currently working on getting their following up to 10,000 on Facebook. If you know anyone who could potentially benefit from their services, please share this information. You never know, it can change a life.

For lack of better words, this trip has changed my life in more ways than one. We came together with the kids from University of Memphis as strangers to help strangers in a city that half of us adopted, but by the end of the week, grown to love. We quickly became one unit, connected by hope, love, and the desire to make an impact on this community.

Thank you to the kids at UM for giving us such a warm welcome, and being so eager to show us your beautiful city. Thank you for opening your rooms to us and letting us snore on your couches. Thank you for showing us all of the local spots that you like to visit. We look forward to hosting University of Memphis at the University of Tampa in March and reconnecting with our family, and getting back to work on our end. 

In terms of being a leader, I learned that you are never too small to make a difference. Sure we may be in college, but that doesn't mean we can't make an impact. If I were to write a check, I think I have about $0.25 in my bank account, but I've got a lot of love to give. We have time, and we have heart. Sometimes simply sitting with someone and talking to them like we're the same people can have a huge difference. If you're good at math, tutor kids in your community. If you like to be outside, clean up around your local school. Put in time, and expect nothing in return. There are still good people in the world willing to good things for nothing in return. Be one of those people. We are the future. We have the ability to change the course of the future, and if that's not powerful, I don't know what is. 

Finally, I learned that your comfort zone is a lot wider than you think it is. The only one standing in your way is yourself and your incessant doubt. Stop doubting yourself! This life is too short not to be on your own team. The only way to know how things will turn out is to try. 

This was the best part of everyday we were in Memphis. Never have I ever witnessed something so raw and so beautiful. At the end of the day, when I ran out of words to describe how I felt, the sky took the words right out of my mouth and arrayed it in a collection of bright, beautiful colors. I have hope for the future. 

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