I was working with some very passionate and dedicated staff and Board members at two different Chambers last week. In both cases, I was delivering training on what a Chamber of Commerce really does; the real value proposition we offer every single member of our community. And in both cases, I had tears in my eyes when I hit upon one particular subject I rarely talk about…but should!
In a private moment in Fayetteville, a staff member asked me about my business. I spoke about passion and about helping Chambers and Associations find a better way to grow their organizations sustainably. I talked about traveling around the world and learning about different parts of our own country, about the people I’d met and the places I’d seen. But then she asked me why. She asked me what was behind the desire to spend all those hours on the road, all those nights in hotels. That’s when I stopped talking.
It hit me pretty hard, having to dig past the surface and see the REAL motivation behind it. I had to excuse myself for a moment before I could get a handle on how to really respond. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but this was a fairly new, young staff that hadn’t really figured out why we ALL do this on their own yet. They needed to hear my story, a story I don’t usually tell. And, while I didn’t tell them the ENTIRE story from the beginning, I’ve decided to expand and tell it in more detail here.
After a series of poor decisions on my part in my early twenties, I found myself homeless on the streets of Orlando. I spent several months without a reliable source of food, shelter or security. I slept in homeless shelters when I could, on park benches when the shelters were full, and occasionally I’d hide in the bushes beside a church if I found myself in one of the more dangerous neighborhoods. I begged, I borrowed, and sometimes stole to get a few dollars together for a meal. It was a miserable existence, and I hated myself every second of it. But I had tools at my disposal. I had an education and enough know-how to eventually pick myself up, dust myself off, and struggle forward. I got to a shelter for a clean change of clothes and a shower, and began interviewing. Most wouldn’t give me the time of day, but I eventually found a job DJ’ing at a local bar. I still didn’t have a car or a home, so I’d get off work and hope the bus was still running to get me somewhere downtown so I could try and beg a few coins to get me through until my first pay day. I’d sleep where I could. I was scared and very tired, but I was moving forward. Fast forward a few months, and I’d put a few paychecks together and rented a room. I had some clean clothes of my own, I could shower and eat every day, and I was moving forward.
I very rarely tell that story, and I don’t tell it NOW looking for sympathy or anything like that. I tell it merely to say that as bad as I had it, I had the capacity to crawl forward until I could walk. That is a capacity that not everyone possesses. Somewhere in your community, maybe within just a few miles of where you are right now, a child is going hungry. Minutes away from our cozy homes and jobs, lies a hidden world where food scarcity is very real; where shelter and security are not a guarantee. Families…hundreds of them in your very own backyard…are struggling to feed their children and keep roofs over their heads. THAT is why I do what I do, and I suspect it’s why YOU do as well. We may not think about it…we may not want to…but every company we bring to town is another chance to improve the lives of those around us. Every job we help our local businesses create is yet another opportunity to help someone who is unemployed or under-employed provide for their family. Every scholarship we award is a chance to help someone find the tools they need to help break the cycle of poverty. Every networking event we host gives us yet another chance to help businesses grow, which brings more jobs, which brings more money, which affords more opportunities to those around us.
I spend a great deal of my time talking to Chamber and Association professionals about the work I believe we should focus on, and telling our stories so that even “Jay the plumber” can understand the impact our economic development and workforce development efforts has upon him. Today, I’m asking you to take it one step further and remind YOURSELF who we do this job for.
Thank you ALL for making a difference.
WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU. While it’s important to keep this larger lesson front and center for ourselves, it’s equally important to tell these stories to our members. Comment below to tell us how YOUR organization is telling the community about your efforts in Workforce and Economic Development…or how you WILL from here on out.