“The opportunity of a lifetime.” Before taking off on the Giving Tour, that was what I told myself (and strongly hoped) that this trip would be. It’s been a little over one week since we returned and I can say without hesitation that this was an experience of a lifetime, and so much more.
The best part of my job is meeting with our Foundation’s grantees and going on site visits to see, first-hand, the work they are doing. The Giving Tour was the ultimate site visit. I was impressed by each of the 10 non-profits that we visited and humbled by every single person we met. The compassion, dedication, and love shown by the people at each group was remarkable and consistent across the country. Though we received warm welcomes from every place we visited, the organization that I continue to go back to in my mind is Marillac St. Vincent in Chicago. Marillac was the first stop on our Giving Tour, and I can speak for my whole team when I say that we were floored by our experience there.
When we arrived at Marillac St. Vincent at 7:00 am on Monday morning, we were greeted by the Executive Director, Maureen Hallagan, her sister Deanna Hallagan, and a group of seven young employees. We sat with them for an hour and listened as they told us their stories – it was an experience I will never forget. All of the employees had grown up at Marillac’s after school programs, gone to college, and come back to work there to help others in their community. It became clear very quickly that Maureen and Deanna are integral pillars at Marillac St. Vincent. Not only are their hearts and souls behind every decision they make to help the children, young adults, and families they serve, each employee grew up with these women and looked to them for guidance. Both have been with Marillac for over 20 years, and have known the majority of the employees since they were four or five years old and started coming to the center. They were family.
Have you ever listened to someone describe hardships in their lives so immense that suddenly your own fears reduce to complete insignificances? And then you feel silly for even letting your worries enter your mind? That’s how I felt as we went around the table listening to what the young people in this community had gone through. These employees, most of whom were at least ten years my junior, had been through more in their individual lives than any experience in a lifetime.
One by one they told us their stories, where they had come from and where they are now, and the message was prevalent: Marillac provided a safe place for them to grow up, gave them the hope that their lives could be different, and instilled in them the skills and confidence so that they could pursue their dreams. Gangs, violence, and drugs are widespread in this neighborhood in western Chicago and kids are exposed to it all early on in their lives. Brothers, fathers, sisters and mothers are taken at early ages, and the children in the community are led to believe that is their same fate.
By providing a nurturing environment away from the chaos and violence of their everyday lives, Marillac shows these young people that they deserve better and provides the resources to help them get there. Marillac has grown from a community where graduating 8th grade used to be a reason for celebration to one where graduating high school is the standard.
While their stories were powerful beyond anything I could have imagined, they weren’t what left the real imprint on me – it was the maturity, courage, strength and confidence they each exemplified as they spoke. Marillac helped them develop into successful young adults, and they were there to give back to the community and instill the power of hope into the children and teens they work with.
We went on this road trip to inspire others to give back to those in need and to bring awareness to issues in the middle of the country. We didn’t realize how much the trip would also inspire us. Looking back on the trip, I can see that each of the employees we met at Marillac, and the staff at every other non-profit and the clients we met with, were the inspiration to my coworkers and me. We saw people living in some of the poorest regions of the US, still hopeful and working towards a better life for themselves and the ones they love. You don’t have to drive across the country to meet people like this, but to experience this for six days straight with my coworkers was an unforgettable and amazing journey. Alex, Jeanne, Jake, Josh, Molly and Chris – thank you for your unwavering positivity, excitement, respect and compassion throughout the week – I couldn’t imagine a better group of people by my side (though we did miss our colleague Alyssa who is expecting her baby girl any day now!). And thank you to Alex, I am eternally grateful to have been included in this adventure of yours and will carry it in my heart forever.