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An Epiphany: How I Found The Inspiration To Take On Another Year Of Fundraising

Last night, I dreamt that a donor had lent me his very expensive car, and I parallel parked it on a pretty cobble-stoned street. The sun was out and my colleague and I were sitting on a bench, admiring the car and eating enormous sugar cookies.

Except, I wasn’t eating a sugar cookie. I suddenly realized I was eating the car’s license plate (it was made of sugar-cookie ingredients, but it was, most certainly, a license plate; a vanity plate no less). I had already eaten more than half. Crumbs, everywhere. I woke up full of dread, unsure how to fix my mistake.

I’ve been waking up gasping for air a lot recently.

There’s something tough about the turn of a new year for me — all of a sudden, at the stroke of midnight, the ‘dollars raised, year to date’ column on my spreadsheet falls back down to zero. It can feel like a mountain stands in front of you (the mountain you climbed last year!). There’s something strange about the non-profit space – many of us go into this industry because we want to ‘make a difference’ and live a life that is rich with what’s right — and yet, we end up as fundraisers – something that can, at times, feel in direct conflict to the life you were looking to carve out for yourselves. Sure, we’re working to ‘bring people to the doorway of humanity’ and act as a vehicle for transformation, but we are also chasing money, and that’s odd, and really hard.

I’ve been sort of low energy the past few weeks, so I’ve been working on “filling my cup.” Looking for motivation, I watched a TED talk about conservationist from Namibia, and one on an artist whose mother died from cancer (it’s a rabbit hole, as you know). I picked up some books that informed my desire to do this work as a student- such as Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracey Kidder, and I spent a lot of time with our students and their families in rural Kenya, something I love to do, but an experience that always leaves me with the feeling that we need to triple our budget because there is so much more work to do. I leave anxious that we need to be climbing a bigger mountain, faster.

This morning, my phone pinged as my gmail calendar alerted me that I had a tour of Epiphany School booked. Epiphany is a private school I often hear about because of its reputation as a model for providing transformative opportunities to the most high-need students in Massachusetts. I was excited to see the school, but slightly nervous to see the invite included “lunch in our cafeteria.” I wanted to see this rockstar school, but no part of me wanted to eat lunch in a middle school cafeteria, so I made plans to explain to my tour guide that I had a lunch meeting I had to get to and needed to leave by noon.

I checked in at the front desk and Reverend John Finley (known to the students as Mr. Finley) – the headmaster and co-founder – came bounding down the stairs in a bow tie and jacket, all smiles. He introduced himself and explained the schedule for the tour. I was mortified to realize that the headmaster himself was going to be taking me around campus, I felt like saying “Oh God, there’s been some mistake, please don’t spend that much time on me, save it for a donor.” I was relieved when he brought up my school in Kenya, glad that he hadn’t confused me with someone else, someone more important and worthy of monopolizing his time. Mr. Finley’s passion was contagious. We began our tour by peeking into a seventh grade classroom – the desks in a circle, the overhead lights off, the teacher using aromatherapy as kids are hunched over their desks, furiously working on iPads solving algebra problems. Gosh, in an environment like this, I might even be able to do some basic math problems. Around the room, there are small details that hint at who this student population is – their website describes them as from disadvantaged families, particularly susceptible to academic failure, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and delinquency. One girl is wrapped in a blanket, another boy has headphones on. I know the signs of PTSD and I know what it means to look into the faces of kids who have seen and experienced things that would bring most adults to their knees.

But Mr. Finley is eager to praise students in front of me: “This is Sarah, and she is a superstar.” They beam with pride at their own accomplishments. The wall has a poster about morals and one line reads, “Donald Trump has said some pretty means things about girls and that’s not nice.”

And the teachers, oh my. Half of them seem to be graduates from Epiphany: young, smart, energetic and captivating guys – the kind you know that even the most at-risk kid will take advice from. I find myself pitching Mr. Finley on the concept of having some of his teachers come visit us in Kenya. He likes the idea and says we can discuss it more over lunch. I chicken out on pretending that I can’t stay for lunch, and resign myself to the fact that I’m going to have to eat some bad sloppy joes, and sad iceberg lettuce washed down with a carton of chocolate milk.

As we wind around the school, through classrooms and learning centers, dodging basketballs in the gym and past the college advisory office, I ask Mr. Finley his own story, curious how it came to be that he has spent the best part of his career tucked away in one of the poorest parts of Boston while I’m sure many of his fellow Harvard grads have taken different paths.

“When I was in college, a homeless man froze to death on the common. I couldn’t believe that that could happen, at our doorstep. I became involved in efforts to aid the homeless, but soon I realized that I wanted to intervene earlier, which led me to efforts in education.”

I’ll say. Epiphany’s students generally arrive as fifth graders reading at the second grade level, and by eighth grade, many are reading with the proficiency of tenth graders. They begin their school day at 7 am and the leave at 7 pm, they have three meals at school and they wear Fit Bits so that their teachers can monitor their sleep and exercise and help them set goals for wellness. Did I mention that these are the kids that society gives up on?

Mr. Finley is lucky in the sense that donors can easily take a drive to the school to see the impact of their investments and he often welcomes new friends for tours. I ask him how he deals with the potential challenge of students feeling ‘put on display’ and he explains that he puts the visitors ‘on display’ – encouraging the students to assess how visitors present themselves, even having students who meet visitors for lunch fill out evaluation forms on the visitor’s handshake, eye contact, and overall attitude. This shifts the emphasis from the student to the visitor, while encouraging students to consider the impressions that everyday interactions leave. I’m suddenly nervous for my impending evaluation.

At the end of our tour, we sit down for lunch, and I am not at all surprised find that my meal consists of the most delicious and nutritious home-cooked chicken dish, spinach salad and fresh fruit. The seventh grader sitting in front of me is powerful; she asks me what I do and I tell her about my work in Kenya. Her face lights up and she tells me about an idea for a clothing drive that she had, and “it’s happening in a few weeks! Why don’t you come and pick some stuff out for your kids!” she offers me, I smile warmly, and we talk more about her passion for helping others. When lunch is over, a few of the girls offer to clear my plate and one is teasing Mr. Finley about something. As she leaves the room she calls back, “love ya!” and he laughs and says “love ya too.”

And honestly, I have to dip my head to compose myself, fearful that tears might spill out of my eyes. When I was a little girl, I told my quiet and strong Quaker grandmother about the teachers in my school, "They just make up rules so that you break them.” And she commiserated. My feelings about so much arbitrary authority haven’t surfaced again until now, when I find myself in what can only be described as the opposite of that.

As I’m putting on my coat and saying goodbye to Mr. Finley, my lunch-mate reappears, asking me, “So when do you think you’ll come back, for the clothes?” I mumble something about not being sure and she says, “I know what, why don’t I just put some aside for you, and you can come get them when you have time.” I nod, not because clothes are something we need in Kenya but because I lack words to describe how much this girl and her school have moved me.

I am so energized to build my school all over again this year. I’m already making a mental list of who I can pitch to fund Fit Bits for our students. Mr. Finley walks me back to the front of the school, and asks me, “Do you know where you’re going from here?” For a second, I’m convinced he means that on a spiritual level and I begin to articulate my gratitude when he clarifies, “to get home, do you know how to get home from here?”

Spiritually or not, this is why graduates of Epiphany – the most vulnerable students in our country – end up at some of our best colleges. It’s this man and his vision and the uncommon feeling that someone cares – deeply – about whether or not you know how to find your way out.